Gender Roles – Women
Gender Roles – Men
Room for Improvement:
Self-Esteem and Body Image
Gender Roles - Women: 5 Stars
Pocahontas is a serene and almost supernatural presence. She has a deep connection with nature and the spirits that surround her, sending her cryptic dreams of things to come. She dismisses the idea of a handsome husband in favor of racing through swift rivers in search of adventure. She communicates with an old willow in a secluded glen, who teaches her the secret of listening to the world around her in an organic sort of magic spell. She has a grace and wisdom to her that is capable of fanning any young girl’s imagination - convincing them that the freedom and enchantment of cliffs and rivers is preferable to the luxuries of petticoats and palaces in other princess stories.
Gender Roles - Men: 3 Stars
John Smith’s character is far more sensitive than his historical counterpart (he’s been properly sanitized for both children and modern audiences). He is initially brash and condescending towards the Natives in Jamestown, but in the span of only a few days with Pocahontas, he is enlightened towards their way of life. Despite his reputation as an expert “Indian” killer, Smith tries to convince the other settlers to make peace with the local tribe rather than slaughtering them. He’s willing to risk his lofty status among his men to do the right thing and back down from the fight. It’s just unfortunate that the other men in the film are so hell bent on war.
Plot: 4 Stars
Pocahontas is a beautiful, albeit heavily romanticized version of the historic meeting between John Smith and Pocahontas. The film deals with difficult subject matter like racism and violence, painting a world in which love can overcome even the fiercest forms of anger and fear - and Pocahontas is at the center of the conflict. She is the only one among her people that is able to see the humanity in the strange settlers that have landed near their home. She has the intelligence and patience to share the beauty of her culture with John Smith. And in the end, she has the bravery to risk her own life to protect him and to preserve the peace.
There are those who might argue that the ending turns Pocahontas into just another infatuated teenager, willing to give up her life for a man she barely knows. But the film strongly conveys the fact that Pocahontas’ dramatic sacrifice is not just about saving Smith’s life, but about preventing war between her tribe and the settlers as well - and teaching those around her to practice forgiveness and understanding rather than hatred.
Character Development: 5 Stars
Pocahontas is rebellious and curious even before the settlers arrive. She cares for the traditions of her people, but is also open to new ideas and change. It is this uninhibited spirit that allows her to connect with John Smith and bridge the divide between their two cultures. She proves herself a dedicated diplomat and leader by appealing to her father to stop the impending war, insisting that there is still time to talk through their differences and find a peaceful resolution. She might even have been successful in reaching a peace agreement had John Smith not been captured and Khokuom killed. It is only as a last resort that she throws herself over Smith’s body, protecting him from the blow of her father’s axe.
Unfortunately, Pocahontas never expresses an opinion on the tribal wars at the beginning of the film, suggesting that she only became involved in keeping the peace after she’d fallen in love. While this doesn’t necessarily detract from the strength of her character or her accomplishments, it does continue the unfortunate perception that strong women are typically motivated by romantic or maternal love, rather than simply seeking justice or personal achievement.
Love: 5 Stars
Pocahontas is one of only a few popular children’s movies to feature an interracial love story - and dig into some of the complexities of bridging cultures. Pocahontas doesn’t immediately fall for John Smith. The two spend a number of afternoons together, exchanging stories and trading pieces of their different worlds. The blending of cultures and perspectives isn’t seamless. It doesn’t take long for Smith’s ego to surface and Pocahontas nearly walks away when he insults her people. In the end, it is Pocahontas who enlightens Smith about the value of the natural world around him, and the heart of the people he’s been calling savages. The love scenes between Pocahontas and John Smith are short and sometimes rushed, but it’s clear that they share a sense of curiosity and adventure. And that their romance is based on something more substantial than girlish dreams or flirtatious smiles.
Supporting Characters: 5 Stars
Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma doesn’t appear in many scenes, but when she is on screen she is bright, caring, and full of her own charm. Her first few appearances are uneventful - but when she learns of Pocahontas' secret meetings with John Smith, she begins to take shape as a role model in her own right. She initially covers for Pocahontas out of loyalty, but she is also aware of the building hostilities between the tribe and the settlers and the possibility that Pocahontas could be in danger. She struggles between staying loyal to Pocahontas and lying to her people, indicating that Nakoma has her own moral compass that she’s struggling to keep intact.
It’s refreshing to see that Pocahontas and Nakoma never let their differences or the tragic circumstances that develop come between them. They remain honest and true to each other through it all. Theirs is a beautiful depiction of a female friendship that transcends petty vanities and coquettishness - and Nakoma’s character adds a dynamic and unexpected layer of depth to the film.
Self-Esteem and Body Image: 3 Stars
Pocahontas is an impressive and rare example of a Native American heroine with a vibrant and captivating personality. But she still has to compete with her own bare limbs and slim body to keep the audience’s attention. Obviously, her simple dress was chosen based on the time period and culture of the film - and is far more freeing than a ball gown or a corset. But it still might have been a bit looser in certain places, rather than placing so much emphasis on her curves.
Family: 3 Stars (Spoilers)
Pocahontas’ father, Powhatan, is caring and respectful of his young daughter. Although he clearly prefers that she marry a strong warrior who will keep her safe, he makes it known that the decision to marry is hers. He doesn’t take her advice or the advice of any of the tribal women when making the decision to wage war, but he does eventually open his heart and see things from her perspective. When Pocahontas throws herself in the way of his axe, he could have easily directed his warriors to pull her out of the way and proceed with the execution - but he agrees to lay down his arms instead, indicating that he trusts daughter’s judgment with the very survival of his tribe.