In addition to teaching me how to "paint with all the colors of the wind," Disney's Pocahontas helped teach me about justice, racial bias, and feminism. I can't remember the first time I saw Pocahontas . I was almost 5 years old when it was released in theaters, so I'm guessing my mother took me to the movie theater to see it, but the memory is fuzzy. What I do know is that, from the moment I saw it, I was in love. Sure, Aladdin was romantic, and The Lion King a masterpiece, but Pocahontas was always my favorite Disney movie. It still is. And it's not because it's the best movie out there, or has the best songs, or the best characters, or story — it's because Pocahontas made me the woman I am today, and, every time I watch it, I get a little boost to be the woman I want to be.
I'm not ignoring the concerns that the film romanticizes colonialism or trivializes the slaughter of Native Americans by European colonialists. Those are all completely valid criticisms of the plot, and I won't argue with them or dismiss them despite my love for this Disney movie. But, at its heart, Pocahontas isn't a movie about a Native girl who falls in love with a white settler or a love that saved men from their hateful selves. It's a movie about a woman claiming her feminist identity.
When we first meet Pocahontas, she's already a pretty badass feminist. She longs to be independent, to have the freedom to explore "just around the riverbend," but she's restricted by her duties as a woman and as the daughter of her tribe's leader. Her father expects her to be married — a classic cultural demand placed on women — but she doesn't want to be tied down. However, she's also not ready to take a decisive stand against her father's wishes. Falling in love with John Smith helps her see that the societal pressures that tell her she needs to be married are the same ones that teach her and others to fear people who don't look like them. And when her father almost murders John Smith because of their perceived differences, Pocahontas realizes that those cultural norms can and should be fought against. Pocahontas falling in love with John Smith doesn't change Pocahontas into an activist, however. It prompts her to take action on what she already felt.
Now, it might sound like I'm reading too much into it as an adult, but, as a child, that's how I understood the film. Need proof? When I was a little girl, I made my Kindergarten boyfriend (if you can really call him that) play Pocahontas with me. I, of course, would be Pocahontas. He was Meeko. Yeah, the raccoon. When I pretended to be Pocahontas, I didn't want to meet my movie version of John Smith. I wanted to go on my own adventures — just like her.
Pocahontas inspired me never to back down when I saw injustice, especially when those around me dismissed me because of my femininity. Pocahontas didn't let her father's patriarchic views shut her down, so I wouldn't let others shut me down either. Growing up, I would always stand up for the little guy. I grabbed on to stories of inequality, felt compelled to speak up about anything and everything I could, even if I didn't really understand what I was talking about. Sure, it wasn't always a good thing, but my constant complaints to my elementary school P.E. coach that boys were always picking girls last to play on their teams resulted in him switching up the rules to ensure that girls wouldn't feel left out.
It's no wonder that, as soon as I learned about feminism, I was hooked. Pocahontas had opened my mind up to issues of inequality and sexism, and, when I first learned what it meant to be a feminist, to believe in equal rights for women, I recognized myself. Pocahontas isn't the only movie that helped make me the woman I am today, but it just might be the first.
Images: Walt Disney Pictures; Giphy (2)