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"Pocahontas" (1995) Featured the First Tomboy Disney Princess

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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

A promotional poster.

A promotional poster.

Pocahontas is a Disney film that was released in 1995 to an inevitable rush of controversy.

I recall the incident with Vanessa Williams, as well as adults being angry that Pocahontas was shaped like a fashion model. Personally, even as a child I thought she was a step up from those chibi models like Princess Jasmine and Ariel, with their giant heads and minuscule waists. Pocahontas at least looked like a real human being.

As a child too young to care about the controversy, I thought Pocahontas was a wonderful film.

It is also my favorite Disney film.

The Controversy

Given the fact that I've mocked the film in my other articles here, it probably comes as a surprise that I would announce Pocahontas to be my favorite Disney film, but it is.To the point that I had a Pocahontas backpack when I was nine that the kids at school mocked me for.

I still stand by my (lighthearted) criticisms of the film's absurd historical inaccuracies, but I also know that the point of this film wasn't to be historically accurate. In fact, being accurate would have given several children endless nightmares . . .

No, the point of the film was to teach children about racism.

Pocahontas protects John Smith.

Pocahontas protects John Smith.

Nothing symbolizes the message more than the interracial love between John Smith and Pocahontas.

Or at least, that was Disney's intention.

I'm not naïve. I know that two people from different races shacking up isn't going to end racism. Otherwise, racism would have been over eons ago.

No, I'm simply pointing out that Disney was trying to make a film about anti-racism and used an interracial couple (sigh) to do it.

Okay, so we know what Disney was trying to do with this film (koombaya) and what they actually did (controversy), but why is this my favorite Disney film?

The Only Tomboy of Her Time

Of course, Disney princesses (aka lead female characters) like Mulan, etc, didn't exist until a few years later. Pocahontas was the innovator. I honestly can't remember a tomboy Disney Princess before her.

To be clear, Pocahontas wasn't really "masculine." No one would think of her as "butch." She was still a very feminine woman. But she was a tomboy, too. I saw myself in her because I was pretty much the same as a child.

Most children are. Would you really think of a small boy as "masculine"? That is a word generally ascribed to adults. And tomboys in the gay community would be considered "soft butch," which I very much identify with.

I could easily see a modernized Pocahontas in ripped jeans, plaid, and combat boots . . . but maybe that's just me.

Nope. Not just me. (This is someone's modern Pocahontas in "The Sims 4.")

Nope. Not just me. (This is someone's modern Pocahontas in "The Sims 4.")

I'm rambling about this because I'm a black masculine lesbian. I don't think I need to tell you that I grew up without much representation on screen. Girls were (and are) pretty much groomed to be hyper-feminine, and until recently, there were no messages telling masculine little girls that it's okay to be who you are.

I'm in my 30's. I grew up with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Ariel. The only Disney princess remotely like me pre-Mulan was Princess Jasmine, and the only Disney princess who looked and acted like me was Pocahontas (I have Native ancestry).

Mulan fights with a sword.

Mulan fights with a sword.

And to be clear, Mulan wasn't really "masculine" either. She was a soft tomboy who rejected hyper-femininity and had no clue how to be masculine (which served to be pretty hilarious during her training).

And she was cool as all f*ck.

The Wild Spirit

I always wanted them to be lovers.

I always wanted them to be lovers.

"Pocahontas" was actually a nickname given the to real Pocahontas which meant "playful one." (Her real name was Matoaka.)

I was a very playful child, always sneaking up on people and splashing them and tickling them, knocking the back of their knees out with my knee, silly stuff like that.

I'm still like that. A person who dates me can expect some tickling matches every now and then, and if they go swimming with me, prepare to be splashed.

Pocahontas was the only Disney princess at the time (aside from Princess Jasmine) who was something of a tomboy. She wasn't putting on fancy dresses and going to balls (at least not until the sequel). She was running in the forest, climbing trees, diving in the river. She was wild and playful.

I was a tree climbing tomboy growing up and saw myself in her.

Princess Jasmine sitting like a lady.

Princess Jasmine sitting like a lady.

But what about Jasmine, you say?

Princess Jasmine, the only other Disney princess who looked remotely like me, was undeniably still very feminine.

She was an athlete, and the Saturday morning Aladdin cartoons even elaborated on that, having her get kidnapped and recruited by the Amazons to become a warrior. But . . . she was still feminine.

They wanted Jasmine to be an athlete but were too afraid to give her actual muscles. It was kind of absurd.

Jasmine was girly and draped in jewelry and always lounging in pillows behind veils . . . There's nothing wrong with that. I'm saying I didn't/couldn't relate to it.

I feel like Jasmine was Disney's baby step toward a more free spirited, less hyper-feminine princess, while Pocahontas was the actual step.

Princess Merida and her magnificent hair.

Princess Merida and her magnificent hair.

And of course, years later, Disney went from cautiously stepping to leaping when Pixar's Brave was released.

I still remember when Brave came out and how awesome it was to finally see a Disney princess not only star in her own story but have no desire to find love or a prince, instead living for her damn self. (Because when a Disney princess leads her own story, the story is usually about her finding a prince.)

The scene where Merida literally busts out of her restrictive dress so she can win her own archery contest (a contest which, ugh, a bunch of men were competing in to marry her) was iconic.

It's just a shame (and kind of ironic) that the woman who wrote the original story was fired from what was a very feminist film so they could change the story without her input. Because I did not find the story satisfying at all. Merida's entire arc with her mother was boring and uninteresting, as was Merida herself. The only great thing about her was her defiance, her accent, and her amazing hair.

So even if Brave had been released when I was a kid, I doubt I would have enjoyed it much.

A Great Film Overall

Aside from Pocahontas being the first tomboy princess, the entire film was just wonderful overall. As I mentioned above, this was something that Brave was sorely lacking.

Yes, it was awesome that Merida was defiant of sexist traditions and not willing to be sold off into marriage, etc. But what about the rest of the film? The actual plot and conflict was boring as hell.

Meanwhile, if we set aside the romance, Pocahontas is a well-written, amusing, visually pleasing film, with interesting characters and conflict.

Could you imagine if Disney at the time had been brave enough (pun intended in hindsight) to take this a step further, and have Pocahontas running around with a bow and arrow like a badass? But I suppose if she'd been armed when she met John Smith . . . he would have shot her.

(So never mind . . .)

The animation in this film was just so colorful and beautiful (like a gorgeous painting) that my sensitive, artist soul cries whenever I see it.

And like all Disney Renaissance films, the music in this film was also pretty phenomenal. I loved it. So much heart and energy went into this era of Disney.

My two favorite songs are probably "Just Around the River Bend" and "Colors of the Wind" but "Mine, Mine, Mine" is a great diddy as well.

As a side note, Radcliffe was yet another purple-swathed, feminine Disney villain. It speaks a lot to the sexism of our nation that filmmakers always depict feminine men as villains and are terrified of showing a full-on masculine woman in all her glory on screen. Instead, these masculine women are always soft tomboys: kind of boyish, but with strong feminine qualities regardless.

Come on, Disney. Grow a spine.

That said, I thought Radcliffe made a pretty great adversary. It was nice to see the sneering racist gagged and packed off at the end of the film. It's just a shame that the sequel ruined the movie's perfect ending by having Radcliffe get off and John Smith exiled.

And of course, the movie's bittersweet ending is probably one of the best things about it.

Instead of a fairy tale ending, Pocahontas and John Smith part ways. Pocahontas chooses her people and her duty to them over her personal feelings, and since our choices show who we really are, it says a great deal about the loyalty she actually had to her own -- a loyalty that is questioned again and again throughout the film due to her love for John Smith and her rejection of Kocoum.

Pocahontas made the right choice for herself and her people. John Smith wasn't the center focus of her life and her decisions didn't revolve around him -- and that's the way it should be.

Because life isn't solely about romance and relationships can't always magically work out.

So that's why I love this Disney film the most. But even with all that being said, please, please don't let them make a live action version of it.

Maybe I shouldn't be so cynical, but I seriously doubt Disney could pull it off with any sort of sensitivity.

© 2019 Ash

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