Sunday, 9 September 2012

Paths and Progress in Pocahontas

One of the more nuanced Disney women I have seen so far, I must say.

There are a lot of things one could say about Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) concerning gender roles and indigenous peoples, but I am not going to say them. This is in part because I feel like a lot of it has already been said, and in part because I do not feel equipped to discuss the history of European-American contact. But I am still going to refer to the website I gave you a few weeks ago ranking Disney princesses according to how feminist they are. Pocahontas ranks fairly highly, and when I first read the rationale, I was not especially unnerved:

...she isn't interested in marrying the guy her dad wants her to marry or in following a set path. She has another calling in life that she wants to pursue. Interestingly, she's the only princess who doesn't end up with the man she's in love with; her destiny is larger than a man, and she even breaks up with the guy with a whole "it's not you, it's my path" speech.

Upon watching the movie and giving it some thought, I felt a little less comfortable. A lot of that discomfort is autobiographical, but I thought I could maybe explore it a bit here. The ways Pocahontas talks about the path she feels she must take reminds me of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? and of European justifications for the kind of invasions Governor Ratcliffe heads in the film.

Pocahontas has a dream of an arrow spinning and then selecting a direction. Her magical talking tree mentor Grandmother Willow informs her that she has a path set out for her. While her father believes that her path is to marry Koucom for the good of the tribe, Pocahontas feels that it lies elsewhere. When John Smith arrives, she thinks it lies with him, an interpretation supported by his possession of a compass, which was the arrow she saw in her dream. So when John Smith’s life is threatened and war between her people and his looks inevitable, she intercepts and argues for peace. At this point we may think that her path lies with John Smith, but at the end of the film she knows differently: her path is to lead her people and not to be with him, though loving and protecting him was a part of it. A lot of Pocahontas’s character development is focused on her discernment of her path.

I use the word “discernment” because that’s a word that comes up a lot in Protestant, maybe specifically evangelical (?), circles. There is a sense that every person (or every Christian? it’s unclear) has a specific purpose or life plan that God has set out for them, and part of each person’s role as a Christian is to discern what the next part of that plan is and perform it. Having a destiny is an attractive idea, one that I detect in quite a lot of my generation’s up-bringing (secular or religious). I remain skeptical that we have a specific purpose, however; if we do, I remain even more skeptical that we can have any reliable access to what that purpose might be. Part of my queasiness is that this kind of thinking can support exceptionalism, the idea that my destiny makes me special or entitles me to certain things. It is interesting to notice that, of all the characters in the film, only Pocahontas has a clear path, only she has dreams about that path, and her path leads her to take a place of prominence in her tribe. Rulers have destinies, maybe, and common people do not? When only the protagonist’s path seems to matter, I get even more nervous.

It can also be difficult to untie the path you sense that you have from the path that your society and institutions assigns you. The struggle to make that decision is a central theme of the film, and not just for Pocahontas. While she rebels against her father’s marital plans for her, all of the English characters are encouraged to react to the indigenous people with hostility. Ratcliffe is the one doing the active encouragement, but he can only do so because he has the twin discourses of colonialism/imperialism and masculine/military expectations to give him the rhetorical resources. Ratcliffe uses the latter most pointedly when he says to young Thomas, unsure about his order to kill any aboriginal people on sight, “You've been a slipshod sailor and a poor excuse for a soldier. Don't disappoint me again.” Thomas is in his own coming-of-age narrative, and Ratcliffe makes it clear that murder is necessary for the successful completion of that story. Part of Thomas’ character development is to find out that Ratcliffe’s claim is wrong.

Historically, however, imperialists used the idea of a God-granted destiny to legitimize their invasion of the New World. We get a short look at this in John Smith’s attempt to sell Pocahontas on the glories of progress: roads, “real” houses, and the like. In the film’s most famous song and dance routine she rejects the doctrine of progress (though, I might say, in a profoundly dissatisfying way—when your rebuttal to the idea of Enlightenment-ethos progress is that the natural world is pretty and literally magical, you have fallen right into the dichotomies that produce the progress myth). The connection between the practice of discerning one’s destiny and the imperialists’ belief that God had destined them to produce an empire is obscured, however, in Ratcliffe’s stated motives: he wants gold. He even talks about gold and personal success more than he talks about civilization. As a result, the emphasis is on how Ratcliffe, and people like him, prevent people from following their own private paths in order to meet materialistic ends, and not on how the rhetoric of paths and destines can legitimize things like exceptionalism and conquest. (As an aside, this is why I am not sure that criticizing American foreign policy as being “just about oil” is really all that productive: a lot of the problem stems from supposedly-well-intended Western belief that “the American way of life” is a coherent thing that sits along the path to progress, a path which all societies should be striving to follow. Put another way, is international violence less horrible if it is performed for ideological rather than materialistic reasons? Are base motives necessary for an act of accusation?)

I suppose that if you are really sold on the idea that we have paths and can determine them, what you could take from this is that we need to be really careful when discerning what our paths are. In particular, the major movement of Pocahontas seems to be to reject any authority figure’s idea of what that path might be (a sentiment not unexpected from a film that seems to be belatedly discovering the ethos of the 70s). I cannot pretend to dissuade you from that idea any further than I already have. But I would like to suggest an alternative. Pocahontas is invested in finding her path, true, but she also seems invested in assessing people honestly, in acting with integrity (regardless of how her own people measure it), in preserving her people’s way of life, and in preventing unnecessary violence. She is concerned about doing the right thing. In fact, trying to find her path is in many instances the same thing as trying to do the right thing. Most of the time it seems that her path is commit to her responsibilities and her integrity according to where she is positioned socially. If we have a path, I would argue that this is it: to act with integrity, honesty, responsibility, and altruism according to our social position, our relation to other people’s strengths and vulnerabilities, our own strengths and vulnerabilities. But to say this is to render talk about paths unnecessary, and that would make me far more comfortable.
However, as you can surely see, a lot of my concern stems from personal doubts about the discernment process's legitimacy. I am willing to listen to other's ideas on this, so please comment if you have anything to add. This post is intended to be exploration, not didacticism.

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