Maintaining the Nature/Culture Binary in Disney’s Pocahontas (1995)
Although early 1980s Disney films like The Fox and the Hound highlight the need to control human intervention and nurture the natural world in order to strengthen their interdependence, animated Disney features from the late 1980s and 1990s typically show us the power of nature and the supernatural over the human world, in a move that harks back to a more traditional vision of nature that rests on a powerful representation of nature and culture as binary oppositions. With the exception of Pocahontas (1995), these films sustain the conflict between humans and the natural world without critiquing the destructive force of humans’ exploitation of the natural world or encouraging interdependent relationships between the human and natural worlds.
The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast (1992), Aladdin (1992), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), Dinosaur (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Lilo and Stitch (2002) all highlight and maintain the opposition between nature and culture. By asserting the power of nature and/or the supernatural, these features minimize the costs of human exploitation and, in fact, suggest that, because they lack supernatural (or natural) force, humans bear no threat toward nature. Only Pocahontas illustrates the possible destructive force humans may wield against nature, but it too perpetuates the opposition between humanity and the natural world when John Smith leaves Pocahontas, her people, and, perhaps wild untamed nature behind. Although Captain Planet had a television presence in the 1990s, and Ted Turner further promoted the show’s environmental themes with the creation of an advocacy group, in films from the period, Disney perpetuates the nature/culture binary begun with Snow White and cemented with Bambi. Disney’s 1990s’ perspectives merely maintain the binary while accommodating contemporary audiences.
Although it perpetuates racism, Pocahontas is a blatantly environmental film that contrasts British invaders with Native Americans who nurture the earth. John Smith works for Ratcliffe, a British imperialist, but immediately befriends Pocahontas, who chooses not to marry Kocoum, a brave Native American warrior, after talking to Grandmother Willow. John Smith’s friend, Thomas, kills Kocoum by accident to protect Smith, and a war seems inevitable, but Smith speaks with Pocahontas’s father, and Pocahontas falls on Smith’s body before they can kill him, telling them to choose life instead of death. Ratcliffe goes away in chains when his men decide to live in peace and take Smith home for medical help. Pocahontas stays behind in this version, and the ship turns into an illustration for a book as the film ends.
The film’s songs point out the environmental message of the film. In one song, Pocahontas sings, “You can own the earth and still / All you'll own is earth until / You can paint with all the colours of the wind.” The song suggests that it is as impossible to own the earth as it is to paint with the wind, a message that argues against exploiting the natural world. And in a song at the film’s climax, Native Americans sing in chorus, “You think I'm an ignorant "savage" and you've been so many places; I guess it must be so, but still I cannot see if the savage one is me,” while the film shows the brutality of the British Imperialist Ratcliffe and his need to own and control Native Americans and their natural home.
But the film fails to resolve the conflict between Nature—as represented by Pocahontas, her people, and their world—and culture, as represented by Ratcliffe and the British soldiers sent to support his mission. In fact, the gap between the binary oppositions widens when Ratcliffe’s ship leaves with John Smith and his men aboard while Pocahontas watches from the shore. In Pocahontas, nature and culture clash so powerfully that they must remain separate, even though nature is idealized in the pristine state in which it is presented. This innocent nature proves so strong that it “chases” humans representing “culture” away.