“Not That You’re a Savage”


In 1995, Disney Studios released Pocahontas, its first animated feature based on a historical figure and featuring Indigenous characters. Amongst mixed reviews, the film provoked criticism regarding historical inaccuracy, cultural disrespect, and the sexualization of the titular Pocahontas as a Native American woman. Over the following years the studio has released a handful of films centered around Indigenous cultures, rooted in varying degrees of reality and fantasy. The metanarrative of these films suggests the company’s struggle with how to approach Indigenous storylines, with attempts that often read as appropriation more than representation. In response to overt and frequently hostile criticism, Disney over-compensates by creating fictional hybridized cultures that cannot definitively be attributed to any one people, so as to avoid backlash that tarnishes their reputation. Focusing on Pocahontas but also considering other Disney representations of Indigenous peoples, this paper incorporates Laban Movement Analysis to explore how the characters in these films serve as palimpsests for Disney ideologies of race and gender. The studio inscribes meanings onto animated bodies and movement, erasing and rewriting (or drawing) history to create a story with just enough Disney “sparkle.” Spanning the fields of popular culture, visual anthropology, and dance studies, this paper examines how Pocahontas and other characters are animated to absorb and embody popular understandings and misunderstandings of Indigeneity, native history, and transcultural exchange, and how subsequent films continue to add new layers to Disney’s attempts at negotiating diversity.



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