World of Disney teaches girls love conquers all


Finally! After weeks of waiting, we have a movie to go with the mugs, books and backpacks, and a chance to answer the summer's biggest question. Is "Pocahontas" sexist?

Of course it is. Life is sexist. For those keeping score, "Pocahontas" is less sexist than its recent Disney predecessors, and no more sexist than, say, "Romeo and Juliet," "Pride and Prejudice" or "The Bridges of Madison County," which it closely resembles (a man and a woman from different worlds fall in love, see the obstacles and, after a brief fling, nobly renounce each other).

"Pocahontas" is sexist; what else is new? For most of recorded history, a woman's socioeconomic status has been determined by the man she marries. Thus the main task of women has been to marry well. Check your Shakespeare, your Jane Austen, your fairy tales. Disney didn't exactly invent this.

But Disney enlarged on it, and translated it into the plaintive language of adolescence: romantic longings vs. parental restrictions. Anyone with a child past the age of 3 will recognize this as the pattern of Disney's recent blockbuster animated movies. In each, a gorgeous girl defies her father to follow a hormonal impulse, or, in Aladdin's words, to let her "heart decide."

* "The Little Mermaid": Bikini-clad Ariel pines for a foreign prince. Dad, who happens to rule the ocean, says no. Mermaid runs away, almost dies, marries prince anyway. College plans put on hold indefinitely.

* "Beauty and the Beast": Bookish Belle shuns the advances of a mindless hunk, and ends up kidnapped by a hulk who turns out to have been a hunk all along.

* "Aladdin": Slinky royal teen refuses suitors in her peer group, runs away to inner city where she gets picked up by a homeless criminal with Tom Cruise-like features. They share a "magic carpet ride," and, after much talk of honesty in relationships and much subterfuge, they marry.

Now, "Pocahontas." Its eponymous heroine is a buxom Native American princess who, bored by the warrior her father wants her to marry, spends her time prowling through the woods with a raccoon and paddling down a river daydreaming about her destiny. She falls for a man of different race, nationality and political leanings from her father's. Their relationship leads to the warrior's death, and ends badly for the princess as well.

Same pattern, slightly more adult treatment. Is Pocahontas, so physically like her beauteous Disney predecessors, also just another teen in trouble? More than any of its predecessors, "Pocahontas" seems conflicted on this point.

A tomboy

On the plus side, Pocahontas is a tomboy who canoes and high-dives. Granted, there are a few too many sequences of her sidling silently through the Virginia forest, flexing first one shapely calf then another as her deerskin hems reach higher and fTC higher. But hey! She's not just flashing leg, she's scouting the enemy! This is one Disney heroine with plenty of, well, testosterone.

But then there are those breasts, rising from Pocahontas' off-the-shoulder decolletage like the rolling hills of the Piedmont: another natural resource to be plundered by the white man. The breasts have garnered much attention from concerned feminists, probably because they were so visible on the mugs, backpacks, etc. Before we even saw the movie trailer, we saw the cleavage. Is it just scenery?

Nothing is ever just scenery. I expect that Pocahontas' fabulous figure is working subliminally in the minds of my daughters, translating into negative messages about fat percentage, but I can no more stop that tape from rolling than I can halt the manufacture of Barbies. (As Barbie had Skipper, Pocahontas has Nikemo, a flat-chested sidekick full of sensible advice.)

I wish Disney would give us an animated heroine with a regular-looking body. But, life is sexist. And note: John Smith's hips are a bit too slim for credibility, too.

No, breasts aside, this Disney heroine is OK. She's smitten, but John Smith is equally smitten; she's disobedient, but it's for the good of the tribe; in the end, she's the bravest warrior of all. I'm not worried about my children receiving these messages; at 7 and 5, they're more interested in Meeko the raccoon anyway.

What does worry me about "Pocahontas" is not its heroine's body but her brain. It's full of dreams. In a poignant early moment, Pocahontas paddles toward a fork in the river, pondering the suitable warrior.

"Should I marry Kokoum? Is all my dreaming at an end?"

It's doubtful her "dreaming" is about particle physics or economies of scale in tobacco farming. She's dreaming about two men: one she's already met, one she hasn't. What looks like a choice really isn't much of one.

Looking for love

"Pocahontas" fools you the same way "Beauty & the Beast" did. In the earlier movie, Belle read books, all right. Romance novels. Like Pocahontas, she seemed to be breaking free, but never really eluded the restrictions of the genre. Smart and spirited she might be, but in the end, she was just another girl looking for love.

Like Belle before her, Pocahontas must choose between the raptures of what might be and the stolid reality of what is. Romance vs. realism: This is a beautiful notion, that we are imprisoned by conventional choices and set free by unconventional ones. It's "The Bridges of Madison County" notion.

It's a lovely notion for, say, a 45-year-old trying to decide whether to buy his wife a freezer or a cruise. But for a child who still has trouble with "right" and "left," much less "right" and "wrong," it's confusing. It seems only fair to teach a child how to live in society before you tell her how living according to society's rules will frustrate her.

And it seems equally fair to teach our dreamy young daughters that, while fantasy is fun, there are other dreams besides romantic ones. If these Disney movies do any damage, it is in equating the imagination with romantic fantasy. Imagination is a lore mor than that -- at least for boys. Just once I'd like to see a Disney heroine sing about something besides being swept away by love. If all girls learn of "dreaming" is the Disney version, romance won't just be a choice for them, it will be the whole river.

Susan Stewart is the mother of two daughters, aged 5 and 7. She writes for the Detroit Free Press and Parenting magazine.

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