In Too Deep: Is Animaniacs More Culturally Sensitive Than Disney’s Pocahontas?
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Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
So I had to write this essay for class and, since I think it’s an interesting topic worth talking about, I’m gonna post it up here. So without further ado, enjoy.
Both Barry Barclay’s â€œBefore the Beginningâ€ and Lydia Wevers’ â€œWhy New Zealand has no great 19th century novelâ€ deal with the concept of counterfactuality and help provide a definition for it. However this concept can be seen in a wide variety of works throughout pop culture. Examples of this include Disney’s â€œPocahontasâ€ and the Animaniacs parody â€œJokahontasâ€. Both contain counterfactual representations of Native American and British settlers and both have differing impacts on the native culture.
Counterfactuality can be defined as â€œsomething that is in direct opposition to factâ€. That is to say, counterfactuality is a fictionalised retelling of something that is seen as being factually true. Lydia Wevers’ blog post deals mostly with fact, examining the lifestyles and struggles that early nineteenth century colonial settlers had to deal with when they arrived in New Zealand. She points out that while there were some books written during this time, she sums up with â€œYou can only write the novel after you have built the hut to write it inâ€. In other words, the settlers were too busy trying to survive and thrive to produce much in the way of fine literature. However the blog does demonstrate an example of counterfactuality by showcasing â€œwhat might have beenâ€, creating a fantasy scenario where writers wrote about the experiences of trying to live in this new country. This counterfactuality comes in the form of the speculation: this idea that what they would have written would have been a fictionalised retelling of the world around them. In other words taking famous fictional works from the 1800s and inserting New Zealand references in order to better relate to a New Zealand reading audience. Likewise the second text by Barry Barclay is a counterfactual look at what would have happened if James Cook had filmed his first landing in New Zealand and if the film survived to this day. Firstly the author gives us an example of how the film would have looked by giving reference to the notes that James Cook and company left in their diaries. He takes these entries and dramatises them in an imaginary film but showcasing examples of what would have been shown to the general audience. He uses William Monkhouse’s passage on page eight: the passage dealing with how the explorers roamed about a Maori village they recently discovered. Additionally, he details a scene where the ship’s surgeon examines the body of the recently shot Maori man and gives a detailed account of the newly deceased on page twenty/twenty-one. The author asks the reader that if this moment had been recorded would it be allowed to be shown to the public or would it have to be destroyed in order to respect the local iwi’s customs and wishes? Furthermore the author describes a scenario where a woman brings their deceased baby out of their hut and displays it to the cameraman: â€œSHOT: Close shot of mummified baby. VOICE-OVER MONKHOUSE: He brought out the body of a dead child. SHOT: Extreme close shot of baby. … VOICE-OVER MONKHOUSE: He readily traded it for a rifle.â€ Once again the author asks whether this film would be allowed to be shown in the modern age. He readily admits that he made up the scenario but indicates that it would probably be read as factual by those that did not know the full story. Hence such a shot would have a negative impact on the local populace because it would portray them in a negative light. It would leave the implication that the Maori people would happily trade the body of their dead baby for a rifle (an act deemed despicable by Western audiences). As such this negative impact would seem culturally insensitive, if not racially offensive. By portraying this fiction as fact the film would be counterfactual and inaccurate, leading people to make assumptions that aren’t grounded in reality. So while both texts showcase good examples of what counterfactuality could be, the latter text illustrates the negative portrayal of native culture the works in question could bring.
Counterfactuality has been explored many times in fiction, one of the most famous examples of this being the 1995 Disney animated feature film â€œPocahontasâ€. Much of the film is counterfactual because it presents a retelling that highly fictionalizes events that occurred in the settling of America. Like Barclay’s article, the movie bases a lot of the story off what was found in the works of Captain John Smith, but fictionalizes the events in order to appeal to mainstream audiences. It is historical fact (or at least as reported by John Smith himself) that â€œ…two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains, Pocahontas the king’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper…â€ This scene represents the climax of the film, where Pocahontas puts herself in harm’s way to save John Smith. So in this instance the film is being factual to the texts as presented by John Smith. It is staying true to what happened in this historical moment and demonstrates an accurate account of the events. However this is countered by other aspects of the film. For example Pocahontas in the movie is shown to be a young adult, when in reality she was only eleven years old. Likewise whilst the climactic scene already mentioned deals with the idea that the colonists were going to rescue John Smith (and thus potentially start a race-based war between settlers and natives) evidence suggests that â€œIt appeared that John Smith was going to be executed in Powhatan’s long house, in front of Powhatan’s warriors and counsellors. The colonists did not know where he was.â€ So once again we have what is fact (John Smith’s potential execution) being distorted into fiction (the colonists coming to save him; him being lovers with an adult Pocahontas). This counterfactual portrayal of the Native Americans and the British Settlers is a negative one, since it simplifies the history and revises it in order to appeal to Western sensibilities. Rather than giving an accurate portrayal an accurate portrayal the film instead chooses to make it a love story in the vein of Romeo and Juliet. This appeals more to the Western audiences and thus is treated as the proper retelling of the events, even when history can be proven to show otherwise. A more detailed examination of counterfactuality within the film would be the way the film treats the religious beliefs of the Native Americans and perverts them to serve its own agenda. A good example of this is Grandmother Willow. The filmmakers took the native religious concept of everything having a spirit and presented it in such a way that a Western audience can understand. By having the tree physically talk the audience quickly understands the belief systems in place, even if it’s not altogether accurate. While the Native Americans did believe that everything had a spirit, they did not believe they could actively talk to everything face-to-face. This is a construction by the filmmakers to justify the beliefs in a way that audiences would accept and recognize. Likewise John Smith is shown to be dismissive of the natives’ beliefs at first, calling them savages, but only starts to comprehend it when the tree physically talks to him. Once the belief system has been perverted in a form that he can actively recognize (talking to a tree face to face rather than imagining its spirit) he starts to agree with their way of thinking. So both this and the distortion of the ending of the film showcase counterfactuality in action and how dismissive the makers of the film were to Native American culture.
Over a year later, a parody of the Disney film was created by the animated cartoon â€œAnimaniacsâ€ with their parody short â€œJokahontasâ€. Once again this short demonstrates a counterfactual retelling of the settlers arriving into America and meeting the local Indian population, but does so in a humorous manner. For example in this parody the scene where Pocahontas attempts to save John Smith is compressed into a single line: â€œNo, stop, I love himâ€. This is an example of counterfactualising the counterfactual. They distort and fictionalise an event that was already distorted and fictionalised. However, while the first recount of it in John Smith’s diary was factual and the second in the Disney film was partly factual, this version is entirely fabricated. It takes the bare minimum of the facts and counters them in the name of humour. The scene continues to be a parody of the ending of Pocahontas, dealing with John Smith’s exaggerated wounds from being hit in the chest by ice cream. While it is fact that John Smith left to go back to England to get his wounds treated, the parody only leaves this as a passing line rather than being the main focus. As such this scene can be seen as either culturally insensitive or harmlessly humorous. On the one hand it is trivialising the Native Americans’ experience at the time, replacing the conflicts and strife they suffered with a silly battle over ice cream. However on the other hand it’s clearly meant to be a satire of Disney’s revisionist history and not an accurate retelling of the historical race relations in early-American history, with the parody short itself making fun of how the original piece of fiction did trivialise the Native Americans’ experience. Likewise the â€œAnimaniacsâ€ parody also belittles the Native Americans’ belief system when it comes to every object having a spirit. However in this case it dresses up one of its characters up as the Grandmother Willow character and is called Grand-mama Maple the maple tree. Again this can be seen as culturally insensitive or a parody of the counterfactual fiction. It takes the concept put forth in the movie (that the Western protagonist could only understand the Grandmother Willow character when said character was personified) and takes it to the most illogical extreme by showing an actual person pretending to be a tree. It is not parodying or perverting the original beliefs but instead pointing out the inaccuracies of the fictional retelling of the story. As such the short parody cartoon is quick to point out how the original piece of work was counterfactual in its depiction of the story. Ergo while one could see it as being disrespectful to the indigenous population, since its focus is more on the movie than on the culture, it instead renders the entire situation as a nonsensical farce with no higher meaning or purpose. So while the cartoon itself is inaccurate when it comes to the proper retelling of the historical events, its main purpose is to dramatise and fictionalize the events of a film that itself dramatised and fictionalized the historical event.
Counterfactuality is discussed in â€œWhy New Zealand has no great 19th Century Novelâ€ by Lydia Wevers and â€œBefore the Beginningâ€ by Barry Barclay. It is the concept of presenting a work of art in a form that does not accurately portray the truth of the matter. Both Disney’s â€œPocahontasâ€ and the â€œAnimaniacsâ€ parody â€œJokahontasâ€ showcase the first meeting between British settlers and Native Americans, but while the former is a counterfactual retelling of the event the latter is a counterfactual retelling of the movie. Ergo both retelling history in a way that is contrary to how history actually occurred.
So there you have it. My look at two big animation giants in the nineties and how they reflect Native Americans. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.