In Disney’s 1995 animated classic, Pocahontas, a young Native American woman faces conflict when she falls in love with an English soldier, as him and other settlers invade 17th century Virginia. With any movie that has such a large audience, there is bound to be discussion. Therefore, while looking through online fandoms, reviews, and forums I found many different viewing positions on Pocahontas. The dominant viewing being that the film is a happy tale with a positive message, the negotiated viewing being there are parts of the movie that are remiss, and the oppositional viewing being that the film is racist to Native American’s and is anti-feminist.
The dominant message of Pocahontas seems to be focused on a young woman that is at odds with her feelings for a man who is a direct threat to her family. She is struggling to decide if she can save their relationship or if she should conform to her father’s wishes of marrying a man who is a strong member of their tribe. In addition to her feelings, she seems to be the only one that can bring understanding between the Natives and the settlers. The story brings forth a critical message of peace between two merging civilizations. As Pocahontas is shown adventure by John Smith, she teaches him about nature and the need to respect it. This film aims to send a positive message in many ways.
When reading the reviews for Pocahontas many of them were extremely positive. They agreed with the statement above, including a review on IMBD that states, “The story is absolutely engrossing. There are so many good and realistic things going on… a man learning about all the little things he has missed in life, an Indian princess striving for adventure and guidance amongst her steady and safe society, and a full-blown war between civilizations who both believe that the other is made of savages. I appreciate that this story is a realistic depiction of war, with two disagreeing sides, neither of which is necessarily right or wrong.” I believe that this review demonstrates the dominant reading because according to Stuart Hall’s essay Encoding/Decoding the dominant reading is, “When the viewer takes the connoted meaning…and decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded, we might say that the viewer is operating inside the dominant code. This is the ideal-typical case of ‘perfectly transparent communication’—or as close as we are likely to come to it ‘for all practical purposes’” (59). Basically, by looking at the review of Pocahontas and understanding the meaning of what a dominant reading is, we can tell that the man who wrote the review interprets the film the way it was intended to be.
However, according to the text Viewers Make Meaning by Sturken and Cartwright, “Many viewers may make meanings that are not intended or anticipated by its producers, and that viewers are active agents in the production of meaning” (53). This idea is critical in order to understand the negotiated and oppositional viewings. As I mentioned previously, Pocahontas does incite controversy and specifically meanings that are not meant by its producers. Let’s start with the negotiated reading. As I explored one of the many online fandoms for the film, I found a forum where fans discuss the possibility of a different ending to the film. Spoiler alert, in the end of the film John Smith gets accidentally shot by one of the Englishmen and has to return home to England for treatment. Despite their love for each other, Pocahontas stays in the New World with her family, where she belongs, and the film ends. The fans asks “I know it’s not likely to happen, but if the ending of ‘Pocahontas’ could ever be changed in any way (perhaps in an altered (REAL, not fanmade) version if it was ever possible), I for one would like it to be one of these…” He goes on to discuss three possibilities, which include an ending where Pocahontas and John Smith plan to meet again, an ending where John Smith gets treatment for his gunshot by a doctor that came with on their journey allowing John to stay in the New World with her, and an ending where John Smith does not get shot and also gets to stay in the New World. This supports the meaning of a negotiated reading because according to Encoding/Decoding a negotiated reading, “contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements: it acknowledges the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions to make the grand significations (abstract), while, at a more restricted, situational (situated) level, it makes its own ground rules – it operates with exceptions to the rule” (Hall 60). In the forum, nobody is saying they disagree with the dominant message the movie is sending. However, the negotiation comes in because the fan does oppose the original ending. He appears to find the ending slightly unsatisfying, to the point that he proposes three alternate endings that end more happily.
As I continued to comb the Internet for interpreted viewings, it was not long before I came across an oppositional viewing as well. In Encoding/Decoding, Hall establishes the oppositional viewing as, “to decode the message in a globally contrary way. He/she detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference” (61). On a blog called “Disney Movies and Racism” author Veronica Nunez argues that in the film, “Disney portrays stereotypes on women’s role in society and also gives an inaccurate account of real life events, in which the animated film is based. It is my purpose on this project, to outline the subtle ways in which Disney animated movies, specifically Pocahontas, depicts gender role stereotypes of women and men. I will also underscore the erroneous portrayal of Native Americans in this film by analyzing racist remarks mentioned against such group.” She goes on to highlight how the portrayal of Native American’s is deceitful in order to make good entertainment and tells the true story of Pocahontas, how the film underscores Native American’s as savages, makes the Native American’s and English colonists look like equal offenders when in reality it was only the English settlers, and even presents an Indian princess stereotype where Pocahontas is deeply committed to a powerful white man. This opposition occurs because the way Nunez decodes the film is completely at odds with the intended content. She finds it to present these issues in a way that is totally counterproductive in representing Native Americans and feminism.
While this oppositional viewing is a strong way to reply to a children’s movie that many people might believe to have good intentions, in the reading Viewers Make Meaning the authors explain that, “Neither interpretation of the movie is more or less accurate than the other. An image creates meaning through its circulation among viewers. Hence, we can say that meanings are not inherent images. Rather, meanings are the product of a complex social interaction among image, viewers, and context” (Sturken & Cartwright 55). Anyone can respond to a viewing in any way they like because, basically, these meanings are how the individual viewers understand what is presented to them. Whether they believe a dominant, negotiated, or oppositional viewing, it is completely up to the audience to decode what the creator has encoded.
Hall, Stuart. (1980). Encoding/Decoding. Centre for Cultural Studies.
Sturken, M, & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. New York: Oxford University Press.