When Worlds Collide
by Destiny Simms
Critical Essay Honorable Mention, 2020 VSU Student Writing Contest
The story of Pocahontas has been passed down for generations. Much like any oral story, many of the original facts have been misinterpreted, therefore changing Pocahontas’s role. In some stories, she is a hero. In others, she is playful and mischievous. With the many versions of this story, it is hard to tell the true nature of her character. The New World and Disney’s Pocahontas both fabricate a romantic idealization of inter-racial love, based on misinterpretations of John Smith’s idea of chivalry and leadership.
We are often told that the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas was one filled with novelty and romance. We are also taught that those who enter interracial relationships must overcome barriers to be together. The New World and Disney’s Pocahontas both made sure to keep the narrative alive. Coming from different cultures and sides of the world, it was expected to see that both John Smith and Pocahontas grew fond of each other. Both individuals were infatuated with discovering something new about each other. For example, in Disney’s Pocahontas, Pocahontas brought John to the big oak tree that was a place of refuge for her. In exchange, John showed her the weapons he’d brought along with him.
An essential part to any interracial relationship is the sneakiness across opposing sides. The New World and Disney’s Pocahontas was very strategic in the way they showed the creativity of the sneaky encounters. John Smith and Pocahontas were organized and meticulous with their meetings. They hid in the trees or the fields of rapidly growing grass. They met at specific times when they knew that members of their separate groups would be busy or sleep. They had signals and used body language to communicate what couldn’t be said verbally. For instance, in The New World, John would signal for Pocahontas to meet him in the forest with a head nod. Pocahontas would smile in response, then check her surroundings before proceeding to the forest.
While these films may be similar in the interpretation of an interracial relationship, they differ in the way John Smith performed chivalrous acts for Pocahontas. Even though he was captivated by her beauty, he knew that swooning Pocahontas would earn him her trust. In The New World, John Smith was particular in the way he handled Pocahontas. For example, John would hold her tightly and softly caress her skin when they were tangled in the grass of the forest. He’d whisper sweet nothings in her ear, which caused her to nuzzle closer into him as they watched the sunset. Being young and naïve, Pocahontas fell for his charm.
By falling for John Smith’s charisma, Pocahontas became programmed to neglect her feelings for John. John had control of her mind, in a sense that she thought about his reactions before making any decisions. She’d meet with John despite her limitations and become sad if he showed the slightest bit of irritation. For example, Pocahontas had trouble meeting John by the fire pit because she was being questioned by members of her tribe. She arrived late, with her head hung in shame when she saw the disapproval on John’s face.
Pocahontas also lost her sense of independence, while trying to conform to the woman John Smith wanted her to be. She learned a new language, gave up her native tongue, and changed her outward appearance. For example, Pocahontas went from wearing buckskin to corsets and layers of muslin and cloth. She gave up wearing moccasins or being barefoot to heeled shoes that altered her balance. She also went from speaking Algonquin, the Powhattan language, to English.
In Disney’s Pocahontas, John’s chivalry prompted Pocahontas to believe that he was her soulmate. Pocahontas was set on finding her purpose as a young woman. Initially, Pocahontas knew that John would ultimately changer her life. For example, when she dreamed of a compass pointing her into the direction of her path, she found that John Smith was the source of her new journey.
However, Pocahontas was not easily influenced by John’s actions. Instead, the roles were reversed, and John was the one following Pocahontas around. For example, when Pocahontas left John’s side to go to the corn fields, he followed her shortly after. John Smith, however, was not interested in manipulating her to his advantage. She challenged him and vice versa. For example, when John and Pocahontas were sitting under the tree by the river, he was intrigued when Pocahontas corrected him on the nature and strength of her people.
In addition to John’s ideas of chivalry, these two films differ in the way John Smith’s role as a leader is portrayed. At the start of The New World, Smith was far from a leader. For instance, he was initially a prisoner held in the bottom of a ship that constantly filled with sea water. To prove his loyalty to the other mean, he took advantage of the opportunity to make peace with the “Naturals” or Native Americans. Unfortunately, John found familiarity in a captive state when he was tortured for three weeks by the Native Americans. With the help of Pocahontas, he was able to stay alive and interactive with the Natives.
John began to show a sense of leadership when he was able to take what he learned and bring it back to the British settlers. For example, he showed them how to grow food to store for the harsh winters by burying the plants in soil. However, he wasn’t very successful with this tactic. With the stress of building a colony and settlers dying, the people began to question the direction John was taking them. For instance, when John was unable to prohibit the attacks from the Native Americans, the settlers stripped him of his leadership. He served severe consequences, such as starving if he didn’t find any gold or working in the heat to chop trees.
On the other hand, John Smith was more of a follower than a leader in Disney’s Pocahontas. He took no initiative, rather he just followed the instructions given by the governor. For example, when instructed to find and kill any Native Americans, he asked no questions, took out his rifle, and proceeded with his search. He wasn’t interested in building a relationship or effectively communicating with the natives. Although he failed to follow through with orders because of his encounter with Pocahontas, he still lacked the ability to show sympathy to these natives who were on the verge of losing their land.
The only time that John Smith may have established an authoritative presence is when he had an altercation with the Native American men. He had to command the respect of the other soldiers and stand his ground. For example, John had to fight one of the Powhattan’s strongest soldiers when he was caught with Pocahontas. Even then, he showed a bit of weakness because he allowed his emotions to get the best of him. John relinquished most of his control to Pocahontas. For example, she was able to stop a war between the Native Americans and the British, ultimately becoming John’s saving grace.
The New World and Disney’s Pocahontas both gave interesting viewpoints on the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas. They both emphasized romanticism and exclusivity. Though these films shared themes such as survival and innocence, the different interpretations can be quite confusing when trying to capture the true nature of their relationship.