Contemporary Commodifications of the Love Story
Captain Smith and Pocahontas Had a very mad affair,
When her Daddy tried to kill him, she said,
“Daddy-o don’t you dare”
He gives me fever, with his kisses,
FEVER when he holds me tight.
FEVER - I’m his Missus,
Oh Daddy won’t you treat him right.
Peggy Lee, “Fever”
She wanted to devour him with love. Her body acted as if it was no longer a part of the woman she knew. [...] She felt as if she were part of the man whose body gave her such joy, as if his skin were hers, as if their hearts were one. At other times she felt she would swoon with the deliciousness of her captivity.
Susan Donnell, Pocahontas
I wish I was a trapper I would give a thousand pelts To sleep with Pocahontas And find out how she felt.
Neil Young, “Pocahontas”
In spite of Native American criticism and controversies about her status as a foundational American heroine, the figure of Pocahontas is very much alive in American popular and mass culture, and romance continues to be the central paradigm of her narrativization. In his classic study of formula fiction, John Cawelti has identified the romance formula as one prominent archetype of formulaic writing:
The crucial defining characteristic of romance is not that it stars a female but that its organizing action is the development of a love relationship, usually between a man and a woman [...]. The moral fantasy of the romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties. Though the usual outcome is a permanently happy marriage, more sophisticated types of love story sometimes end in the death of one or both of the lovers, but always in such a way as to suggest that the love relation has been of lasting and permanent impact. (Adventure 41-42)
Illustration 6: Pocahontas in Popular Fiction
Cover of Pocahontas by S. Donnell (Berkley Books, 1991).
Popular Pocahontas narratives operate with the romance formula when representing Pocahontas as saving John Smith out of love. The rescue scene dramatizes the conventional ‘love is stronger than death’ topos as well as the notion of sacrificial love, i.e. love as selfless altruism that makes one willing to give one’s life so that the other’s may be spared. In the Pocahontas narrative, this “fantasy of the all-sufficiency of love” (ibid. 42) overcomes linguistic barriers as well as cultural difference - and, needless to say, does away with all questions of colonial power relations.
In the course of the 20th century, these love plots have become more daring and more explicit in their handling of English-Native sexuality and sexual re?lations while at the same time being hopelessly anachronistic. Susan Donnell’s historical romance Pocahontas (1991) is one among a plethora of such retellings of the Pocahontas story as a popular love story. The author, a self-proclaimed “direct fourteenth-generation descendant” of Pocahontas, declares that she writes “from heart and history” (Author’s Note viii); her novel’s suggestive cover reads: “She was a princess, a lady and a legend, her story is the story of America.” Again, the story of Pocahontas appears as a foundational narrative of the nation. As the second epigraph to this section shows, Pocahontas’s ‘captivity’ is metaphorically cast as one of desire and captivation, not one of forceful abduction and political struggle. Pocahontas is completely de-indigenized on the cover of Donnell’s book, apart from her dress and three feathers in her black hair, which are stereotypical attributes in Western depictions of indigenous attire. This strategy of de-indigenizing Pocahontas - which we have already found at work in many 19th-century representations - was continued most prominently in our era of late capitalism by a cultural production that brought new and unprecedented fame to the old legend: Walt Disney’s Pocahontas (1995). This animated motion picture started a veritable Pocahontas craze fuelled by “a $125 million marketing blitz” (Edwards, “United Colors” 162) that “crested in the summer of 1995 in a wave of Pocahontas backpacks, balloons, napkins, pillows, nightgowns, cupcake tins and plastic figurines tied in to the Disney animated feature” (Robertson, “First Captive” 73). Pocahontas merchandize also included a tanned and black-haired Pocahontas Barbie doll accompanied by her animal friends, the Native ‘warrior’ Kocoum, and John Smith.
The Disney film has been viewed positively as a balanced, politically correct representation of first contact in North America, even as “the single finest work ever done on American Indians by Hollywood” (qtd. in Edgerton and Jackson, “Redesigning” 34), but it has also been criticized as another romantic fantasy about ‘Indians’ glossing over a history of genocide and dispossession (cf. ibid.), and thus, as romanticizing colonialism (cf. Turner, “Playing”). Leigh Edwards’s superb analysis of Disney’s Pocahontas takes issue with “the film’s attempt to fashion Jamestown into the birthplace of multiculturalism” (“United Colors” 149). The makers of the Disney film, as Edwards points out, “change her [Pocahontas’s, HP] age so that a romance between them [Pocahontas and John Smith, HP] becomes more feasible” (ibid. 151). After a friendship has formed and Pocahontas has rescued Smith from execution, the film includes a second rescue scene in which Smith takes a bullet for Powhatan; seriously injured, Smith has to return to England to recover, thereby providing the plot with a rationale to separate him from his beloved Pocahontas. This narrative maneuver “displaces actual miscegenation from the narrative frame” (ibid.), which the film also does by omitting Pocahontas’s relationship with John Rolfe. Visually, the film depicts Pocahontas as “an historically-impossible multiethnic body,” a body that was manufactured by Disney animator Glen Keane as “an ethnic blend whose convexly curved face is African, whose dark, slanted eyes are Asian and whose body proportions are Caucasian” (Keane qtd. in Tillotson, “Cartoons” C8). Pocahontas thus incorporates multiculturalism as an “undifferentiated visual compilation of non-white ethnicities” (Edwards, “United Colors” 152) and as an “icon of Western standards of exoticized female beauty” (ibid. 154). We may consider Walt Disney’s Pocahontas as a postfeminist emblem who at the same time becomes “Disney’s multicultural educator” (ibid. 155); in the spirit of political correctness, even the ‘new world’ crop, tobacco, is exchanged for corn. Overall, the story is awkwardly sanitized: there is no mention of Pocahontas’s captivity or the eruption of violence in white-Native relations. The film uncritically imagines and celebrates what Leslie Fiedler has called the US-American “myth of love in the woods” (Return 50). Of course, the popularity of this version of the Pocahontas narrative speaks to archetypal patterns of the human imagination. We like to think about cultural contact not in terms of violence but in terms of love and affection. The possibility of Europe and America coming together in a peaceful encounter leading to friendship and love rather than to war and genocide is a fantasy people still like to entertain.
Terrence Malick’s film The New World (2005) offers a highly aestheticized though at the same time less anodyne version of the historical narrative that casts Pocahontas as “the perfect tribal Eve” (Weatherston, “When Sleeping” 11) for the English “Adam” in the ‘new world’ and that tries to do justice to the ambiguities of the narrative by telling it to its (not so happy) ending instead of leaving off after Smith’s rescue and departure. For Malick, Pocahontas clearly is the first American.
Most recently, the longevity of the Pocahontas narrative in US-American culture has been evidenced by the (unadjusted for inflation) currently highest- grossing film of all times, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), a science-fiction version of the Pocahontas story with an anti-colonialist agenda. The film’s white hero is rescued twice by the Native Pocahontas character: the first time she helps him to survive in the ‘wilderness’ of the fictive moon of Pandora, the second time she rescues him from his fellow colonizers. In the end, it is he who becomes completely and irrevocably indigenized, rather than her being de-indigenized. The military-industrial, (neo-)colonial enterprise from earth is successfully thwarted on Pandora - to stay with the analogy: the Jamestown on Pandora is wiped out. Cameron’s blockbuster may at first glance be conventional in its enactment of intercultural romance and admittedly celebrates indigenous traditions that are accessible only through the most advanced technology (cf. Theweleit, “Menschliche Drohnen”), yet its insistence on the indigenization of the hero from earth into Pandora’s Na’vi culture constitutes a powerful critique of US- American neoimperialism. In a timely fashion, Cameron’s film combines a refashioning of the Pocahontas story with a critique of US-American military interventionism as part of an interracial love story between a man from earth and a Pandoran woman. With the Pocahontas myth in mind, we can read Avatar as a comment on and as an update of a core foundational American myth in the age of globalization. In Cameron’s retelling for 21st-century American and global audiences we can glimpse the subversive, anti-foundational potential and critical impetus of the revised Pocahontas myth.