Racism and stereo types in Walt Disney movies. An analysis of "Pocahontas" (1995)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

28 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Concepts
2.1 Race
2.2 Racism
2.2.1. The history of Racism – a summary
2.3 Othering
2.4 Stereo Types
2.4.1. The Stereotype Content Model by Fiske et al.

3. Disney’s Pocahontas – A short summary

4. Pocahontas’ real life

5. Differences between the real and the fictive story

6. Racism and Stereotypes in Pocohontas (1995)

7. Conclusion

8. Reference list

9. Appendix

1. Introduction

In our globalized world, the mixing of cultures, languages and traditions has been playing a central role in today’s societies. One unpleasant side effect, however, is the occurrence of racial thoughts among people. Some people think that they are more worth than others and feel superior towards them, for example, due to their skin color or religion. The phenomenon of racism can not only be seen in its strongest form in Germany during the Nazi Regime or in South Africa during the apartheid regime, but also, for instance, today in the United States, where unarmed black people got killed by white policemen.

Furthermore, there can be seen racist elements in films, not only for adults but also for children. In 1995 Ron Disney published the movie Pocahontas, which deals with the first English settlements in the New World North America. Describing the first meeting of white English settlers and Native American tribe members, it tells the love story of Princess Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, who falls in love with the Captain John Smith, a white English settler.

The aim of this paper is to analyze whether there can be found racist or stereotypical elements in Disney’s movie Pocahontas. To start with, basic theoretical concepts will be introduced. The subchapter 2.1. focuses on the definition of race. Since the goal of this work is to find out whether there are racist elements in Pocahontas, it is necessary to define race. It will become clear that race is a constructed characterization of people and that it is not a biologically inherent, but created in the people’s minds. This will form the basis for the next subchapter 2.2. which deals with the concept of racism. It will be emphasized that the concept of racism is severe complex and can have different definitions due to personal appraisals. Furthermore, it will be pointed out that racism as well is a constructed phenomenon which does not arise because of characteristic features but because of social and cultural structures.

The following part of the paper sets its focus on the summarized historical development of racism. It will be outlined that there had been many racist actions before the actual name of this phenomenon “racism” was introduced in the 1930s. Starting already in antiquity among Greek and Romans who had slaves, racism went through the whole world story: Above all Jewish people as well as black people have been targets of the attacks. Whereas Jews were treated badly because of their different, non-Christian religion, black people were considered to be evil because of their dark skin color. Its peak reached racism during the Nazi time in Germany where the dictator Adolf Hitler tried to exterminate a whole ethnical group and during the apartheid in South Africa where the purity of the race was considered to be so important that sexual relations between white and black people were forbidden.

After that, the concept of Othering and Otherness will be shortly introduced. It will be explained that one in-group feels superior to one or more out-groups by finding real or imagined differences. It is unavoidable to define this concept because Disney movie’s male protagonist Captain John Smith clearly differentiates himself and his culture from the Native American Pocahontas’.

Furthermore, the concept of stereotypes will be introduced. Sundquist (1987) defines stereotypes as “fixed or general pattern and lacks individual distinguishing marks or qualities”. The chapter will present the three dimensions of stereotypes which are firstly that stereotypes are aids to explanation, secondly that stereotypes are energy-saving devices and thirdly that stereotypes are shared group beliefs, according to McGarty, Yzerbyt and Spears (2002). The subchapter 2.3.1. focuses on the Stereotype Content Model by Fiske et al. 2002, which categorizes people into two dimensions, by analyzing and describing the influence of different social structural aspects on stereotypes.

The second part of the paper will deal with the content and the language of the movie Pocahontas. Chapter four will briefly summarize the plot of the Disney movie, whereas the following fifth chapter presents the real story of the Native American Matoaka, later called Pocahontas, on which the plot of the film is based. Since historians are still unclear about her existence, the chapter describes how Pocahontas live might have looked like before she met Captain John Smith. It is argued that due to the fact that when the 28-year-old Smith met Pocahontas, she must have been between ten and eleven years old and therefore not yet considered to be a woman. Consequently, it is doubted whether the two really had a romantic relationship and whether Pocahontas’ famous rescue actually happened. Since there can be several differences between the real story of Pocahontas and the plot of Disney’s movie, chapter six will be a comparison.

The chapter before last will put the emphasis on the movie itself. The result of the paper will be that racist and stereotypical element can be primarily seen in the language, the English figures, above all Captain John Smith and Governor Ratcliff, use. From the beginning they use the word savages to refer to the Native Americans and call it fun to exterminate the ethnic group. Furthermore, the lyrics of Ratcliff’s song “Savages, savages” will be analyzed and it will be outlined how racist his language is towards the Indians.

The closing conclusion will summarize the most important facts and it will be outlined again that there can be stereotypical and racist features in the movie Pocahontas.

2. Theoretical Concepts

In the following chapter, the main theoretical concepts of racism will be introduced, in order to be able to apply them to the chosen examples of the Disney movie Pocahontas.

The following part will initially define the term race to afterwards go on with the term racism. Hereby, the focus will be on the definition of racism and a summary of its historical development. Furthermore, the concept of Othering, stereotypes as well as the Stereotype Content Model by Fiske et al. 2002 will be presented and defined.

2.1 Race

To define racism it is initially inevitable to clarify what race is. King and Stansfield (1990) define in their dictionary of genetics race as:

A phenotypically and/or geographically distinctive subspecific group, composed of individuals inhabiting a defined geographical and/or ecological region, and possessing characteristic phenotypic and gene frequencies that distinguish it from other such groups. The number of racial groups that one wishes to recognize within a species is usually arbitrary but suitable for the purposes under investigation. (ibid, cited from Pigliucci, M. & J. Kaplany 2003: 1162).

That means that shared characteristics of a group are used to categorize people. In 1775, the German professor of medicine Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 – 1840) published his doctoral dissertation “On the Natural Variety of Mankind” where he introduced a race-based classification. Rewriting it and publishing a second edition, Blumenbach changed the originally introduced four race groups, categorized geographically, to a five-race arrangement. The five races Blumenbach introduces are: Caucasian, the white race; Mongolian, the yellow race; Malayan, the tawny-colored race; Ethiopian, the black race; and American, the copper-colored race. Although the author argued to have chosen geographically features, it becomes clear that there was a shift to physical appearance (cf. Blumenbach 1795, cited from Bernasconi, R. & T. L. Lott 2000: 5ff.)

According to Rogers, D. & M. Bowman (2003), however, race is not a biologically valid classification but

[…] a false classification of people that is not based on any real or accurate biological or scientific truth. In other words, the distinction we make between races, has nothing to do with scientific truth. Race is a political construction. A political construction is something created by people; that is not a natural development; is constructed or created for a political purpose. The concept of race was created as a classification of human beings with the purpose of giving power to white people and to legitimize the dominance of white people over non-white people. (ibid., p. 2).

The authors state that the concept of race was created by the people and used for political purposes. Furthermore, they claim that it was constructed to give power to the white people to be more powerful than non-white people.

2.2 Racism

In times of migration, “the movement of people from one place in the world to another for the purpose of taking up permanent or semipermanent residence, usually across a political boundary (von Abele 2005: 1), multiculturalism is a present phenomenon. Some people see this mixing of cultures as a possibility to grow personally, take it a joyful sign of mutual acceptance and as a rich endeavor (cf. Essed & Helwig 1992; Arredondo 1996, Hollands 1998, cited from Essed 2000:43). Others, however, see it as a source of hostility, prejudice and discrimination, mostly felt by Europeans who find the immigrants to be different (cf. Rattansi & Westwood 1994, cited from Essed 2002: 43). This negative feeling is called racism.

Fredrickson (2002), however, states that the general definition of Racism as “the hostile or negative feeling of one ethnic group or ‘people’ toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes” is often used too loosely and unreflectively (cf. ibid, p. 1). According to the author, these feelings of antipathy are sometimes very brutal and enduring like in the case of the German dictator Adolf Hitler so that this definition seems to be too weak (cf. ibid.).

According to Blommaert & Verschueren (1994) racism can stand for different personal definitions: Neo-nazis and the extreme right equal racism for some people, whereas other people would say that racism is the institutional discrimination through practices, laws and customs that underline racial and ethnical differences and inequalities. A third person might say that racism is a personal prejudice (cf. ibid, cited from Essed 2002: 43), “an antipathy based on a faulty and inflexible generalization” (Allport 1954, cited from Bodenhausen, G. V. & J. A. Richeson 2010: 342).

Van Dijk (1991; 1993) and Feagin & Feagin (1993) claim that racism is a problem which was created by human beings and is therefore not inherent to a person’s character. Consequently, it is no personal characteristic, but a social and cultural phenomenon, which leads to exclusion and inferiority of minority groups (cf. ibid, cited from Essed 2002: 43).

2.2.1. The history of Racism – a summary

According to Fredrickson (2002), the term racism was used commonly for the first time in the 1930s, to describe the phenomenon of Nazis’ theories to persecute Jewish people. Nevertheless, the phenomenon itself existed before Adolf Hitler had seized power and therefore before the term racism was introduced (cf. ibid, p. 5).

Already the Greeks distinguished between civilized and barbarous people. Civilized people lived in city-states and took part in the political life. Barbarous people, however, lived under rustic living conditions and were ruled (cf. Hannaford 1996, cited from Fredrickson 2002: 17). Also the Romans had slaves from all nationalities and skin colors that could be found around their empire’s frontiers. Furthermore, there has been ethnic prejudice in antiquity as well. From the beginning, Christians had an anti-Jewish attitude, although Christianity arose from Judaism. Jews who had not converted to the Christian religion, were considered to be criminal and guilty for human crimes (Poliakov 1965, cited from Fredrickson 2002: 18).

In the twelfth and thirteens century, Jews were confronted with even more hostile attitudes of the European Christians. They often worked as international merchants and traders, but within the time, through the commercial competition Christians forced them to make them lend money at interest, which was considered to be unpopular and sinful. This found its climax in violent massacres of the Jewish people leading to the assumption by the thirteenth and fourteenth century that the Jews even were demons and in contact with the devil. During the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, when 1.5 million people out of around 4 million people were killed, Jewish people were killed, because it was thought that they had poisoned the wells and therefore killed many Christians (cf. ibid, p. 19ff.).

In the middle ages, when Catholic Europe expanded throughout the entire world, the racist thoughts expanded as well. According to the historian Robert Bartlett, attitudes of superiority and dominance towards other people were taken to new lands and displayed towards indigenous people (cf. ibid, p. 23).

During the fifteenth century, Europeans started to have contact with sub-Saharan Africans. These “exotic” people were considered to be horrifying and monstrous, since devils and the executioners of martyrs were often portrayed as black creatures, but also seen as heroes and saints, since the first non-Jewish person who converted to the Christian religion was an Ethiopian eunuch (cf. ibid, p. 26f.). Winthrop (1968) and Devisse (1979) claim that since the black has a symbolic association of being evil and death and white is associated with purity and goodness, had an influence on the people’s mind, tending to see light-skinned people of higher value than people with dark skin (cf. ibid, cited from Fredrickson 2002: 26f.).

Within the fifteenth century, the partly positive attitude towards people with black skin disappeared. During this time, European countries started to have African slaves instead of other European slaves, which shows their supremacist feelings. Being treated as instruments of production, non-Christian black slaves were assumed to be easier ruled and there was the chance to convert them (Adas 1998, cited from Fredrickson 2002: 30f.).

When the Spanish encountered the New World, they considered the Native Americans to be a “monstrous race” or “wild men”. Also Columbus called the Indians he met on islands “cannibals” who have to be exterminated or subdued by force (cf. ibid, p. 36). Even after the Native Americans were baptized, the cultural discrimination against them on part of the Spanish continued and could also be seen in peninsular Spain, where people who were not considered to be real Spanish were excluded, called limpieza del sangre which equals cleanliness of blood (cf. ibid, p. 40f.).

Holding black slaves persisted until the nineteenth century and therefore, the assumption that they were inferior and servile continued to be stuck into the people’s minds. In late-seventeenth-century, the American state of Virginia established a serious of laws which stated that Black slaves who converted to the Christian religion were still not free, which led to the fact that there were still racist attitudes towards them (cf. ibid, p.45).

Whereas the origins of racism can be found primarily in religious contexts, the nineteenths century was characterized by emancipation, nationalism, and imperialism. Above all the growth of nationalism played a big role in Germany, where a culture-coded variant of racism arose. The disapproval of the Germans was directed the Jewish people who were not “true German”. The climax of German racism came in in the twentieth century during Hitler’s Nazi Regime who tried to exterminate a whole ethnic group due to his racist ideologies (cf. Fredrickson 2003).

In addition, the American south passed racial segregation laws which prohibited black people to vote. Black men, who were portrayed as beats watching after white women and other racial propaganda led to terrible procedures such as lynching. Furthermore, it was aimed to prevent intercultural marriages because of the fear of sexual contamination. It took until the 1960s when the Civil Right Movement ended the racial segregation and discrimination with the help of international support (cf. ibid.).

In South Africa, however, the racial attitudes against black people continued until the 1990s. Here again, the idea of the purity of the white race led to the fact that sexual relationships with black or colored people were forbidden. The “apartheid regime” ended in 1994, when the black freedom fighter Nelson Mandela became president (cf. ibid.).

Nonetheless, racism does not have to be on state level or determined by law, as shown in the examples before. There can also be individual racism or by institutions. Still today, racism can be seen all over the world. If one takes a look to the United States of America, for example, just recently on August 15th in 2015, the nineteen-year-old Afro-American unarmed student Christian Taylor was shot down by the white policeman Brad Miller. Only about one year ago, on August 9th in 2014, there happened a similar incident in Ferguson, Missouri, USA, where the African American Michael Brown was shot by the white policeman Darren Wilson. This activated a severe discussion about racism and equal rights in the United States and created a strong international stir (cf. Boren 2015).

Unfortunately, it is likely that racism will always play a role in societies. Regardless of the heritage of the population, we can find racism in all parts of the world, for example Germany, the United States or Spain.

2.3 Othering

I understand now that nothing but "otherness" killed Jews, and it began with naming them, by reducing them to the other. Then everything became possible. Even the worst atrocities like concentration camps or the slaughtering of civilians in Croatia or Bosnia. (Drakulić 1992, cited from Brons 2015: 69).

The term Othering refers to the creation of Otherness, meaning that a dominant in-group (“Us”) constructs one or more out-groups (“Them” or “Others”) which are dominated. This is due to the fact that the in-group stigmatizes existing or even imagined differences of the out-group/s. Consequently, the in-group constructs the others due to the fact that it gives itself an identity and sets itself apart. The out-group, however, has no identity based on simplifying and stigmatized stereotypes and is only coherent since it is put in opposition to the in-group (cf. Staszak 2008: 2).

The example of sex and gender can be taken as a good explanation. Whereas sex is a biological attribute which makes a difference between men and women, gender is constructed and not inherent, therefore it is Otherness (cf. ibid.).

2.4 Stereo Types

According to Sundquist (1987), the term “stereotype” was firstly used in the field of typography during the procedure of printing books, where it described printing plates which enabled to maintain the same printing surface for a long period. Within the course of time, its adjective stereotyped required the meaning of being repeated mechanically or being produced variationless. Today, a stereotype refers to “fixed or general pattern and lacks individual distinguishing marks or qualities” (cf. ibid., p. 19). Furthermore, stereo types are “simple rather than complex and differentiated” (Harding 1986, cited from Sundquist 1987: 19).

The American writer, reporter, and political commentator Walter Lippmann was the first one who wrote about the concept of stereotypes in social sciences in his book “public Opinion” from 1922. For him, stereotypes have two functions: the first one is that they facilitate our lives and the process of understanding people, because we can find categories that are shared by many people. The second function of stereotypes is that they lead to distortion, prejudices and falsification (Lippmann 1944, cited from Sundquist 1987:19). To go more in detail, McGarty, Yzerbyt and Spears (2002) state that if one wants to understand what stereotypes are, one has to consider three principles:

The first one says that stereotypes are aids to explanation, which means that they should help the perceiving person to understand a situation. Hereby, categorization plays an important role because it helps the person to find differences and similarities between people (cf. ibid, p. 2f.).

The second principle declares that stereotypes are energy-saving devices, meaning that they reduce the perceiver’s effort. It is easier to put people in categories, ignoring their individual details. McGarty 1999 states that people do only have a limited capacity to use and process information. However, the surrounding world is full of information and therefore these information need a lot of capacity to be processed. As a result there is an overload of information and the people start to take over wrong perceptions of the world, take shorter ways and develop biases, which can be for example stereotypes. One can clearly see the negative aspect of this principle, which leads more to misunderstanding that to understanding (cf. McGarty 1999, cited from McGarty, Yzerbyt and Spears 2002: 3ff.).

Thirdly, stereotypes are shared group beliefs, so they should be part of the perceiver’s widely accepted views and norms. Stereotypes do only perceive attention when they are shared by many people. Those shared stereotypes help to understand and to predict people’s behavior of a certain group. Shared stereotypes arise from same thoughts and identical mental processes of the individuals. Some researchers say that these coincidental thoughts come from a shared environment, which leads to the same stereotypes. Others, however, say that people share culture, ideologies, social representation and a common cultural pool of knowledge, which leads to the same stereotypes In addition to that, there is a third supposition that shared stereotypes are normative beliefs. According to the authors, shared stereotypes do not only exist because people make same experiences or have the same knowledge, but because people coordinate their actions and behavior with each other. Members of the group participate want to be distinctive from other groups (cf. ibid, p. 5f.).

Moreover, the content of stereotypes can be influence by social structure. Discrimination and stereotypes interact, inasmuch as both can promote each other: Stereotypes can be a consequence of discrimination through justifying differences and disparities. On the other hand, stereotypes lead to discrimination due to influencing and changing opinions and beliefs. According to Hoffmann & Hurst (1990) and Eagly & Diekman (2005), the social role of a person represents his or her characteristics (cf. ibib, cited from Dovidio, J. F., Hewstone, M., Glick, P. & V. M. Esses 2010, p. 7). Therefore, members of a group with a high status are considered to have more motivation and more competence in contradistinction to groups with a lower social status (cf. ibid).

2.4.1. The Stereotype Content Model by Fiske et al. 2002

The American researchers Fiske et al. introduced a Stereotype Content Model which analyzes and describes the influence of different social structural aspects on stereotypes. The model proposes two dimensions, namely the dimension of warmth and the dimension of competence.

W armth is associated with cooperative, friendly, trustworthy, or helpful groups, whereas the dimension of competence hints at the high or low status of a group, and is therefore connected to efficiency, skills, intelligence and conscientiousness. According to Fiske et al. these two dimensions lead to stereotypes about social groups that can be categorized in four different quadrants:

The first quadrant is the competent, warm quadrant like in-groups, middle-class Americans, close allies or Christians for example. Housewives, elderly and disabled people, for instance, belong to the warm, but incompetent quadrant. The third quadrant, the cold and competent quadrant, contains for example Asians, Jews and rich people, whereas the incompetent, cold quadrant refers to derogated social groups, e.g. poor people, welfare recipients, who, according to the model, generate anger, and resentment (cf. Kervyn, N., Fiske, S. T. & V. Y. Yzerbyt 2013: 673f.; McGarty, Yzerbyt and Spears 2002: 7).


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Racism and stereo types in Walt Disney movies. An analysis of "Pocahontas" (1995)
University of Kassel  (Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften)
Sociolinguistic Studies: Structures of Othering
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Racism, Pocahontas, disney movie
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Anonymous, 2015, Racism and stereo types in Walt Disney movies. An analysis of "Pocahontas" (1995), Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/336692


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