Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pocahontas and Panopticism: Power and the loss of Individuality

The critical theories we have studied aim to explore and explain systems of social structure and oppression from specific sociological perspectives. Independently, they tie sociological oppression to a community-specific narrative; where the social structure becomes intertwined with the personal lives of individuals in society. Seeing as how the world is an extremely diverse place, one single sociological theory cannot account for all of its ills; in fact, what begins to appear is that a myriad of social structures exist that continue to dictate how individuals think and punish any sort of socially deviant behavior that poses a threat to that power structure. These ideological structures crisscross one another and form a web of subjugation and power; reminiscent of a spider’s web, where seemingly independent threads of webbing form a larger body that makes up the web as a whole. A microcosmic example of this exists in the plot of the 1995 Walt Disney film Pocahontas where the theories of Post-Colonialism, Marxism, and Gender intertwine within the context of the plot and the interpersonal relationships of the characters. More specifically, Pocahontas herself embodies two theoretical narratives: as both a Powhatan and a woman, she faces the ascendancy of European imperialism and the engendered oppression of patriarchy. Additionally, there lies a classist narrative as the ostensibly adventure driven British colonialism overshadows its Capitalist substructure. As the film progresses, the audience comes to terms with the reality that social power structures rely one another in order create a complacent society where the individual is never free to exist on their own terms.

Pocahontas’ grand overture opens with this majestic anthem:

In sixteen hundred seven
We sail the open sea
For glory, God, gold
And the Virginia Company. (Pocahontas)

With that, the age of British exploration takes off; a time where the glory of adventure rises above all other passions and pursuits. As Western history tells us, the British colonialists find a North America full of beautifully spacious land, resources, and grand opportunity; Pocahontas reflects that belief as the following verse proclaims: “For the New World is like Heaven/ And we’ll all be rich and free” (Pocahontas). While it is easy to only tie a Post-Colonialist perspective to this film, the fourth line of the opening theme, “And the Virginia Company” (Pocahontas) introduces another theoretical aspect to the mix: classism. As Michael Parenti notes that in North America “[…] from colonial times onward, men of influence received vast land grants from the crown and presided over estates that bespoke an impressive munificence” (Democracy 40), the film is attempting to add on a classist narrative by highlighting how behind the guise of exploration there lies a class driven historical context. Following Marx’s argument that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Communist 50), the opening sequence of the film reflects both that idea and the concept that society is a puppet firmly controlled by the Bourgeoisie. The scene’s choir only further cements that belief as it sings “so we have been told by the/ Virginia Company” (Pocahontas); echoing how the Virginia Company is what is behind both the “exploration” and ideology of what the New World embodies.

Speaking strictly from a classist historical perspective, Marxism does its part in explaining the socio-economic climate the film’s British characters find themselves in. However, it fails to explain how power is allowed to be exerted over the various aspects of society. One needs to understand how power comes to be and how the individual reflexively reacts to that power. Since Michel Foucault asserts that “[…] the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (“Discipline” 549), it can then be inferred that any sort of social subjugation stems from and is enforced by all aspects and members of society. If that is the case, Marxism finds itself ignoring the larger sociological context of oppression; the Bourgeoisie need not just exercise their power from top to bottom because there will be other social elements that help in the suppression of the Proletariat. While Marxism acknowledges that the British bourgeoisie wield control over the proletariat through means of propaganda, it fails to illustrate the eagerness with which the proletariat not only accept but perpetuate this propaganda; in this case, the exploited sailors have cast their voyage as a Homeric adventure and thus accepted and reinforced their own subjugation. The Bourgeoisie are able to exert control only because the proletariat willingly gives them that power

And that is where one need only turn to John Smith: the brave, blond, masculine, strong, sword-carrying, savage-fighting British hero. Musically represented in a later scene where the British land in North America, the audience is presented with the juxtaposition between John Smith’s and Ratcliffe’s reasoning for being in North America; while Ratcliffe’s surreptitious goal is to find gold and be rewarded by King James, John blinds himself from that by focusing on the adventure that is North America:

All of my life, I have searched for a land
Like this one
A wilder, more challenging country
I couldn't design
Hundreds of dangers await
And I don't plan to miss one
In a land I can claim
A land I can tame
The greatest adventure is mine! (Pocahontas)

Here, Marx’s proclamation that “working men of all countries, unite!” (Communist 91) finds its foil; no such revolution can take place if the Proletariat itself reinforces the Bourgeoisie’s power over them. Much like how Foucault argues that “[…] the two processes---the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital---cannot be separated” (“Discipline” 564), so does the Bourgeoisie power structure finds its foundation within the dynamics of populist propaganda. If the Bourgeoisie can successfully convince its Proletariat to embrace and embody its ideals, then there is little need for it to conceal its Capitalist intentions; Ratcliffe so masterfully demonstrates during this same musical sequence where he sings: “Keep on working lads […] mine, boys, mine/ mine me that gold” (Pocahontas).

Correspondingly, the Post-Colonial interpretation of Pocahontas’ and the Powhatan tribe’s encounter with the British offers a non-western example of the universal range of this web of power. As Ratcliffe adamantly proclaims “I hereby claim this land, and all of its riches, in the name of King James the First and do so name this settlement Jamestown” (Pocahontas) and fastens a British Flag to the Virginian coast, the audience now encounters what Edward Said describes as the true basis of power: “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces” (“Orientalism” 2). Here British colonialism begins to create and establish the imperialist discourse of the European versus the Savage, where the audacity of claiming an inhabited continent in the name of a European monarch is heralded as an accomplishment. Suddenly Pocahontas and the other indigenous people of North America find themselves situated within a new geopolitical context where they are no longer the rulers of their land or destiny but subjects of a new political-cultural order. So while there is nothing natural about European supremacy, it is the swift political action of claiming the land with a European flag that effectively establishes European socio-political dominance.

Appropriately, North America’s indigenous people decry such imperialistic directives with Pocahontas becoming the voice of what will emerge as a newly marginalized people. However, the film reinforces European supremacy even while Pocahontas attempts to defend her culture during the “Colors of the Wind” musical sequence: “You think I’m an ignorant savage/ And you've been so many places I guess it must be so” (Pocahontas). Here Foucault’s assertion that “what the [social] apparatuses and institutions operate is, in a sense, a micro-physics of power, whose field of validity is situated in a sense between these great functionings [sic] and the bodies themselves with their materiality and their forces” (“Discipline” 550) mirrors the socialization that is created by the presence of Euro-centrism; before the arrival of the British, such a statement would not have even been thought of by Pocahontas and thus only exists as a by-product of the imposed socialized acceptance of European supremacy. Having been previously told by John Smith that her people “have much to learn” (Pocahontas) and that the British have “improved the lives of savages all over the world” (Pocahontas), Pocahontas finds herself initially unable to defend against such an ideology and attempts to storm off in anger; her subsequent weak defense that since the British having been to “[…] so many places […]”(Pocahontas) gives John Smith and the British the right and agency to decide what is savage or civilized. Here, the concept of "micro-physics of power"... becomes evident: It is a dialogue between two individuals that enforces the social subjugation, rather that a dialogue between a hierarchical institution and a commoner.

Mirroring her subservient position within a colonialist narrative, Pocahontas’ role as a woman in both European and Powhatan society serves to further cement this idea of a panoptic power structure. As Butler argues that “[…] to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman’” (“Performance” 902), so too does Foucaultian discourse find itself within Pocahontas’ relationships with both European and Powhatan patriarchy. As the Powhatans return from war, Pocahontas finds herself futilely fighting off a marriage proposal and contemplating the implications of accepting during her “Just around the River Bend” song:

Should I choose the smoothest course
Steady as the beating drum?
Should I marry Kocoum?
Is all my dreaming at an end? (Pocahontas)

While Pocahontas yearns to be like “[the river], always changing, always flowing” (Pocahontas), the patriarchal requirement of her marrying finds itself being championed by her father and thus, power is being exerted by an individual in society with an extremely personal connection with the subject of oppression. His influence as her father can socially coerce her into believing and accepting that perhaps the individuality she holds dear should be cast aside “for a handsome sturdy husband/ who builds handsome sturdy walls” (Pocahontas). Pocahontas, in considering adopting the patriarchal role of as a housewife, reflects what Butler states is the key component in structural power: “the personal is thus implicitly political in as much as it is conditioned by shared social structures […]” (“Performance” 906). While it was her father's initial desire that she marry, for her to contemplate the merits of marriage goes on to show how it is a more personal form of subjugation that occurs within structures of power.

The cultural duality of Pocahontas’ role in the film exemplifies how patriarchal domination also comes from the European narrative. As Pocahontas finds herself saving John Smith from execution and denouncing the racial hatred shared by both the British and Powhatans, she outlines her argument within the framework of heterosexual love:

I won’t [stand back]. I love him father. Look around you! This is where the path of hatred has brought us. This is the path I choose father, what will yours be?” (Pocahontas)

While noble and endearing, using the proclamation of her love for John Smith as the basis of the film’s resolution is problematic as she is now performing “in accord with certain sanctions and prescriptions [of gender]” (“Performance” 906). Even though Pocahontas attempted to question her father’s patriarchal desire for her to wed, she inadvertently runs back to that patriarchal oppression as she forgoes the free spiritedness she so desperately wants to retain and becomes a simple love interest for Smith---his dyadic other in heteronormativity. Thus when it comes to the climactic scene where Ratcliffe attempts to shoot Chief Powhatan, it is Smith who is regarded and remembered as the hero of the film. With him taking the bullet for Chief Powhatan, Smith effectively protects the patriarchal leader of Powhatan society and reinforces the supportive role Pocahontas is supposed to embody as a woman.

The multitude of panoptic social structures inherent in Pocahontas reflects how society exerts power over the individual. As Foucault makes the observation that “[…] the productive increase of power can be assured only if […], it can be exercised continuously in the very foundations of society, in the subtlest way possible […]” (“Discipline” 556), so do the characters in the film embody and project the various power structures. While the classist narrative finds itself within the socio-political relationships of the British colonialists, Pocahontas herself represents an engendered post colonial account; although these power structures seem separate, they all come together within the shared experiences of the characters to both reinforce and affirm their sovereignty over the individual. Therefore, there cannot exist any sort of truly individual entity, as this web of power structures imposes its subjugation on all, both from social hierarchy and through the daily routines and interpersonal relationships of its subjects.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Disney, Walt. Pocahontas. 18 August 2009. < http://www.disneypicture.net>. Path: Disney Movie Pictures; Pocahontas; Pocahontas Wallpaper 1024 Picture.
Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.
Parenti, Michael. Democracy for the Few. 8th ed. Massachusetts: Thomson & Wadsworth, 2008.
Pocahontas. Gabriel, Mike and Goldberg, Eric. Dir. Perf. Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, John Kassir, Russell Means, Christian Bale. 1995. DVD. Walt Disney, 2000.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Course Handout. Major Critical Theory. Department of English, Cal State Northridge University. 1 August 2009.

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