Lesson: Day 3: Pocahontas and racism/sexism

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Lesson Objective

View excerpts from the Disney movie Pocahontas and perform “close reading” to detect implicitly racist and sexist messages about Native Americans, women, and race in general.

Lesson Plan

New Material:

Students introduced to Disney movie with Preview Guide:

Questions to answer before viewing clips:

o   SPEAKER: Who produced the movie we are about to see?  (More importantly, who did NOT produce it?)

·      Disney – an entertainment company who produces movies for kids and intends to make money

·      NOT produced by someone actually present during the events (does that make it more or less likely to be accurate?!), NOT produced by a Native American

o   CONTEXT: When was it produced?  What genre is it?

·      1995, animated – making it seem unreal

o   REVIEW: What details do you remember about the Native American cultures from the Origin Myths that we read and the Iroquois constitution?

·      Peaceful, value nature

o   REVIEW: What details do you remember about the Early Settlers from reading the General History of Virginia and US History?

·      Out to get gold, mostly all men, English, life was hard, John Smith was arrogant, the Native Americans helped them a lot




Question 1 while viewing: What details does Disney emphasize about the Settlers?  (Think about religion, attitudes towards the Native Americans, cultural values in general.)  Does this portrayal feel accurate? Fair?


Students will watch the first five minutes of the movie until the title shot.  We will watch the complete shot and then rewatch single screen shots that emphasize the contrast between Smith and the other settlers. On board (and in notes) students will create a chart.  When students have brainstormed the chart (with prodding) draw conclusions about Disney’s view of race based on the contrast.  Then write a model paragraph as a class.


John Smith

Other Settlers


  • Heroic & brave (settlers gossiping about him before he gets on boat, jumps in after man overboard when no one else will, settlers say that they can only face the “savages” with his help)
  • Smart (says he has seen many new lands, carries himself properly and confidently)



  • Greedy (singing about gold and glory, President dressed in weirdly fancy clothes)
  • Stupid (laughing and acting foolish after Smith rescues many overboard)
  • Cowardly (none of them jump overboard)


  • Blond hair
  • Blue eyes
  • Light skin & light blue clothes
  • Small facial features (esp nose)



  • Fat & ugly
  • Dark hair
  • Dark eyes
  • Slightly darker skin & darker clothes
  • Huge noses


UM… is Disney making them look black? Hispanic?


Disney is subtly racist.  They depict the strong, brave, smart heroic Smith as a stereotypical white man.  He has blond hair, light skin, small features, and blue eyes.  In contrast, Disney chooses to draw the stupid, greedy, cowardly settlers with dark hair, dark eyes, slightly darker skin and noticeably darker clothes, and big noses.  The contrast is noticeable and shocking; after all, the Englishmen all share the same ethnicity yet Smith stands out. It is as if Disney is secretly implying that white people are heroes while people who are darker are villains.  They feed into racial stereotypes. 


Question 2 while watching clips: What does Disney emphasize about Pocahontas?  Does it seem accurate? Does it seem fair?


Students will watch the first encounter between John Smith and Pocahontas.  They will look for all possible details to describe how Disney portrays Pocahontas’ personality and appearance:

  • Athletic (leaping down from rocks)
  • Animal-like (creeping out of the vines looking a lot like a cat)
  • Sensual/Sexual (very short skirt that often flaps up/shows lots of leg, only one strap on dress, hair waving in eyes, coy looks at Smith, standing in the mist like a sexy hair commercial or male fantasy or woman in shower or shampoo commercial)
  • Inferior (Smith reaching down to her in boat, positioned over her/dominant)
  • Stupid (Smith says, “You have NO idea what I am talking about!”)
  • Mystical/Magical (the circling leaves)


Students write their own paragraphs in pairs summarizing these details and what it says about Pocahontas/women, using the Smith passage as a model.

Lesson Resources

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