Pocahontas is one of the few Disney stories that has a known historical basis. Of course, it’s been romanticized almost beyond recognition. The real Pocahontas wasn’t a princess. Her father, Chief Powhatan, was the equivalent of a king, but inheritance was matrilineal – only the children (usually sons) of royal women, not royal men, could inherit. And her name wasn’t really Pocahontas – that’s a nickname meaning “naughty child.” But John Smith probably met her under that name because her real name, Matoaka, was a secret. Following the traditions of her tribe, she also took the name Amonute when she got older. Then she got one final name I’ll explain later.
Matoaka met John Smith after he was captured by a hunting party in late 1607. She was only about 10 years old at the time. There’s a huge dispute among historians as to whether she actually saved him from her father. The first written account of it was done by John Smith 17 years after the fact. Originally, all he wrote was that the tribe treated him well. Regardless, most historians agree that Matoaka and Smith became friends. After he was released, she would visit him in Jamestown, even bringing food to keep the colonists from starving. However, there’s no sign that they were ever lovers.
Smith didn’t take a bullet for Powhatan like in the Disney movie, but a year or two later, he was injured in a gunpowder explosion, and had to return to England. Disney’s Pocahontas ends there, but that’s not where Matoaka’s story ends. To keep the comparison going, I’m going to delve a little into Pocahontas II.*
After John Smith left, the English told the tribe he was dead, and Matoaka stopped visiting Jamestown. Not long afterwards, war broke out. In 1613, when Matoaka was about 17, she was kidnapped and kept as a hostage. Princess or not, her father liked her a great deal, and he returned some of his captives for her – but not enough weapons, so the English didn’t return her. During her time with the colonists she improved her English skills and was baptized, changing her name to Rebecca. Reportedly, after a year of being a hostage, she told the tribe she wanted to stay with the English. A month later, she married an English farmer named John Rolfe.*
Did she stay with the English and marry John Rolfe under duress? We don’t know. But there are signs that their marriage helped create peace between the tribe and the colonists.
Pocahontas II features a voyage Pocahontas and John Rolfe take to England. In this version, John Rolfe is a diplomat, and he brings Pocahontas to negotiate on behalf of her tribe. They romance each other on the way. The two really did go to England together in 1616, but they were already married and had a young son named Thomas. In both the Disney version and in real history, Rebecca saw John Smith during their trip. After thinking he was dead for seven years, historical accounts make it sound like she was pretty pissed.
Unfortunately, the real reason for their journey wasn’t so much diplomacy as propaganda. Rebecca was paraded around the high circles of England to demonstrate how Native Americans could be “civilized,” and that’s how she became famous. The stories that grew around her afterward focused on the “from savage to saved” theme. In short, racism is responsible for all the myths and other fictional stories we have about her.
Pocahontas II includes a bit of commentary on this, when King James I threatens war against the Powhatan unless Pocahontas proves she is “civilized” at a ball. She fails, but after she and Rolfe foil a war-mongering plot, the king forgives them. Their job done, the pair arranges a voyage back to Jamestown together. As they set sail into the sunset, Pocahontas and John admit their love for one another, and enjoy their first kiss.
In reality, their ship didn’t even make it out of England before Rebecca died from unknown causes. She was 21 years old. But her son Thomas lived, and through him she has many American descendants, including former First Lady Nancy Reagan.
Content Notice: Suicide
Mulan, or Hua Mulan* is a legendary Chinese heroine. Was she a real person? Maybe. If so, she would have come from the Central Plain sometime before the Tang Dynasty. The oldest story featuring Mulan is a 6th century poem by an anonymous author, called Mulan Shi, or The Ballad of Mulan.
The poem is only 62 lines, making for the barest scaffold of a story. It begins with Mulan weaving as she worries about the conscription notices she saw at the market. Her only brother is too young to go to war, so she dresses up as a man to go in her father’s place. She spends twelve years away at war, and no one discovers that she is female. Just like in the Disney movie, she is offered a minister’s position by the emperor, but chooses to return to her family instead. Once she goes home, she dresses as a woman again. Her comrades of over a decade see her and are super surprised. In closing, she tells them an allegory about rabbits. It basically says that in times of danger, it is difficult to tell men from women.
The playwright Xu Wei expanded on the story in the 16th century, during the late Ming Dynasty. He provided the reason Mulan had to go instead of her father (old age and illness). By the time of the Ming play, foot binding was in common practice, adding a complication to the gender-switch. The play describes how she painfully unbinds her feet and learns to walk normally again. Also included is a magical potion that can rebind her feet when she returns home. In the play, her parents arrange a marriage to a neighbor and accomplished scholar. After she gives up her incredibly successful military career, she happily marries and defers to him.
As you might have noticed, the original Mulan was probably not a feminist story. Mulan holds a traditional female role, converts to a male when necessary, and then returns home to resume her place as a woman. Mulan is actually a story of family devotion, and in particular, filial devotion to her father. Disney may have depicted her as defying her father by joining the military, but in all the Chinese versions I’ve encountered, she gets permission from her parents before she leaves. In many versions, she defeats her father in combat to prove that she should be the one to go to war.
Her struggle to gain military prowess, and the threat of death should she be revealed, were Disney inventions. It’s natural that they wanted to make her an underdog and provide the story with more conflict, but in all the Chinese stories, military aptitude was not a problem. Many of the stories describe how she practiced martial arts before she ever thought of joining the military, and was wildly successful once she did.* Keeping her sex a secret was never about threat of death, it was about protecting her virtue from the men around her.
Her virtue was the unfortunate focus of a couple famous novels about her during the Qing Dynasty, when the cult of chastity was in full steam. These stories were both tragedies. In Sui Tang Yanyi by Chu Renhuo, she comes home to find that her father is dead and that she’s been ordered to be the Khan’s concubine. Instead, she kills herself on her father’s grave.* In the novel Mulan qinü zhuan, after she reveals her gender to the Emperor, he becomes suspicious that she may be a traitor, and plots to assassinate her. Hearing about his scheme, Mulan kills herself in front of his envoy in an incredibly gruesome manner.*
The happy, feminist patriot who probably inspired the Disney version came from the twentieth century. The Disney love interest originated in a popular movie that came out in 1939, Mulan congjun. The producer threw out the marriage arranged by her parents for one with General Liu Yuandu, who she falls in love with while she’s in the military. In the 1964 opera Lady General Hua Mulan, his name becomes General Li. He longs for Mulan too, making him super confused about his sexuality. After he rationalizes their feelings as brotherly love, Mulan tells Li that if he could turn into a woman, she would marry him. She does marry him in the end, but first she has to fend off the men who want her to marry their daughters.
The Princess and the Frog
Tiana is nothing like the original princess that features in the Brothers Grimm The Frog King. The unnamed princess is insincere, pampered, and spoiled. Some folklorists have suggested that the Brothers Grimm made her this way on purpose, instead giving male characters all the virtue in the story.
Whatever the case, the protagonist of The Frog King is a beautiful princess who spends her many hours of leisure tossing a golden ball in the air.* She’s doing this outside one day when her bauble falls into a deep well. She starts bawling her eyes out, and a frog appears to ask her what’s wrong. After she explains, he promises he will get her ball back if she’ll make him her constant and close companion.* She thinks the frog is disgusting, but figures she won’t have to make good on her promise, so she agrees. Then once she gets her ball back, she runs off without him.
However, the frog catches up to her while she’s eating dinner. She tries to refuse him, but when the king hears about what happened, he makes her fulfill her promise. Though the princess can’t stand the frog, she has to share food off her plate with him, and then take him upstairs to sleep in her bed with her. And being forced to do that by her father isn’t creepy at all.
Once she carries the frog to her bedroom, she just can’t take it anymore, and she throws the frog against the wall. For some unexplained reason, after he splats against the wall and falls to the floor, he becomes a handsome prince. I’m serious, no smoochies in the original. The moral of this version: domestic violence is the answer. Of course, once he’s a prince, she decides she wants to sleep with him after all. Then they get married.
The Englishman Edgar Taylor changed the ending in the first English translation so that the princess sleeps with the frog on her pillow, as requested, for three nights. After the third night, he changes into the prince. The whole kissing part was probably a variation of this translation, possibly created by Americans.* As Disney shows, we like our symbolic kisses.
The Brothers Grimm also added a random part at the end where they gush on about this super faithful servant the prince has. Apparently his name is Henry, and he had bindings put around his heart to keep it together after the prince was turned into a frog by a witch. As he drives the prince and princess back to the prince’s kingdom in a carriage, those bindings break out of joy for his master… it’s as if the brothers were writing their own fanfic.
That’s all of the traditionally animated Princess movies. Join me next week when I cover their CGI sisters.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?