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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2017



Feminism, and by Extension, Ecofeminism: Nature and Gender in Pocahontas

Jigyasa Hasija, Doctoral Scholar, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

The theory of Feminism has had a long and often complicated association with the environment. From attempting to fault-find the gendered nature/culture binary to ecofeminism, this segment of the women's libber has sometimes rejected and at other times even rejoiced in women’s close connection with nature. Feminism in itself has also for long occupied itself with conformist classifications of ‘the human’, especially as understood to be patriarchal, violent and European.

Though ‘crusader’-category and analytical concepts with significant histories such as these have been modified and re-evaluated since then, in recent years, especially since the 1970s, the subject of the humanities has welcomed the study of ecology. Incessant questions about theory in ecofeminist motion pictures and doubts over its scholarship can now be answered in improved detail - ecocriticism of cultural works is one of the fields, along with ecofeminism, feminism, eco-philosophy, new materialism, ecology, etc., that are contributing to the larger umbrella-like EcoHumanities (also called the Environmental Humanities) field.  For creative practitioners, ecocriticism is extremely helpful in uncovering outworn ideas and conventions in cultural practices that may obscure or perpetuate damaging perceptions of the earth, other human and non-human communities.
Ecology/Eco-politics is broadly defined as “a set of beliefs and a concomitant lifestyle that stresses on the importance of respect for the earth and all its inhabitants, using only what is necessary and appropriate… it acknowledges the rights of all forms of life and recognizes that all that exists is part of one interconnected whole”.

William Rueckert advocated that “reading teaching and critical discourse – all release the energy and power stored in poetry that it may flow through the human community”. Ecofilm theory is in a way an extended application of Rueckert’s “poems as green plants” vision to films, considering the latter as a creative force/source that can release an ecoaesthetic decorum among spectators. All films are unequivocally, culturally and materially embedded. Ecofilm theory analyses how this world is reflected, recreated and imagined in film. “Though many films are predictably bound to common ideologies of nature, many are far richer in contradictions and more ethically, emotionally and intellectually satisfying than much of what passes off as ecopolitics” opines Sean Cubitt.

There is definitely a requirement to address one’s scholar-self to the growing canon of ecofilms and ecodocumentaries, which are made as a self-conscious reaction to environmental issues and critical discourses related to green politics. A prodigious task is making an atavistic journey through all the existing films and analysing them through the ecofilms’ theoretical terms.

“Practically everybody knows that today the two most immediate threats to survival are overpopulation and the destruction of our resources; fewer recognize the complete responsibility of the male system, in so far as it is male (and not capitalistic or socialistic) in these two dangers; but even fewer still have discovered that each of the two threats are the logical outcome of one of the two parallel discoveries which gave men their power over fifty centuries ago — their ability to plant the seed in the earth as in women, and their participation in the act of reproduction”. — Francoise d’Eaubonne

“Ecofeminism proposes that the domination of women and the domination of nature are not only intimately connected but mutually reinforcing”. — Patsy Hallen

An examination of representations of nature, gender, and technology in popular Hollywood cinema will be undertaken, and an introduction to the theoretical, historical, and aesthetic applications of ecofeminist media studies will be investigated into. Ecocriticism and feminist media studies share particular interest in questions about the ways which audio-visual media have simultaneously constructed and deconstructed patriarchy’s historical domination over women and the environment.

Incessant questions about theory in ecofeminist motion pictures and doubts over its scholarship can now be answered in improved detail — ecocriticism of cultural works is one of the fields, along with ecofeminism, feminism, ecophilosophy, new materialism, ecology, etcetera, that are contributing to the larger umbrella-like ecohumanities (also called environmental humanities) field.  For creative practitioners, ecocriticism is extremely helpful in uncovering outworn ideas and conventions in cultural practices that may obscure or perpetuate damaging perceptions of the earth, and other human and non-human communities.

Then again, how does one define a system? Be it an ecosystem, world system, literary system, colonial system, the term itself, despite implying order, exudes chaos in its infinite iterability. An investigation into thinking about systems, and thinking systemically, might impact upon green readings of literature. The very action of seeking to open, to critique conventional practices and representations in literature as well as grafting trajectories, making sense of the chaotic, or making chaotic that which seems ordered through new paradigms will open up indeterminate new-fangled possibilities of reading and seeing.

All the same, an important and basic point to note is that the 1970s was a benchmark decade for environmental policy. Never before or since has as much action been taken to address the issues of pollution and toxics, resource management, water and air protection, and a host of other problems. Environmental issues were in the mainstream, and it just happens that American cinema was surging.

Much research in ecocriticism still looks at analysis of individual books and texts. Some in the arts might wonder about the value of listening/reading literary and cinema ecocriticism. However, some of most robust and even most radical cultural thinking about ecological concerns is happening in the ecocriticism field.


Critics alike appraise Disney’s Pocahontas - released in 1995 – to be the first princess of American origin in the Disney series, a ‘Distory’ if you will, as a statement of ecofeminist positions and also as a tale about white men finding a footing in erstwhile Native-Indian dominated American land. Pocahontas surfaces, as Roxana Preda puts it, from the film as the “Angel in the Ecosystem” and “a model ecofeminist”. Notwithstanding the numerous debates besieging her tale, Pocahontas is in fact an Indian princess who digresses from other conventional Disney royal daughters. She also sets a precedent of sorts for other princesses and young women, who earlier did not have any choice to make as regards following their dreams was concerned (for instance Mulan). That animation giant Disney’s pick plus depiction of Pocahontas reveals the nature-loving Indians’ cultural palatability as central to the country’s new foundation and the existing humankind’s environmental crisis is non-debatable. Yet simultaneously, this image is deep-rooted in a long ethnic and folk antiquity of the female native body symbols and dramatized noble savages.

According to ‘Distory’ Pocahontas directly challenges the idea of Indians as savages in colonial history on the ground of the Indians understanding of and closeness to nature. In doing so, the film presents the new millennium s multicultural aspirations to embrace anti-colonialism, New-Age spirituality and racial harmony, what is called an ecofeminist position by some critics. I argue, however, as in colonial tradition, Disney’s vision is contingent upon the image of Pocahontas as an icon of national origin. This image embodies the feminized landscape that is part of nature as well as receptive to Anglo male advance. In the national history, whereas miscegenation between white and black was much frowned upon, interracial marriages between white males and American Indian females were common. Many have claimed direct descent from Pocahontas to legitimize their claim to the land in the South (two of them became USA’s first ladies – Nancy Reagan and Edith Wilson). Bound by her race and gender, Pocahontas is the only non-white princess.

In Pocahontas, then, indigenous people’s protection of their land is intrinsic to the white man’s appropriation of Ecological Indians, whereas ecofeminist views of woman’s role in promoting ecological wellbeing are joined by the colonial connection between the female native body and native land as justification for colonial advance. While some believe that Disney promotes neo-colonialism through Pocahontas, Vine Deloria in 1960s and Annette Kolodny’s recent study on Ecological Indians attests that many Native Americans do not want to see the image undermined as this positive image can help them address environmental problems on native lands. Such ambivalence should be further addressed as a result of complex work of neo-colonialism concomitant with globalization through transnational corporations and media. In the fields of Ecofeminism and American Indian Studies, we should establish the ethics of listening to the land, as manifest in Diane Glancy’s writings, based on the understanding of and breakaway from colonialism and neo-colonialism through rewriting the land and the history.

Pocahontas emerges from the film as a model ecofeminist, believes Roxana Preda. She not only envisions her relationship with nature as ‘conversations’ between knowing subjects, but for her, nature is the nurturer, a speaking and bodied agent, a friend, an advisor and a model. The environment is given character, a mirror and a resource. That emotion is bound into knowledge, and because reality is ‘tasted’ through the body – the senses – leads her directly to the door of eroticised knowledge, which in turns leads to the path of care and connectedness.

The foundation of care is the willingness to give lucid attention to the needs of others. This presupposes a holistic approach to human relationships, the awareness that the good of the part depends on the good of the whole, the recognition that self-identity is a function of four role in these connections.

The problem of the ecofeminists with the concept of ‘bodied subject’ was precisely how to avoid the Disney syndrome of anthropomorphizing the natural world. Pocahontas is the first Disney film in which animals do not speak, but fulfil other symbolic functions in the narrative, a practice that is continued up to the present. Besides being Pocahontas friend, the role of the raccoon is to provide a comic counterpoint to the main story (he is constant conflict with Ratcliffe’s dog over food) and to relativize the Europeans’ sense of values, since what they have to gain is not gold but food, the real natural resource of the new world. In the newer films, animals show feelings, understand human language, and do a kind of pantomime. Tarzan seems to be an exception to this new line since the apes do speak English. However, we are made to understand that there is a language barrier which cannot be crossed by outsiders or mere observers.

What the word ‘care’ here means is an alternative to the morality of abstract individualism prevalent in the West. As delineated by Alison Jaggar, this model is grounded in the assumption that rationality is the most precious faculty of human beings. This capacity is individual and justifies the personal claim to the fulfilment of desires. Having in mind that the resources for achieving the goals of self-interest are limited, society protects autonomy. Care, on the other hand, presupposes the embeddedness of the individual in a network, the suspension of self-interest in order to cater to the needs of others. Desires cannot be fulfilled independently of the other persons we are connected with. When she has to choose whether to fulfil her own interests, dictated by love, or find meaning in the sense of belonging to her group, Pocahontas utters the magic words of the care-giver: I am needed here.”

Although it is difficult, we may see the love story between Pocahontas and Smith (and also its failure) as an allegory. It points to the teaching that love in its various forms is at the root of our ability to communicate. Further, it shows that our duties may be imposed by reason, or whoever sets the outside cultural rules; responsibility, on the other hand, is personal and emotional. Love again conditions our moral responses to the other, our willingness to let and help the other flourish, without calculating the possible rewards. Finally, the film does support and transmit the feminine ideal, namely that the preservation of life and the avoidance of cruelty are the touchstones of our lives as moral persons. Knowledge and just behaviour have to take into account the right of every natural element to a life of its own, a life which should be neither destroyed nor instrumentalised. Pocahontas finds in the eagle and the mountain strength and sense of direction needed to save the man she loves plus prevent war. The fact that she protects Smith with her body gains significance in the economy of the film – since it is her body and everything connected with it: nature, emotion, intuition, linked as they are to the feminine, that prevent the loss of life.

What Pocahontas’ acts show is that by drawing on the feminine power of intuition and acting on the impulse of care and love has a greater civilizing force than acting on the rules and principles of rationality alone. The logic of reason that prompts men to claim and use the land in order to create a civilization on the western model is the same that leads them to destroy natural elements that do not serve their purposes and also to kill one another for property. The film seems to suggest that the fixation on the “Idol of the Head” has led us to ignore the great potential that emotion and the body both have as ways of knowing and suggestions for living.


Men are responsible for a larger amount of climate gas emissions than women, and this is true all over the world. This is partly because men drive more and buy more products that require large amounts of energy. Women in poor countries have the lowest emissions per capita, but they are those most severely affected by climate change. During the UN climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, participants discussed the effects that climate change was having on vulnerable groups, and women were particularly mentioned several times. This was the first time a UN climate report had focused on the vulnerable situation of women. In Kenya, women in villages have been planting trees to avoid deforestation and drought. Nobel peace prize winner and biologist Wangari Mathaii was the first woman in East Africa to get a PhD, and through the Green Belt Movement she organized tree planting projects carried out by thousands of women. 

Indian activist and writer Vandana Shiva believes that since women are more at risk from the consequences of environmental destruction, they are also better equipped to handle them, both practically and intellectually. Shiva has also challenged ecofeminists to examine the ways in which factors such as colonization and economic globalization have been destructive to women and the environment. In the book Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, the authors Robbins, Hintz and Moore write that women make up 60 to 80 per cent of the members of regular environmental organizations, and even more in organizations that work with threats to health and wellbeing such as environmental criminality and pollution. 

Internationally, American biologist and author Rachel Carson is regarded as the first ecofeminist. It is however unlikely that Carson would have seen herself as such, given that she died in 1964, before the environmental movement and the feminist movement took off. Carson argued against the use of poison in agriculture with the bestseller Silent Spring (1962), but was ridiculed for being too emotional. In Norway, self-described ecofeminists have been few and far between, but the greenstocking Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen (1873–1943) might have been the first female environmental activist. She was working to build waterways and talking about biodiversity long before words like ecology and environmentalism were in the dictionary. Another Norwegian woman who has played an important role in environmental history is Gro Harlem Brundtland, who together with the Brundtland Commission released the report Our Common Future in 1987. It emphasized the connection between poverty and environmental issues and popularized the concept of sustainable development, which has been important to ecofeminists. 

Insofar as motion pictures are being observed, feminists first investigated women from a sociological perspective considering the ‘woman’ in the movie as a reflection of the woman in ‘nature’. The images in films appear coded and social-gender constructed with male lineage. These disguised and displaced images need to be decoded (Claire Johnston, Women Cinema as Counter-Cinema).

Cinema is created fully under the ‘male gaze’. In such representations, women take the role of a ‘spectacle’ — as an object of desire. Structured in such a way, mainstream motion pictures (under the ‘male gaze’), females become an object merely for male fantasies and pleasure.

Mulvey traces “three looks”—

——“Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” by Laura Mulvey, 1975
In an ecofeminist film, the audience as a whole is led through a two—stage self—identification, hence creating an ‘ecogaze’ and ‘ecofeminist gaze’. One, the spectators should identify with the female characters who consider nature as solace. This is the essence of an ‘ecogaze’.

Within the territory of Postmodernism, nature, probably due to its rapid decimation, emerges as a politico-cultural object, one which is no longer restricted to literature, “fine” art, and formalist cinema and video, but also has starring roles in commercials, photos, and movies, and is at the centre of heated public debates about “ecocide,” “ecoterrorism,” “ecopornography,” “greenwashing” and “animal rights.” Responding to these concerns, present academia seems to have developed a variety of sub disciplines — “ecopsychology,” “ecological economics,” “ecofeminism,” “ecosophy” — as well as the many orientations named by adding the adjective environmental: Science, law, ethics, history. In the humanities, academic response has primarily taken the form of “ecocriticism,” a literature-based approach within a still loosely federated but emerging field generally designated as “green cultural studies.”

Naturally, “green cultural studies” has major affinities with cultural studies and future studies; the prevalent concern here has been the impact that texts and social practices have upon ethnicity/colour, gender, sexuality, economic class, and age. Ultimately, the goal is to challenge accepted views on movie media and the environment and to explore ways in which it offers arguments and opportunities for environmental discourse and action.


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