Did Pocahontas’ Mom Smoke?

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My daughter and I were watching Pocahontas together this morning and after the Native American beauty and her father let John Smith go free, Nina asked me if her own daddy would still be alive when she was Pocahontas’ age? “Of course,” I replied. “But you’ll be dead?” she inquired. “No, I’ll still be here, too,” I assured her. She wondered then why Pocahontas’ mother was gone. She thought. “Maybe she did something wrong and went to jail.” “I don’t think so,” I said. “Maybe she smoked!” she said. Ok, I’ve been trying to nail that one into her head, so I offered, “Um, maybe. But maybe she just died. Sometimes that happens.”

The whole mom thing with Disney films is an interesting one to navigate. Disclaimer: I work for the company on occasion. Over the years I have actually worked for every division of the massive corporation from parks, to TV to film to Broadway to the cruise line, so I do owe Disney for big portions of my career, but honestly, I’d still like the company even if they didn’t crown me a princess once upon a time. With regard to their animated films, I simply believe the story-telling in Disney and Pixar movies (and the animation itself) is far superior to any other producer. But that darn mother thing is really tough!

Starting with Snow White’s evil step-mom in 1939 through Rapunzel’s evil fake-mom in 2011 (loved Donna Murphy’s performance!), from the death of Bambi’s mother to those of Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Pocahontas, the list goes on! I recognize that orphaned-children is a common device in fairytales; it makes the story more dramatic, the stakes are higher, the heroes and heroines more heroic. I get it. But does it have to happen in every story? I joke in my concert that with “Princess and the Frog,” at least they off-ed the dad for a change! But seriously, the lack of mothers or the presence of evil ones in so many films has led to interesting conversations lately with my 4-year-old.

I think the idea of a mother’s death became personalized when my own mother passed away two years ago. Nina still asks about her and says she misses her. I am sad to admit that I don’t think she truly remembers my mom, but she sees photos throughout the house and I talk about the things my mom and I did when I was a little girl, in an effort to keep her alive in our own experiences. But my mother’s pre-mature death has compounded the issue in Nina’s head.

What I do like about the modern Disney films is that the young women are intelligent and self-motivated. They carry the plot, rather than witness it. They take action and show strength – inner beauty is just as important. So these are lessons I can point out. Glamour exists in the “princess” aspect for Nina; we have the costumes and dolls and whatever else the franchise turns out. She is hooked, and I don’t love that, but I do try to balance it with other activities and interests, which thankfully she enjoys, too. [I write that as she is playing princess with her best pal, in front of me while I type.] The glamour for me is in the heroic nature of the modern princesses, and I can accept that perhaps being motherless has instigated those qualities in the characters, but by no means is that the only path. I make sure my girls knows that.

I do find it interesting that Nina tries to explain the death of Pocahontas’ mother in terms she can grasp. It is funny to hear that this sixteenth century Native American landed herself in jail or smoked too many packs of Virginia Slims. But what does it say that in her mind it must somehow be the mother’s fault that she is gone? I explain that my mother died after a long illness (no one’s fault), but that doesn’t mean I will. I assure her that I plan to annoy her until she is a very old woman herself. She takes it all in and in those moments, I think I’m doing ok, and helping her navigate a difficult concept of loss. Perhaps those films are actually a useful tool, if you can utilize them in that way. And now, as we say goodnight to my mom in heaven … we also send a kiss to the mommies of Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Pocahontas and so on. It’s rather sweet. And I am doing ok … I think. Or more likely, it’s just a stall tactic for someone who insists she’s “not sleepy!”

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