Bright Lights Film Journal

The Incredible Shrinking … and Expanding Ethnic Minority Or, The Racist in the Cultural Cupboard

Unwilling body alterations give these “instant kiddie classics” disturbing undertones.

There are two kinds of propaganda: the personal and self-aggrandizing, and the more insidious corporate/social. Personal propaganda is easily recognized and dismissed — it’s a simple act to walk away from a blowhard who talks too much about himself. But even recognizing — much less walking away from — the corporate/social variety is difficult, and for many impossible.

Anyone who believes movies — from blockbusters to intimate “star vehicles” to kids’ movies — are not cultural propaganda is naive. Movies have for decades been one of the great socializing tools for our society — providing us with irresistible models for dress, behavior, and attitudes. This is not to “blame” movies themselves — after all, they can’t reflect what doesn’t already exist in the psyche of those who watch them. But corporate manipulation of movie imagery to subtly justify all kinds of immorality and to whitewash reality for a populace that might be dangerous without that thin layer of “paint” is at an all-time high.

One of the most cynically manipulated genres today is the kid’s movie. Two recent examples — The Indian in the Cupboard and Pocahontas — show decisively the corporate mentality’s mantra: get ’em young.

Think about what’s at stake here and why it’s simple logic that corporate filmmaking must behave in certain ways to ensure its own long-term survival. Not only is the profit potential vast, but the audience must be convinced — repeatedly — that the status quo is and always has been a good thing. Let’s move on to specifics.

The image of the Native American is embedded in the popular unconscious in a variety of guises, heroic, spiritual, violent, and tragic. Moving past the bloodthirsty savages of Hollywood westerns and the noble-but-disposable dispossessed of later revisionist films, we can now see a relatively new incarnation: the adult male warrior created by a white child and kept and lovingly watched over as a fascinating pet. Views of (particularly male) ethnic minorities as miniaturized dependents are nothing new; sitcom watchers will recall shows like Webster and Different Strokes, which featured midget blacks living as dependents of large, well-fed, wealthy whites. It may be some kind of low-water mark that Native Americans have now joined this disturbing trend.

In Indian in the Cupboard, we see the warrior attempting to have a life based on his own culture despite the fact that in the world of the Giant White Child he’s constantly threatened and exists at the whim of the child and his friends. The first shot of the child’s reaction to what he has created by inserting a plastic Indian toy into his magic cupboard makes the nature of their relationship explicit: it’s an enormous close-up of the godlike child’s face, smiling in wonder at his “creation.” And the film continuously validates this. While the warrior goes about building a house, hunting (a deer thoughtfully provided by the boy), and — almost — marrying, he depends entirely on the boy for his physical safety. The malevolent undertones of this relationship are shown in a key sequence where the boy brings back to life an elderly Native American. Unable to comprehend what has happened to him, terrified by the giant image of the white child, he has a heart attack and dies. The care with which the boy (with the help of his “pet”) disposes of the old man’s body does not erase the image of the horror of the Native American waking up to find himself hopelessly diminished in an alien — white man’s — world.

The use of a child as the god figure, and the fact that this is a kids’ movie, serves a variety of propagandistic purposes: it gives the film an aura of sweetness, innocence, and “childlike wonder,” effectively masking its subtext of the “inevitability” of the Native American as a literally vanishing character in the cultural consciousness. The warrior is seen as an acceptable historical casualty of society’s “progress” and — in The Indian in the Cupboard, as in many cultural texts — as an important fixture in the landscape of leisure. The young white master of the fully grown — but pathetically reduced — Native American warrior embodies the idea that new generations will take the place of their predecessors in the casual control of dependent “outsiders.” Of course, the boy must to some extent “grow up” in this transformative tale. But the “transformation” is inevitably at the expense of the warrior and his culture. An example of this is in their teaming up to bury the elder — who died as a result of looking at the giant face of the boy.

Far from a sense of wonder, this film shows a displaced, dispossessed, alienated man trying to survive in a world with which he has no chronological or psychic relationship. His attempts to live his natural lifestyle — building a home, hunting — are more disturbing than heartwarming given his radical displacement. Another ritual — marriage — is also under the boy’s control. The problematic nature of ethnic sexuality is on full display here, as a native bride is magically created for the warrior — then removed. The warrior — strong and half-naked throughout — is also sexualized, but is not allowed to express his sexuality, even through a discreet marriage arranged by the boy.

While Indian in the Cupboard reinforces to middle-class audiences the general idea of Native Americans as tragic curiosities, literally brought to life — and symbolically killed — by their young white masters, Disney’s Pocahontas reworks a specific historical episode. While the exact details are sketchy, historians agree that Pocahontas was probably 10 or 12 years old, not the twentysomething sex bomb of the film; that she was most likely raped rather than wistfully courted, as per Disney, by John Smith; and that the episode so beloved of high school history teachers — the Indian maiden’s intercession with her father on behalf of Smith — was probably invented, as it did not appear in the first version of Smith’s diary. Disney is typical of many corporate entities offering their fussy “artistry” to wide audiences, playing good guy by showing the Native Americans as noble at the same time they fancifully present English colonists as brave, sometimes foolish but rarely vicious, pioneers. An episode historians have characterized as a genocide against the Powhatan Indians is reworked into a thrilling, bittersweet adventure/love story between a busty native Babewatch-style gal and her commanding white lover, who looks like a dancer from Chippendale’s. Unlike the diminished warrior in Indian in the Cupboard, whose power and sexuality are threatening and must be reduced, Pocahontas is seen as an ideal ethnic sex object, so the animators at Disney have heightened her sexuality. The uncertainties that surround such portrayals in 1990s America are evident in some of Pocahontas‘s contradictions: while the film uses music and the reactionary character of the “wise old tree” to convince us that Pocahontas must “follow her heart” regardless of what her father think by going to England with Smith, at the end she rejects romance and stays — looking not particularly happy — with her tribe.

Both Pocahontas and the warrior from Indian in the Cupboard represent the ethnic body as a combination of fantasy playground and locus of cultural anxiety; reworking them into more “suitable” shapes both reinforces bourgeois social, racial, and gender forms and relieves the tension that comes from the continued disturbing accusatory presence of the Native American in the cultural imagination.