Yes, the Barbie movie was tainted by the smallpox remark — here’s why it matters

Indigenous people deserve to see a positive reflection of ourselves in popular media, or at the very least be spared quips about our erasure
An Indigenous Barbie that was made by Mattel in 1998. Photo by PINKE on Flickr (version cropped)

I didn’t have a “traditional” Barbie growing up. Mine came with high cheekbones, a tribal tattoo and a tight buckskin miniskirt. She didn’t have a Barbie Dream House — she came with centuries of colonial imagination instead.

When I was five, a year older than my own daughter is now, the Disney rendition of Pocahontas was released. As an Indigenous child growing up in a non-Indigenous family, I rarely saw any kind of reflection of myself other than Tiger Lily and the “Piccaninny Tribe” in Peter Pan or other cheap stereotypical toys, so this was obviously a big deal for me.

After the movie, I went to the Disney store to buy the Pocahontas Barbie. She was my prized possession, with her dark hair, eyes and skin. I knew all the lines and sang along with the songs whenever I watched the movie. With as much conviction a five-year-old could muster, I would belt out lyrics from the song “Colours of the Wind.”

You think I’m an ignorant savage

And you’ve been so many places

I guess it must be so…

The song went on to win an Academy Award for Best Song that year. 

Fast forward 30 years, and it’s a Sunday evening: my daughter is fed and bathed; food is prepared for the week; the house is clean; childcare is confirmed for the night because my friend and I are going to see the new Barbie film. We headed out dressed in pink, ready to sit back and relax and watch a movie. 

Directed by Greta Gerwig, who is known for her feminist undertones and characters who push against restrictive circumstances, I felt excited to see the movie with a dear friend. My friends and I don’t get a lot of one-on-one time, and the further I get into motherhood, the more I appreciate friendship with other mothers. My friend is from Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxd’axw Nations, runs her own business, is raising a four-year-old daughter herself, and is also pregnant with her second baby. 

We were enjoying the movie, and there was a lot of laughter. Just what I needed to set my heart and mind straight before a busy week. And then, mid-movie, as Barbie prepares to leave “Barbie Land” to go to the “real world,” the character Gloria (played by America Ferrera) makes a comment that catches me off guard.

“Oh my god! This is like in the 1500s with the Indigenous people and smallpox,” she says. “They had no defences against it!”

Wait – what did she just say?

I pause and look to my friend. Did the Barbie film just compare women and patriarchy to Indigenous people and disease? Was that really necessary?

Other people obviously felt as taken off guard by the comment as I did, judging by the response on social media: “this line was unnecessary and not needed for the plot,” one person wrote. Another remarked that it “reeked of white feminism,” while another called it “a sloppy attempt at intersectionality.”

One creator, Nádleehí and Diné artist Yuè Begay, made and posted a series of graphics criticizing the movie and asking that the smallpox remark be removed for future releases.

Graphic created by @asdza_tlehonaei / Twitter

The thoughtless line about Indigenous people and smallpox ironically comes right before an insightful and impassioned monologue by Ferrera’s character on how complicated it is to be a modern-day woman.

“It is literally impossible to be a woman,” Gloria tells Barbie before launching into all of the challenges of simply being a woman:

“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. 

You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. 

You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. 

You’re supposed to love being a mother but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. 

You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. 

You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining.”

Erasure, disease and death are not funny

Being hit unexpectedly by a comment — or harmful depiction — within popular culture is not new for me. During my undergrad, I took a class on the long history of how Indigenous people have been misrepresented in the media. Our class was tasked with finding stereotypical comments or imagery depicting Indigenous people in television and film. 

For this assignment, I chose an image Nicki Minaj shared on her Instagram, which featured three scantily-clad cartoon depictions of Pocahontas in provocative poses. It wasn’t necessarily the NSFW nature that sparked so much controversy, but instead, the image of stolen-child Pocahontas and how it sexualized a child rape victim.

“Which one should get hung up in my Barbie room,” asked Minaj on the Instagram post. Not only did Disney’s story of Pocahontas perpetuate demeaning stereotypes, whitewash and infuse blatant racism in its telling, but it was and is dehumanizing in its creation of inaccurate Indigenous caricatures.  

Erasure, disease and death are not funny. They have had lasting, intergenerational impacts, including contributing to a loss of knowledge. My spirit was so hungry for this knowledge as a little girl, so much so that I would try to talk to trees with my Pocahontas Barbie because it was the only form of representation I had seen at the time. I see so many Indigenous people fighting for that knowledge back today through their work in language reclamation, land and water stewardship, Indigenous legal orders, child welfare systems, and more.

I would have loved to have grown up speaking nêhinawêwin (Swampy Cree). My father understands it, and my grandparents spoke it fluently. My grandfather even had a radio station in Manitoba where he exclusively spoke nêhinawêwin. This loss began with the same history that dates back to Pocahontas’s “story” — dispossession, expulsion from our lands, forced assimilation, and discriminatory laws that disbanded many from speaking it for a time. Because of this, I didn’t get that opportunity. In the same way so many others didn’t. 

Speaking of my grandfather, Murray McKenzie, he was a photojournalist. He received his first camera while recovering from tuberculosis at the Clearwater Lake Sanatorium. We know now that my grandfather was given a blanket carrying the disease. Murray was one of the few little boys who survived his ward at the sanatorium.

So imagine my surprise when a movie about another fantasized character, Barbie, goes on to include a reference to a disease that wiped out so many Indigenous peoples on the continent. For example, my colleague recently wrote a piece on the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation’s 100-year amalgamation anniversary, where it was shared that 100 years ago, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (the Squamish people) at one point went from a population of 30,000 to 400 because of disease.

An “American Indian Barbie” produced by Mattel in 1996. Mattel has produced a number of Indigenous Barbies, including Eskimo Barbie (released in 1981), and multiple iterations of Native American Barbie. Photo by PINKE on Flickr

There also has, of course, been plentiful praise for the film Barbie, which included a diversity of characters — including a Black woman president played by Issa Rae. 

Still, I had higher hopes for a film that focused on reimagining the role of Barbie and even higher hopes to walk out my front door with a friend to go see a movie that promised fun and a brief reprieve from the duties of motherhood.

I’ll end by saying this:

It is literally impossible to be an Indigenous woman. 

We have to be beautiful but not too beautiful, or we might go missing. 

We have to leave our homelands to become ‘educated,’ and to enter the ‘workforce.’

But we can’t forget who we are and where we come from.

We want to be good and loving mothers and protect our children,

But we can’t make a single mistake, or our children will be taken into the child welfare system.

We want to preserve the natural world for the next generation,

But colonial law will remove us with an injunction and put us in prison.

We want to honour our dead, but governments tell us that it “isn’t feasible.”

We want to speak our languages,

But so many of our language keepers have been lost to colonial violence.

Aren’t we tired of watching every single Indigenous woman kill herself to simply exist?


Will you support our award-winning, Indigenous-led journalism?

We do journalism differently. Our strength-based approach to storytelling has already made huge impacts on our readers and community members.


Will you help us raise $20,000 in our reciprocal fundraising campaign?

Help us raise $20,000 for our reciprocal fundraising campaign

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top