Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Feminist Pirate’s Life for Me

While the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean  is still mired in sexist and stereotypical representations (as noted in this post), the films based on the ride offer some interesting gender transgressions–especially the most recent installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which sees Penelope Cruz swashbuckle her way into the role of Angelica.

Though a romance between series hero Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Angelica is hinted at and joked about, it never takes center stage. Instead, Angelica and Sparrow, along with the characters Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), are all focused on finding the mythical fountain of youth. This makes a welcome change from Elizabeth Swann’s (Keira Knightley) more traditional positioning in the first three films of the Pirates franchise.

While Swann displayed intelligence, wit, cunning and weaponry skill, her role as pirate, leader and king was ultimately overshadowed by her role as lover, beauty and potential wife. She ended up in a very traditional place at the end of the third film–as wife and mother awaiting the return of her beloved husband, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom).  (This role is in keeping with Disney’s “Pirate and Princess” merchandising campaign, in which boys are prompted to buy hats, swords, guns and action figures, while girls can choose between “pirate princess” or a redheaded “wench.”)

Other female characters from Pirates suffer from stereotypical depictions as well. Anamaria (Zoe Saldana), the black female pirate captain, was sidelined in the first film and disappeared from the 2nd and 3rd.  Replacing her (does Disney only have room for one non-white female character per film?) is Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), the stereotypical, animalized black woman of come-hither seductiveness from the 2nd film.

In On Stranger Tides, however, Cruz is depicted as being as pirate-capable as, and even more daring than, Sparrow. Indeed, in the scene that introduces her, she has disguised herself as Sparrow, playing not only into the gender ambiguity of Sparrow’s character but also nodding towards the notion that “pirate-ness,” like masculinity or femininity, is a role that can be “played” by anyone. This is true to pirate history, in which several women disguised their sex/gender in order to lead the pirate life. According to Tracey McCormick,

Female pirates, from the 3rd century BC to Elizabethan England, roamed the seas as rulers, marauders and entrepreneurs.

Thankfully, Angelica’s characters is less romantically focused than Elizabeth Swann’s and more in keeping with her real-life historical predecessors, such as Anne Bonney, Mary Read and Grace O’Malley.

Sadly, the mermaids in the film, particularly the main mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbyy), do not fair so well. As a group, the mermaids are your typical fish-tailed sexualized man killers and play only a very minor part. Syrena, the one mermaid with a meatier roll, is romantically paired with a Christian missionary who carries her once her tail turns to legs too weak to walk on (ah, a wee bit of The Little Mermaid is sprinkled into a Pirate tale!)

While Angelica is an improvement on Swann, the pirate life via a Disney lens is far from radically rewriting traditional gender scripts. Like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which still has not changed the “buy a wench for a bride” sign, the films are a long ways off from offering a feminist vision of the pirating world.




Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.