May 21, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

It seems that the season is once again upon us to watch an unclean and be-dreaded Johnny Depp talk pirate. I mean, of course, that the long-anticipated release of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is this Thursday, May 24. And in anticipation, we at Heroine Content thought it only fitting to run reviews this week of the previous two Pirates films. Starting with the first one, The Curse of the Black Pearl.

I really did like this movie. Johnny Depp was fabulous, as was Geoffrey Rush, I thought it was funny, the visuals were cool. But in terms of heroine content, I've got to say, it kinda sucked.

The heroine just didn't provide much content. Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann, "fighting spirit" or not, spends much of the movie being a rich, pampered aristocrat's daughter being rescued. First, Captain Jack rescues her from drowning. Next, Jack and Will rescue her from Barbarosa. And so on and so forth. And though Elizabeth tries to take things into her own hands, she's just not all that successful. Plus she relies heavily on typically "feminine" tricks (pretending to faint, pouting and cajoling, etc.).

And nobody ever takes her very seriously. Take for example the crew of the ship Captain Jack and Will take to rescue her. First, she and Will collectively take over control of the ship (when it takes on the Pearl in the gun battle). The crew listens, albeit haltingly, to their strange plan. Later, when Elizabeth alone tries to get the crew to assist her in fetching Will and Jack from the cave, they completely ignore her and she has to go at it alone.

And then there's the rape thing. Early on in the film, when Captain Jack introduces himself as a pirate, he says something typical about raping, pillaging and plundering. While I realize this is run-of-the-mill pirate-speak, it's still just not OK. And later, when Barbarosa's crew tell Elizabeth she'll either dine with him in the dress he provides or dine with the crew naked (a not-very veiled gang-rape threat), that's not OK either. Finally, when a pre-plank walking Elizabeth is being groped by a gang of Barbarosa's men, that's not OK either. We take these things as part and parcel of a pirate film. "We're not misogynist! We're pirates! Rape is what we DO." And that, more than anything, is not OK.

Why, then, do I give this film even two stars? Well, there are two reasons, one star for each:

1. The bit where Elizabeth Swann bonks a pirate on the head with something while saying, "You like pain? Try wearing a corset." In fact, the whole anti-corset premise of the film was nice.

2. Anamaria. The only other female character besides Elizabeth worth mentioning, Anamaria is the female pirate that becomes part of Jack and Will's crew. In fact, she seems to be a pirate captain herself, given her comment about Jack having stolen her boat. When the old standard about it being bad luck to have a woman aboard is trotted out in reference to Anamaria, Jack replies that it would be far worse luck not to have her. This seems to be a comment on her competence as a crewmember, rather than a relationship between them. I dig that. And I dig her in general. I was hoping to see more of her later in this film or subsequent films, but have been disappointed so far.

The film is nothing to write home about on race issues, either. There are very few non-white characters, and they are all minor (members of either Jack's or Barbarosa's crews). Anamaria is the most visible one, and I'd consider her a very positive, if small, character.

All in all, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl just doesn't do much in the way of furthering roles for women or minorities. It's a pretty typical comedy action movie and doesn't really push any boundaries. Which isn't to say it's not fun, but it's probably not helping.


Hi There!

I just wanted to say that I absolutely adore this site! I stumbled across it looking for info regarding female portrayals in film. I actually spent a good portion of the night going through most of your archived posts. Excellent site! And it’s nice to know I am not alone in regards to the dismal characterization of women in the media these days.

Ironically enough, I actually thought POTC did a slightly better job in heroine content that you did. Some of the things that occurred made sense in terms of the plotline, and I actually thought Elizabeth was far stronger than you did. Just different perspective?

Take for example the scene you outlined where she tries to convince the pirates to rescue Jack & Will. While it’s true they did abandon her, I got the sense that the film viewed it as more of a failing on their part (besides being funny). And when she’s muttering angrily to herself as she is rowing, I thought that showed great strength: she’s not only going it alone to save them, but she isn’t even too mussed about it – more annoyed with the “bloody pirates”. And I think it was her speech that slowly ate at their conscience, which eventually made them return for Jack in the end.

Elizabeth had many good moments to me. She was the first to truly spy the cursed Black Pearl at a young age, and saved Will’s life by spying him floating on the water. While she did steal his medallion, she would have always kept him safe – since she never told Barbosa’s men who Will was. The fact that she knew of the Pirate’s code spoke well for her, even if Barbosa kind of ignored it. I even think some of the seeming more stereotypical behavior had an undercurrent of power. Take for example when she was sweet talking Jack until he passed out. While that is behavior akin to fake fainting, it seemed that this was caused because she had a superior tolerance for alcohol that Jack didn’t have. I was looking for her to spit it out or something, but I didn’t see it (maybe you did? It’s been a while since I saw the film). And that was refreshingly nice, since the only other heroine I could remember who could swill down a good amount of liquor un-mussed was Marion from the first Raiders.

I agreed with your assessment mostly – it’s just maybe I thought it a little more positive than you.

In terms of diversity content, you were quite dead on! It was actually worse than the female portrayals. They seemed to have resorted to good old-fashioned colorism: the lighter the skin color, the “better” seeming the character. So Anna-Marie was the lightest of the bunch, and she was smart, sassy, the only woman Jack owned up to wronging outright. At the other extreme, we had one of the crew-members from the Black pearl who was the darkest, and the most violent, and of course he didn’t even really talk, he just grunted more often than not. And where there any other people of color besides people of African descent? I can’t recall any. So it’ll actually be interesting to see what happens in the 3rd installment when Chow arrives playing a captain. I loved Anamarie like you! And I was sad that she didn’t make it into the second one. But, if she really is her own captain proper, then eventually she would get her own boat and have her own crew. So I guess it makes sense she wouldn’t be in the 2nd one? But that would mean ideally that she should return in the 3rd if they are calling all captains.

I don’t know if you’d all want to do this, but some years back I saw Cutthroat Island (at the suggestion of my brother), and I actually really enjoyed it! And it would be interesting to see what you guys thought considering it is another take on the pirate genre, only with a female (Geena Davis) at the helm. It suffers from some of the same issues (especially in terms of ethnicity) as Pirates, but definitely upped the anti in heroine content!

Lastly, I just wanted to say keep in doing what you’re doing! It’s refreshing. :) And it’s one place where I don’t have to explain for the umpteenth time why a woman doesn’t want to always see women incessantly being rescued on screen!

Thank you so much for the great comment! Funny enough, I have the DVD of "Cutthroat Island" sitting on top of my TV right now and I'm hoping to watch it some time this week.

Hi - on the corset issue, I'd just like to say I do some swordfighting (and axe and spear and mace fighting), sometimes in very hot weather while chasing around in the woods, and I find corsets very practical. I have large breasts, and bra straps, even sports bras, have straps that dig in more and more over the course of the day and they still let my breasts bounce more painfully than I would like. A properly fitted corset designed for support rather than reduction is a Godsend - they stay *put* and my upper back and shoulders are free of harness. Also, a *slightly* cinched waist does not restrict breathing or movement and allows me to belt my chainmail tighter, redistributing the weight over my body and keeping it safely in place. So while I don't particularly object to Elizabeth flinging aside her unnecessary and restrictive garments along with convention, she may well have taken a different view if she wasn't an A cup.
I love the site, I'm finding it really useful and informative. Thanks a lot!

Hi. I've been viewing this website for a while now, and enjoy all the posts. I'm almost fourteen, and I like to review movies on heroines myself. I might make it into a website, if I could figure out how. This website as been a real inspiration. Anyway, I don't remember Elizabeth slamming anyway with the liquor. It has been a long time since I've seen this, but I don't know. And doesn't seem like she just winds up getting herself into even more trouble by saying she's a Turner? I know she thinks they want her cause she's the governor's daughter, but, I don't know. Couldn't she have used another name? But thanks for the review.



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