I have a confession to make. I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for Johnny Depp. Or maybe for Captain Jack Sparrow. Let’s face it, the man is a hunk and a phenomenal actor. (Warning: this post contains spoilers below the “more” link.)
Ever since the credits rolled, though, I’ve been conflicted, thinking about the movie from the side of the portrayal of women. Like most movies with an historical setting, there are far more male than female characters, arguably, of necessity because women were wives and daughters and whores, not pirates or businessmen or governors or soldiers. Naturally. And I’ll concede that it is most likely true that there were more men in the riggings of the sailing ships of the era, and only men in the English army and certainly not any women running the East India Trading Company.
Although it occurs to me that most of my information about the division of labor between the genders in all eras before the present comes from the suspect sources of dramatic fiction and fanatical religious instruction, and is therefore suspect…do I really know that women did not sail ships or run businesses or govern provinces?
In any case, I will consider the lone woman pirate lord (Madame Cheng, not a speaking part) as a concession to feminism and drop any criticism of the lack of female movers-and-shakers as needing more evidence. Still, I find myself disturbed that yet another movie has only two major female parts, one star (Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley) and one supporting character (Tia Dalma, played by Naomi Harris). There are of course two male stars (Cap’n Jack, by Johnny Depp – of course and Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom) and multiple other male characters – Captain Barbossa, the mute with the parrot, the pirate with the wooden eye and his roly poly friend, the archnemesis Lord Beckett, the cast-off ex-fiance James Norrington, Will’s dad William Turner, the affable but for plot purposes powerless Governor Swann – and who could forget, the bad guys’ tool, Davy Jones. What’s that, 10 male to 2 female speaking parts?
Feeling a bit left out, ladies?
Well then I started thinking about those two lone female characters. Dramatically women are defined by their sexuality (but that’s a post for another time) – usually they are mothers, daughters or whores (channeled sexuality in control, virginal sexuality in potential, and wild sexuality for sale). This movie is no exception – if you missed the blurb after the credits, you missed Elizabeth morphing from daughter/virgin directly into the mother of a ten-year-old.
Elizabeth, for all her power, for all her strength and independence, is still the love interest. Granted, her motives are less than transparent, and Keira Knightley pulls a wonderful scene with taut dialogue early in the movie when Will asks her how long they are going to avoid each other and she reveals it’s guilt and not UST that sends her with the others to try to rescue Cap’n Jack from the world of the dead. But that doesn’t relieve that fact that Elizabeth’s total arc is from daddy’s little girl in the first movie (my father is the governor, let me go!) to Will’s woman in the third – with a brief dallying at the prospect of being Jack’s woman in the second. She learns to fight – her wedding takes place during a battle while she’s stabbing barnacle men left and right – and she defies tradition, the daughter of the governor siding with the pirates and using her feminine wiles to trick Jack to his death. She learns to politic, to command a ship and to lead. We all have to agree she does a lot of cool things and wears a lot of cool costumes. But in the end, she is nothing more and nothing less than Will’s woman – her politicking is to beat his destiny, her fighting stops when he is injured (because the love interest has to run to the wounded hero’s side) and her leadership ends when the conflict is resolved. To make sure the point is clear, the very last scenes of the movie (don’t read this if you haven’t seen it yet) show the aftermath of marriage to a man doomed to only one day on shore out of every ten years. You see them getting dressed on the sand (their first day) and then see her and their son waiting on shore for him ten years later. What did she do in the meantime? It obviously doesn’t matter. But obviously, there being no way to get word to him, she must wait in the same place he left her or where they agreed to meet – otherwise, how would he find her?
And what happened to the swashbuckling heroine? Why can’t she travel the lands of the living and the dead with the new-and-improved Davy Jones? Well, because then there wouldn’t be any angst. The mother lives on sea and waits for the man to come home, she doesn’t go with him. She needs no adventure, motherhood is her life.
And then there is Tia Dalma. Tia is the weird voodoo woman we met in the second movie, who has history with Jack of some kind unrevealed in Dead Man’s Chest and also chooses for her own reasons to resurrect the dead Captain Barbarossa. She’s universally respected by the characters and obviously powerful…we’re never sure how powerful, but she’s got something up her sleeves.
Eventually we realize that Tia Dalma is the incarnation of the goddess Calypso, who for movie purposes is vaguely identified as the goddess of the sea. The wacky voodoo lady with all this power but for it all strange and unclear limitations turns out to be a goddess trapped against her will in a human body and manipulating the pirate lords to get free.
That’s all well and good, an interesting and surprisingly deep storyline – but it gets entirely blown off course when her reunion with Davy Jones finally comes, and then all her momentum just evaporates into an unresolved story line. The real life legend of Davy Jones and his ship, The Flying Dutchman says that he and his crew are cursed to spend 10 years at sea and then get only one day at port; in the movie, this is complicated by the addition of a lover that Davy Jones can only see once a decade. This lover, we find out in this scene is Calypso, before she was imprisoned in human form, and Davy Jones told the pirate lords how to imprison her because she set him his 10 year task and then didn’t show up for their meeting! So Tia Dalma/Calypso is nothing more than unfaithful lover and if she had been true, then everything would have been different. To top it off, some of the characters release her, she gets really huge and then turns into a bunch of crabs and that’s the end of her storyline. No resolution, no release of power, no revenge on those who bound her…she just goes back to the sea and on about her business, I suppose. One could assume that the freakish weather during the final battle scene is her doing, but really – that not much of a resolution. I didn’t need a goddess to buy freakish weather.
So out of two female speaking parts in this movie, history begins with the unfaithful lover who can’t even keep her own promises to make a once-decadely tryst or even to revenge herself on those who bound her to a human body and is resolved in large part by the intervention of the virgin who fights for the sake of her love and then dutifully marries him and immediately becomes a mother. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the oldest story in the Book.