Pirates III

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?

**SPOILER WARNING***

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.

Comments

  1. Patrick says

    I agree with your general post, but a few nitpicks:

    1. Madame Cheng does have several lines, about as many as any of the other Pirate Lords introduced at the Brethren Court.

    2. Prior to these films, Davy Jones had no connection to the legend of the Flying Dutchman. The FD’s captain is usually named Vanderdecker.

    That said… I certainly share your feelings about how things resolved for Elizabeth, especially since Jones’ actions made it clear that the limitation was that he could only physically set foot on land for one day every ten years. Presumably the same limitaion applies to Will, so…

    Why does this translate to Elizabeth only being able to see him once every ten years? Sure, she can’t stay with him on the Dutchman (she doesn’t breathe underwater), but no explanation is every given as to why he can’t tie up every three months or so so that she can come aboard for a visit. Not even a throwaya line about his new duties requiring constant vigilance or anything like that.

    It’s pointless angst that is there for the sake of angst, and so that Elizabeth can go from being a pirate lord to being the good captain’s wife who waits for him to sail home.

    I’m not bothered so much by Calypso’s unfaithfulness, because as the film points out, it is her nature to be changing and unfaithful – not because she is a woman, but because she is the sea incarnate. “Would you have loved me if I were different?” she asks Jones.

    One other nitpick with the film: why does Will have his heart cut out? According to Calypso, Jones cut it out AFTER she was unfaithful, so he had already been captain of the Dutchman for 10 years. The two would seem to be unconnected.

  2. Nialla says

    According to Wikipedia, twenty minutes were removed from the final cut. One scene cut explained that if Calypso had greeted Davy Jones after his ten years of ferrying dead souls, then he would have been freed of his duty: in turn, Will is freed of his captaincy as Elizabeth remains faithful to him ten years later.

    But that doesn’t mean she had to wait ten years raising a kid alone either. They just jumped ahead to show that Will had been freed of his curse, so it’s possible that during those ten years she could have traveled with Will. But to fulfill the requirements of the cursebreaking, she had to be “waiting for him” upon the end of his ten years. Semantics, but then curses often rely on it. ;)

    At first the reason for Will having his heart cut out didn’t make sense to me either, but I think what they were aiming at is Davy Jones added his own curse to the mix. He and his men were being transformed by some form of magic. Could have been a last gasp curse from Calypso before she was bound, could have been something else.

    But it leaves me wondering if now that “cut out your heart” thing is broken as well, or if the next captain has to have his heart cut out too. Perhaps things are back to the original “serve ten years as Captain before you can be freed” as it was intended.

  3. firebird says

    1. Madame Cheng does have several lines, about as many as any of the other Pirate Lords introduced at the Brethren Court.

    You’re right, but I didn’t include any of the other pirate lords in my list of male speaking parts, so the general point holds right? :-)

    2. Prior to these films, Davy Jones had no connection to the legend of the Flying Dutchman. The FD’s captain is usually named Vanderdecker.

    I had never heard of the legend before (either of them, actually) but I did read something about that.

    It’s pointless angst that is there for the sake of angst, and so that Elizabeth can go from being a pirate lord to being the good captain’s wife who waits for him to sail home.

    Exactly. Although the British soldiers seemed to have no trouble staying aboard the Flying Dutchman, so I can’t see how Elizabeth would have had a problem.

  4. firebird says

    There were so female pirates. Anne Bonney comes to mind.

    Thank you! Is that a character I’ve forgotten or a real person?

  5. firebird says

    According to Wikipedia, twenty minutes were removed from the final cut. One scene cut explained that if Calypso had greeted Davy Jones after his ten years of ferrying dead souls, then he would have been freed of his duty: in turn, Will is freed of his captaincy as Elizabeth remains faithful to him ten years later.

    That might have changed a lot of things. On the other hand, the movie was awfully long anyway. Oh well.

  6. firebird says

    It’s not that Calypso is unfaithful that bothers me – some people, including women, keep their word and others don’t – but that the way that scene plays, you have this feeling like, “Oh, it’s her fault. That’s why everything is screwed up.”

  7. MaggieCat says

    Anne Bonny and Mary Read were real people, and real pirates. It’s really a very interesting story: Anne was married to a small time pirate, but fell in love with Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham. Rackham tried to buy her freedom from her husband, but John Bonny refused. (‘Divorce by purchase’, don’t even get me started…) After Bonny refused and complained to the Governor (he’d been working as an informant on pirates in the area) the Governor ordered Anne to be brought in, flogged, and returned to her husband. So she and Rackham stole a boat and eloped. Wikipedia has a pretty thorough article on her.

    According to Wikipedia, twenty minutes were removed from the final cut. One scene cut explained that if Calypso had greeted Davy Jones after his ten years of ferrying dead souls, then he would have been freed of his duty: in turn, Will is freed of his captaincy as Elizabeth remains faithful to him ten years later.

    This is what I assumed would happen. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the breaking of the curse is a pretty important part of the legend of The Flying Dutchman. (I’m most familiar with Wagner’s version though. In case the Bonny thing wasn’t enough proof: Hi, my name is MaggieCat and I’m a huge geek. :-) )

  8. Nialla says

    That might have changed a lot of things. On the other hand, the movie was awfully long anyway. Oh well.

    Yes, and we know action sequences always trumps detailed storytelling, so they certainly weren’t going to cut any of those out to flesh out the story.

  9. says

    Yikes! Is that how it ends for Elizabeth? After the second one, it didn’t seem like she was even that interested in Will anymore. I thought, ‘oh wow, how cool would that be, if she decided he was lame? But they won’t really do that… sigh.’

    Apparently not.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but that ending seems out of character.

  10. firebird says

    Are you going to see it? Don’t want to ruin it for you.

    But, yes, that’s how it ends. Basically, there’s a scene where they talk about how they haven’t been talking and Will ways says “How can I trust you if you are making decisions by yourself?” which she says back to him (or something similar) later in the movie. Along the way, his father tells her that Will won’t rescue him like he promised because she’s too pretty, so he’ll pick her (because he would have to kill Davy Jones to rescue Bootstrap Bill and that would cause him to lose the girl, or something like that) and so she spends the rest of the movie apparently trying to help Will rescue his dad. And they live happily ever after.

    Oh well, at least she gets to be a pirate lord and then the “king” of the pirates. And give actual commands on a ship before surrendering to her rightful place as a woman.

  11. SunlessNick says

    There was also Cheng I Sao – a real Madame Cheng – who was admiral of a pirate fleet of several hundred vessels.

    This film sounds like a major disappointment.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    As a rule, there have always been at least a few women in the dangerous professions history paints as belonging solely to men. Because how do you stop a woman from being a pirate? Pretty much the same way you stop a man from being one. If she clears a couple of initial hurdles, the job requirements in fringe professions tend to be the same for all.

    This sounds like every movie I grew up with that made any serious use of women at all. Either they were neat, but only temporarily, or they were only sort of neat.

  13. Eva says

    This is one of the reasons I don’t see many movies anymore. Even a movie like “The Departed” only has one female role, and she’s someone’s girlfriend.

    It’s intereting that women make up half the population, in many instances make the buying decisions and financial decisions for the family, yet still have a very limited role in movies.

    Even though television isn’t perfect, at least there are a lot more dramas that feature women. They may be STUPID women in a lot of instances (so are the guys, though) but at least you see and hear them onscreen.

    So, give me “The Office” and “Ugly Betty” and Addison Montgomery Shepard and my Farscape DVDS any day.

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    Even though television isn’t perfect, at least there are a lot more dramas that feature women.

    I was just making this point to some friends yesterday. TV is starting to open itself to deeper characterization (which they thought no one wanted years ago), and some shows are bothering to develop female characters as well as male. It’s slow progress, but if the trend continued, it could be significant in a few more decades.

  15. scarlett says

    OK I didn’t stick around to watch the bit after the credits because 1) I thought it was a stupid way to film it and 2) I’d heard so much bad stuff about it that I didn’t think it was worth it. To me, Jack in his dingy with the bit of map he’d swiped would have been a far better ending.

    So, who the hell wants, let alone EXPECTS their loved one to stick around for a reunion every ten years?Haven’t these people heard of ‘if you love someone, set them free’? I know they meant to play it as being all romantic, but it seemed possessive to me. If Will had really loved Elizabeth, he would have refused to come back. And it was a huge disappointment for her to achieve all the stuff she did and then have it implied that all she did after that was be a single mother.

  16. says

    I honestly didn’t mind the part after the credits – we skipped ten years, but I don’t think that in order to be faithful to Will, Elizabeth had to sit around bored. She was still the pirate king, and had earned a lot of respect, and I don’t think that she’d have problems being pregnant or raising a kid while still having adventures and being awesome. I don’t know if that was the intent of the writers; they say they pictured her off with pirates during the intervening ten years, but we don’t see any of that and aren’t given any hints, so who knows?

    Both Elizabeth’s and Will’s actions rang true for me throughout. The entire first movie was driven by their devotion to each other, particularly from Will’s end; I didn’t see him having to choose between Elizabeth and his father as being a question of she’s prettier. He was willing to give up his entire life to break Jack out of jail with the hope of rescuing her in the first movie, and every action he took from there was basically to try and be with her. If anything, she was the more dynamic of the two; while she was working to save and/or be reunited with Will, she was also concerned about the broader world, and acting independently to try and help the pirates. I think that’s why I don’t assume she sat around as a housewife/mom for the decade – he was always about devotion to her and doing what he had to to be with her; she was very much in love with him, but also doing other things in the meantime in the movies themselves.

  17. says

    (Not that I think the movie was perfect by any means; it was confusing, too long, still had some issues with race and sexuality, and managed to include a couple of gratuituous dead hookers. Gaaaah.)

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