Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Feminist's View on Pirates

Tee hee, what a cute pirate! Not.
The other day, I did an extremely informal word association with a few friends for the word pirate. Some of the associations people had were flag, parrot, ninja, and Johnny Depp. Only one person associated pirates with something negative, robbery. Interestingly, when I Google Imaged "pirate" to include a photo for this post, all of the photos that came up were cutesy or mock-creepy cartoons, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, or women in sexy pirate costumes.

I wasn’t surprised by the outcome of my exceptionally unscientific poll or the Google Image hits, though. Over the past few years, I’ve started to notice that society tends to romanticize pirates. I know a few families whose members have dressed up as pirates for Purim, when it’s traditional to wear costumes. Although various children’s shows have had episodes with pirate-themed plots, like the Nickelodeon show SpongeBob SquarePants, I blame Disney for sanitizing and idealizing pirates. Disney has been using pirates as its muse since 1953, when the movie Peter Pan was released. The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at the Disney amusement parks has been around since 1967, and the film series has spawned four (soon to be five) movies since 2003. The TV network Disney Junior currently plays the show Jake and the Never Land Pirates, a spin-off of Peter Pan.

You might not understand why I’m making such a big deal about pirates. After all, you live in a Disney-influenced culture and were raised watching Peter Pan and Pirates of the Caribbean. But when you think about it, pirates are not something that should be romanticized. If you go past the surface concept of what Disney has taught you that a pirate is - a bumbling, black-bearded man with a hook for a hand and a wooden leg - you realize that there is much more to pirates than Johnny Depp, a parrot, or even robbery. Pirates throughout history have raped women, killed children, enslaved innocent people, and destroyed villages for their own pleasure and profit. Modern-day pirates are no different.

Interestingly, Disney actually nods to pirates’ tendency to exploit women in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. My mother, who went to Disneyland several decades ago, is still horrified by the memory of a raiding pirate chasing a screaming woman in the attraction. Although Disney revamped the ride in 2007 and got rid of some of the offensive stuff, it still features pirates auctioning off captured women for brides. Selling women? That’s called sex slavery and human trafficking. I have no idea whose sick mind came up with putting this into the ride, but it’s gross and misogynist and downright creepy. The fact that it’s included, though, shows that Disney isn’t completely unaware of pirates’ tendency to, you know, act like pirates.

It bothers me that the concept of pirates has been sanitized and romanticized into something it’s not. Pirates are criminals with a particularly bad track record with treatment of women who destroy others’ lives for their own benefit. Why are we watching cutesy movies about them? Why are there kitschy rides in Disneyworld about them? It doesn’t make sense. Although it doesn't make any real difference in our culture's view on pirates, I've boycotted pirate-themed entertainment, since it's just offensive to me. I wouldn't necessarily encourage others to do the same, but I would strongly recommend it. When you think twice about it, it's what makes sense.


  1. THANKYOU for this excellent article! I too find the ubiquitous glorification of pirates disgusting as a feminist and a woman. Yours is a voice of common sense. Keep up the good work.

  2. The most successful pirate ever was a woman. Madame Ching's pirate fleet was bigger than the nine most successful male pirates' fleets together. She also married a guy many years her junior. So I believe that there are female pirate tropes that could be used to even the image genderwise.