With the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more accessible than ever, and a summer season void of blockbusters, this month we’re diving deep into Disney’s swashbuckling series. Grab your cutlass and hoist the colors: here be Polygon’s take on all things PotC.
Twilight, Aquamarine, The Princess Diaries — the 2000s had their fandom-worthy movies tailored to young women, but perhaps the unlikeliest franchise that absolutely ruled teen and tween girl hearts was Pirates of the Caribbean.
Every single late millennial girl I know is obsessed with Pirates of the Caribbean. Growing up, my next-door neighbor’s proudest possession was her Dead Man’s Chest-themed Game of Life; Ally down the street showed me the posters of Will Turner and Jack Sparrow she tore out of Tiger Beat and J-14. On the playground, my best friends and I commanded a pirate ship and sailed fearlessly across the ocean. In between sets at swim practice, we whispered about our favorite parts of the movies. As I’ve come to find over the years, I wasn’t alone.
It’s easy to attribute the girlish apparel of Pirates of the Caribbean to the swoon-worthiness of its leading men. Fresh off The Lord of the Rings, Orlando Bloom was already a certifiable heartthrob and Johnny Depp’s edgy alternative look paired nicely with Bloom’s more typical charming crushability. There are plenty of movies out there with hot leading men that didn’t explode amongst the girls, but while Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars seem like close equivalents, they were inherently tailored for young men, with heroic arcs centered on male leads. I cannot stress enough that every girl I knew from every part of my life was super into Pirates of the Caribbean.
The intense obsession, whether we realized it or not at the time, had everything to do with Elizabeth Swann, once and future Pirate King. Unlike most female characters in action movies, Elizabeth, as portrayed by Keira Knightley, was elevated beyond love interest or side character, and that small break from tradition tipped the movies toward female interests. To girls out there, this was the first time seeing an age-appropriate fantasy adventure that didn’t pander, yet still felt like it was for them. Of course there were female heroines before Pirates, but they were either stars of more mature films, like Ripley in Alien, or never got to do the cool things that the boys did, like Princess Leia.
Elizabeth was a young woman in a saga full of men, but still at the center of her own story. She wasn’t anyone’s long-lost twin sister; she wasn’t pining for her lover as he rode off to battle; she wasn’t treated as secondary to a man’s Chosen One narrative.
Instead, Elizabeth is a heroine who outsmarts pirates at their own game, quick to absorb all the information in a given situation and gain the upperhand. She declares “parley” to force the marauders sacking Port Royal to bring in front of Barbossa, and uses her coveted necklace as a bargaining chip for the jewel-hungry pirates. She uses their expectations of her as a pretty damsel in distress to her own advantage, be it getting Jack drunk so she can light a signal flame or using her own wedding dress to send sailors to the port she needs to get to. She negotiates with captains without ever backing down, looking Lord Admiral Beckett in the eye in At World’s End when trading hostages.
In the second movie, Elizabeth takes up a sword and fights alongside the boys. In the climatic moment in the finale, she gives a rousing speech, stepping up onto the side of the ship to rally her forces. She gets to do all the things the male characters do in a genre movie — and half the time, she’s dressed like them, too. No one doubts her skill, either, not when she’s proved it and while she does long for something more than a sensible marriage, her story isn’t about Being a Woman. She just happens to be one.
“I think they really liked the more action-based side of Elizabeth from the first film and apparently that’s what little girls really responded to, so they decided to take her off in that direction,” said Knightley in an interview preceding Dead Man’s Chest.
Empowering female stories don’t have to directly replicate male narratives. But it’s satisfying that Elizabeth is on the swashbuckling level of Jack or Will, with the fact that she’s a woman being a very small part of her overall story. Occasionally, a man will underestimate or undermine her — be her father suggesting that her future is marrying Norrington, Sao Feng’s bathhouse lackey making her wear a bathrobe, or Barbossa dressing her up in a pretty red dress — but none of that becomes a huge plot point that she needs to overcome. When she does indulge the overly feminine expectations of her, it’s to get Jack to drink more rum so he passes out or to appease Sao Feng so he spills more about his plans.
That is not to discount Elizabeth and Will’s romance, which was part of the appeal, playing to popular romance tropes: class differences, childhood friends, mutual pining. The Pirates films aren’t a romantic saga — they’re fantasy adventures that happen to have a comforting, fulfilling courtship at their core, and a female character with sexual agency. Elizabeth’s biggest motivator from the beginning of Curse of the Black Pearl is her love for Will, and it’s not a passive love. Elizabeth is active in her pursuit of him. She tells him to call her by her first name. She realizes Lord Beckett is going to con them both, so she sets out after him. She is not a dainty trophy to be won by the scrappy blacksmith, but a young woman realizing her own desires and acting on them.
In Dead Man’s Chest, when she confronts Lord Beckett about arresting her and Will and sending him off, she notes that he disrupted her wedding night. Elizabeth has these deep desires — for Will, for freedom, for something more than societal expectations that she can’t even quite pinpoint. It’s an acknowledgment to the girls watching that it is okay to want.
A Disney heroine looking out to the horizon and wanting more had been done before Pirates, especially in the animated canon. The series gave girls the validation that “wanting” could be getting down and dirty with a hot blacksmith, or dressing up like a man and sail to the ends of the world. Elizabeth’s desires were strong and intense, yet unlike so many action movies of the 2000s, beyond men leering at her, she was never put in skimpy outfits and sexualized.
That’s because she was the one who had love interests. There was Will, devoted childhood friend with dreamy brown eyes, who’s self-torturedness doesn’t come from a place of violence but a desire to prove himself. There was Jack, charming, loveable rogue, quick to keep you on your feet and ultimately devoted if on your side. There was (arguably) Norrington, noble, slightly older military man — who somehow makes that awful wig look good — dedicated and stalwart. The three men appealed to different demographics. Did you like a charming antihero, the devoted childhood friend, or the noble commander? The Pirates same tactics of successful romance writers: Make a bunch of hot men smitten with one singular woman and the audience will pick favorites. What makes Pirates particularly noteworthy, however, is that Elizabeth has made her choice from the beginning of the first movie. But the fact that the romantic narrative could have tipped to any of them with a few changes makes them peak crushable.
Elizabeth didn’t wear traditionally sexy outfits, but by placing her at the center of the trilogy, costume changes became a visual way to chart her arc. In Black Pearl, Elizabeth starts off in frilly upper-class dresses in the first movie, then dons a soldier’s uniform to assist in the fight. In the sequels, she wears her wedding dress, which is quickly reappropriated to trick some sailors, then is discarded for a handful of battle garb. The slinkiest thing she wears is a short silk bathrobe, in which she wields two swords. It’s a dream: Elizabeth gets to have it all — pretty dresses, practical clothes — appealing to anyone with an eye for period gowns and those who just wanted to play pirate.
Elizabeth’s role at the center of the trilogy elevates one woman’s story, showing young girls that they can be heroes too. But while that is certainly a step forward, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies don’t do much to elevate women’s stories in general. There are only two other named female characters across three movies (three if you count Pirate Lord Mistress Ching who appears briefly when the Brethren Court convenes). Anamaria only appears in Curse of the Black Pearl and is frankly a waste of Zoe Saldana, and Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) isn’t so much a character as she is a plot device. The fourth and fifth movies attempt to reconcile this by introducing other female leads, but they never interact or cultivate any sort of meaningful relationships with one another.
It’s a waste, especially when the potential is all there. But for 2003, having Elizabeth draw a sword alongside Will and Jack was enough. Perhaps the Pirates movie in the works with Margot Robbie as the lead and Christina Hodson writing will do with the Pirates of the Caribbean world what Birds of Prey did with Harley Quinn, and give a female pirate a crew of seafaring ladies. There’s an opportunity to not just elevate one woman to stand among men, but elevating the idea of women’s stories being just as central and pivotal as men’s.
Nothing about Pirates of the Caribbean on paper spelled “this will absolutely dominate girlhood obsessions of the mid-2000s,” but then again, nothing about Pirates of the Caribbean seemed like it would be the smashing box office success that it was. Pirates of the Caribbean defied every expectation. By investing in its female lead — and listening to Keira Knightley, who asked every day that she be allowed to wield a sword — it dismantled expectations of its own narrative and became a franchise young girls flocked to. Whether it was because they dreamed of meeting the handsome leading man, having an epic world-crossing romance, or setting sail on the high seas and becoming Pirate King did not matter — it was simply the fact that for many girls, it was the first time a story felt like fantasy adventure could also be for them.
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