On Stranger Tides rankles my feminist self

Last weekend I went to see the fourth Pirates of the Carribbean movie (On Stranger Tides) expecting the usual pretty faces, swashbuckling, and Johnny Depp’s swagger.  I was sadly disappointed.

Firstly, the movie recycles some of the scenes from previous movies and just uses different characters or slightly different settings. However, this is likely to happen in a fourth movie, so I can let that slide.

What I can’t let slide, is the way this movies uses women.  There is a subplot involving mermaids (spoiler alert!) — Jack Sparrow and crew need the tear of a mermaid to complete the ritual for the Fountain of Youth.  However, these are not Disney’s usual mermaids.  Instead, these mermaids are beautiful women, who entrance sailors and then pull them down into the ocean to die.  When provoked they hiss and growl at the men, barring sharp vampire like teeth.  Could this be a more thinly veiled reference to women as evil temptresses??

In much of ancient literature such as the Greeks, women are portrayed as being either beautiful innocent virgins, or evil temptresses who entice men to evil or outright kill them.  Think of Greek mythology, or the story of Sedna from the Inuits. Women have been fighting that dichotomy for centuries.

Previous Pirates movies have been thin on plot and have relied on assumptions to make their movies work.  But they also had the character of Keira Knightly who shuns the feminine in favor of the life of a pirate.  In this latest installment, the balance is Penelope Cruz’s character — a character that doesn’t move beyond the stereotype of a Latina woman filled with hot blood.  She is sexualized in ways that Kiera Knightly was not — her costumes are much more revealing, and most of the conversation about her revolves around sex.  Yes, she is independent and strong, but she is also cast as manipulative and conniving, little different from the mermaid subplot (who are the only other women characters in the film).

I could not seem to get past these issues when watching the movie to enjoy the other really great parts — Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is once again hilarious (although the character is beginning to grow stale), the chase after a ship, the adventures to unknown lands, some really good witty banter from Sparrow.  All of it seemed overshadowed to me by the awful reliance on stereotypes (Did I mention that the Spanish are cast as the ultimate evil characters who destroy what the rest are looking for? Because, you know, anyone of Spanish blood is clearly worse than being a pirate!) that hit just a little too close to home.

Perhaps this is true of the first three movies as well, and I just never noticed it.  I’m itching to get my hands on copies of the first trilogy and test this out.  My recommendation? Either don’t see this movie at all, or go into expecting to be disappointed.


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3 Responses to On Stranger Tides rankles my feminist self

  1. DiatribesAndOvations.com says:

    Agreed. I paid extra to be disappointed in 3D. My recommendation … wait for the DVD release.

  2. Instead, these mermaids are beautiful women, who entrance sailors and then pull them down into the ocean to die. When provoked they hiss and growl at the men, barring sharp vampire like teeth. Could this be a more thinly veiled reference to women as evil temptresses?

    Well, this might not be Disney’s standard mermaids, but it is the traditional understanding of mermaids within the context of pirate lore. Now it’s certain that that traditional understanding is misogynistic through and through, although I suspect there’s more going on than just that, with the evil mermaid myth functioning as a way of projecting homosexual panic (assuming that pirate ships were either all-male or predominately male) onto a more comfortably female figure; after all, mermaids are capable of performing fellatio but not penetrative sex.

    Now, the degree to with the Pirates film can be held responsible for its re-perpetuation of the misogyny inherent in the original mermaid myths is a vexed and complicated question. Given how engrained the notion of mermaid as siren is in much pirate law, and how central mermaids in general are to that lore, I’d be tempted to give it a pass, I think. (I have not seen the movie, nor do I plan to.) But it is of course true that the film could have chosen to instead subvert that mythology, as was the case in a very recent episode of Doctor Who in which the “mermaid” (it looked more like the green fairy from Moulin Rouge than anything) turned out to actually be a benevolent-if-malfunctioning sort of alien EMH, and not evil after all.

    All that said, my impression is that the overall approach of the Pirates films to gender (not to mention race, sexual orientation, disability–the list is legion) is indeed fairly deeply failtastic–going chiefly from the first movie, which I hated. (I watched the second and third movies, technically, at a friend’s party, but couldn’t really bring myself to pay attention.) Part of this is I think is that the character of Norrington is treated far more sympathetically than I felt he himself actually deserved. Part is that Knightly’s character–while I’m perfectly willing to believe more feminist than Cruz’s–falls far short of being a feminist icon. And a large part is that there simply isn’t enough attention to female characters in general to keep Knightly’s character from becoming a token or treated as an exception to the rule; does the first movie contain a single scene which even comes close to passing the Bechdel test?

    • Lisa Christina says:

      I agree that the Disney version ( a la the Little Mermaid) is not the typical story of mermaids. I guess what upset me most was that this movie choose to use that story of mermaids without altering it at all. It seems to me that it would have been easy to just make the mermaids difficult to catch without having to make them evil.

      When it comes to Knightly and Cruz’s characters I think they are ‘mainstream feminists’ — they are strong women who can handle themselves and ‘run with the boys’ but in the end they are still damsels reduced to sex. I think this is a common conception of feminists (if they don’t assume we are all bra-burning lesbians). We can do what we want but in the end we still just want a good man who will make us work less and encourage us to produce babies. Which is exactly what Knightly’s character does at the end of the third installment.

      I have a sneaking suspicion that once I go back and rewatch the first Pirates movies, I will not enjoy them and find them as upsetting as this one (which is maybe why I haven’t sat down and rewatched them yet…). There are rarely second female characters included — the few that come to mind are also evil, and ‘happen’ to be women of color as well.

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