Much effort was put into making Elizabeth and Carina well-developed, strong characters. But how well is Disney representing diversity in the Caribbean?
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was released this weekend, to overall positive reception. While it still doesn’t quite reach The Curse of the Black Pearl’s success, it brought the story back to life with some interesting new characters. But for a franchise set in the Caribbean, at the heart of New World colonization, Pirates has yet to do history justice when it comes to diversity… and even their approach to female characters raises some questions.
A recent blog post by screenwriter Terry Rossio, who worked on the first four movies, revealed that for the latest Pirates film, he planned to have a female villain — a first for the franchise, and probably a possibility that we didn’t even really consider, given Pirates’ penchant for male villains. But according to Rossio, the idea was rejected by Johnny Depp himself, who “was worried that would be redundant to Dark Shadows [the other movie Depp was working on at the time], which also featured a female villain.”
It’s not that Disney has been shying away from strong female characters. In fact, they make a point of developing Elizabeth Swann into someone who can hold her own — she goes from being a damsel in distress to being Pirate King, and has more agency than most female leads in her genre. Carina Smyth, the heroine that will presumably star in the next Pirates films, is even more outspokenly feminist: she’s a scientist, and a rebel in a very different vein than Elizabeth was.
Despite what many filmmakers today seem to think, it isn’t enough to have only one female character in a story. Here Pirates also does good work on the surface, introducing other women besides Elizabeth, Angelica and Carina (leads in different films, respectively) like Anamaria, Tia Dalma, Syrena and now the sea witch Shansa, all of whom possess their own agency and contribute in different ways to the plot.
But besides Elizabeth and Carina, none of the other female characters make regular appearances throughout the films. Anamaria is almost immediately dismissed, despite being one of the most appealing characters of The Curse of the Black Pearl; she goes from being captain of the Pearl to disappearing from the story. Tia Dalma has a more fascinating character arc, becoming Calypso in the second film she appears in, but she is also sidelined while being one of the most complex characters of the franchise — and as a sea goddess, entirely plausible as a regular character.
In the end, the only female characters besides Elizabeth to appear in all of the first three movies are Scarlett and Giselle, the prostitutes from Tortuga.
Syrena is somewhat harder to quantify, given that she’s in a movie that’s more stand-alone than any of the ones before it. But with Shansa, the sea witch from Dead Men Tell No Tales, we’re left to wonder. She doesn’t have a character arc, although it’s implied that she has history with Barbossa. So what is the logic behind these supporting characters’ strange rate of appearances? What makes them less appealing than their male counterparts, like Gibbs, Marty, Murtogg and Mullroy, who are deemed valuable enough to make an appearance in all the films?
And it’s worth noting that nearly all of the supporting female characters are people of color. Anamaria and Tia Dalma are some of the few instances of a speaking character from Afro-Caribbean descent who has agency. While there are a few male Afro-Caribbean characters (so few that they can be counted in one hand), their roles in the story are so small that they’re hardly worth counting.
It’s a shocking historical discrepancy when you think about it, given that Pirates of the Caribbean is set in… well, the Caribbean. It’s impossible to try and defend the whitewashing of the movies by saying that people of African descent were a minority in the region, when the Caribbean was at the very heart of the horrifying slave trade being carried out between Europe, Africa and the New World.
Pirate ships were something of a haven for those fleeing hierarchy and oppression on land. While it’s unfortunately more than likely that pirates would have been just as racist as their more legal counterparts in the mainland, it’s also a fact that within the pirate lifestyle there were more possibilities for oppressed minorities. There is historical record of pirates of Afro-Caribbean or Indigenous descent, sometimes even in positions of power.
Barbossa’s First Mate in The Curse of the Black Pearl, Bo’sun, is an example of this. And yet he too is relegated to little more than an intimidating figure, whose name literally means ‘boat servant’. He promptly disappears from the story by Dead Man’s Chest.
Anamaria, the only representation of an Afro-Caribbean female captain, should not have been cut from the story.
Tia Dalma’s island alludes to a Maroon village — a place occupied by escaped slaves, who hid and defended themselves from the whites who sought to brutalize them. It’s easily one of the most interesting places ever depicted in the Pirates films. And yet, besides Tia Dalma’s appearance as a mostly cliché ‘witch,’ we don’t see more of them or how they contribute to the diversity of the Caribbean as a whole.
On the subject of the ‘magical’ person of color… one has to wonder why both witch-like characters in the Pirates franchise are women of color. Naomie Harris is of Jamaican descent, and Golshifteh Farahani is Iranian. In juxtaposition to Carina’s role, mistaken as a witch but actually an intellectual, a woman of science, this trend starts to look a little disturbing.
Pirates did a considerably better job with At World’s End, with the Brethren Court and a quite detailed trip to Singapore. Overlooking the (somewhat on-brand for Pirates) sexualization of Singaporean women, it does a better job of acknowledging the presence of piracy in other parts of the globe, and even acknowledging some powerful historical figures like Mistress Ching.
It almost makes us forget the blatantly insulting depiction of Caribbean Indigenous peoples in Dead Man’s Chest.
When it comes to representation, Pirates has consistently done both incredibly well and very, very badly — which is to be expected, in an age when we’re still trying to bring more diversity to films and make studios aware of the age-long erasure women and people of color have suffered in Hollywood.
They’re clearly trying to take steps in the right direction. Actress Kaya Scodelario was happy to note that she thinks “ [Carina] is the most progressive [female character] that we’ve ever seen. She is just a simple woman in this time who doesn’t want to be put into a box.”
When it comes to racial diversity, Jack’s crew in Dead Men Tell No Tales also included Pike, who thankfully had a decent amount of lines. The presence of Marty in the films is also a good sign for representation, although he’s at times reduced to the reductive slapstick comedy that actors with dwarfism often encounter.
Why was a female villain deemed ‘redundant,’ when all of the villains in the movies have been male so far? Where is Anamaria? Can we see more speaking roles given to characters that aren’t European? Can Disney exploit the amazing potential of the heroic history of African and Indigenous people in the Caribbean, and truly deliver something fresh and new?
Pirates can definitely do better, and we would do well to demand that they do.