Perhaps when children develop interests in pirates, it’s the adventure they crave.
THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)
It is 2012 and there is no excuse for these kinds of movies being made. Of course, I say that with the assumption that in regards to female representation we can only move forwards, but this film is another example of why many feminist commentators conclude that we’re going backwards.
I wrote copious notes on why I hate this film so much, and before ranting about it here, checked it past my husband. I asked him to watch it first, for a repeat screening with the four-year-old, who I should mention up front — loves this film.
“What did you think?” I asked, knowing he knew I hated it.
“Um, I thought it was pretty good…?”
“But you can see why I didn’t like it, right?”
“Um… not really.”
So I read him my notes (which took some time) and then he got it. He said, “I honestly didn’t pick up any of that.” And I don’t think he said it just for a quiet life, but he agreed with me that this isn’t the sort of film we should let the four year old watch over and over again. Kids do that, you see, and I definitely see the influence of a few films in her imaginative play, which is why I’m so careful about these things.
This feminist-commentary/blissful-ignorance thing is a familiar dynamic in our living room. After coming out with a feminist critique of an episode of The Walking Dead the other night (even though I do try to keep my editorial inserts to myself, for enjoyment’s sake), my husband said, ‘Doesn’t knowing all this feminist stuff ruin stuff for you?”
(Totally not related: 7 Scientific Facts That Will Ruin Movies For You from io9)
“Yes!” Absolutely it does. Absolutely. I am in no doubt that my thinking deeply about inequalities enhances my enjoyment of not a single little thing, least of all Life In General, but in fact, these kinds of films annoyed me long before grew the vocabulary to explain how.
I’ll say upfront that this film met with very good reviews from the critics and as I mentioned above, I have long been baffled with the enduring popularity of pirates. Pirates are criminals, yet they have entered the common consciousness as heroes. If it’s sea adventure we’re after, we could easily glamorise the lives of common seafarers, yet we glamorise the lives of 19th century pirates.
The mood of this film reminds me a lot of The Boat That Rocked — a film for adults which I really enjoyed. Aardman have married stop motion animation with computer generated effects to create something visually stunning. What a shame the gags don’t live up to the vision.
This pirate story opens with Queen Victoria, a formidable character — yay!, a strong female character I think — followed not long after by blokey jokes about “scantily clad mermaids” and I realise that it’s only going to go downhill from there.
The token female saunters into a room full of hapless male pirates announcing that she is just as deadly as she is beautiful. The men stare at her with their mouths agape, stunned by her beauty, or perhaps from the unexpectedness of this.
GENDER-BENDING, NOT REALLY
Female pirates? At this point I would like to quote Shattersnipe:
What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?
The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate.
– from the blog post PSA: Your default narrative settings are not apolitical
I feel I should quote some more of that article, in which we learn that that there was such a thing as female pirates — writers don’t need to shove them in just for the sake of modern political correctness — it is entirely possible to make a movie with female pirates at the helm, rather than as a walk-on sexually objectified character, and she would be perfectly historically accurate:
…there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible.
Here’s another point, from author Scott Lynch, in response to a reader complaining that having a middle-aged female pirate is nothing more than political correctness. Quite rightly, Lynch says that middle-aged women are allowed some wish fulfillment in their fiction as much as the next person.
I can see that this film, however, is parodying the classic female roles with its eyes wide open, but what does this really achieve, apart from reinforcing those roles? I was slightly concerned when the four-year-old looked at me and said, “Girls are queens!” meaning, I thought, “What is this girl doing as a pirate?” A successful attempt at gender-role bending, perhaps. Then I worked out that the female pirate was acting so far out of her traditional female role — only her voice was feminine — and the four-year-old didn’t realise that the pirate was actually a female. Decent female characters do not equal male characters with boobies. To the four-year-old, even the bows in the hair was confusing to her, since male pirates are traditionally depicted wearing bows on their ponytails, unlike every other character on everything, and so hair-style is how little kids are conditioned to tell the difference between female and male caricatures/cartoons/characters in the first place. (There’s that and the colour pink, of course, to denote the token female in a group.)
So much for gender bending, anyway. I’m wondering now how female pirates did behave. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know, because their histories haven’t been recorded.
By the way, this alluring female pirate appears later in the sexually charged fantasy of the Pirate Captain. This time she’s the stereotypical gameshow hostess in which he wins pirate of the year, or something. She may have first appeared in pirate dress, but that is not how the audience is guided to see her. It would be a mistake then for the audience to conclude that this film is a good one for pirate-loving little girls, because a young woman in pirate-costume is… well, just that.
In the week when American news anchor Jennifer Livingston responded on air to an email from a male lawyer asking her to lose weight in order to be a good role model on screen, I was already wondering where all the fatism comes from, especially when the overweight and obese look set to outnumber the rest. So I couldn’t help but notice the fat jokes in this film, too.
The Pirate Captain has the obligatory parrot on his shoulder, standing in as his ‘trophy wife’. The running joke is that the parrot is bigger than it should be. “She’s not fat — she’s just big-boned”, exclaims the captain defensively. This has the entire ship in fits of laughter, and is the turning event when the captain decides he must prove his worth as their true leader. This joke wouldn’t work, of course, if there were not the cultural assumption that powerful men must have beautiful women on their arms — or in this case, beautiful parrots on their shoulders. A man whose woman (or his female parrot companion) can’t possibly be fit to be leader unless he finds himself a female who fits the narrow constraints of acceptable body shape. A man’s status must match his woman’s beauty. Stereotype thusly reinforced.
Later, when Queen Victoria enters a room on a horse, the queen is exaggeratedly large (as she is always depicted) and the horse is ridiculously small: a visual joke about size which is as powerful as anything voiced. In another scene someone says, “A minute on the hips, a lifetime on the hips.” A ridiculous axiom in the first place. All it does is bring unhealthy messages about food guilt into a comedy designed for kids, who shouldn’t have to have to hear such rubbish.
TRADITIONAL FEMALE CLICHES
Much of the humour in this film come from anachronisms such as the appearance of a group of modern children on a geography field trip to the pirate ship, or the Pirate Captain performing the moonwalk, or the audience at the science awards eating popcorn and sucking down soda drinks. Yet in that same audience, a woman is so taken aback that she faints. This often happened in those days, partly because it was expected of the weaker sex. It’s interesting to see which authentically 1800s parts are kept and which are ditched for comedy’s sake.
TOO SOON TO BE FUNNY
I am a big fan of the historical figure Charles Darwin — I think he did a lot to advance our understanding of the world — so at the risk of sounding way too precious, I take it a little personally when he is fictionalised as a rather hapless character. I wouldn’t mind so much if he were as untouchable as Queen Victoria, but here’s the rub: there are still plenty of otherwise well-educated people in this world who refuse to believe ‘The Theory Of Evolution’, so I’m not sure Darwin is quite up to the role of being ridiculed, not so long as his work is still being ridiculed for real.
I’d be interested to know if other adult viewers got an impression of Charles Darwin depicted as gay when he is first introduced in this film. Later, it turns out he is in love with Queen Victoria, which is meant to sound ridiculous, of course, but funny? Really? “You don’t get many women back here, do you Charles,” says one of the pirates when Charles takes them to his house. Because women exist as sexual conquests, to be impressed? Because a comfortable home takes a ‘woman’s touch’? I’m not sure, but I know I don’t like it. I think it’s because a man couldn’t possibly be attracted to an unattractive woman… in power. One of those attributes would be unappealing enough, but both at once, in the same woman? Impossible. Even today. Queen Victoria can see Charles’ infatuation for her and says, “I’ve always loved you Charles.” “Really?” “No!” Queen Victoria then hits him over the head with a frying pan. I wondered if this is how the male authors of this screenplay feel about women in general. Much of this humour felt like a catharsis of female rejection. Or maybe they’re just playing on how many other men feel about women, and the nasty business of being rejected when you’re acculturated into making the first move, as a real man.
Small things, small things, I know. But they add up. Like when a canon ball smashes the head off a female figurine at the front of a boat. A model of Queen Victoria is sucker punched. An animated pirate movie will of course contain comic violence, sure, but when violent things happen to the male characters the male characters are there in person, to fight back. Maybe it’s not okay to depict violence against actual female characters, but using images of them in an indirect, subversive kind of way doesn’t work either, in my opinion.
Not when women are sexualised as it is. When a scientist presents his new invention (a blimp) he goes over all the ways in which it will be useful, then says, “but mostly it’s for looking down ladies’ tops.” This film may well be hilarious in a dirty-old-man kind of a way, and I might even expect this to come out of the mouths of ribald pirates, but this was from a character who was meant to be a scientist. In this film, no opportunity is lost for treating women badly. I should mention that (the real depiction of) Queen Victoria ends up being squashed by giant barrels of vinegar( though she magically reappears later, since she’s indestructible in a larger-than-life kind of way).
REAL MEN DON’T DO THAT.
The rolling credits at the end are accompanied by (omitted?) scenes, if you’re still watching. “It’s not about the treasure,” says one of the pirates, “it’s about how you feel inside.” The Pirate Captain responds dismissively with, “You’re not a man disguised as a woman, are you?” Also: “Grow yourself a beard. It’ll make your face look less lumpy.” Wrong on several levels. It’s not lost on me that stories which are not good for little girls are also not good for little boys. Gender roles, when presented in binary, are bad for everyone.
Something tells me the creators of this film weren’t thinking too hard about their script. At least they took out the bad-taste leprosy joke before the final cut. But where the hell was Germaine Greer?
And now the four-year-old wants a pirate party for her next birthday. She liked the ‘scary dolphin’ in it, and now this appears to be one of her most favourite movies.
For good claymation from the same people, watch Chicken Run instead. That’s what she’s getting for Christmas. But how the flying hell did this film get a rating of 6.7 on IMDb and avoid any feminist critique whatsoever from the top reviewers? I checked.