Lusting for some controversy? The awkward history of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean
Written by Matt McDonough
As a kid I was fortunate enough to grow up near Disneyland and made the pilgrimage a couple of times a year. I loved visiting Disneyland and made it my mission to try and hit as many rides as possible each visit and take in all the sights and smells of that incredible park. Although I now live and work on the east coast, I still visit family in southern California and every once in a while we make the trek to Anaheim. The park has always held a special place in my heart and I even proposed to my wife in front of the castle. This year was the 10th anniversary of that proposal and we decided to commemorate the event with another visit. While I have ridden dozens of rides at a variety of theme parks none have captured my imagination better than the west coast original, Pirates of the Caribbean.Tweet
This ride is awesome in too many ways to count, from the queue which features portraits of real notable pirates, to boarding at "Lafitte's Landing" (an often-overlooked nod to the French Pirate who helped turn the tide at the Battle of New Orleans), to the battle that rains cannonballs around you. As a kid, this always was my favorite ride and helped inspire me to become a historian. Upon the latest ride, I was reminded of some scenes that have changed drastically over the years. That has a lot to do with how we choose to remember and interpret history.
Photo submitted by Brandon Mendoza
Of particular note is how the pirates have been portrayed when it comes to their lustful reputation. Pirates operating in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (early 18th century) were known to frequent brothels and were no strangers to sex and raping. In its original incarnation, Disney's ride did not gloss over this aspect. Instead, several scenes depicted the pirate lustfully chasing after female villagers. This clip features the original ride's promo video (the pertinent scenes are from 3:58-5:30):
Three scenes are of particular note. The first showcases the famous pirate auction where Pirates are encouraged to bid and "take a wench for a bride." This scene is mostly identical now as it was when the ride debut in 1967. The next scene featured pirates chasing townswomen around, trying to capture them. In addition there was the infamous "pooped pirate" who has tired from his skirt-chasing and converses with the guests. Asking if they have seen the fine wench he is pursuing, what he would do to her and even offers to "share" her (considerate pirates are so rare these days.) Starting in the 1990s, public opinion berated Disney for these sexist scenes and they were altered repeatedly. Now, the women chase pirates who are carrying looted goods. The wannabe rapist pirate has now been replaced with a buccaneer searching for a treasure map. Yet the auction scene has escaped most change. It still features women being bought and sold, including a weeping girl at the back awaiting her fate. Perhaps this scene is still acceptable since the pirates are agreeing to marry the women and make them "honest."
All of this does bring up some rather interesting points. In my last article I discussed the failure of Disney's America and how one reason for its demise was the charge of "Disneyfication" — that Disney could not do justice to history and thus would ruin the experience by whitewashing sensitive subjects. Yet in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, the opposite occurred. The lustful pirate, while historically accurate, was deemed insensitive and thus removed to make the attraction more family friendly. But when we really think about it, the ride is far from family friendly. The altered chase scene now features pirates who have looted goods. The pirates still set fire to the town and then, toward the end, we are greeted by the sight of drunken swashbucklers recklessly shooting firearms at each other in a room full of explosives. Thus according to the current mindset alcoholism, attempted murder, robbery, theft, and arson are all acceptable but a pirate chasing a girl crosses the line. The main question still remains — can history and theme parks co-exist, or are we doomed to jump from controversy to controversy whenever the two meet?
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