Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pirates, Gluttony, and Wenches

(Ed. note: I started writing this back in March, but got sidetracked. I thought it would be fun to revive it and polish it off in time for the opening of the new Pirates movie.)

My brother and I took his girlfriend to Disneyland this week. She had been to Disney World once before, but never Disneyland. The first and (almost) last ride we went on was Pirates of the Carribean.

It's always fun to go on Disneyland rides with people who have never been on them before. It's nice to remember what it was like when I was little and going to Disneyland meant going to Disneyland and not just riding the same fun but familiar rides for the ten billionth time. It's also interesting to see, on rides like Pirates, what newcomers notice and what they don't.

We talked a lot about how Disney alluded to the ride throughout the movie (it was on our minds already because Pirates will be closed soon for updates in conjunction with the new movies). For those of you who have never seen the movie and/or the ride: the screenwriters did an awesome job of using the ride as inspiration while not letting themselves be constrained by it. In fact, the stories mirror each other so well we're all more than a little worried about what they plan on doing to the ride. Aside from the issue of messing with a classic, how are they going to be able to change the ride without changing it so that no longer matches the first movie? (Ed. note:I've been on it since they made the changes, and I can tell you how they did it, but I don't want to print any spoilers for another few weeks at least.)

We also talked a little bit about the "pc" changes that happened in 1995. I always thought the changes were stupid. These are pirates - the whole point is that they are bad people, so how much sense does it make to have them act in a "pc" way? As we were riding past the auction the second time, though, the girlfriend made some disparaging comments about the appearance of the women being auctioned off and I suddenly had an epiphany.

For those of you that have never been on Pirates, the "controversial" bits were the auction and chase scenes that make up the pirates pillaging a captured town. The auction scene comes first and I must admit has always annoyed me a bit. It consists of about five women lined up for auction (yeah, right - like real pirates would bother) - supposedly for marriage (ha!) - and all in various states of distress. Some are almost pretty, some are not at all, most have their faces partly hidden. Two more women await buyers a little bit apart from the main line. The woman who is second in line to be auctioned off is a ravishing redhead (yes, just like the one that slaps Depp in the movie). She is preening as the pirates make catcalls. The first woman to be auctioned is a relatively nice looking but extremely fat lady who also stands preening as the pirates instead make fun of her and ask for the redhead. The chase scene is just around the bend and used to consist the new "husbands" chasing their "brides" - except for the fat lady, she is the one doing the chasing. Now, however, the chasees carry food, so supposedly that is what the chasers are after. It's ambigious whether the fat lady is simply protecting her property or is acting out the tired stereotype of the fat person with an absurdly insatiable appetite. The scenes are funny (and more than just the women or the fat lady gets made fun of) but they also rely on cruel, adolescent jokes.

I think the reason the "jokes" never bothered me too much when I was younger was because it was obvious the real "joke" was one the pirates - they were so busy being naughty that they never even noticed the town burning to the ground around them and trapping them inside. To a certain extent, I still think that's true. The fat lady's gluttony is the most obvious punchline, but it's the pirate's gluttony that deals the harshest "joke" of all.

So what's the problem? The problem is not that the ride creators showed pirate's being well, pirates. It's not even just that they made juvenile fat jokes. The problem is that by setting up the scenes the way they did, they used her and the other women to perpetuate the cruelest "joke" of all - one that is both dangerous and unneccesary to the storyline. The real "punchline" of the auction scene (and the original chase scene) is not that the fat lady is absurd, but that the weeping women are. The fat lady's size would not be as much of a punchline if she were a man (several of the pirates are rather stout themselves) and neither would the joke be as obvious if the redhead was either not there or not preening. Both the fat lady and the redhead are needed to set up the joke, because the joke is not really that the fat lady is pathetic, but that the weeping women don't know how good they have it. The main point of the scene is that women can protest otherwise all they want, but in the end what they all really want is a man. The women are not weeping because their situation is dire, but because they are not pretty enough to have the "power" the redhead has nor are they so desperate that they must admit the "truth" as the fat lady does. Those wenches just don't know how good they have it - they're lucky they aren't so ugly* that they have to chase men down instead of the other way around.

Just as they keep Song of the South hidden deep within their vault (even as they built a new ride based on it) Disney made the changes to Pirates to protect themselves from public opinion. By adding food to the chase scene, they fool themselves - and try to fool us - into thinking that it's now about food and property, not sex. By putting more of the focus on the fat lady, and less of the redhead (who has always been notably absent from the chase scene) they are trying to pretend that the "joke" is now - and perhaps was always - all about fat people, and not at all about sex and rape. Since the auction scene remains unchanged, the changes they did make only end up highlighting the sexism of the original creators and the end result makes it quite obvious that the changes weren't really made in order to make the ride more palatable to feminists. "PC" was just the cover story. All the changes do is make the reference to rape (and therefore sex) that much more ambigious - the scenes certainly aren't any more respectful of women than they ever were. The real intent was yo make the ride less frightening to overly protective parents - but they could hardly admit to that.

*because, after all, in this day and age, is anyone really considered uglier than a fat person?

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