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The Role of Women

Elizabeth Swann: The New Gothic Heroine

Similarities to Catherine Morland

Catherine Morland

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, heroine Catherine Morland is obsessed with gothic novels, and when she visits Northanger Abbey, she believes her life will begin to imitate art. As a result, she jumps to the wrong conclusions (that the abbey will be creepy and haunted, that her future father-in-law is hiding a sinister and murderous secret, etc.) and ends up looking foolish.

Young Elizabeth Swann

Similarly, Elizabeth Swann is fascinated from a very young age by pirates. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl opens with a young Elizabeth singing “A Pirate’s Life for Me,” and declaring, “I think it would be rather exciting to meet a pirate.” Minutes later, she does meet a pirate (or at least the son of one), young Will Turner, and steals his (cursed) medallion. This is the first of many foolish decisions as a result of her excessive interest in pirates. For example, when the crew of the Black Pearl is attacking Port Royal, Elizabeth uses her knowledge of the Pirate Code to invoke “parlay.” Unfortunately for her, this plays right into the pirates’ hands, because they already wanted to take her captive. Later, when she tries to negotiate with Barbosa, he exposes her fundamental ignorance of the Code (“The Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”), and accurately points out that the Code does not apply to a non-pirate like her.

Similarities to other gothic heroines

Constant need to be rescued by men

Elizabeth in distress

Throughout the movie, Elizabeth seems to fit the damsel-in-distress model of gothic heroines like Julia from A Sicilian Romance and Agnes from The Monk. She narrowly escapes drowning after her corset causes her to faint and fall into the ocean. She is captured by pirates and nearly sacrificed to end an Aztec curse. And she is forced to walk the plank and trapped on a deserted island. In every case, Elizabeth is rescued by men: Jack Sparrow, Will, Norrington, her father.

However, unlike her gothic counterparts, Elizabeth is–at times–capable of rescuing herself and others. Rather than fainting or giving up, she attempts to defend herself. At first her efforts are not very effective, as when she fights back against the pirates by attempting to take a decorative sword off the wall or when she stabs the undead Barbosa with a table knife. As the movie progresses, her strength grows. By the end, she takes the initiative to run away from her father, swim to the Black Pearl, and rescue Will and the crew. She and Will fight side-by-side to defeat the pirates in the cave.

Choice between two men

Many gothic heroines find themselves trapped, sometimes figuratively and often literally, by an unwanted, powerful suitor and need to be rescued by their true love. In A Sicilian Romance, heroine Julia is caught between the proposal of the Duke de Luovo, a weathly older man whose status her father approves of, and Count Hippolitus, her young and handsome hero. In The Monk, Antonia loves Lorenzo, but her mother will not accept the match. Meanwhile, she is also pursued by the lust-crazed Ambrosio.

Elizabeth’s love plots play out in the gothic tradition. Her father pushes her toward marriage to the recently-promoted Commodore Norrington who, as her maid points out, is a smart match. However, Elizabeth’s heart truly belongs to Will Turner. Will is a blacksmith (and, we later find out, the son of a pirate), which makes him an inappropriate suitor for the daughter of a governor. The twist in Elizabeth’s story is that she is ultimately permitted to choose her own husband, for love and not social status. Her father supports her decision and even encourages her to marry for the right reasons, despite his own preference for Norrington.

Femininity and Fainting

Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel, especially A Sicilian Romance, will notice how often the female characters faint. As the ideal representatives of both the eighteenth-century concept of sensibility and the ladylike behavior of heroines of the medieval past, gothic women are required to uphold a certain level of femininity.  To some extent, Elizabeth meets this expectation, particularly toward the beginning of the film. She faints on two occasions, once after Norrington’s proposal and again at the hanging of Jack Sparrow. She often screams when in distress, as when her butler is shot by invading pirates or when confronted with the ghostly skeleton pirates for the first time.

However, consider Elizabeth’s reasons for fainting. In the first instance, she is not overcome by emotion as Norrington supposes. Instead, she is physically unable to breathe because of her corset. In the second, she deliberately uses the expectations of femininity to pretend to faint and thus distract Norrington and her father while Will rescues Jack from the gallows. Furthermore, she exhibits some less-than-ladylike behavior at times, including the scene where she gets drunk on rum with Jack Sparrow.

Misogyny and limitations on women

Many gothic novels, especially Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, are not particularly kind in their treatment of women. In The Monk, women are abused, raped, belittled, portrayed as (literal) agents of Satan, imprisoned, murdered, and torn to pieces by an angry mob. The narrator occasionally interjects to make comments like, “As this is the only instance known of a Woman’s ever having [held her tongue], it was judged worthy to be recorded here.” Other novels, while not necessarily matching this degree of misogyny, nevertheless place limitations on women that reflect their time period.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl acknowledges gothic misogyny in several scenes, although it is usually mitigated in some way. Gibbs comments repeatedly on the superstition that it’s “frightful bad luck to have a woman on board” a ship. To counter this, Jack quips, “It’d be far worse not to.” A pirate on the Black Pearl slaps Elizabeth across the face and tells her, “You speak when spoken to,” but he is immediately rebuked by Barbossa.  Several characters refuse to take Elizabeth seriously, but this usually works to their disadvantage. For example, the Naval soliders who ignore and mock her warning about the cursed pirates are attacked and, in some cases, killed by the same cursed pirates. Finally, although Elizabeth’s only power over men seems to be her marriagability–Norrington and her father don’t agree to rescue Will until she promises to marry Norrington–they do ultimately grant her freedom in this area, allowing her to back out of this engagement when they realize she doesn’t love him.

Keira Knightley and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Photograph

The film also reflects the gothic standard of limitations on women. These limitations can be physical, as Elizabeth and anyone else who has worn a corset will tell you. (“Women in London must have learned not to breathe.”) They are also behaviorial. One of the clearest examples is when Elizabeth’s father, Governor Swann, reprimands her for impropriety after she addresses Will by his first name and freely discloses that she had a dream about the day they met. Will, on the other hand, is a model of propriety for continuing to call her “Miss Swann,” despite her requests that he call her “Elizabeth.” (Note that modern women might find it strange, or even rude, if a man refused to address them by their preferred name.)

A stronger, smarter heroine

Although Elizabeth retains many situational similarities to gothic heroines, we see her progress throughout the movie from the typical gothic damsel-in-distress to a new, more modern breed of female character. Many of Elizabeth’s differences from gothic heroines like Catherine, Julia, and Antonia have already been ennumerated. Elizabeth takes action and speaks her mind in order to get what she wants and, with a few noted exceptions, she succeeds. She is bold, she makes her own decisions, and she stands up for herself. She has her own ideas (lightening the ship’s load to outrun the Pearl, lowering the starboard anchor to position the ship in battle, making a signal fire to catch the Navy’s attention), and others actually listen to them. These changes definitely indicate an awareness on the part of the filmmakers of what modern audiences want to see: a stronger, smarter heroine rather than a one-dimensional ideal.


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