The characterization of the Red Queen as infantile works to construct Underland as in need of guidance and growth.

The Red Queen’s insecurities about her failure to live up to idealized gender norms results in her followers adopting a performative deformity.

Hatter’s madness in the film results from the trauma he suffered when the Red Queen attacked the White Queen and her followers.

Elizabeth’s bad table manners mark an early moment where she breaks the rules of aristocratic white femininity.

In Dead Man’s Chest Elizabeth is able to command the direction of a pirate ship by dressing as a boy and playing on the pirates’ superstitions about women.

Elizabeth in one of her many disguises

Alice commands the foreign fantastical space by taking control of the bloodhound and racing across country to the Red Queen’s castle.

Alice upon entering the castle must hide her ‘liberator’ identity from the Red Queen.

Elizabeth is disgusted by Jack’s advances, pointing to his poor hygiene and lack of honor, decency and moral center.

The farcical Brethren Court that Elizabeth must unite.

Elizabeth fights against Lord Beckett’s plan to take control of pirate territory.

Alice is bathed in light as she celebrates her triumph over both the Red Queen’s reign and the patriarchal reign that kept her captive in England.

Alice’s newfound empowerment is manifested through her decision to expand trade routes into China.

Alice stands at the bow of the ship named ‘Wonder,’ now able to simultaneously chart her personal growth and global travel.

Elizabeth Swann gazes over the seas that Will must travel, safe in the knowledge that she can control these seas through the heart of Davy Jones.


From passive spectacles to
active charismatic authorities

While both Elizabeth and Alice are not accepted by their new worlds right away, each script posits a turning point where they transition from passive spectacles to active authorities. In this representation of an authoritative white femininity, the films under discussion here differ from a film like Titanic. For although Rose needs to first perform Irishness in order to liberate herself and eventually partake in activities normally reserved for men, she is never really elevated above this group in a way which requires them to defer to her power.

In Curse of the Black Pearl, the narrative depicts Elizabeth largely as a figure at the mercy of the male characters. She is kidnapped, locked away, rescued and at times denied access to the action. Although at the end she fights against Barbossa’s cursed crew, she is unable to convince the other pirates to help her. Once kidnapped by Barbossa, however, she discovers a certain similarity in their predicaments. Gazing hungrily at the feast set before her in the Captain’s cabin, Elizabeth refrains from eating as she is still adhering to the rules required of aristocratic white femininity. It is Barbossa who informs her that these rules have no currency in the pirate world. “There is no need to stand on call to impress anyone, you must be hungry,” he states, causing Elizabeth to tear into a piece of chicken and as such begin to shed her prior identity. Barbossa then informs Elizabeth of his crew’s curse, which means they can no longer gain any pleasure through satisfying desire and as such cannot eat or love. Elizabeth at Port Royal could not eat or love if she chose either, and so a form of empathy passes between the two. Since unlike Barbossa and his crew, Elizabeth’s barriers were only of the social kind, this dinner marks the point where she begins to realize that social barriers can be permeated and even exploited.

It is not until the second film however that this character really begins to take charge. Elizabeth, wanting to save Will from a charge of piracy, sets out to find Captain Jack by stowing away on board a pirate ship. Because the pirates have superstitions against women on board, Elizabeth has to dress up as a boy. This marks a complete rejection of her initial status as “English lady” and is also a performance that allows her to begin to take control of the seas. Through exploiting the pirates’ fear of women by setting up a message from a ghostly widowed maiden, Elizabeth ensures that the ship head for Tortuga. The fact that Elizabeth goes to rescue Will marks a reversal in traditional gender roles as does the fact that she is now able to chart her own travel over the seas.

Elizabeth in taking charge of the ship and by extension taking charge of her entire journey is transgressing the feminine position in favor of a masculine relationship to space. Offering an observation that helps explain the significance of this moment in the film, phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack, in an attempt to account for why men are reluctant to ask for directions, explains that male identity presumes a relationship to space that is organized around

“one’s embodied intentionality and its perceived possibility of realising projects in the world...informed by the confidence that one is...the constitutive source of meaningful space” (Sobchack, 2004, p. 32).

In contrast, women in their status as objects as well as subjects tend to inhabit space more tentatively, which

“makes their bodies less a transparent capacity for action and movement than a hermeneutic problem” (2004, p. 33).

Elizabeth is still a white traveller, and as such her new position is entirely in accordance with a model of white male power that exploits the Other for its own ends, in this instance controlling the pirates so she can be reunited with Will. Her act of gender passing highlights one of Elizabeth’s key functions in the next two films, which is to act as a master/mistress of disguise. Elizabeth is the character most easily able to pass in the Pirates franchise, whether as a member of the opposite sex, a pirate crew member, a villager in the “Orient,” or even a trapped goddess. Elizabeth’s entry into the pirate world provides her with a liberating performative power that is granted to her both because of her gender and because of her race.

In Alice in Wonderland the creatures don’t believe they have the right girl because Alice seems subdued in character, passified. The Hatter informs her that she has lost her “muchness,” is “hardly Alice” and is always “too small or too tall.” Alice’s mission therefore is to reclaim a sense of self that she lost in England due to the requirements and constraints placed upon her gender, to find the right balance. Significantly when Hatter recognizes Alice as the correct person, he gender confuses her, stating jubilantly,

“I’d know him anywhere!”

Like Elizabeth, Alice’s transition from passive spectacle to active agent has to come with a shedding of femininity and an immediate agreement to don the traditional accoutrements of masculinity. Here her personal growth is considered complete when she agrees to wear armor and carry a sword. Her transition also comes with a renewed command of the foreign space and place. This comes with Alice’s realization that she can create her own journey:

“This is my dream. I choose where to go from here. I make the path.”

Although this statement marks Alice’s coming of age, her transition from childhood to adulthood, it also marks her rejection of passive Victorian femininity in favor of a more active role in life, a rejection only made possible through the reverence shown to her by Underland’s inhabitants. Alice agrees to undertake a physical journey that culminates in layers of metaphorical significance.

With the help of Bayard the Bloodhound Alice can cover vast expanses of Underland in order to reach the Red Queen’s castle, thus overcoming any previous uncertainty regarding her place in the country. When she arrives at the castle, Alice must construct a fake history in order to explain her presence and so claims she comes from the mythical town of Umbridge. Her performance is designed to obscure the real power Alice holds from the Red Queen. Like Elizabeth Swann then, Alice achieves liberation from gender oppression through shedding her prior identity and embracing traditional forms of active male authority. Despite the acceptance of these women by those in the fantastical space, their authority explicitly privileges whiteness in that it requires the activation of a global vision that seeks to travel, to know, to trick, and to conquer.

Elizabeth and Alice do not merely transition from passive spectacles to active authorities, for there is something special about the authority that they eventually proceed to hold that marks it as different from typical white colonial control. This special authority is alluded to at the films’ beginnings which indicate a connection the aristocratic white woman has with the magical space. It is her lost object and the potential source of her liberation; in turn she is the source of liberation for the oppressed inhabitants of the magical world. Therefore the relationship is symbiotic. This relationship, however, also depends upon female protagonist’s elevation above the pirates/residents of Underland. As such, the narratives suggest, the inhabitants of the fantastical space have to agree to defer power to her. For that to happen, something must differentiate the female character from those in the magical world even though her journey requires the rejection of her prior identity.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the audience comes to realize this difference following an exchange between Elizabeth and Jack. A source of comedy in the franchise is the idea that Elizabeth may desire Jack despite finding him repulsive. An example of such a moment comes when she displays a bad temper after she uses a compass to discover what she wants most and it points to him. In another scene, which more tellingly points out the difference between the two, Jack one day declares to Elizabeth that they should get married because they really are very similar. He theorizes that soon she won’t be able to resist on account of her curiosity and her longing for freedom to act on selfish impulse. Elizabeth denies they are similar, pointing to Jack’s lack of honor, decency and moral center. Although Jack is quite correct in imagining that Elizabeth covets the liberty his lifestyle offers, her reply indicates what she perceives to be the difference between the pirates and people like her and Will, who engage in acts of piracy for the benefit of others. Elizabeth’s moral center, her belief in and willing to fight for a cause, is what elevates her above the pirates who are all out for themselves. It is Elizabeth’s upbringing in a “civilized” white culture that problematically marks out her moral superiority and it is she who has to instil this sense of honor in the pirates in order to unite them.

When we are first introduced to the Brethren Court, the government made up of pirate lords, it is clear the organization is a farce. No decisions are ever made because each lord always pushes his or her own agenda, and no King can ever be elected because each lord will always vote for himself. Jack’s decision to vote for Elizabeth instead of himself results in her being crowned leader. It is through this role, another performance of gender transgression, that Elizabeth is able to gain the respect of the pirates. Defining charismatic authority, Max Weber (1946) states that this type of power rules by virtue of a gift not accessible to everybody and also by virtue of a mission that must be obeyed and followed. This mission is one of anti-colonialism as Elizabeth is fighting for the pirate way of life in the face of the evil Lord Beckett, who has declared that the blank edges of the map are being filled in and the pirates must find a place in the new world or perish. Yet her mission also requires that the previously anarchic pirates learn to follow a leader and so Elizabeth becomes a symbol of order and unification in a time of social upheaval.[5] [open endnotes in new window]Later Elizabeth’s success in the war mission following a speech in which she instructs the pirates to “hoist the colors” earns her respect and admiration. At the end of the franchise it is implied that she controls the seas as this is the promise for one who controls the Flying Dutchman.

Alice’s charismatic authority is recognized much earlier than Elizabeth’s as her very arrival in Underland is marked as a fulfilled prophecy and as such has deeply religious undertones. Alice is the embodiment of a global power player on the one hand, but she is also crucially a messiah. Underland waits for her as though it is waiting for the return of a Christ-like figure who can re-introduce the possibility of Eden, who can bring light to dark, and who can enlighten those who have lost hope. In fact, Alice does not have much of a choice in the matter. Like Joan of Arc, it has been prophesized that she will carry out this task for a higher purpose, and so her charismatic authority is bound up with her task to carry out a divine mission. Just as Richard Dyer’s study of whiteness explored how Christian ideology was and is utilized to inform and maintain the hegemony of whiteness, in invoking the concept of the saint with the divine mission Alice in Wonderland naturalizes the colonial authority that Alice exercises through a religious discourse that marks her out as Chosen. In fact, it is Alice’s refusal to comply with gender norms at the beginning of the film that marks her out as special and so her feminism becomes a crucial aspect of her “charisma” – the indefinable special quality that empowers Alice and endows her with the right to act upon Underland as she does. Furthermore, if charismatic authority must reside outside the patriarchal bureaucratic system as Weber hypothesizes, then it makes sense that those endowed with it in these Hollywood blockbusters are women.


In analyzing these female protagonists of the recent Hollywood fantasy, I am writing as someone who responds to the strength of character these young women exhibit and their willingness to completely disregard societal law, venture into the unknown and carve out new paths for themselves in order to achieve their dreams. I find these characters refreshing amidst the sea of chick flick heroines who are either sad, lonely and unlucky in love or rely on their credit cards in order to empower themselves through shopping, trumpeting the decoration of the body as a primary means of capital in order to acquire fame and success. In fact if I were to look at Pirates of the Caribbean or Alice in Wonderland solely on the basis of gender, then I would not have much negative to say about either.

However, Elizabeth Swann and Alice Kingsleigh cannot be analysed solely on the basis of gender for it is their rejection of white femininity and subsequent embrace of an exoticized and “ethnicized” Otherness that allows them their feminist liberation. The story of gender, I have argued, can be utilized in order to mask a story that privileges white colonial power as is the case in Alice in Wonderland or mobilized as a type of compromise in a film which at times critiques the hegemony of whiteness, as is observed in Pirates. White feminine performance then is a powerful site through which contemporary questions regarding the meaning of empowerment for women are posited. However, the importance of analyzing the ideological specificities of various texts cannot be underestimated. It too often the case that this type of feminist empowerment is reliant on the singling out and elevation of white womanhood which is in turn dependent on a blurring of boundaries between personal empowerment and social control.

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