copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

English ladies to liberators?
How Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland mobilize aristocratic white femininity

by Kendra Marston

A privileged young woman used to a life of voluminous skirts, constricting corsets, demure waltzes and lavish ceremonial occasions longs to live a different life far far away. Servants dote on her. People admire her for her charm, poise and sense of duty to her elders while potential suitors who long to possess her as a wife covet her ethereal beauty. She is the epitome of aristocratic white womanhood, as delicate and fragile as the fine bone china cups from which she leisurely consumes her tea on summer afternoons. And yet she knows that the very things for which she is admired only result from a lifetime of carefully constructed, socially enforced performances that will inevitably stifle her deepest desires. These desires for passionate love, for exploration, to be able to see the world and act in it are in danger of being permanently suppressed due to an impending marriage, an act which represents the ultimate white death (Dyer, 1997) for the English lady who dares to dream that she can be both seen and heard. The clock ticks.

Such a scene should sound familiar given that this kind of female character has made her appearance in a number of recent Hollywood blockbusters, including those that I plan to discuss in this article – the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.[1][open endnotes in new window] The films are narratives of action, adventure and spectacle, allowing these initially stifled female protagonists to enter into fantastical spaces, mingling with and learning from the otherworldly characters they find. The successful navigation of and partial assimilation into this fantastical space liberates the young woman from her previously oppressive existence by providing her with a magical playground in which to try on a myriad of new identities, eventually freeing her from high society’s restrictive gender norms and behavioral rules. However, these films are not just about liberating heritage white women, but about white women who fight against the oppression of those in the fantastical space en route to, and indeed as a means of, gaining their own freedom.

Thus it transpires that the female protagonist has entered the space not by accident but due to a higher purpose – the journey is a manifestation of her destiny. The films then produce narratives of double oppression and double liberation via a problematic alignment of gender-based and, I will argue, race-based discrimination. In these films the hegemony of white patriarchy is critiqued and yet upheld via a certain compromise, a compromise identifiable through the mobilization of aristocratic white femininity. The films introduce a familiar heroine and heritage setting and then work to empower her via a process by which she abandons her upper class white feminine identity. Foregrounded, however, is that the heroine’s adoption and conquering of “Otherness” allows her to bypass previous gender limitations and expectations. The problematic result is that what appears transgressive or empowering from a feminist perspective can in many ways be complicit with white power structures. These narratives of “white struggle,” I suggest, are a dominant way in which contemporary popular culture negotiates the meaning of feminism.

The Pirates trilogy of films[2] follows the adventures of Governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and her love interest Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as they navigate and conquer a number of threats on the high seas ranging from cursed pirates to a dastardly agent of the East India Trading Company hell-bent on controlling the Caribbean via the dispatching of pirate rivals. Aiding and abetting Turner and Swann is the lovable yet morally questionable Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) whose brilliant schemes and obscure motives provide the backbone of the series. Elizabeth, initially an object of ridicule for the pirates, eventually gains their respect in a key incident, when after becoming the Pirate King, she leads them into a victorious battle that protects their right to sail. She is able to marry Will but because of a debt he owes to the Flying Dutchman is only able to see him one day a year. Nevertheless, because she has his heart (literally) she can control the seas on which he journeys. While Pirates critiques colonial authority, the films suggest that the pirates could not unite for their cause without the aid of the moral white woman.

Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland presents an unhappy 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) about to be married off to a man she finds abhorrent. Alice however is tormented by dreams of a place called Wonderland, and at her engagement party, she falls down a rabbit hole to find herself in the familiar dreamscape. The characters she meets there seem to recognize her from her apparent last visit as a little girl; they debate as to whether or not she is the real Alice, sent to liberate them from the bloody reign of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). While unsure at first, Alice soon comes to realize that her destiny is to slay the Red Queen’s jabberwocky and aid in restoring the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to power. As a result Alice finds the courage to return to England, reject her suitor, and further her father’s work through her ideas for the expansion of trade routes.

While these films are my main objects of study, I will also refer from time to time to the 1997 spectacle Titanic, the film about the doomed ocean liner and the equally doomed love affair of passengers Jack (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet). Rose, although she never enters an alternate world, provides an important precursor to the characters of Elizabeth and Alice in that her journey from aristocratic white femininity to social liberation and subsequent empowerment is enabled by her association with the bohemian Jack and his Irish friends below decks – in short, due to her acceptance by those her social class would deem unsuitable “Others.”[3]

Whiteness in culture and as filmic sign

Before beginning a textual analysis of the films, it is first necessary to briefly introduce some of the key scholarship on what Ruth Frankenberg (1993) has termed “the social construction of whiteness” and how identity comes to be formed through its various beliefs and practices. What interests me here is not only the white body in culture but in particular how whiteness can operate as a symbol on screen—the threat of corruption to the bordered civilized body by the dark and dangerous hordes provides fuel for countless Hollywood narratives.[4] However, in addition, the movie screen may well provide a space where fantasies of transgression from idealized models of whiteness can play out under the guise of a narrative, or indeed a character, that appears to raise different questions. The story of whiteness can hide behind the story of (for instance) gender not only in a film script but also through the construction of Hollywood celebrities, whose appeal may lie in a foregrounded liminality that is gender-based but is also reliant on race-based mythologies. In cinema studies, such theoretical work has been carried out at the intersection of scholarship studying whiteness and that analyzing the star image. This work best introduces some of the key themes of this article.

In his study of the representational regime of whiteness in cinema, Richard Dyer, pointing out that whiteness secures its dominance by seeming to be nothing in particular, hypothesizes that in an analysis of white power “whiteness needs to be made strange” (1997, p. 10). Whiteness is an empowering position precisely because it proclaims to be a non-raced category, because it can “speak for the commonality of humanity” while “raced people can only speak for their race” (Dyer, 1997, p. 2). In an analysis of Christian writings and iconography, Dyer goes on to explore the concept of a split between mind and body, with the body often regarded as inferior, the site of temptation and of sexual urge. The white man must strive to transcend his body through his spirit, his intellect, and his yearning for the heavens, while black people are seen as primitive, ruled by the body, unable to transcend. The ideal white woman is “non-physical, spiritual, ethereal,” her model the Virgin Mary who Dyer points out is “a pure vessel for reproduction unsullied by the dark drives that reproduction entails” (p. 29). Such repression and denial in the name of “pure” reproduction and civilization results in an absence of life for white people, and so whiteness can become associated with a lack of corporeality and ultimately death. Dyer argues that the idea of whites as both death-like and bringers of death to others is often given representation in Hollywood cinema and can be seen in the figures of the vampire or zombie who cannot control the implicitly sexual and therefore destructive desire to feed off their victims.

However it has also been argued that because of their privileged position in the racial hierarchy, whites are more easily able to imitate and “perform” the Other, thus being able to travel along a continuum of whiteness (Davy, 1995, p. 191). Nowhere does this point seem more evident than in the realm of popular culture where white performers repeatedly appropriate and commodify race in order to ensure their ongoing “life” as stars, an accusation made against celebrities such as Madonna (see hooks, 1992). Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has pointed to the example of Hollywood star Mae West, who while often hailed as a feminist figure for her sexual assertiveness and her refusal to be a passive plaything for males, simultaneously “dragged” male sexual desire, black women and gay men in her musicality, body language and manner of speaking (Foster, 2003, p. 36). Foster questions if West performs a “white blackness” in order to contest stereotypes about both women and blackness, given that both constitute a problematic for whiteness in that they signify negation. However, she concludes that while West’s performances transgress modes of normative female heterosexuality, it is unfortunate that these moments of transgression “come on the back of black femininity” (p, 40).

Modern-day stars too may reap success from on- and off-screen transgressive performances that destabilize notions of the civilized white body. Sean Redmond argues that stardom itself is connected to ideal whiteness, in that stars are supposedly the chosen ones, made in God’s image, beautiful, pure and heaven sent (2007, p. 264). Consider MGM’s famous tagline, saying the studio contained “more stars than there are in heaven.” These celestial beings however are always capable of falling from grace because while posited as the ultimate in spirit they are of course also flesh and blood. Thus Redmond argues that stars can be constructed to wrestle with the contradictions of the extraordinary/ordinary paradox of whiteness, analyzing the persona of Titanic star Kate Winslet in order to illustrate his hypothesis.

Winslet has all the physical markers of the English Rose archetype with her pale translucent skin, full lips, and mane of hair. She is associated with English heritage pictures and literary adaptations, therefore situating her as a “quality” artistic actress. Winslet’s star text however also situates her as the quintessential girl next door. She smokes, drinks and refuses to conform to Hollywood glamor ideals, particularly the ideal that commands extreme slenderness. Redmond points out that heritage films are perfect star vehicles for Winslet because they involve narrative tensions of desire and restraint (p. 271). In films such as Sense and Sensibility and Titanic, he argues, Winslet’s character is restrained by societal expectations for the upper class white feminine. Yet she longs to escape, to be in her body, to desire, love and be loved. Winslet therefore is a star who can travel along the continuum of whiteness.

Of course, given that whiteness secures dominance through its apparent absence, Winslet’s star story and the films in which she appears do not seem to be about whiteness at all. Instead, they appear to be about feminism and liberation from gender oppression. When Winslet in the press foregrounds the fact that she has been successful in Hollywood despite not conforming to beauty ideals, she comes across as a champion and spokesperson for diversity in societal views of female attractiveness. Films like those mentioned are about women desiring to see and act in the world, to do what men do, to be admired for more than their physical appearance and decorative costuming. The story of whiteness then is hidden behind the story of gender. Winslet, like West, may be hailed as a feminist figure for her performative transgressions of “appropriate” feminine behavior without a full consideration of how these transgressions are facilitated. It could be argued that Keira Knightley of Pirates of the Caribbean fame is another such star, made up to wrestle with these constraints placed on white femininity. Like Winslet, Knightley is associated with the heritage narrative and commonly plays women who break the rules of this white patriarchal space. She is an unruly and disruptive figure, the embodiment of white ideological rupture.

Feminist critical writing on the current popular culture landscape has argued that today’s postmodern and postfeminist age has resulted in a certain nostalgia for whiteness in a time when feminist and black politics fade away and become clichés of political correctness (McRobbie, 2009, p. 9). This nostalgia for whiteness can perhaps be seen in the renewed popularity of heritage cinema and television, which has a tendency to focus on aristocratic Victorian or Edwardian families. As Andrew Higson points out, there is an ideological tension between the narrative drive of the films, which may contain a critique based on feminist or socialist principles, and their image, which “fetishises the well-tended finery” of its setting (2003, p. 77). Antje Ascheid has explored this ideological splitting in relation to the feminist credentials of the heritage picture, pointing out that these films promote liberation and sexual self discovery while at the same time they romanticize the era as a time of romantic abandon, something not possible in the cynical here and now (Ascheid, 2006).

The arguments made above do not correlate directly to films such as Pirates and Alice (as opposed to Titanic) because of the narrative split between the framing narrative in historical heritage space which sets the stories into play and the fantastical space, where the real romance, action and drama take place. The “color,” as such, is in the journey rather than in the initial setting. However, it is necessary to briefly highlight these critical viewpoints on heritage cinema in order to display how these two films invoke and yet manipulate the above tropes. The films introduce the familiar heroine and heritage setting and then work to empower her via a process by which she abandons her upper class white feminine identity and the possibility of romance. The “romantic abandon,” which here translates as freedom rather than love, is only possible in a space which at first seems almost anarchic and at least certainly borderless, non-civilized and decidedly non-white.

Death and melancholy: introducing Elizabeth and Alice

When we first meet the female protagonists of Pirates and Alice,they are clearly unhappy with their respective domestic arrangements. The camera wedges itself between Alice Kingsleigh and her mother, capturing the former’s bored expression as she travels in a carriage to attend what unbeknownst to her is her engagement party. Their opposed values are almost immediately set up when Alice tells her mother she does not agree with the clothing choices required of young women, saying furtively that she is against stockings and later commenting that a “corset is like a codfish.” After she has to dance with Hamish, the man who plans to propose to her, Alice giggles when she reveals her vision of men in dresses and ladies in trousers and then wonders what it would be like to fly. Hamish, visibly baffled by her chatter, attempts to groom Alice for her future position as passive wife by telling her that if ever in doubt about what to say then she should remain silent.

When we meet the adult Elizabeth Swann in Pirates, she is similarly preparing to attend a lavish ceremony that may double as an engagement celebration. James Norrington (Jack Davenport), about to be promoted to the rank of Commodore, is expected to honor the occasion by proposing. Although Elizabeth can see that Norrington is “a fine man, what any woman should dream of marrying,” she clearly loves the blacksmith Will Turner, a state of affairs noticed by her maid. Like Alice, Elizabeth’s entrapment is signified through the clothing she must wear for the occasion. As she changes into a corset brought back from London by her father, Elizabeth gasps and exclaims, “Women in London must have learned not to breathe!” The corset here denies female corporeality, while Alice’s stockings work to hide her body in a manner fitting for a young woman who cannot incite the desire of one not her betrothed. Costume here works in accordance with the idealized function of white womanhood. Additionally, the oppression of women in both films is primarily linked to costume and bodily constriction. In the fantastical space, costume changes have an added significance. When women can wear trousers and thus run, jump and most importantly fight, the costume change automatically is read as empowering because it shows the protagonists have been able to transcend the bodily limitations imposed on her in the primary space.

Elizabeth and Alice both dream of being able to choose their destinies but cannot due to a patriarchal system that sees them as objects to be looked at and exchanged. They will attend the ceremony in all their finery in wait for the moment that will cement their futures as wives of high-ranking gentlemen. Nevertheless their dreams of freedom are given certain validity, a certain possibility, because the fantastical space that will liberate them in the course of the narrative is already present in their subconscious. The heroines cannot fit into the society in which they were raised not only because they find the feminine role constricting but because they are haunted by the possibility of another realm that may offer them something different.

Sigmund Freud (1917) in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia” aims to differentiate between these two states of grief by hypothesizing that while the mourner eventually overcomes his/her grief as the libido is withdrawn from the lost object, in the melancholic the libido becomes withdrawn into the ego and is not transferred to a new object. As such, the ego identifies with the lost object, the loss of the object equating to a loss in the ego. Freud observes that the typical melancholic appears self-reproaching while displaying a lack of interest in the surrounding world and an inability to love. Therefore, Elizabeth and Alice’s melancholy state, the presence of Underland and the pirate world in the psyche, corresponds to their lack of “life,” i.e. their white death. As protagonists, they have the task to free themselves of the tyranny of the lost object by discovering its meaning. As Freud notes, people suffering from melancholy often do not know consciously what has been lost or the significance of what has been lost. The re-entry into the fantastical space marks the beginning of an urgent struggle of the ego against the intruding object. In the films, the heroines Elizabeth and Alice triumph when they conquer the object and simultaneously realize the significance of the space as integral to their liberation from the stifling white feminine position.

Complaining about Alice’s visual presentation in the film, News of the World critic Robbie Collin stated that she “is not a heroine – she looks like she’s ON heroin.” Indeed, Alice’s thin build, chalky white skin, and darkly rimmed eyes coupled with a sulky melancholy demeanor is strongly reminiscent of the 1990s “heroin chic” aesthetic popularized in the fashion world by designers such as Calvin Klein and models like Kate Moss. Tin Burton, it should be noted, frequently employs such a look in order to convey his characters’ lonely outsider status. They often appear almost as ghosts, sleepwalking in societies that demand performances from them that they cannot quite deliver.

Alice’s appearance in the film seemingly comes from her troubled sleep patterns. She cannot get a good night’s sleep because ever since she was a small child she has been plagued by the same dream. This repetitive dream is the familiar Carroll story where Alice falls down a rabbit hole and has to navigate her way through Wonderland. In making these observations of Alice here – namely that she is bored, melancholy, and reminiscent of the “heroin chic” trend – I am reminded of Angela McRobbie’s analysis of the popular fashion image. McRobbie notes that models in these images are commonly stick thin and offer a limited range of facial expressions from boredom to disdain and most often exhibit “an air of indifference and melancholia” (2009, p. 100). She states that while the fashion photograph offers a fantasy of freedom and escape from gender subordination, this is offset not only by reminders of phallic power in the image but also the exhaustion and melancholia written on the faces of the models. McRobbie hypothesizes that the object of loss in these images is feminism, which according to her must now be disavowed, with the fashion shot articulating an “institutionalized madness which accrues from the impossibility of femininity” (p. 110).

Alice recognizes femininity as a performance, which is shown primarily through her disdain for typically feminine clothing. Although the clothing, like femininity, could potentially be taken on and off, nevertheless society expects Alice to embrace the fashions that everybody else does. Her engagement party is supposed to be a celebratory occasion but it also takes place as a means to ensure that she is set on the right path. Prior to Hamish’s proposal, various guests set out to scare Alice into complying with the proposal by reminding her that beauty doesn’t last and that she could end up mad and alone like her aunt. Alice perceives her performance as at odds with who she wants to be but cannot express her dissatisfaction in a way which will result in a positive outcome. So it is that Alice has an air of indifference and melancholia. Her dreams of Wonderland however provide her with a clue as to how to go about her emancipation. Wonderland is Alice’s lost object and the source of her melancholia. It is a metaphorical symbol for feminism in that it signifies the means through which Alice can gain liberation from the stifling feminine position. However, although Wonderland exists as Alice’s subconscious, the story also fully realizes it as an exotic nation complete with its own government and cultural identity. If she uses Wonderland as a tool for feminist gains, on her journey, Alice also has a mission to fix and know the Other.

A melancholy that exhibits itself in a similar way haunts Elizabeth Swann in Pirates. The film opens with a young Elizabeth accompanying her father Captain Swann (Jonathan Pryce), Mr Gibbs (Kevin McNally), and Commodore Norrington on a sailing mission. While journeying, the group come across a flaming ship and rescue a young boy clinging to debris amidst the water. Elizabeth discovers that the boy, Will Turner, is wearing a pirate medallion and removes it from his possession to allow him a better chance of being taken in and cared for by her family. Although young Elizabeth professes that it “would be rather exciting to meet a pirate,” the others on board do not share her opinion, with Norrington informing her that pirates are “vile, dissolute creatures” who should all be hanged. The script immediately sets up Elizabeth as having markedly different views from most British inhabitants of Port Royal because she views pirates as exciting and interesting rather than dangerous, and because she protects Will who very likely is a pirate’s child.

We first are introduced to adult Elizabeth on the morning of Commodore Norrington’s promotion ceremony. The camera trains on her face in close up as she awakens, startled from a dream that we take to be the above scene from her past. We also discover that she keeps Will’s pirate medallion in a small drawer by her bedside and so come to know it as an object of special significance. Like Alice, Elizabeth dreams of the possibility of another world briefly encountered as a small child, and also like Alice she’s desperately unhappy performing the femininity required of her in the real world. Her brief encounter with piracy hints at the possibility of a romantic future with Will, but also of a romantic entanglement with racial otherness which could liberate her not only from oppressive gender norms but also from the oppressive whiteness that governs these norms.

A model for Elizabeth and Alice might come from the film Titanic, whose female character Rose connotes this struggle over aristocratic white femininity and its pitfalls through her corporeal presentation. Rose’s skin is porcelain, death-like, but this is offset by a mane of vibrant, unnaturally red hair. Red hair, as Amanda Third argues, operates as a powerful visual signifier in Anglo cultures. An ambivalent figure, the red-headed woman is fiery, hot-tempered and headstrong but can also be cool, calculated and cold-blooded. Red-headed women are objects of desire but are also to be treated with caution as they “mark the outer limits of culturally acceptable female behaviour” (Third, 2006, p. 239). However, red-headedness is also a racial signifier associated with those of Celtic origin, primarily Irishness. Third points out that the red hair of the Irish was singled out by the English as evidence of their “otherness” in the absence of a difference in skin color. It marked the Celts out as inferior and so justified colonization by the English (p. 221). Red-heads, concludes Third, are ambivalent figures not only because they threaten the boundaries of appropriate female behavior but also because they threaten colonial order.

Therefore, Rose’s hair color signifies on two levels. It represents her passionate, fiery nature which opposes imminent white death (signaled by her skin tone) brought on by the feminine role society requires she play, and it represents her connection with Irishness, the ethnic group which will aid in her liberation from oppression. Rose is not ideally feminine or ideally white. It is important to stress however that although Rose’s hair suggests she is biologically (read authentically) Irish, both Elizabeth and Alice are at the level of the body coded as “pristinely” white. They have a special connection with a magical ethnicity that eventually allows them to be accepted by another group without compromising the privileges that come from being white, a matter which I will now go on to explore.

Representing the magical world

Neither Elizabeth nor Alice enter the magical world on purpose, rather they fall into it. This fall, a metaphorical tumble from the old world’s confinement occurs in different ways albeit with a similar result. Alice, just as she did as a small child, chases a white rabbit and falls down a rabbit hole. As she plummets down, the objects around her seem to float in a way that commands her to look at and affix meaning to them. Alice herself is also defying gravity and as such has already begun, although not in an active way, to defy the clearcut rules which defined her previous existence. Elizabeth is about to receive her proposal from Commodore Norrington when the constricting corset she is wearing causes her to faint and plummet over the cliff’s edge, miraculously missing the rocks on the way down. It is noteworthy that the corset, symbol of white aristocratic femininity, has the capacity to cause death. This marks Elizabeth’s first encounter with Captain Jack Sparrow, who has to dive into the ocean to save her and who automatically knows the corset caused the problem. Elizabeth returns to Port Royal, but later she is kidnapped by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew who need her pirate medallion, which is really a piece of Aztec gold, in order to lift a curse on them.

The representation of the pirate as ethnicized other in Pirates of the Caribbean is not simple, with a clearly delineated boundary dividing them from the British Navy. In fact the meanings and stakes attached to these representations shift from film to film within the franchise. Because of their lives in the sun and poor hygiene habits that leave their skin covered in grime, the pirates are visually much darker than the Port Royal residents despite being predominantly “white.” Also, the pirates live a nomadic, rootless lifestyle that alludes to that of the Romani gypsies. Although the pirates do not have a fixed ethnicity, they are nevertheless grouped together and coded by the British in the film as Other via the mobilization of a number of familiar stereotypes. The British consider the pirates to pose both a sexual and economic threat to white civilization, a fact which Jack Sparrow displays awareness of when he informs Navy representatives of his plans to “rape, pillage and pilfer my weasly black guts out.” Although Jack knowingly reflects back at its creators their characterization of his kind, from what we see of the pirates in the first film these stereotypes hold a high degree of accuracy. They are individualistic, greedy squabblers who for the most part are unable to unite to achieve a sense of purpose. That fact along with their circulatory confusing banter works to render them harmless and ineffectual, hardly the threat the British Navy fears.

This characterization as squabbling, having a me-first mentality, and being unable to share also works to render the pirates as child-like, a way of representing the “savage” commonly employed to justify a people’s subjection to colonization. The pirate crews seem to operate at the intersection of two stereotypes that Donald Bogle found available for black males in Hollywood cinema – the coon, or buffoon, and the buck. Bogle points out that the harmless and ineffectual (simple and child-like) buffoon quelled the white fear of black males, while the brutal buck heightened and played on this fear through his representation as “oversexed and savage, violent and frenzied (in his) lust for white flesh” (Bogle, 1973, p. 13). In the film, the English fear of miscegenation is clearly seen when Elizabeth’s lifeless body is pulled ashore by Jack after he has saved her from drowning. Jack leans over Elizabeth to rid her of her corset, an act misread by the Royal Navy who immediately draw their swords. In fact, this scene echoes one in Titanic. Rose, attempting to commit suicide, is pulled from over the ship’s railing by Jack and as a result collapses beneath him on the deck. Rose’s scream alerts her first class companions who come running to her rescue. They misread the scene before them as a sexual attack by Jack, who according to the “old money” whites is suspect both in terms of class and implicitly in terms of ethnicity as he predominantly associates with Irish and Italian migrants (Redmond, 2004).

In Pirates of the Caribbean, much is made in the films of the pirates’ lust for the travelling white woman Elizabeth. When Captain Barbossa kidnaps her, the most buffoonish of the pirates, Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook), tell her that if she does not dine with the captain then she will have to dine with the crew naked. In another scene she stands over a grate while the pirates queue beneath attempting to see up her dress. These scenes are knowing ones, played for laughs with the pirates usually portrayed as comedic rather than menacing. Additionally, Pintel and Rigetti have an equally ridiculous mirror image pair in the Royal Navy, Murtogg (Giles New) and Mullroy (Angus Barnett). Although that pair are not lustful, they are inept and ineffectual, so that their characterization functions to question the validity of the divisions between self and Other that the Navy has worked so hard to construct.

Additionally, in the pirate world Elizabeth is revealed to be a clever strategist, brave and able to take care of herself. She becomes aware of how her society requires damsel-in-distress white femininity as a performance and thus how it has no basis in reality. Knowing that, she attempts to faint on a couple of occasions in order to attract attention away from other happenings. This distancing from the old kind of performance, now allowed by the magical world, serves to destabilize the social constructions of whiteness so adhered to in Port Royal and works to prove unfounded white male fears for her safety and preservation of virtue. It is worth noting a contrast in characterization here, for while Elizabeth can utilize her previously imposed identity in games of strategy, this is not so easy for the majority of pirates who are never allowed this gap between self and mask.
Audience sympathy, however, is always right behind the pirates. They live far more interesting, adventurous lives than the residents of Port Royal. With the exception of Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), every developed character is either a pirate or a pirate sympathizer and they have star power, given that Johnny Depp plays the most notorious of the lot who has the best lines and the best escapes. The contained, civilized and mannered Port Royal world is boring in comparison to the action-packed spectacle of the pirate world. But the appeal of the Captain Jack character needs to be read through an additional cultural lens. He is not just any pirate, but a rock star pirate. Publicity material for the film has highlighted the fact that Johnny Depp based the look and character of Jack Sparrow on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who makes a cameo in the third film as his father. Jack’s love of adventure, sex and alcohol allude to rock’n’roll promises of excess and freedom. The ultimate rock’n’roll icon is a hedonistic narcissist, which Jack certainly is, and adopts performance styles that challenge societal ideas as to what is morally acceptable.

Rock’n’roll itself is highly reliant on its rhythm and blues influence and star bands like the Stones continually appropriated music from different ethnic groups in order to keep their music fresh. It was also the era of the Stones, the 60s and 70s, that saw performers begin to play with gender roles and bisexual performance. Mick Jagger, with his pouting and flamboyant stage moves, incorporated feminine bodily signifiers into his act while those involved in the glam rock movement played with androgyny through make-up, glittering costumes and lyrics that often suggested an ambiguous sexuality. Jack Sparrow, with his eyeliner, mincing walk and pouty demeanor is thoroughly queered even though the films take every opportunity to portray him as a womanizer. Sparrow then, while an ethnic threat is also of ambiguous sexuality, and all of this is mediated through the lens of rock’n’roll performance.

This rock’n’roll element is a device that elevates Jack as a “star” of the seas while perhaps operating as a distancing device in that we never know when Jack is performing and when he is not, or whose side he is on. Will and Elizabeth are intermediary characters, able to go between the English and the pirates because they hold currency in both worlds. Jack is less able to do so but differs from most of the other pirates in his self-awareness. He needs piracy in order to fuel his own image and continue his star story. As such he over performs piracy, evidenced in his telling of outlandish stories involving escape from an abandoned island on roped together sea turtles. Jack can use the negative stereotypes circulating about his kind as a source of empowerment. But he also alludes to how Otherness can be appropriated in order to create an intriguing air of transgressive mystique so integral to successful rock’n’roll celebrity. Jack Sparrow then functions as a liminal figure in many ways. The character lends a campy, ironic and playful tone to The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that certainly does not take itself too seriously. In contrast, the third film At World’s End opens with the mass hanging of a group of pirates, including children, an indication that the stakes have been raised considerably.

The representation of the otherworldly characters in Alice in Wonderland is markedly different. The inhabitants of the fantastical space do not represent even a remote threat through their ethnicity or way of life. The realm exists as completely distinct from Alice’s world rather than intermingling with it as is the case in Pirates, but also the characters in their dependence and desperation are remarkably passive. When Alice first wanders into Wonderland she has shrunk to a fraction of her normal size and gazes at her new surroundings with “wonder.” Yet as the wise caterpillar informs her, the nation is not actually called Wonderland but rather Underland. The former term was just a word the young Alice chose to represent her feeling for the place. When Alice enters Underland, it is clear the characters have been awaiting her arrival for some time. They rush up to her excitedly and reverently, enquiring if she is in fact the real Alice. She is not a little girl who has to navigate her way through a nonsensical world but rather someone who in her absence has gained fame as a person of future great importance to the nation.

Although Wonderland is a dreamscape with some of its characters acting as doubles for people whom Alice knows in real life, it is also a country and a crumbling one at that. Burton’s Underland is a barren and unproductive third world nation whose inhabitants suffer a poor quality of life at the hands of a tyrannical dictatorial regime. It is a country where danger lurks at every turn, where inhabitants could be eaten by ferocious creatures such as the bandersnatch one day or hauled before the Red Queen’s court on trumped up charges the next. The Red Queen is much like a spoiled child, which works to constitute Underland itself as immature and in need of growth, a problem that Alice must rectify as she experiences her own personal development. Small in stature and speaking with an occasional lisp, the Red Queen spends her days playing backyard games, eating tarts and ordering things to keep her amused. “Dwink!” she calls as she leaps on to her throne. She, it is revealed, is effectively re-living out her childhood since the first time around she was neglected by her parents in favor of her more ideally beautiful sister. Her inability to free herself from the tyranny of gender norms now manifests itself in the poor social control of others.

Underland is a place without a recognizable regime of law and order, and as such it makes no sense to Alice and in turn fails its subjects. The madness of the Hatter (Johnny Depp) in this film can be directly attributed to anger and dismay at his social situation and the bloody tactics of the Red Queen. Once a happy servant of the White Queen, Hatter was forced to witness a murderous coup where the jabberwocky was employed to rid his mistress of her court and send her into hiding. As a result, Hatter spends his days holding pseudo tea parties in the woods. When Alice returns and travels on the brim of his hat, the Hatter descends into an intense monologue delivered in a Scottish accent, growling phrases like “down with the bloody big head” and “the entire world is falling to ruin.” As it transpires, Alice has arrived to slay the jabberwocky and thus return the White Queen to power, restoring law and order and a habitable environment for the creatures. This is something that the residents of Underland cannot achieve themselves and so Alice becomes the embodiment of a global super power whose knowledge of the correct ways of doing things is indispensable to an ailing nation like Underland. This story is one of feminist liberation, but Alice is only able to achieve these ends through invading and conquering Underland, a plotline strongly dependent on an invocation of colonial discourse.

Furthermore the nation’s inhabitants completely welcome this act, as it will bring only benefit to them as well as to Alice, who has no unsavory motives and only gains in terms of personal growth. Colonialism, the white promise of a civilizing and stabilizing force to the unruly untamed world, brings no pain to the fantastical space. The characters there approve of it wholeheartedly as necessary and in fact as destiny. When Alice achieves her goal, it is implied, the country could be known as Wonderland again rather than Underland, a dark, dreary and dangerous underbelly. Problematically, Alice can exercise power and might upon a smaller nation because it is her destiny, her God-given right to do so, a mythic rationale commonly given for war by larger nations intent on expanding their land and resources.

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] 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.


1. Although my analysis in this essay will focus on contemporary film, it is important to acknowledge that there are both cinematic and literary historical precedents to the characters of Elizabeth and Alice, with the character of Manuela (Judy Garland) in Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948) for instance strongly prefiguring Elizabeth Swann. The woman who breaks free from societal gender restrictions through an engagement with the exoticized Other is not just to be found in the heritage narrative but also the Western and in colonial literature. [return to text]

2. There is in fact a fourth Pirates film entitled On Stranger Tides but for the purposes of this article I will concentrate only on the first three films in the franchise as these are the only ones in which the character of Elizabeth Swann appears.

3. KJ Donnelly discusses the commodification of Irish culture in the film in his essay “Riverdancing as the Ship Goes Down” included in the edited collection Titanic in Myth and Memory: Representations in Visual and Literary Culture. Sean Redmond argues that Jack is associated with Otherness as opposed to the hyper whiteness of the upper classes through his friendship with Italian and Irish passengers in steerage, his characterization as a bohemian artist and his mimicry of the white gentleman in “Titanic: Whiteness on the High Seas of Meaning” to be found in the same edited collection.

4. Daniel Bernardi’s edited collections Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness and The Persistence of Whiteness contain numerous thought-provoking essays on the representational significance of whiteness to Hollywood cinema and its stars. Films discussed include classics like King Kong to the science fiction fare of the fifties and contemporary blockbusters like Lord of the Rings, while other authors consider the importance of race to stars like Jennifer Lopez and Dorothy Dandridge.

5. Richard Dyer explains in Stars (1998) that charismatic appeal is at its most effective when it offers a sense of order and stability in times of social upheaval (p. 31).

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