Pirates heroine Elizabeth Swann mourns in her bridal wear for the romantic happily-ever-after that in the course of the narrative reveals itself to be an impossibility.
Swann descends the stairs in the first film, the work required in this performance of femininity as spectacle (Mulvey, 1975) having been revealed to us in prior scenes.
Elizabeth Swann’s feminist liberation is facilitated by her liberation of the pirates who must learn to look up to and follow her as leader.
Alice faces the expectant gaze of high society at her engagement party in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland ...
... but manages to find inner strength and form her own path through the act of restoring Underland’s White Queen to power.
Elizabeth occupies a central position preceding the final war that will decide the fate of the pirate way of life.
Alice is similarly centrally foregrounded prior to the battle during which she must slay the Red Queen’s jabberwocky.
Plots depicting the threat to white civilization by the ‘dark and dangerous’ have long been a staple Hollywood formula. Here, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is captured by the natives of Skull Island in Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong.
Richard Dyer points out in White that the model for white womanhood is the Virgin Mary.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Dyer argues that the concept of whites as deathlike has been given representation in Hollywood film through figures such as the vampire and zombie.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster explores the film performances of classic Hollywood star Mae West, examining how her transgressions of traditional femininity were facilitated by mimicking black and gay performance styles.
Sean Redmond argues that part of the appeal of Kate Winslet’s stardom is that she plays out the contradictions of idealized white identity through both her film roles and extra-textual persona.
Keira Knightley, like Winslet, is a star who commonly breaks the white patriarchal rules of the filmic heritage space.
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.[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 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.”
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. 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 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
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.