Thursday, 12 April 2012

Pirates! In an Adventure with Gender!

I was linked to this review of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! at the F-word from a blog round-up at the fabulous Lashings of Ginger Beer blog, which I have recently discovered and am rather in love with. I happened to see Pirates myself last week, when I was in a filthy mood and wanted something to cheer me up. I knew Hunger Games would be out for a while longer, and I thought Pirates would probably do a better job of lifting my spirits anyway. Obviously I can't speak (yet) for what Hunger Games would do for my spirits, but Pirates certainly worked for me. Here's why I'm on a different page of the same book as Laura when it comes to gender in the film.

Pirates is not a progressive film in terms of gender. There are just three female characters (plus three 'ladies' who faint at the 'Scientist of the Year' competition, when a particularly exciting exhibit reaches the 'Ladies Fainting' section of the clap-o-meter, and some scantily-clad island beauties, about whom more later). One of these is a member of Pirate Captain's crew, disguised as a man. One is Cutlass Liz, a borderline racist characterisation of a sexy Barbadian pirate. And one is Queen Victoria, who is a badass villain whose beef with pirates is that they are so old-fashioned.

Cutlass Liz doesn't get to feature in the story - she is pretty much a token character. The crew member, who is addressed as "Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate" by Pirate Captain in the opening scene, isn't exactly foregrounded either. I could have done without her love-sick swoon in the same scene, where she sighs "I'd take a jellyfish in the face for [Pirate Captain]", but at least she doesn't end up marrying him, and her crush isn't a plot point. Queen Victoria is the best female character by a mile - she is mean, single-minded and deadly. Her diminutive stature and waddling plumpness do not hinder her in the slightest in setting aside her restrictive costume and waging war on Pirate Captain.

Three women in a film is pretty poor, especially when one of them only makes one appearance in 80 minutes. I suppose it's the old excuse, "well, there just weren't any women pirates!" Aardman, you've made a great argument that there probably were female pirates, perhaps disguised as men, and you could have done much more with that than give your token the most boring motivation in the history of female characters - that she's in love with a male character. You could even have had some women scientists. But I guess that would just be too unrealistic ...

I also disliked the closing joke of the film, in which Pirate Captain's deputy makes an emotional speech about the lessons they've all learnt. Pirate Captain asks him, sotto voce, whether he's sure he isn't a woman disguised as a man, quipping "apparently there's a lot of it about!" This is just boring gender-essentialism. I suppose it isn't necessarily all bad, because Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate is never suspected of being a woman, which turns the joke back onto Pirate Captain. But this does sail dangerously close to "exceptional woman" territory, in which one woman can escape the defining characteristics of her gender to prove her worth at the expense of other women. But I'm also slightly worried by the character description for the deputy that I found in what looks like an official Tumblr for the film: 
If the Pirate Captain is the crew’s flashy but unreliable dad, the Pirate with a Scarf is their slightly put-upon mum. [...] [He is s]mart, resourceful, and perhaps just a little TOO loyal ...
Now that's definitely a "he's a girl" joke, but is it also a "he's gay" joke? Perhaps I'm reading too much into it (this accusation has been levelled at me from time to time) but those sentences together make me pretty suspicious that the deputy's "loyalty" might be crush-based.

So much for the women. What about the men of Pirates? To my mind, the film is just as hard on men as it is on women. Women are largely invisible, which is problematic. But men are very visible, and most of them are muppets. Pirates are loveable but ineffectual or swaggering macho-men; scientists are lonely unlovable nerds. The motivation of a high number of characters is to see scantily-clad women or get a girlfriend. I actually laughed at the introduction to Charles Darwin, when I thought that his journal entry documenting his discoveries and ending with "I will never get a girlfriend. I am so unhappy" was a throwaway joke, and not the basis for his entire narrative arc. Really, the film is incredibly unkind to scientists, who are without exception socially-inept, mind-numbingly boring, terminally unattractive and childishly obsessed with women. As Laura points out in her list of things Pirates taught her about women,
It's fun to perve on women. During a presentation to the Royal Society of Scientists, the inventor of a hydrogen-powered flying device points out that one of its main advantages is that it lets you look down women's tops. [...] Finally: scantily clad women exist to cheer men up. When Pirate Captain's crew are down in the dumps, he suggests setting off on an adventure to an island where the women don't wear many clothes. Lucky old Darwin ends up on this wonderful island after having his heart broken by Queen Vic - get in there son!
Now, those things are reprehensible. But what they teach us about men is just as nasty as what they teach us about women - possibly even nastier. Women do indeed often need to fulfill certain narrow criteria to be in a feature film, and that is highly problematic. However, when there are only three women in a film, at least you can argue that there might be other women in existence who aren't like that. That's not much of a recommendation, but when your cast is populated by huge numbers of grown men acting without exception like horny teenagers whose sole motivation is to impress, perv on or 'get' women, it sends an equally damaging message: that all men are like that.

It's not much of a choice. Women are mostly invisible except when they're lust-objects, whilst men are invariably "pervs". I'm not saying that Pirates isn't sexist, because it most certainly is. But it cuts both ways, and it's not only offensive to women. I agree with every word of the F-word review - except I actually rather enjoyed the film, despite its issues - but I think it's important not to frame this particular sexism (or indeed any sexism) as damaging solely to women.

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