The Pirate and Princess campaign offers boys a litany of products that can make him into a ‘Pirate,’ transforming his reality into a Pirate’s of the Caribbean fantasy. (For example, some sample merchandise includes Pirate hats, swords, guns, action figures, clothing, Lego sets, board games, video games, dress-up outfits, accessories, etc.). Disney’s Pirate merchandise offers girls, on the other hand, products that send some messages that we need to analyze if we are to understand the impact of Disney’s “Pirate and Princess” paradigm.
According to the products I saw both in the theme parks themselves and in the ‘World of Disney’ store, a girl who chooses to be a Pirate instead of a Princess cannot actually do so without just wearing/using the merchandise made for boys. According to actual Pirate merchandise geared towards girls, she can be either a ‘Pirate Princess’ or a redheaded ‘wench.’
The ‘Pirate Princess’ products I saw really sent me for a spin. What does it mean to buy your daughter a decal or hat emblazoned with a pink skull and cross-bones complete with a bejeweled tiara or pink bow on top? Even as a pirate, a girl can’t escape the power of the ‘Princess’ brand, and I think this has a real impact on her development of what it means for her to be a girl.
Within the plotline of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, there is a female pirate who joins Captain Jack Sparrow’s crew, the character of Anamaria played by Zoe Saldana, and she not only doesn’t wear a tiara or a bow, but her character is strong-willed, smart, and serves as a leader of the other men. Although she wears the same clothes as the other male Pirates, seemingly placing her as an equal, she speaks up when the others do not and becomes one of the second-mates on the ship.
In addition to this strong female pirate character, there is also Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. Although she is the Governor’s daughter, which should set her up perfectly for the ‘Pirate Princess’ schema, she actually ends up subverting this role by dressing like a Pirate and fighting with them as an equal towards the end of the first movie and throughout the second movie of the trilogy. Why, then, with all of these opportunities to provide girls a strong female ‘Pirate’ role model, is there no real dress-up outfit for a girl to be a Pirate, but more than enough ‘Pirate Princess’ products to fill an entire wall of a kiosk in EPCOT?
If a girl rejects the ‘Pirate Princess’ model but still wants to find a place within the ‘Pirate’ paradigm, there is only one more role for her to fill – that of ‘wench.’ The concept of and controversy over the redheaded ‘wench’ character in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride (the basis for the plotlines of the movies) at Walt Disney World has been much debated among Disney-philes, but its constant use in the merchandising of the ‘Pirate’ brand as well as its continued presence in the ride despite recent renovations points to both its strength as a commercial product and to Disney’s resistance to do away with her.
Even though she only appears briefly in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies and the ride, Disney seems to think that the role of ‘redheaded wench up for auction’ has some sort of marketing power, and has decided to use that power accordingly. In the store that you’re dumped into right after you exit the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride in Disney World, I saw an action figure whose only title was, literally, “The Red Head.”
But Disney is not just making a simple action figure out of this character, they are also inflating the concept of her into an entire marketing strategy. The new ‘Pirate’ character plush dolls feature Mickey, Donald, and Goofy dressed in full garb as ‘Pirates’ (Mickey’s dreadlocks are a tell-tale sign that he’s supposed to be Captain Jack), and Minnie Mouse, complete with red curly wig and red satin dress, as the ‘redheaded wench.’ It’s odd passing the rack with these dolls all lined up — Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are prominently displayed wearing their various Pirate apparel, while Minnie is squished on the middle shelf, dressed as a woman who is about to be sold to the highest Pirate bidder. Of all the ways for Disney to portray their most famous character’s loyal and doting girlfriend, I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that the best Disney could come up with is ‘wench Minnie.’
In addition to Minnie Mouse’s dress-up moment, the only dress-up outfit I saw in the ‘Pirate’ merchandise made for girls was styled much like the outfit of the ‘wench’ as well, with a tattered looking, shorter skirt (something most Disney outfits made for girls don’t have) and a red, fake lace-up, bustier-type top. While I don’t understand why a parent would buy an outfit like this for their young and impressionable daughter (simply because I think it sends all the wrong messages about girls’ empowerment) what I really don’t understand is why in the world any parent would buy one when it costs 40 dollars.
But dress-up outfits, plush dolls, and action figures aside, I think there is something really troubling here about the options Disney holds up for girls to emulate if they choose not to go for the traditional ‘Princess’ products. They offer, first, only a half-solution, the Pirate Princess model. Then second, in a move that is shocking for a brand that congratulates itself as a place that dilutes harsh realities into the “Happiest Place on Earth,” they suddenly choose to use a character that is not only almost unrecognizable as specifically ‘Disney,’ but that also portrays a situation that’s difficult to see as an even remotely ‘happy’ one for their girl Pirate consumers.
(the sign in the back of the picture says “Auction! Take a wench for a bride!”)
While I can see a very similar pattern emerge in boy’s merchandise on the ‘Princess’ side – boys can only be traditional Princes on a heroic journey to save the Princess or else they’re a villain — at least boys are given alternative options in terms of Disney merchandise and lead characters to the Pirate or Princess mold.
With the exception of the Minnie Mouse merchandise (and even that, as I talked about previously, has been affected by the Pirate and Princess obsession), girls are presented with only Princess role models, while boys are presented with the heroes of Disney animated films like Cars, Finding Nemo, Brother Bear, Toy Story, etc. To restate my point, if a boy chooses not to be a Pirate, he can be a heroic little clownfish, a fancy red race car, a space ranger, or any number of other Disney protagonists, but if a girl decides she doesn’t want to be a Princess, well, then there’s really only a Pirate Princess, a ‘wench,’ or Minnie Mouse to choose from.
Girls’ merchandise is more strongly connected to the Princess brand than boys’ merchandise is to the Pirate brand, and this presents girls with a more limited array of choices in their imaginary endeavors.
Ultimately, if a girl is only offered a choice between a Princess or a Prostitute, should we really be surprised if she chooses to wear that pretty pink dress and tiara, or even that pink skull and cross-bones cap? Are we able to accept that all Disney could imagine for a girl Pirate is a ‘Pirate Princess’ or a ‘wench,’ and, if not, are we willing to move our logic even further so that Disney, that all-powerful producer of childhood fantasies, might be seen to have an agenda when it comes to producing the gender roles and stereotypes of the next generation?
I’m not sure whether we dictate what Disney produces or, alternatively, Disney dictates what we are to consume, but that $40 outfit isn’t worth the money or the questionable gender stereotypes it represents.