"Yo-ho, A Pirates Life For Me" – Queer Positionalities, Heteronormativity, and Piracy in Pirates of the Caribbean. A Queer Reading.

Heike Steinhoff

Walt Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl hit the movie theatres in July 2003 and turned into a major box office success. The movie resorts to a kaleidoscopic flux of filmic conventions: it is a traditional pirate movie, historical thriller, action saga, and post-classical, almost postmodern, and playful comedy. Foremost, it offers all the apparent 'essentials' of a heteronormative Hollywood movie: Set in the late seventeenth century Caribbean Sea, the story features a villainous band of cursed and undead pirates (i.e. Captain Barbossa and his crew), who ravage the British colony, Port Royal, and kidnap the governor's daughter (Elizabeth Swann). They do so because they falsely believe that it is her blood they need to lift their curse. Yet, whose blood they really need is that of the blacksmith's apprentice (Will Turner) who – as the young and noble hero – sets out on an adventurous journey to save his girl and return her into the fatherly 'haven' of the British colony. On his trip across the high-seas, Will Turner teams up with another pirate, the roguish Captain Jack Sparrow, who was marooned by his own crew and now seeks to reclaim his ship, the Black Pearl, from Captain Barbossa.

Although, as this short synopsis shows, Pirates of the Caribbean at first sight appears to be a product of Hollywood's (hetero)normative mainstream blockbuster industry, the following paper will argue that the movie is fused with potentially queer elements, moments, and signifiers. Drawing on a broad working definition of 'queer,' it will present a 'queer reading' of the film. Pirates of the Caribbean lends itself to such a reading particularly due to the ambivalent and campy figure of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Yet, also the film's seemingly classical narrative structure and the heterosexual protagonist Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) can be deconstructed or 'queered' and this paper will elucidate how this analysis can be set in the light of Foucauldian heterotopias.

According to queer theorist David Halperin the term "queer" designates

whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without essence. 'Queer' then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative […]. [Queer] describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance (Halperin qtd. in Sullivan 43).

This positioning of 'queer' as that which is opposed to the 'defined,' 'categorized' and 'fixed' or more generally against the perceived 'norm' also provides the basis for the following analysis. 'Queer,' as understood here, does not only present a radical questioning of notions of sexuality (as in the every-day use of the word) but also challenges other social and cultural norms and categories such as gender, class, race, or basically anything that falls into normative and deviant categories.

Moreover, the project of queer has a further dimension when it is perceived as a set of actions that take the form of a post-structural and deconstructive analysis. The process of 'queering' then designates a conscious disruption, destabilization and rendering unnatural of identities, categories, practices, texts, discourses, and power-relations that have become naturalized and taken-for-granted. Particularly drawing on the post-structuralist and constructivist notions of Michel Foucault, the humanist concept of a singular, fixed and 'authentic' identity is constantly challenged by Queer Theory.

Adopting a queer positionality or engaging in the queering of a text involves the impersonation or exposure of differences rather than homogeneity, flux rather than stability, ambivalence rather than stasis, deviance rather than normativity, and yet, in the end, thus paradoxically, though self-consciously, to a certain extent it implies the use of the binary and dominant discourses that Queer Theory itself seeks to destabilize. It is in this sense that engaging in queer positionalities, practices or theory presents a form of resistance as conceptualized by Michel Foucault, when he writes: "where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. […] [R]esistances […] are the odd terms in relations of power; they are inscribed in power as an irreducible opposite" (95-96). Queering Pirates of the Caribbean involves the application of the term 'queer' in both outlined ways, i.e. as a positionality that is represented in the text as well as a practice of reading brought to the text.1 By looking for "queer moments" in the film, this analysis will accordingly focus on those "moments of narrative disruption which destabilize [hetero]normativity, and the meanings and identities it engenders" (Sullivan 191).

In Pirates of the Caribbean the most explicitly queer positionality is taken by the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. His representation reveals how the movie plays with the largely romanticized image of the pirate as an economic criminal and cultural deviant (cf. Turley 40). Yet, rather than simply reproducing cultural dichotomies, Captain Jack Sparrow's representation unsettles binary categorizations.

Already his introduction sequence establishes Captain Jack Sparrow as a character marked by strong ambiguities. Standing on the crow's nest of a ship, he sails into Port Royal: stern face, dark eyes under a black pirate's hat, legs spread apart, his black coat and hair flying in the wind to a swelling score. It is a seemingly dramatic and heroic entrance – until the next shot shows Captain Jack Sparrow jumping down into a dinghy, quickly trying to save it from sinking. From this moment on, the character's representation constantly oscillates between heroic, anti-heroic, comical, and campy. In a self-reflective manner, the film continually raises the question whether this is "the worst" or "best pirate ever seen." Is he foolish or rather a clever trickster? Do his sympathies lie with or against the British? Playing with filmic conventions and mythological images of the masculine pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow's representation escapes any kind of final categorization. As Elizabeth Swann so aptly asks: "Whose side is Jack on?" and Will Turner replies: "At the moment?" With its strong sexual connotations this self-reflective remark hints at Captain Jack Sparrow's contingent, unstable, and heterogeneous character and performance. Particularly his campy representation and fusing of stereotypically effeminate moves and hypermasculine characteristics leave the audience wondering explicitly about Captain Jack Sparrow's sexual orientation. Indeed, with his flamboyant costume, kohl-black eyes, golden teeth and numerous rings, Captain Jack Sparrow displays a gender ambiguity that could be labeled "unmarked transvestism." According to Margaret Thompson Drewal, though "not cross-dressing in any literal sense, unmarked transvestism nevertheless has a feminizing effect insofar as it makes the male performer into a glitzy object of the gaze" (173). Though deeply rooted in heteronormative stereotypes, Captain Jack Sparrow's dandified version of the pirate thus denaturalizes normative categories, representations and concepts of identity.

It is striking how the film's narrative at times attempts to reclassify Captain Jack Sparrow's ambiguous sexuality into a heterosexual matrix: after all, the narrative suggests that his slurred speech and exaggerated gestures are the result of three days on a hot lonely island with nothing to drink but bottles of rum. Similarly, during a scene on the lonely island, Captain Jack Sparrow seems to show the first signs of heterosexual affection for Elizabeth Swann. Yet, all of these suggestions of fitting Captain Jack Sparrow into a heteronormative matrix cannot erase the overwhelmingly ambiguous representations that precede and follow these scenes: Thus, Captain Jack Sparrow not only spends emotionally intense moments with Elizabeth Swann but also and particularly with Will Turner. Especially their first encounter, a spectacular sword-fight, bears homoerotic connotations: the two men's phallic swords almost gently touch each other – and their bodies are exposed to the voyeuristic gaze of the spectator as well as to that of the respective other male character.2 Similarly, other moments of 'heterosexualization' can be deconstructed or queered. Eventually, the pirates' transgressive sexual desire seems to be masked by the desire generated by treasure (cf. Turley 81). More precisely, besides his ambivalent relations to Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner it is his ship, the Black Pearl, with which Captain Jack Sparrow is represented to engage in the closest and most eroticized way. In the end, she appears to be his 'true' sexual fetish and turns him into a potent pirate.

Conclusively, Captain Jack Sparrow displays a hybrid, fractured and fluid identity. He appears as a bricolage of partly contradictory and highly stylized performative acts (cf. Butler). Thus, in the movie he reflects Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's definition of queer as "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically" (8).

If Captain Jack Sparrow is the queer pirate, Will Turner takes the role of the straight white hero, whose task it is to selflessly save his apparent damsel-in-distress, Elizabeth Swann, from evil and redeem his society. Yet, this is only apparently the case.

Whereas in heteronormative terms, Will Turner's journey to rescue Elizabeth Swann is represented as a process of maturation and gaining of masculine potency, in the frame of a queer reading it is particularly striking how this development is intertwined with Will Turner's introduction into piracy: In a humanist and modernist sense, his journey is coded as a trip towards his own piratical or queer self. It takes the form of a coming-out narrative, in the course of which Will Turner is introduced to the queer places, the queer way of life, and his own queer potential. In the process of saving Elizabeth Swann, Will Turner grows from young, obedient, idealistic and slightly feminized and naïve boy to a more rebellious, a little less stiff, more self-confident and passionate young man. He transforms or, as his name already indicates, turns into the romantic pirate the heroine is longing for. Eventually, he is willing to break social conventions and boundaries; among others to transgress the class borders that separate him – a blacksmith's apprentice – from Elizabeth Swann – the Governor's daughter. Moreover, in a reversal of their first encounter, i.e. the sword-fight in which Captain Jack Sparrow spares Will Turner from death, it is Will Turner who saves the pirate's life in the film's last scene. Protectively stepping in front of Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner heroically declares his love, proclaiming that this is where he belongs: between the British soldiers and Captain Jack Sparrow. The highly ambivalent and potentially homoerotic relation to Captain Jack Sparrow as well as Will Turner's partly androgynous representation, which results from his outward appearance and voice, increasingly tend to destabilize the notion of a hero who is straight and masculine in all aspects.

Moreover, despite the narrative's essentialist overtones, expressed in such sentences as "pirate is in your blood, boy" and the strong urge on Will Turner to "come out of the closet," a deconstructive reading can reveal Will Turner's identity as a shifting and temporary construction. In the end, it is the removal of a medallion, when Will Turner is still a child and rescued by the British fleet that is represented to bereave him of his sense of a piratical identity, i.e. of the knowledge that he is the son of a pirate. In order to protect Will Turner, the young girl, Elizabeth Swann, erases or silences this potential part of his identity, producing a new person, with a new history, wardrobe, and future. Strikingly, it is also she who, at the end of the movie, 'outs' him with the interpellating words "he's a pirate." Thus, Will Turner's piratical self-disclosure can be denaturalized as a process of self-formation that results from the interaction of several discourses, technologies of domination and technologies of the self. The processual construction of his new identity as well as the protagonist's increasingly queer positionality is particularly evident in the development of his outward appearance: as the narrative progresses, Will Turner rids himself of his blacksmith's outfit, takes the appearance of a wilder and less neat sailor, and in the last scenes wears a flamboyant hat and cape, a stylistic mixture of knightly hero and romantic pirate. Eventually, his appearance and conduct indicate that, similarly to Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner has taken a place in-between. At the end of the movie, he has taken a truly queer and postmodern positionality: he is both inside and outside the closet at the same time.

Throughout the movie the pirates' queer potential is closely tied to space: As outsiders and outlaws, the pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean display their own socio-cultural features peculiar to themselves and they also share their own peculiar places where these social, cultural and political codes apply. The two most important piratical places in the film are the buccaneer island Tortuga and the pirate ship, the Black Pearl. Both places can be characterized as queer or 'other places.' They are places of difference or, in Foucault's terminology, heterotopias. As Foucault defines it, heterotopias are "something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted" (239). It is this contestation and inversion that provides heterotopias with a queer – a denaturalizing - potential. Presenting a place of excess, night-life, play, gamble, sex, and violence, in Pirates of the Caribbean the island of Tortuga presents an explicit counter-site to the strictly regulated life in Port Royal. Its presence denaturalizes the latter's normativity. Similarly, the pirate ship presents a micro-cultural and micro-political space of deviance: It is marked by the use of a different, specifically maritime and piratical language and governed by a specific set of guidelines referred to as "The Code." Moreover, it is inhabited by a disparate and deviant society: Captain Jack Sparrow's crew consists of an exotic group of drunkards, deaf-mutes, blacks, persons of short statue, and old aged men. Furthermore, in contrast to the heteronormative life in the British colony, the crew on a pirate ship is foremost represented as an all-male society. Marked as living in a place of strong homosociality and possibly potential sodomy, it is also in this sense that the piratical subject interrupts modernist and domestic concepts of subjectivity which are tied to heteronormative logic.3

Although at a first glance Pirates of the Caribbean follows the typical structure of a heteronormative Hollywood blockbuster, this paper has illustrated that the film is far more complex than this: within its heteronormative frame and coding it is suffused with queer potentials. Particularly the representation of the pirate and the pirate's places as different provide the movie with a queer subtext. Thus, Captain Jack Sparrow's representation, in a frequently self-reflective manner, questions and destabilizes essentialist notions of gender, sexual, and cultural identity. Furthermore, the apparently straight protagonist Will Turner can also be perceived as a transgressive character: his coming-out as hero and pirate is marked by a queer, potentially gay, subtext and his sense of self can be revealed as ultimately constructed.

In conclusion, Pirates of the Caribbean's ambiguities, self-reflexivity, and contradictory 'maps of meanings' characterize it as a post-classical4 and double-coded film. Oscillating between heteronormativity and the implicit acknowledgment of queer positionalities, it allows for queer readings without rendering the film explicitly queer. At least in the case of Captain Jack Sparrow moments of destabilization and ambiguity are however so obtrusive that they apparently 'threaten' the heteronormative industry. As Johnny Depp mockingly recites the words of the panicking producers at Disney, "it would be like 'what are you doing with your hands? Is he drunk? Is he gay? What is he?' […] 'He's ruining the film'" (Contactmusic). This fear effectively reveals how the pirate's refusal to be pinned down into any dichotomous position in either the economic, cultural or sexual sense noticeably destabilizes the heteronormative notions of sexual and gendered identity. In the end, thanks to Captain Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Caribbean became a major success. Whether this appropriation of queer positionalities into a Hollywood blockbuster signals mainstream audiences' celebration of inconsistencies and non-conforming ways of life or rather presents a process of adjusting these potential deviances into a heteronormative matrix remains open for debate. After all, only the film's audience and exhibition context can complete the movie's potentially implied subversions and any attempt to finally fix the piratical figure will most certainly end "as the day that you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow."


1 These two processes are of course always intertwined, since, from a constructivist perspective, reading a text can never be objective, but is always the result of the interaction between reader and text and thus a process of negotiation. Accordingly, the distinction between those queer elements which seem to be acknowledged and contained within the film, i.e. which are “explicit”, and those queer moments which seem to require a more deconstructive reading, i.e. are more “implicit”, is foremost an analytical one. Its relation is fluent and based on the assumption of the receptive background of a heteronormative mainstream audience. It results from the specific frame, approach, and subject position of this paper.

2 For a discussion of the gaze and the male body in cinema see Neale 16.

3 The piratical figure functions as a repository of cultural alternatives. He lives at and represents the margins of normative society and as such holds a queer potential. As Riki Wilchins points out, “[m]argins are margins because thats where the discourse begins to fray, where whatever paradigm were in starts to lose its explanatory power and all those inconvenient exceptions begin to cause problems” (71).

4 Cf. Elsaesser and Bucklands definition of post-classical:
From the perspective of production post-classical films stand in a tradition: they have mastered the codes of the classical, and they are not afraid to display this mastery as 'play, in the way they are able to absorb, transform, and appropriate also that which initially opposed the classical, be it other filmmaking traditions […] or be it oppositional theories and political practices such as the critical discourses around the formation of race, class, gender and nation. From the perspective of reception, it is this knowingness […] that gives with its several reflexive turns, the label 'post-classical its most defensible validity and, perhaps more problematically, its only stable application (78-79).

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990, 270-82.

Contactmusic. "Depp Laughed Off Disneys Sparrow Concerns." Contactmusic.com 21 November 2005. 28 August 2006. <http://www.contactmusic.com/new/xmlfeed.nsf/mndwebpages/depp%20laughed%20off%20disneys%20sparrow%20concerns>.

Elsaesser, Thomas and Warren Buckland. "Classical/Post-Classical Narrative (Die Hard)." Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis. Eds. Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland. London: Arnold, 2002, 26-80.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

—. "Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias." The Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff. New York: Routledge, 1998, 237-44.

Neale, Steve. "Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema." Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. Eds. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. New York: Routledge, 1993, 9-20.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley. Walt Disney, 2003.

Sedgwick, Eve. "Queer and Now." Tendencies. North Carolina: Duke UP, 1993, 1-20.

Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York UP, 2003.

Thompson Drewal, Margaret. "The Camp Trace in Corporate America: Liberace and the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall." The Politics and Poetics of Camp. Ed. Moe Meyer. London: Routledge, 1994, 149-81.

Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality and Masculine Identity. New York: New York UP, 1999.

Wilchins, Riki. "Transgender Rights." Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2004. 21-31.

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