Just a forewarning, this post may “break the magic” a bit. Some photos I use will show the animatronics actors in their full 1960’s stage makeup glory. Imagineers are great at using lighting to hide things you aren’t supposed to see and driving your eye to what they want you to really focus on. Advances in digital cameras and old-fashioned flash photography RUIN ALL OF THAT.
Walt Disney Company just announced their plans to change a portion of the pirates of the Caribbean ride. This portion contains the scene where local women are chained together and auctioned off to the highest paying pirate. Implying, at the very least, women are objects or actual sex slaves. Soon this moment will be transformed into a public scene with a red headed lady pirate leads an auction of items.
This announcement had me thinking of all the times Pirates at Disneyland had been changed. More recently the changes have happened under the guise of updating the ride to reflect the movie franchise. The women characters/ actors have been modified in many ways since the 90s to be more appealing to gen X and millennial viewers. The assumed audience of this ride has changed in the 50 years since the ride opened.
Walt Disney said he wanted his park to grow and change. (AKA keep up with the ideals of new consumers) He didn’t want his park to seem dated. Disney also wanted his park to have a clean and family oriented environment. This was unlike carnivals and amusement parks of the first to mid part of the 20th century that attracted illicit behavior and drugs. The executives of Disney know who visits and works at their parks. They know their audience doesn’t just consist of men but also women, girls, and the queer and brown communities. Of course they are passive about acknowledging it. Disney is not one to rock the boat. They don’t make a statement because they still want money from guests of all political beliefs. So imagaineers occasionally update and change rides. Most of the time it’s slight. They know if their parks reflect current cultural values, verses continuing promoting dated ideals of the mid-century, people feel satisfied (spend money).
The Pirates of the Caribbean ride opened in 1967. Like most of Disneyland, and honestly most media in the mid-century, the attraction was built for a very specific viewer; the middle class white male. Pirates follows a simple story, what happens when a group of pirates take over a village and their subsequent follies and mishaps. I’m not going to spell out each scene of the ride but the time line follows a simple formula. The pirates’ battle, move on to the island, rape and pillage, then burn the place down. I guess you die at some point? Educational and entertaining, Edu-tainment!
Imagineers we’re following a cultural norm when it came to how they depicted women. This ride was built during the counter culture movement and second wave feminism. Male gaze wasn’t part of the vocabulary of Disney imagineers. Nor did they know that you could create attractions telling the story of someone other than a white man. This wasn’t a bad thing, it’s just how it was. Thankfully things have changed since then.
In the middle of the ride guests are introduced to some women of the town that the pirates have taken over. They are auctioned off in one scene and then you see them being chased around bedrooms. The pirates were trying to have their way with them. Minus the “Corn fed” woman, as the script called her, who chased a pirate. I guess pirates weren’t attracted to fat women.
This is how the ride was until 1997. That is when pirates was closed for a renovation for the ride’s 30th birthday. Then the women were given plates of food and drink. This was supposed to justify why the women were being chased. Of course the fat woman was still chasing the pirate, he had stole her ham!
Then Disney produced a movie loosely based on the, then, almost 40 year old attraction. In 2006 the ride went down for another major renovation. This time it was to mostly add elements in from the movie but once again the roll of the women being chased changed. Now these women are chasing the men who have stolen the pies. Since then this moment has been changed around a few times.
At one point in the late 00s the women were changed back to their original position of being chased. More recently the women have been given jewels. Now the pirates aren’t lusting after the bodies of the women or their domestic skills but rather TREASURE. Yes the fat woman was still chasing the man, he was holding a box of jewels. I believe there were variations of how this scene played out for a few years. Imagineers seemly futzing back and forth with the best way to use the characters and stage in a non-offensive manner.
Now the ride shows the women chasing the pirates who are holding valuable household items. The larger woman’s roll isn’t reversed in order to make a low joke on fat women. All of the women are “empowered” to chase after thieves who have stolen valuable objects from their homes. Once the buying a bride moment is redone to an actual auction scene, the viewer will have no exposure to any implied sexual harassment or male gaze.
People have poked fun of and reacted negatively to the changes in the past. There are some that argue that the ride has been watered down. Others say that Disney shouldn’t bow down to PC naysayers and keep the ride as it was originally intended. It’s important for people to learn and acknowledge the awful things that happened to in history. The selling and treatment of people like objects is a real aspect of our history as humans as well as our present. It also is important to remember that values have changed in recent history. We need to be honest and talk about how minorities and women were depicted in culture and media by men in power and how those types of representation are wrong but at the time seemed ok. Really though, Disney shouldn’t be the place to have this conversation. You can’t have Disneyland be the happiest place on earth, except for the 30 seconds where you are reminded that sex slaves are real. The environment and resources are not set up to be a place to reflect on the real and troubled past. It is a theme park based on cartoon stories. There is no basis for reality nor there should be.
Further reading on this issue and info on another element from these scenes they totally changed in 1997