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With news that Disney is planning a new standalone pirate film starring a female pirate, it’s time review what has become a pirate trope: the woman in red, specifically, or at least often, a redhead. Why this trope in regard to a new Disney film? Because speculation has it that the film will be tied to Redd the Pirate above.
While we do this, we’ll also take a quick look at some of the myths and realities of female pirates during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy in the Americas from roughly 1655 to 1730.
The seemingly obvious origin of the woman in red (a “scarlet woman”?), at least in terms of pirate fiction and film, is the Redhead in line in the bride auction–“Take a Wench for a Bride”–in the original version of the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in which drunken pirates shouted, “We wants the redhead!” Forced marriage, in other words.
Notably, text on the back of the publicity still describes the scene as an auction: “Gold-hungry pirate captain puts the town’s fair maidens–and the ones not so fair–on the auction block for his rowdy crewmen.” Thankfully, things have somewhat changed since then, tongue-in-cheek humor or not.
The Disney auction scene may have been inspired by scenes in The Black Swan (1942), Anne of the Indies (1951), and Against All Flags (1952), in which captured women are portrayed as captives to be sold or given away as plunder. Both Against All Flags and Anne of the Indies have auction scenes of female captives.
When it first opened in 1967, the Disney attraction was intended–and in fact was–as a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted, swashbuckling film-based version of buccaneers sacking a hapless Spanish town in the Caribbean. Marketing text associated with early publicity stills noted that the ride was a “thoroughly realistic re-creation of buccaneer days.”
To enjoy it–which I did and still do–required viewing it as a fantasy rather than a depiction of reality, for the reality of buccaneer attacks in the seventeenth century was anything but romantic to the victims: torture, rape, murder, and the enslavement of free men, women, and children were common. Documentary evidence of what today would likely be defined as resulting PTSD, among both victim and perpetrator, exists.
Like most of our fictional and cinematic adventure, we tend to sanitize or ignore facts in order to help create a fantasy more amenable to entertainment. Humans have done this for millennia. And there’s often nothing wrong with this unless we confuse the fantasy with the reality, which unfortunately happens all too often.
Today, the ride has been modified somewhat to both fit with the Disney pirate films, which are only loosely inspired by the attraction, and to bring the attraction up-to-date with current social mores. And this has generally been a good thing, I think, even if the changes are not historical. The attraction is a swashbuckling fantasy, after all, not an accurate animatronic documentary.
The most significant of these changes was the conversion of the pirates-chasing-women scene into one of pirates-chasing-food, and the conversion in 2018 of the bride auction scene into one of conquered residents bearing possessions, perhaps as ransom, and of the famous red-dressed redhead showing a leg into a red-dressed redheaded female pirate standing guard (and still, after a fashion, showing a leg).
Personally, I much prefer the new scene and new redhead, ancient passing pre-adolescent fantasies notwithstanding.
In general, as in the original trope-setting (and great fun to watch) pirate swashbuckler, The Black Pirate (1926), leading women in pirate films are usually depicted as the “tavern wench” or “exotic wench,” or other saucy secondary love interest; the “swooning heroine;” or the “pirate woman.”
The “pirate woman” is usually by far the most interesting, although too often she, Hollywood-style, gives up piracy at the end of the film in exchange for true love. Or she dies in battle, her true love unrequited, her true love interest running off with the “good girl”–often the swooning heroine.
Sometimes the tropes are combined: Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl goes from a nod at the literally swooning–via an over-tightened corset–heroine to pirate woman.
She also wears a red dress in the first film of the series, in scenes which combine multiple tropes: woman in peril, woman tied-up, woman with (airbrushed, reportedly) cleavage. The dress is a likely homage to the Disney attraction.
The red dress shows up in other pirate films as well, and as apparent copies or homages in Halloween costumes and video games.
Geena Davis stars in Cutthroat Island (1995, Carolco), and in one scene swashbuckles her way tolerably well in a red dress borrowed from a prostitute. The dress is clearly a nod, perhaps more than a bit humorous, at the Disney ride. In fact, Cutthroat Island often seems like one long string of pirate tropes, homages, and stolen scenes. Great soundtrack, though, and Davis does well as a pirate captain.
Now is a good time to briefly point out the reality of women pirates during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy 1655 to 1730. Strictly speaking, we know of only two: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the former of whom gets all the cinematic glory while the latter was the real swashbuckling bad-ass of the twain.
If Charles Johnson’s early eighteenth century account is true, Read had been thrice a soldier in disguise, then a pirate, and even a privateer, in disguise, and reportedly fought at least one duel against a male crew member. But it’s redheaded Anne Bonny–or at least she’s assumed to be redheaded because she was Irish and reportedly had a hot temper–who gets all the glory, even though she may have been merely the girlfriend along for a joyride with her bad boy pirate boyfriend. Or not. We simply don’t know enough about her. It’s also entirely possible that she was as bold as Charles Johnson described her.
But it’s Read, in my opinion, who deserves a movie.
Perhaps Anne Bonny, the assumed redhead, has also given us the redheaded part of the redhead in the red dress trope.
There are no other known women pirates of the Golden Age but for two who were technically pirates under the law, each having participated in utterly inept attempts at petty piracy, one of them comically so. Notably, two of the most commonly cited women pirates of the era were not (please please please ignore Wikipedia!): Jacquotte de la Haye is entirely fictional, and Anne Dieu-le-Veult, a wealthy widow, married the famous Laurens de Graff after his buccaneering days. She was never a member of his crew, nor is there any evidence that she was a member of any other crews.
Likely though, there were real buccaneer and pirate women we’ll never know about because they remained in disguise. The common sexism of the day prevented women from becoming obvious members of a pirate crew. In fact, it’s probable that Anne Bonny and Mary Read (in Read’s case, after she revealed her sex) were part of John “Calico Jack” Rackham’s crew only because it was very small, no more than a dozen or so aboard a twelve-ton (that’s very small) sloop.
Pirates by majority vote could override their captains anytime but in action, and a larger crew would doubtless never have permitted women aboard as equals. In general, women were forbidden among early eighteenth century pirates except as prisoners, and even then pirates preferred to keep them away out of fear of indiscipline among the crew.
Red dresses pop up in other pirate or pirate-associated films as well, but it’s hard to tell if they qualify as tropes. Red is a popular dress color, after all.
Nonetheless, there is a possible origin for the redhead in red dress trope prior to the Disney attraction–in fact, its inspiration perhaps, or part of it.
In 1952 Columbia Pictures released The Golden Hawk, a pirate film, albeit one technically about French and Spanish privateers in the Caribbean in the late seventeenth century.
The male lead was Sterling Hayden playing Captain Kit Gerardo. His acting appears a bit wooden by Hollywood pirate captain standards until you read his biography: a true tall ship captain in his youth, later a Silver Star recipient and US Marine Corps officer assigned to the OSS (the precursor to the CIA covert operations department) behind enemy lines in World War Two. In other words, he was playing himself as a privateer captain. Even so, Variety magazine wrote that Hayden was “out of his element as the gallant French privateer…” Hollywood goes for (melo)drama, but most real captains are far more quiet and self-assured. They have to be. But I digress.
The female lead was red-haired Rhonda Fleming, one of the “queens of technicolor,” the most famous of whom was Maureen O’Hara who starred in several swashbucklers and whom some critics suggested would have been better in the role–and better for its box office.
Fleming’s character in the film is “fiery,” to be expected of the popular genre, including the Frank Yerby novel on which the film was based. In one scene–SPOILER ALERT!–she shoots Kit Gerardo when he makes “romantic overtures” to her, then leaps out a stern window and swims ashore. No swooning heroine she, thankfully, nor one to put up with harassment.
In a few scenes, Fleming, whose character’s real name is Lady Jane Golfin, wears a luxurious green dress. But in most lobby cards, tinted publicity stills, and movie posters, it’s red.
More importantly, Rhonda Fleming plays a buccaneer, Captain Rouge (that is, Captain Red)–she was also a pirate!
We may have simultaneously moved forward while also coming full circle. 🙂
Postscript July 22, 2020: This bears repeating: Please, please, please do not use the Wikipedia entry on women pirates for research! At least not if you’re looking for facts. 🙂 Wikipedia has a number of flaws in many of its articles on piracy (and in many other areas as well), including factual errors, incomplete information, trolling (intentional factual misrepresentation to trigger a reaction or otherwise for fun), severe ideological slants leading to inaccuracy (i.e. deliberate “scholarly” misrepresentation, often in support of social or political ideologies that run counter to historical fact), and fairly constant regressive, incorrect changes to accurate information.
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First posted July 8, 2020. Last updated August 12, 2020.
Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer
The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.
Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.
This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.
Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.
There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.
And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:
The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…
The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.
Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.
As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.
Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.
Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.
Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.
Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.
Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.
I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.
At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.