On June 29th, 2017, the Walt Disney Company announced more changes to the classic attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates in Disneyland was the last attraction in the flagship park that Walt supervised himself. He never saw the finished product. He approved the delay of the grand opening until March 1967 — three months after he died of lung cancer. A version of the ride was hastily built in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 1973 after guests complained that neither Pirates nor its proposed spiritual successor, the Western River Expedition, were available on opening day.
For those who need a reminder, the ride goes like this: We board a boat, then float through a series of caves and caverns featuring ghostly pirate voices and cursed skeletal remains. After passing through a pitch black cave, we drift between a pirate ship and a Spanish fort exchanging cannon fire and insults in a Caribbean village. We enter the village, first observing the pirates dunking the town’s mayor into a well, torturing him for information on the hidden treasure. In the next scene, a captain acts as auctioneer, selling off the town’s women as “brides” for the randy pirates across the river. After that, we see several pirates chasing women, and an out-of-shape pirate leaning on a set of stairs, a young lady’s slip in his hand, his frightened would-be victim hiding in the barrel behind him. We then find that the pirates have gotten drunk, set fire to the town, and are basically having a rousing good time looting and plundering. A few of the pillaging pirates have gotten locked up by a backstabbing fellow pirate, and are desperately trying to coax the jail-keeping dog to give up the keys to their cell as it starts to crumble around them. Finally, a gang of pirates have found the armory (or the treasure room in Florida), and are haphazardly firing their guns around the room at each other and us.
This is how both versions of the attraction played out for three decades, with only minor changes to lighting, costumes, and Audio-Animatronic technology. That is, until 1997, when both attractions were refurbished, and a few changes were made to one of the scenes. You see, while the attraction depicted the kidnapping and ravaging pirates as playful scamps just looking for a little kiss on the playground, modern sensitivities shined a seedy light on the scene. These weren’t innocent boys, they were pirates, and their intention was rape. The “Pooped Pirate” in this scene had particularly racy dialog, expressing his desire to “hoist me colors on the likes of that shy little wench,” and being “willing to share, I be!”
Interestingly, each version got its own sanitized version of this scene. Disneyland’s attraction more infamously saw the vice on display changed to gluttony, with the pirates running around stealing food from the women, and the Pooped Pirate becoming the “Stuffed Pirate”, having overeaten. On the opposite coast, Florida’s Magic Kingdom saw the pirates’ greed. Instead of pleasurable company, the pirates were making off with a different kind of booty, stealing gold and silver and chests of valuables from the villagers, while the Pooped Pirate was simply tired from searching for a young lady with a box of jewels, still hiding in the barrel.
Following the runaway success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, Disney made another controversial decision. A growing number of guests to their parks were unfamiliar with the attraction’s history, and were only aware of the intellectual property from The Curse of the Black Pearl and its upcoming sequels. Complaints flooded Guest Relations at both parks: “Where’s Captain Jack Sparrow?” So in 2006, coinciding with the release of the second film in the franchise, Dead Man’s Chest, Audio-Animatronics of Captain Jack, as well as one of his nemesis Barbossa, and an impressive spectral projection effect of the sequels’ newest antagonist Davy Jones, premiered in the attractions. Disney took this opportunity to fix the discrepancy of the chase scene by having the pirates in both versions stealing shiny goods, and the girl in the barrel replaced by Sparrow, peaking over the Pooped Pirate’s shoulder at a map to the treasure room.
That’s more-or-less what guests have seen for the past decade, with only minor cosmetic changes. In 2011, to tie the attraction in with the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, Florida’s version added Blackbeard, alternating with Davy Jones on the projection effect, and the haunted grotto scene was enhanced with a mermaid skeleton and a lone siren’s voice singing My Jolly Sailor Bold.
Each change over the many years had mixed receptions, with one camp arguing that Pirates of the Caribbean was a Walt Disney original and shouldn’t be tampered with, and the other camp arguing that Disney attractions need to be able to change with the times, or risk alienating guests with less awareness of their history. This is the eternal argument regarding any change at any Disney park, really. How much change is too much? How adamant should the Imagineers be about preserving what’s there for historical posterity? To put it simply, what would Walt do?
So here we are, a week or so after Disney officially announced even more changes to the classic crowd favorite, and the tension is palpable. The wench auction scene, one of the most iconic and recognizable scenes in the attraction — and incidentally, the only scene Walt himself saw completed — is having the overt sexual references removed. No longer will the pirates be buying and selling women as concubines, with a rotund woman on the block, and a red-haired woman flaunting herself to prospective bidders. Now, the redhead is a pirate herself, “assisting” (at gunpoint) the villagers as they unload their belongings, and the corpulent lady is proudly displaying a flock of chickens for sale.
First of all, I’d like to correct a few misstatements I’ve heard about the refurbishment. I’ve read countless comments across social media accusing Disney of “removing” the auction scene, or making it no longer an auction. The scene will still be there, and it’s still going to be an auction. The difference being that they are auctioning off things, not people. Secondly, we have no confirmation that the popular catchphrase “we wants the redhead” is going away. It’s very possible that the gag will now be that the Pirates would rather bid on the woman than the objects on display. At this point, no one knows.
Now let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I am okay with these changes. I’m honestly shocked it has taken Disney this long to make them. I’m especially pleased that the Redhead will soon become a strong lady pirate, something Imagineer Marc Davis alluded to in a painting that sits in the background of Disneyland’s grotto scene. Look, I get it. Changing a classic is a touchy subject. Even more so when that classic was touched by Walt’s own hands. But with the current sociopolitical climate being what it is now, this was all but inevitable. Something needed to be done to address these issues, and I’d rather see the ride changed for the future than destroyed completely.
Ideally for people like us, Disney would just put an age/height restriction on it to protect the children. The Looney Tunes Golden Collection is a prime example of how a company can own their shameful past while still respecting their art. Warner Bros. released all of their old racist and sexist cartoons on DVD, but with a disclaimer (delivered by Whoopi Goldberg) explaining that they were not for children, and their depictions “were wrong then and are wrong today”. Disney could put a sign at the entrance of the attraction with a warning — something like “This attraction portrays violence, drunkenness, and behavior some may find offensive or questionable. Ride at your own discretion.”* — but let’s face it, we’ve all been to the Disney Parks. We’ve all seen how guests are. We remember ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Guests will ignore the signs, ride anyway, then go complain to Guest Relations about what they saw.
Unfortunately, Pirates of the Caribbean is so well-known by so many people of all ages around the world by now, an age limit is impractical. Guests expect that anyone can ride it. Also, Pirates isn’t a DVD set on a store shelf you pay $50 for and take home for your own enjoyment. It is part of a much larger, family-oriented experience called the Magic Kingdom that you share with everybody, and it is included in the park admission you’ve already paid for. It is also a lot harder to communicate “people sensitive about misogyny should not ride” than “keep hands and arms inside at all times”. The latter is a logical given, an objective warning for everyone’s safety. The former is a subjective interpretation of stimuli one has presumably not yet experienced and therefore can’t judge effectively.
“So who’s complaining?” the refurb’s detractors ask. “I’m not offended, and I don’t know anyone else who is.” “Why change it if nobody’s bothered by it?” These arguments assume your opinion and experience are the same as everyone else’s. Let’s imagine for a moment that Disney has not received any complaints, that everyone riding Pirates is in on the joke, and no one is offended. (For the record, I’m sure that is not the case in actuality.) That does not change the fact that a ride in a Disney park is making light of sensitive topics like human trafficking, misogyny, and rape. Eventually, that will come back to bite them, whether from guest complaints, or someone using the attraction as an example in an exposé. If there’s one thing Disney should have learned from the tragic alligator attack in June of 2016, it’s that it’s often safer to be proactive; and if there is a crack in the sidewalk, even if nobody has tripped on it yet, you fix the crack. That’s just the sensible thing to do.
“What about the parts of the ride where they’re shooting at each other and burning the town?” is another common argument, coupled with “What about the Haunted Mansion, where we see a body hanged and others decapitated?” Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between depictions of physical violence and (dare I say) social injustice. Both are evil in real life. The difference is, physical violence can be cartoonified. Social injustice, not so much. It’s easy to pull off a bit of comedy slapstick with a wide and diverse audience. Rape and human trafficking are harder gags to sell.
It can be done, with the right audience. Family Guy and South Park have had long, successful runs of making jokes about inappropriate subjects. But those programs are intended for mature audiences who have a sense of irony. Irony is hard to get across to everyone. It takes a special type of sense of humor and a certain level of maturity that, unfortunately, cannot be guaranteed in any given guest at a Disney park, especially young ones. It should also be noted that the victims of violence depicted in The Haunted Mansion are ghosts. They are not living people. They may have been, but aren’t anymore, and they are blissfully and gleefully aware of that fact. Look at the line of women waiting to be sold at the wench auction. Do they look gleeful to you?
“But they’re pirates! That’s what they did!” “Disney is trying to change/erase history!” “They’re trying to pretend bad things never happened!” These statements, coupled with Pirates show writer Francis Xavier “X” Atencio’s infamous “Boy Scouts of the Caribbean” comment, underlie what seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what Disneyland is. Disneyland is not a museum. Pirates of the Caribbean is not a historical document. The pirate Audio-Animatronics are not accurate depictions of real-life pirates. Clearly, some inspiration was taken from real history, but in the end, this is entertainment. It is parody. It is a comical interpretation of things pirates did for the purpose of family-friendly amusement. To wit, I don’t think real pirates sang jaunty tunes in harmonic unison while they murdered and pillaged and burned down settlements. (I could be wrong.) Also, the Magic Kingdom is not a place where we should be reminding guests of the atrocities committed by mankind throughout history. They come here to escape the real world, not be taught profound life lessons about human cruelty.
To be entirely accurate, Disney are not sanitizing history with the new auction scene. The fact of the matter is, sanitizing history is exactly what they were trying to do with the original scene. What was something pirates were known to do? Rape. What did Disney decide to show instead? Pirates taking wives, playfully chasing women with kisses, and the women giggling and playing hard-to-get. The Imagineers, by their own admission, put a lot of time and effort into portraying “kidnapping and ravaging” as just a bunch of good-natured fun, when it probably would have been wiser to cut it out entirely.
But rather than trying to justify the original Imagineers’ decisions, most arguments I’ve gotten about why Disney shouldn’t change Pirates literally boil down to “This is how middle-aged white men built the ride in the ’60s, and we should respect their infallible vision.” Problem is, Walt wasn’t infallible. He knew what he liked, but he was still a product of his time, and so was Pirates. For example, Walt made a movie about an old black slave with a lovable grin who sang songs and told cute fables to white plantation children. He gave a black crow the name Jim and a gullah accent, and depicted dark-skinned, curly-haired, large-featured centaurs as the servants of pale-skinned, straight-haired, delicate-featured centaurs. Unfortunately, Disneyland wasn’t made for only us fans who have insight into Walt’s time period and sense of humor. Sometimes a joke doesn’t come across as funny to others, especially if they are the object of it.
Pirates of the Caribbean was made in a more innocent time, when unwanted sexual advances were considered normal — boys being boys. They were everywhere in the media. James Bond in particular was notorious for forcing himself onto women, with the women eventually giving in every time. It was a time before women’s liberation, before women were allowed to hold high positions at large companies. Most of the women at the Disney Studio worked in either ink & paint or costuming & makeup. Even Mary Blair, the famous artist whose inimitable style was the inspiration for the look and feel of It’s a Small World didn’t actually design that attraction. The job of interpreting her work into attraction sets went to Claude Coats, while the dolls were sculpted by Blaine Gibson. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, these same men would perform their respective tasks bringing Marc Davis’ drawings to life for Pirates.) For a bunch of men to make jokes about objectifying women was nothing unsavory back then, and women were subconsciously discouraged from speaking out against them.
Speaking of objectification of women, I personally think it’s more important that we focus on the body-shaming aspect of the auction scene than its “historical value”. As previously mentioned, the gag reads like this: The Auctioneer is trying to sell off a cartoonishly overweight woman. The bidding pirates are not interested, shouting insults such as “Will you be selling her by the pound?” Even the Auctioneer himself has trouble not calling out her weight, referring to her as “stout-hearted and corn-fed”, and ordering her to “shift her cargo”. Meanwhile, the slightly-built (she is just a pole from the waist down, in fact) and busty redhead is shamelessly flaunting her sexuality for the men’s attention.
Forget for a moment the satirical depiction of rape and misogyny. Forget that we have a woman at the forefront who is literally “asking for it”. What message are we sending to little girls with weight or self-esteem problems? Or grown adults, even? We live in a culture where bullying and body shaming are so commonplace and often ignored that it causes eating disorders, psychological complexes, and even suicide, especially in women and girls. Average size and weight for females are notably higher than our media widely depicts, and girls are taught by the songs they hear and the shows they watch that the popular girls are the ones who “put out”.
I know what some of you are saying. “You’re reading too much into it. It’s supposed to be a joke. You’re bringing social baggage to something that’s supposed to be fun.” Here’s the problem with that way of thinking. You don’t get to decide what baggage people carry. One in five women have been sexually assaulted. 52% of women are bullied for their weight or physical appearance. 65% have an eating disorder. And these statistics only take into account the women who have admitted it. There are untold numbers of women who suffer silently. Now we have a scene on a ride in The Happiest Place on Earth that confirms everything every bully and rapist has taught them. Fat girls are undesirable. Slutty girls get the attention. Men decide their value. Suddenly that scene doesn’t seem so funny. It actually seems a bit cruel.
I understand why there’s such a strong resistance to accepting these facts. Nobody likes to find out that they are responsible for something bad, even indirectly. “Not all men” is such a popular excuse for inappropriate behavior that we forget that this isn’t about me, or you, or our fellow Disneyphiles who’ve laughed at these jokes for a half a century. No, it’s not all men. It’s not all people. It’s not us. But it’s somebody. And it’s somebody’s daughter, or girlfriend, or wife, or mother who has carried this burden for so long that it’s often hard to pinpoint when or why it hurts. I love Pirates of the Caribbean. I love that scene. I have never been uncomfortable in that scene. Until last year, when I rode on it with somebody I love who has suffered with weight problems and bullying her entire life, and has been sexually assaulted. Then I felt terrible for being a fan of something that could cause emotional pain to someone I care for.
As with anything people don’t like, there is of course an online petition to stop the change, using many of the arguments I have tried to debunk above. I suspect these people don’t realize that it’s too late. The fact that Disney officially announced this means it’s going to happen. They’re not going to stop something that has most likely spent years in planning, and is probably already in the building phase, because of a few thousand signatures on a petition. The Walt Disney Company has made a progressive decision, and as Walt himself said, “Progress is impossible without change.” Times change. Sensibilities change. Walt’s time is not our time. We live in a time when sexual assault and discrimination are no longer swept under the rug, they are called out. They are scrutinized by the media. They’re discussed and judged by people everywhere, all the time. The reasons these jokes are inappropriate are no longer secret, nor should they be ignored.
If Walt felt like his guests were uncomfortable today, he would change it too. He did change things. Frequently, in fact. That was his favorite thing about Disneyland, that it could be changed. If a ride was failing to entertain, or a gag wasn’t working, or a space felt empty, or even something as simple as a flowerbed being in a convenient walking path, it could be changed. The Jungle Cruise and the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland originally opened as straight adventures. After hearing guests describe them as “boring”, he added jokes to the narrations along with Marc Davis’ famous gags. Ironically, it’s one of his most famous gags that, under careful scrutiny, is no longer funny, and should be changed.
So to quote a famous fictional pirate, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” For instance, you can accept that the auction scene was sexist and offensive, or you can’t. But Pirates is going to change, so you’ll have to square with that some day.
So, can you accept a little change and hope for the best, or can you not?
*The text for this disclaimer was suggested to me by Matthew Bradley, @matt_bradz09, in a Twitter discussion.