When I was a kid, I thought pirates were pretty nifty. They had eye patches, peg legs, cool parrots (who might also have eye patches and peg legs), cool hats, pieces o’ eight (whatever those are).
Then one night (surely without my parents’ knowledge) I was cruising around the television dial and settled on a horror flick featuring pirates—”real” pirates that had somehow been whisked from the 17th-century and into the modern day. Not a one of ’em had a parrot. But they all had swords, and they spent the rest of the movie using them, killing innocent people in horrible, bloody, age-inappropriate ways.
That night, in the many sleepless hours afterward, two things happened. For one, I had my first legitimate reaction that would eventually pave my way to Plugged In—that kids like me should not be allowed to watch stuff like that. Two, I never looked at pirates the same way again.
According to boxofficemojo.com, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has already gobbled up more than $100 million in its theatrical run. The fourth film in Disney’s wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean series (which has grossed more than $1 billion in North America), On Stranger Tides features lots of kind, colorful pirates led by, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow—a pirate king who’s trying to do the right thing.
Lots of folks have talked about the more uplifting moral messages the fourth installment. In our review, we made mention of it, too. It’s good to see these pirates taking a turn for the better, right?
Yeah, I guess. But there are times I wonder … are good pirates a good thing?
This thought was rummaging around the back of my brain somewhere when I came across this salon.com story by David Sirota, “The Problem With Bad Guy Heroes.” In it, he discusses America’s fascination with pirates:
From movies to Halloween costumes to Major League Baseball and NFL teams to amusement park rides to Dave Eggers' pseudo-ironic novelty store, consumer messages basically teach kids that pirates and the pirate ethos are totally awesome. In this part of our culture, kids are told that pirates' brutal and violent quests to steal, rape and pillage are just "treasure hunting"—a jolly endeavor marked by innocuous growls of "arrr!" Even the more serious "educational" material about pirates, such as this brochure from National Geographic, lauds pirates for their "seagoing democracy"—barely mentioning (and not really lamenting) the fact that pirates were actually "outlaws who pledged allegiance to no country and ravaged ships of all nations indiscriminately."
Juxtapose all that revisionism with current news headlines about piracy that kids are inevitably absorbing (and yes, whether you like it or not, kids do absorb general messages from headlines). Two years ago, it was foreboding stories about evil Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa abducting working-class American grunts in the merchant marines—stories capped off with video-game-like graphic simulations that celebrated how the pirates were killed. Today, it's news that even rich yachters are threatened by these 21st century boogeymen. …
Taken together, kids are taught that pirates are great titans and awful villains—or both. Or neither. Or, um, something …
Pirates aren’t the only villain we lionize, of course. Sirota calls up our fascination with gangsters, too. And I wonder whether some of my favorite superheroes fall under the same umbrella—vigilantes who simultaneously break and enforce the law.
Hey, I don’t want to get on anyone’s case for thinking there’s some fun to be found in pirate movies. I like Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow as much as anyone, and the original ride at Disneyland—sans Capt. Jack—is one of my faves. Disney’s obviously not going for historical accuracy in these things.
Still, when Will Turner turns pirate in the first film and it’s uniformly lauded as a good thing, part of me cringes a little.
A pirate? That’s not Johnny Depp in dreadlocks for me.