Zigismunda formosa (melannen) wrote,
Zigismunda formosa
melannen

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Remember: rapine first, then murder.

A poll, on something I have been curious about for years, but particularly relating to the current discussions about race in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

When I first saw the Pirates of the Caribbean movie(s), I read Captain Jack Sparrow's race as:

American Indian
0(0.0%)
Asian or East Indian
0(0.0%)
Black or Mulatto
0(0.0%)
White born in Europe
1(3.7%)
White born in the Colonies
1(3.7%)
Mestizo (American)
0(0.0%)
Mestizo (Asian)
0(0.0%)
All or Several of the Above
2(7.4%)
Something Not Listed
0(0.0%)
Not Entirely of This Earth
1(3.7%)
Deliberately Ambiguous
6(22.2%)
White European, but Consciously Playing at Lower Caste
4(14.8%)
Even his Sainted Mum could only give Best Odds
10(37.0%)
Why, does it Matter?
2(7.4%)
I find this poll offensive.
0(0.0%)

Disclaimer: OMG, not enough poll options! As a liberally-educated white chick, I feel the need to add: These are categories that I felt might be relevant to Captain Sparrow, not necessarily the ones I find most valuable. I also used Wikipedia on casta, list of multiracial terms and mestizo to make sure I had my terminology as clear as possible. Feel free to elaborate in comments if you find the poll inadequate.

I usually avoid discussions on race and fandom, because after my GVPT100 class spent an entire month just trying to define the word "race", I realized that it can never stop going around in circles, but it's hard to resist when it comes to PotC, because race in that time and place - both the created culture of the movies, and the broad historical place and time it mines from - were just fascinating. And somewhat less slippery than it is today.

My first reaction to the way race was presented in PotC, in fact, was being impressed that they had made their pirate captain realistically mixed-race. I hadn't seen the actor in any other roles, and I didn't even stop to think that he could be seen as white until I came upon some fanfics that made him English-born. Which kind of blew my mind. Were they being racist for assuming the handsome, charming leading man was white, or was I being racist for assuming the exotic, rag-tag rogue with dreads and an accent was non-white? (But then, I'm also the person who went about six months into XF fandom before realizing that Skinner wasn't supposed to read as black.) Yeah. I hereby ban the word "racist" from the rest of this entry.

Beyond the issue of who exactly Captain Jack Sparrow is, one of my favorite things about PotC was the reimagining of the pirate culture as a truly transcultural space, where everybody comes from somewhere else, and it's fascinating and colorful but never matters more than who the people *are*. White or black or any other color, Governor's daughter to former slave, Anglican cleric or Aztec curse - it's all very much there, all different, all equally valued, and more important than any of that - is that, at heart, they're PIRATES! Historically accurate? Umm, no. But to me it was a brave and glorious act of cultural reclamation, taking elements from the obsolete and blinkered narratives of the pirate tradition, from actual history, and from modern social ideals, and remixing them into a fantasy that preserved the diversity but got rid of the hate and shame, an imaginary American place that I could be wholly proud to call home.

Did the sequel do as good of a job? Well, no. It suffers in many respects compared to the first. Not the least being that it really wasn't nearly as good of a movie, not nearly as tight and elegant thematically or symbolically. Then there's the fact that half the pirates in it look more like Great Old Ones than any human ethnicity, and most of the other important pirate-aligned characters were returning characters from the first movie. And honestly? The pirate of color that I missed most wasn't Anamaria - as much as I loved her, she was fairly bland, and also straight-haired, light-skinned, and non-threatening - it was the bo's'un. The only new major character who wasn't part invertebrate *was* black. True, she did approach a lot closer to a certain ethnic stereotype than Anamaria approached to anything, but it was a stereotype that gave her power. And agency. And active sexuality. And a culture that was her own, and Black American, and deserving of respect in its own right. I liked Anamaria, sure, but she would never have dared to hit on a White gentleman like Will.

And then, oh yes, there's the cannibals. I loved the cannibals. Well, okay, I got extremely bored with the slapstick and half the time I didn't even know what was going on, but I like the *idea* of the cannibals! My reaction to them was actually along the lines of my first reaction to Jack - "Whoa, that's brave! I didn't know you were still allowed to have cannibals in this day and age!" I saw it as another chance to reclaim my own cultural heritage. Because cannibal islanders are part of my cultural heritage - just as much as Santa Claus and penguins frolicking with polar bears. They're an important part of the traditional pirate narrative. (Hey, it's an important part of the Jack Sparrow narrative too - "and then they made me their chief", remember?) If we make that myth taboo (although taboo itself is, of course, a misappropriation from Pacific islanders, so I guess we can't even talk about not talking about it) then all that people will be exposed to are the old, patently offensive versions of the cliché. Which will inarguably still be out there. Whether the spear-carrying man-eaters in question are midgets in fur suits or Pippi Longstocking and friends, it's part of the North American cultural lexicon. Better, in my mind, to reclaim it than leave it to rot.

And accepting that cannibal does not automatically need equal "bad", that we can look past old and harmful stereotypes to find the valuable bits, I thought the portrayal in PotC was fairly well done. Starting with the fact that the first cannibal we see is not black or brown - he's green. Cool. And they take this exoticized, mythologized culture, add just enough authentic anthropological elements to call to mind National Geographic rather than Gilligan's Island, and then relate it to my own experience with a faith that kills and eats its god-king at least once a month (plus festival days.) All without ever taking away from the main point of the episode, which was making it fun. Sure, it's subtle, and not exactly ground-breaking, but blatant PC-ness would be way off tone for the Pirate movie - and I think it was just subtle and well-crafted enough to stick, that the next time a person sees cannibals they just might think "religious ritual" rather than "savitches!"

Actually, what I liked best about the cannibals was that our heroes were largely irrelevant to them. Sure, Jack managed to convince them he was a god. Kinda. Precariously. But then Jack is at least as exotic and alien as a shaggy English mutt on an island that doesn't have dogs. The othe pirates were seen as so harmless that they weren't even worth capturing if something more interesting came up. Even Jack, once he stopped acting the part; he was comic relief to them as much as to us. It read to me as an extended "What do you mean, 'we'?" joke, as much as anything. I didn't see anything particularly negative in their portrayal - they clearly weren't buying it most of the time. I can see how actual caribbean indians might dislike it, but I really don't see anyone associating that with a real historical group, any more than they'll assume Davy Jones is real. If you assume all your watchers are idiots, it becomes self-fulfilling, really.

But then there's the case of the fallen Hamster Ball. I have to admit, this was the one thing in the movie that immediately pinged my race-dar negatively. Yay, kill of all the black characters in one blow! After making them look treacherous and stupid! Whee! And not just the fact, and the way, that they were killed off, but the fact that they all ended up in the same cage to begin with. And why were the new crew members so predominantly black compared to the old crew, anyway? I can see there could be some fun fanwanking there, but I have a feeling it went more like - "We need some more black characters!" "Okay, cast the new pirates as black." "We need to kill off some characters!" "Okay, go with the new pirates, nobody will care about them anyway!" Which was thoughtless and stupid. People need to stop doing things that way. And I liked a couple of them, too!

On the other hand, we didn't see any bodies. And the other hamster ball survived a pretty long fall. I'm not going to assume we've seen the last of those guys. This is, after all, the first part of a two-part story, and surely at least the dog will show up again. It comes back to a central problem with examining serial texts, whether it's HP, OYL or PotC - we haven't seen the end yet, and some of the things which strike us as badly done, stupid, or just wrong may very well start looking very shiny once we've seen the ending. Should parts of a serial be able to stand up on their own as art, even under a very sharp lens? Well, maybe yes - and I did like PotC as a closed canon - that's a whole other rant - but the fact is that these days, they usually don't, and we rarely expect them to. And so it comes down to trust. Do we trust the writers to make it all come right in the end? For HP, er, no, actually. For DCU - I trust *some* of the people involved. For PotC - yes, I do trust them, at least for another year. They haven't yet given me a reason not to. (Well except for the whole "William, you're a freaking blacksmith! Make a new key!" bit, but I'm reserving judgement.) They still have plenty of credit left from the first movie.

Yes, that essay did count as studying for my Latin America exam. q-:

In completely unrelated news, I've decided that Captain Sparrow's spiritual father among the Orishas is the Black Rabbit of Inlé. Yes.
Tags: meta, potc
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