So we’re sitting on the couch watching something as harmless(?) as Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and Ruby, my kindergartener, asks me “Dad, do pirates have to be boys?” So what do I say?
My first thought, to myself anyway, is that for many years women weren’t even allowed on ships. Bad luck supposedly. And most traditional pirate stories are from this era, so we are not going to see or read any traditional pirate stories that contain girl pirates. But how do I explain this to a five year old during a commercial break? So instead I just say, “Well, Izzy is a girl.”
“But Izzy is not really a pirate,” she points out, and I guess she’s right in a way. Although the show is called Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Jake and his friends do not actually pirate anything. I mean, they have a pirate ship, and they are dressed like pirates, but they do not act like pirates. Honestly, the glorification of pirates for children’s amusement is a funny thing when you think about it. Sure, some pirates were hired by governments to secretly attack ships from other nations, so they were less pirates and more soldier spies, depending on whose side you were on. But the idea of pirates is the idea of a rough group of men stealing, killing, raping, and plundering, now sanitized for a Disney children’s television show because this is “cool” somehow.
So now I have to respond to my daughter again, and I say “What about that pirate princess?” I seem to recall there was an episode of the show that had a girl pirate on it. But what I am thinking is, this is a show for boys, so why would there be girl pirates? As the geniuses in marketing know, boys do not like to watch girls, or play with girls, or do anything girly at all. Of course they have to include the token female character, for, well, I don’t know the reason. Teela. Cheetarah. Smurfette. And then Mickey Mouse Clubhouse comes on the TV, and I see two female characters: Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck. But these characters are just female versions of their more popular male counterparts. This suddenly seems very messed up to me.
I should give a little more credit to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. It actually does a lot for its female characters, focusing whole episodes on them and letting them be spies, secret agents, superheroes, and many other traditionally male things. It’s not their fault that they are working with sexist characters created decades ago. But I digress.
The point is, I don’t know a lot of actual female pirates. I know a few, but I decided to google it. And there were a handful of them. The female pirate wikipedia page has a list of them, although “possibly mythical” is listed next to a lot of their names. And some of the more famous female pirates, like Anne Bonney or Mary Read, were indeed pirates, but they dressed like men on the ships, Mulan-style. And in mainstream popular culture, you are not going to find many female pirates.
What to do? I am not generally in favor of altering history in favor of political correctness, so “Just tell stories and make half the pirates female” doesn’t seem right to me. But on the other hand, if we are telling fictional tales, can’t we make up whatever we want? And don’t we want lots of lady piracy? Or do we? Are pirates actually good role models? Do we even want boys playing pirate all the time? By instilling a fondness for a sanitized version of something actually quite bad, are we setting up something down the road that we don’t necessarily want?
I have no answers to this. Oh wait, “Doc McStuffins” is on now. Problem solved.