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Disney, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and Human Trafficking

By Michael Todd Landis

On June 29, 2017, the Walt Disney Company announced on its Disney Parks Blog that dramatic changes were coming to the beloved (and inspiration for five blockbuster films) attraction Pirates of the Caribbean.[1]  Such updates to old attractions (Pirates opened in the spring of 1967!) are not unusual, and, in fact, are often appreciated by loyal fans.  The revision of Pirates, however, has unleashed a firestorm of online anger, as it includes the elimination of one of the most famous scenes: the “wench auction.”

Designed by animator Marc Davis (who also worked on another fan-favorite, the Haunted Mansion), the wench auction is part of an elaborate visual narrative of British pirates sacking a Spanish town.  The auction features a line of women, tied together, being sold by a male auctioneer to a gathering of drunken male pirates.  The banner above reads “Take a Wench for a Bride.”  The staging implies that the women have been captured by the auctioneer with the aim of profit from their sale to his comrades.  Park visitors in boats float gently through the scene between the auction and the buccaneer bidders.  As guests glide by, they are present for the attempted sale of a heavy-set woman.  The pirates are displeased with the appearance of the current offering, hurling a variety of insults about her weight.  Here is an excerpt of the exchange:

Auctioneer: “Weigh anchor now, ye swabbies, what be thy offer for this winsome wench, stout-hearted and corn-fed.”

Pirate: “Be she stouter by the pound?!”

Auctioneer: “Shift your cargo dearie, show ‘em your larboard side.”

Instead of the “stout” woman, the drunken pirates demand the sale of a luxuriously-dressed redhead with an hour-glass figure.  “We wants the redhead!” they chant over the auctioneer.  “Lit by a spotlight, the ‘redhead’ is the star of this all-white vignette,” explains historian Karen Ward Mahar.[2]  “She gives off a saloon-girl vibe with her vivid locks, showy purple gown, and made-up face.  She flirts with her imagined male audience (the families on the ride), tipping her wide-brim hat with her right hand and lifting her skirt to expose her petticoat with the left.  She looks like she’s just fine with this scenario.”   In addition, the larger woman seems eager to be sold.  “[She] flourishes her hankerchief and swishes her hips in a bid for attention,” continues Dr. Mahar, “but the joke is on her.  She can’t compete with the slim, beautiful, busty redhead on the block.  It’s no wonder the redhead is the audience favorite.  The scene informs us that men should want her, and women should want to be like her.  She’s pretty, complicit, and sexually available, but only after matrimony.  These are ‘brides,’ not prostitutes.  This is Disney after all.”

The altered attraction will eliminate the auction scene entirely and replace it with a view of the redhead, now dressed like a pirate and armed with a musket, helping the swashbucklers take the town.  The change follows previous revisions to the ride wherein pirates who formerly chased townswomen for sexual conquest are now being chased by women defending their homes.  Over the years, the Disney Company has slowly removed aspects of older attractions (most designed in the 1950s-60s, when mainstream views of women were quite different than today) which can be interpreted as demeaning to women, and substituted scenes of women empowerment, or at least gender equality.

Such revisions have been deeply disturbing to some Disney enthusiasts, and the removal of the “wench auction” seems to have been one-change-too-far.  “I was so mad when I saw this yesterday.  It’s unfair. Guess I’m done riding pirates,” fumed a commenter.  Another added, “I am so sad and angry about this . . . I am so pissed about this.”  “Sensative [sic] ass pansies,” posted one woman, while a male seemed more resigned: “Sort of sad that this PC culture seems to infiltrate everything.  No worries, everyone knows those salty olde pirates weren’t interested in those brides anyway! We know who they want!”[3]

Such anger, however, is misplaced.  It was always Walt Disney’s plan to constantly change, update, and improve (“plussing,” in his words) his attractions and parks.  In fact, the whole idea behind EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was a mixed-use urban-residential-recreational area “in a constant state of becoming.”  Those who argue that the current Disney Company is betraying “Uncle Walt” understand neither Walt the innovative businessman nor Walt the creative genius.

“Walt Disney’s goal was to create experiences that both entertained and engaged guests,” explains Dr. Taylor Stoermer, a Senior Disney Interpretation Collaborator familiar with the forthcoming changes to Pirates.  “To him, engagement meant changing them in some way, making sure they left a Disney experience different than when they arrived.  He set the standard as someone never comfortable with the status quo; he always wanted to set new standards, go beyond expectations.  That’s the modern Disney standard — what would Walt do?  He’d want to make people think.  He’d be fascinated with change and not just want to reflect it, but to shape it . . . Removing the ‘wench’ scene allows for more and better storytelling, which was always Walt’s passion.”[4]

Dr. Mahar adds, “Protestors complain that changing to scene and giving the ‘redhead’ a gun and making her a pirate is censorship, catering to disgruntled feminists at the cost of historical integrity.  ‘Pirates’ isn’t historically accurate.  Unlike many other areas of the parks, such as Epcot, where the line between education and entertainment is deliberately blurred, ‘Pirates’ is intentionally cartoonish.  But the historical integrity that bothers most protestors is Disney purity. Purists do not want to sacrifice an iconic scene for the sake of what they see as unnecessary political correctness.”

Moreover, defending the “wench auction” is, in essence, defending a depiction of human trafficking.  Despite its intended whimsy and fantastical setting, bound women are literally on an auction block being sold to men for implied rape.  There’s no getting around that.  Millions of people, young and old, at various Disney parks around the world, have witnessed that scene and absorbed the message that women are objects to be disposed of as men see fit.  “Is an 8-year-old going to realize that a woman being auctioned off as a bride is about to be repeated raped by her ‘husband’?  Do kids even know what rape is?” asks Dr. Mahar.  “I think the response to that argument is this: do you really need to entertain your children with humorous references to rape? Do you want your kids to admire the redhead, whose sexual complicity comes at the end of a gun?  It’s not historically accurate, it’s not innocuous.  It depicts the raw power of men over women.”

Such depictions may have been amusing and even acceptable in the mid-1960s, but no longer.  Though Walt and his “Imagineers” never intended to endorse or promote human trafficking, the scene is unacceptable and long-overdue for revision.

Michael Todd Landis is assistant professor of history at Tarleton State University, board member of Historians Against Slavery, and editor of the Historians Against Slavery Blog.

[1] https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2017/06/new-pirates-set-to-join-the-crew-of-pirates-of-the-caribbean-at-disneyland-paris-july-24/

[2] Dr. Karen Ward Mahar is professor of History at Siena College, where she taught and studied Disney.  She agreed to be interviewed via email, July 1-2, 2017.

[3] Comments collected from the facebook page “The Haunted Mansion,” which is managed by the author and posted the story of the Pirates revision.

[4] Dr. Taylor Stoermer, teaches public history at The Johns Hopkins University and serves as consultant to a variety of public history sites, including Walt Disney World.  He agreed to be interviewed via email, July 1, 2017.

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