For those of you that don’t know, Elizabeth Swann is the leading lady of three out of the four Pirates of the Caribbean films. The films revolve around various piratical adventures – surprisingly few of which involve normal pirate things like looking for treasure – and Elizabeth becomes a huge part of the action. Based off a pretty tame theme park ride, the films went on to become some of the highest-grossing movies of all time (no, I’m really not kidding). As for Elizabeth herself, she became a standard-bearer for ‘Strong Female Characters’ everywhere, with many hailing her as a modern-day icon.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Like many of the other characters I’ve looked at on this blog, Elizabeth was born into a wealthy and politically influential family – as such, a certain part of her destiny is already laid out for her. She’s expected to be a proper lady and make a good marriage, as most upper-class women were in the eighteenth century. Elizabeth completely rejects this at the earliest possible opportunity, throwing off her corsets in exchange for a big frilly pirate shirt, and having worn a corset before I completely sympathise with this.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s really in control of where her life ends up going. In Curse of the Black Pearl, she’s kidnapped by pirates – hardly something she chose to do. In Dead Man’s Chest, she’s arrested and strong-armed into stealing Jack Sparrow’s magic compass for Mr Collins Cutler Beckett. In At World’s End, she has to save Jack Sparrow from the Land of the Dead and re-unite the nine Pirate Lords in order to stop Mr Collins Cutler Beckett from ridding the oceans of what were essentially thieves and rapists.
On all these occasions she makes a choice to go and pursue her goals, running off to rescue Will Turner from whatever mess he’s got himself into this time, but her hand is always forced. She doesn’t choose to go looking for a magic compass or the Pirate Lords because she wants to – she does these things because someone else is always twisting her arm. The alternatives that she’s presented with are so abhorrent to her that she doesn’t really have much of a choice in the things she does. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t see much of Elizabeth’s hobbies, but we do know that as a child she was completely fascinated by pirates. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined, and also quite closely linked. She wants to be independent and throw off social convention as much as possible, and so she spends a substantial amount of the series trying to avoid being put into the ‘helpless female’ box. She wants to marry for love, not for rank, so when she does fall in love she moves heaven and earth to keep her marginally useless boyfriend safe. She has a very strong sense of justice and fair play and sets great store by it, so when she feels that people have been poorly treated, she’ll do anything she can to get them out of trouble. I’ll be generous and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Elizabeth’s personality is pretty consistent. She’s independent, speaks her mind, and she’s also intelligent, brave and determined. She remains this way through most of the series.
Her skills, however, are another matter. We know that she’s been raised to be a proper young lady, with a general expectation that one day, she’ll take her place in high society, where she will spend her days having politically loaded conversations in ballrooms or something. She would have been taught the arts of diplomacy and conversation, but generally shielded from any gross or sweaty pursuits. She is, after all, a lady.
And yet, she’s inexplicably great at sword fighting.
A quick history lesson: while a far cry from the enormous iron broadswords of the Middle Ages, eighteenth century swords were not exactly something that you could pick up, swing around, and instantly make cheese out of your enemies. While they weren’t quite as heavy as most people supposed, the length of them alone can make some swords extremely difficult for beginners to handle, particularly in regards to accuracy and endurance. It’s a similar situation with firearms – most eighteenth-century firearms were extremely temperamental, as if you didn’t load them properly, they were liable to literally explode in your face.
We never once see Elizabeth training to use any of these weapons. We never see someone even tell her how to use them. She simply picks up whatever weapon is to hand and proceeds to kick ass with it, regardless of the fact that there’s not a cat’s chance in hell that she was ever taught how to use a deadly weapon. This just isn’t how skills work – you can’t simply pick up a sword and expect to hold your own against a crowd of ruthless pirates on unfamiliar and unstable territory. I’ll give her half a point for personality, but she’ll never be able to ace this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A free-spirited, brave young noblewoman gets swept up in a piratical adventure, and must fight to save the people she cares about.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Most of Elizabeth’s decisions are influenced by her love life. Not all of them, it’s true – she’s also motivated by her strong sense of fair play, and a general desire to keep her friends out of trouble – but if you look at her character over all three movies, most of what she ends up doing is trying to protect Will Turner, her perennially useless fiancé.
When she agrees to marry Commodore Norrington, she does so to save Will’s life. When she agrees to try and steal Jack Sparrow’s magical compass, she does so because she wants to go after Will (who’s also looking for it, and putting himself in considerable danger to do so). When she goes looking for the nine Pirate Lords, it’s to protect Will too, as Cutler Beckett wants to arrest and execute them both for piracy and she believes that is the only way she can stop him. And it doesn’t help that almost every man she meets wants to shiver her timbers, if you know what I mean.
The upshot of all this is that Elizabeth becomes a character whose love life kind of eclipses everything else about her. While she does have other motivations, they’re so minor that they pale in comparison to Orlando Bloom’s cheekbones. I can’t really give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Elizabeth does develop over the course of the story. She becomes much more outspoken, spontaneously learns to fight, and becomes a little more savvy about the way the world works. She starts the story as a lady, and ends it as a Pirate King. However, she doesn’t really change in the more conventional sense of the word – it’s more like certain aspects of her personality are magnified. She was already outspoken, unconventional and street-smart (or sea-smart, if you want to take things literally) at the beginning of the series. At the end of the films, she’s just more so – she hasn’t necessarily learnt anything completely new to her. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Personally, I don’t really think that Elizabeth has a weakness. You could make a case that she’s naïve – particularly in the first film – but this is entirely to be expected from a young woman who’s had a very sheltered, delicate upbringing, and it doesn’t really hold her back. She can also be a little rash, but this rarely has any negative consequences for her – more often than not it’s used to prove how brave or intelligent she is. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Elizabeth does get captured once or twice in The Pirates of the Caribbean – the first film completely revolves around the fact – but as the series goes on she becomes less helpless and gets given a chance to influence the plot in a more meaningful way. She disguises herself as a boy and sneaks off on a pirate ship, sacrifices Jack Sparrow to the Kraken, becomes Pirate King and takes them all to war. Once she takes off her corset, she gets stuff done.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Elizabeth is another one of those characters whose ending kind of undermines everything she stands for. While she is motivated by her love life, she nevertheless is quite a progressive character: she’s feisty, she’s independent, she’s brave, she’s determined, she’s a good fighter, she’s not afraid to leave her old, safe life behind, and she’s not afraid to yell at a bunch of murdering pirates.
That’s all great, and would leave her character in a much better place if that was it. Unfortunately, we still have the last few minutes of At World’s End to deal with.
In the final film, Will takes Davy Jones’s place as captain of The Flying Dutchman. This means that he is effectively doomed to sail the seas for all eternity, with only one day ashore every ten years – unless the woman he loves remains faithful to him for all that time. So then Elizabeth goes into seclusion on some remote desert island and literally just sits around waiting for him for the next ten years – while finding some time to give birth to his child.
I think this really undermines Elizabeth’s strong, independent character. She showed herself to be a fierce, brave fighter and a determined and daring leader, who got herself elected as Pirate King and actually became quite good at it. Yet the second that her boyfriend’s in trouble again, she drops everything and goes into seclusion, waiting for her One True Love to return to her.
This is straight out of a fairy tale, and what it implies is that a good heroine will put love before anything else. Unlike the other female character who dated a captain of The Flying Dutchman, Elizabeth proves herself to be a good person by remaining chaste, pure and faithful, retreating into a hermit-like existence because her man isn’t around. She just sits and waits for ten long years and that’s supposed to be some kind of happy ending – and that’s not even mentioning the fact that it’s pretty difficult to be unfaithful to someone when you’re stuck on a desert island with no-one else there.
For me, this really undermines all Elizabeth’s fire and independence. She gets pushed right back into the role of devoted wife with no acknowledgements of the amazing things she’s done – and seeing as she’s effectively marooned for the entire time she’s waiting, I can’t help but wonder if the other characters really trust her to remain faithful to Will when she’s surrounded by other people. What’s more, it implies that a good woman will wait patiently for her man with no complaints, rather than getting on with something a bit more useful while she’s got all this time on her hands.
Long story short? I’m not convinced. I’ll give her half a point for the rest of the movies, but that ending really ruined things for me.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Elizabeth doesn’t relate to any other female characters. She meets Tia Dalma – who is later revealed to be the sea goddess Calypso – but their interactions are so brief and so shallow that their meetings are really only there for Tia Dalma to give her useful information about the plot. There are other female characters who Elizabeth interacts with, but these have little more than a few seconds of screen time and are rarely even named. I’m withholding the point.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
Elizabeth is a feisty, determined character who influences the plot and has some clear goals and beliefs but ultimately, she’s just not fleshed-out enough to pass my test. While she completely bombs on relating to other female characters, her weaknesses and the all-consuming nature of her love life, she could still have had a much more respectable score if the rest of her character development hadn’t been so half-hearted.
Much of her frankly limp character development can be traced back to the fact that most of the time, Elizabeth is the only female character on screen. As such, her character depends much more on cliché. She’s included as ‘the love interest’, and even though her bravery, determination and resourcefulness mean that she does transcend that box, there’s no getting away from the fact that her love life was probably the main reason she was included in the script. But this goes both ways. I have to wonder if the writers didn’t make Elizabeth so brave and spunky purely so that they could avoid this kind of criticism. Giving her stereotypically un-feminine character traits could be a way of making her ‘not like other girls’ – which is, in itself, a cliché.
Of course, none of this uncertainty would apply if there were more significant female roles in the movie. There’s nothing wrong with a woman choosing to settle down and start a family, both in fiction and in real life – but when she’s the only significant woman in a blockbuster trilogy, her motivations are called into questions. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure if Elizabeth settles down because she really wants to or because that is the most common way of giving a happy ending to a female character.
Next week, I’ll be looking at The Mortal Instruments. Clary Fray, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.