So if you haven’t heard by now, Disney recently made some pretty big announcements about changes coming to the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland (also the foreign parks, but we’re going to focus on the domestic ones for this). In addition to some technical upgrades–audio, lighting, animatronics, etc– the biggest bombshell had to do with… well, the ride’s bombshell. That is to say, the famous redhead.
The iconic auction scene, in which a pirate captain attempts to sell off some of the captured female townsfolk to a surly group of scallywags, will be reimagined at some point in 2018. This means that the sultry redhead, the star of the scene, will no longer be for sale. As such, it’s likely that the classic “we wants the redhead!” line will also be taken out. The popular character isn’t being removed entirely, though, and in fact her entire persona is being redesigned in a new take on the scene. When the ride reopens the redhead will now be a fearsome pirate herself, armed with a rifle, encouraging the townsfolk to “donate” their possessions to her crew. Disney hasn’t given a real reason for this move, but there’s been plenty of speculation, and the biggest suspected cause for the change? The company wanted to get away from a scenario depicting what’s basically human trafficking. Sure, it’s meant to be a cute part of a family attraction, but if you stop and think about it for a second it really is about women being sold to pirates in what’s undoubtedly sex slavery. So it’s strongly believed by fans that this is why the ride is undergoing this particular renovation.
The debate across social media has been a bit insane (it’s social media, though, so this is hardly a surprise). A large number of fans were outraged by the announcement, fuming over what they perceive as Disney caving in to political correctness. Arguments for keeping the popular scene as-is included “it’s historically accurate to actual pirates” as well as “it was one of the last scenes Walt himself worked on”. People begged the company not to mess with the classics, and some people suggested that this was the beginning of a slippery slope in which anything deemed potentially offensive could be removed. While some of the Tweets about it were actually pretty funny and many were well thought out, there was also a lot of anger and vitriol aimed at Disney and at people who defended the change.
On the other side were folks who agreed with taking out the scene. Some felt that, while people may not have thought the gag was a big deal back in the 1960s when it was created, the scenario is uncomfortable and should absolutely be removed in these more socially aware times. Proponents of the change also argued that a strong female pirate character would be pretty cool, and of course Walt’s words about how the Disney parks will “never be finished” have been tossed about quite a bit as well. Again, because it’s Twitter, there was (of course) a fair bit of anger and name-calling from this side as well amid the genuinely good points that were being made.
Since the announcement, I’ve had discussions about it on both the Magic & Misadventures Facebook page and Twitter feed. I’ve spent time talking with my wife and daughter (both big Disney fans) about it. I’ve read what many others have had to say about it on Twitter, diving into a rabbit hole of Tweets from the entertaining to the disturbing.
When I first heard the news, I was outraged. Pirates of the Caribbean is one of my favorite Disney attractions, so the fact that they were making such a big change to such a beloved ride was upsetting. The scene (and the line) have been there and have been a popular part of the attraction for decades, and how dare they mess with it! It’s just a silly scene in a silly theme park ride about pirates, after all!
However, that rage lasted… maybe a half hour tops. Once I really started thinking about it, I realized I was OK with the change. The more I considered it, the more I actually got excited about it.
Here’s the thing: the scene does depict women being sold. Sugar-coat (or pixie dust) it all you want, but at the end of the day that’s what’s going on there. It may be presented as a gag, and it may be the fun Disney-fied version of a human auction, but there’s no denying that the pirate captain is selling women to other pirates. That’s not even getting into the not-so-subtle fat shaming that’s happening, with larger women in the background as the buccaneers call out for the “attractive” one. The scene never offended me personally, true, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more socially conscious and I’ll admit that the whole auction thing does have problems. I also understand that just because the scene didn’t bother me doesn’t mean that it didn’t bother other people. The parks are about entertaining all people of all ages from all cultures, so I’ll accept that my adult-white-American-male viewpoint isn’t necessarily the only (or the correct) one out there, and kudos for Disney for thinking about everyone.
“It’s part of the original ride” people say, as well as “Walt worked on it.” Some have stated that it seems wrong to change something that these Imagineers created. I get that. The work of the people who helped craft these attractions should absolutely be respected. At the same time, they knew that their work could and probably would be changed as the parks changed. Walt said that the parks would never be finished, and this is hardly the first thing that an original Imagineer made that’s been altered. I’d also like to point out too that, in some cases, changing the original vision isn’t a bad thing. Does anybody remember the awful bride that used to live in the attic of the Haunted Mansion? It was a static figure in a dress with no face (just red glowing eyes) and a beating heart, holding a candelabra. The attic itself was uninteresting. Then new Imagineers came along, with new ideas and new technology, and transformed it all into the vastly superior Constance Hatchaway and the story of her many husbands. It’s these beloved classic attractions that keep us coming back to the parks, sure, but seeing new ideas brought to life in them can be exciting (and a reason to ride them again) as well.
In that vein, Disney Legend Marty Sklar had this to say in a recent statement released to various news outlets: “Pirates of the Caribbean has always represented great Disney Park storytelling; it has set the standard for the theme park industry for half a century! But it’s a story you can continue to add fun to, with great characters in new ‘performances.’ That’s what the Imagineers have done with this new auction scene—it’s like a theatre show with a new act. To me, the Imagineers are simply reflecting what Walt started the day Disneyland opened—making changes that create exciting new experiences for our guests. I can’t think of a single attraction that has not been enhanced and improved, some over and over again. Change is a tradition at Disneyland that today’s Imagineers practice—they learned it from their mentors, many of them Walt’s original team of storytellers and designers—the Disney Legends.”
Basically, I figure that if an original Imagineer is OK with it, there’s no reason that I (or anyone else) shouldn’t be.
Another argument that’s come up in the controversy is that pirates really did sell off women, so historically it’s fine and we shouldn’t be erasing it. My rebuttal is fairly straightforward here: Pirates of the Caribbean is not going for historical accuracy. It’s a Disney ride featuring a fictionalized view of pirates, and not a museum. Also, just because something really happened doesn’t mean we need to celebrate that fact (we shouldn’t forget it, we just don’t need to showcase it for entertainment purposes). Besides, women pirates really did exist. There was Anne Bonny and Mary Read, as well as Ching Shih–one of the most feared and successful pirates in history. So, if accuracy really is a concern, adding in a female swashbuckler still works with that. In fact, from my (admittedly brief) research, records from the time of pirates state that Anne Bonny did in fact have red hair. So it’s still history, just a different take on it.
Ultimately, what made me decide that I was OK with the renovation (aside from the obvious “human trafficking is bad and shouldn’t be glorified” thing) is simply this: the addition of a badass redheaded female pirate who’s terrorizing the townsfolk sounds really cool. Like Constance Hatchaway before her, I see this as a way to reintroduce the redhead as a “new” character, and I’m hoping that it will turn out just as well as it did for the Haunted Mansion’s bride. I’m excited, rather than upset.
Consider this, too: the arguments against the change are coming from adults. They’re being posted by people who love Disney and have grown up with the parks, and who have emotional attachments to the experience. Much of the backlash is simply because they don’t want something they’ve cherished for so long to be altered. A lot of the (more rational) argument is coming from a place of nostalgia, and I absolutely get that. I’m really going to miss the scene, I’ve grown up seeing and hearing it and to me it’s always been a part of the Pirates of the Caribbean experience. I totally understand the desire not to see classic moments like that get altered. If they had announced that they were majorly overhauling the ride to be all projections rather than animatronics, or that they were turning the whole thing into a ride based on the films and ditching the current story, I’d be right there at the forefront of the outrage. The thing is, though, personally I never gave the scene much deep thought. It was one funny moment in a ride that I really enjoyed, it had some funny lines and characters, and that was it. Step back from that, however, and the scene does have serious issues. As I said in a recent tweet: “accepting change to an iconic ride is tough for adults who grew up with it. But little girls seeing this new badass pirate may be thrilled”. Frankly, if the choice is to keep using the version that portrays women as property or create a new one showcasing a strong woman character for future generations to enjoy, it’s not much of a choice to me. I think that young girls will be excited to see this new pirate, and I really think that it’ll be great for young boys to see her as well–the more strong female characters they see, the more they’ll just accept it as how things are and it (hopefully) won’t be as much of a thing as previous generations make it out to be.
Ultimately, there are people who are going to keep being outraged about the change and people who aren’t. The argument will continue, some minds may be changed and others won’t be, but the reality is that the change is going to happen regardless. There’s certainly validity in being upset when a much-loved experience, especially a classic steeped in Disney history, gets altered. At the same time, I feel that being excited to see what the Imagineers create is my stance here. Is a new redhead scene going to lessen my enjoyment of the attraction? Unlikely. My childhood will not be somehow “ruined” because Disney is showing the redhead as a strong female character rather than a victim. I sort of pity those for whom it would.