PC Pirates

Real pirates weren't nice people. So why does Disney seem to think their robotic descendants should be sensitive enough to please both feminists and family-values conservatives?

Published January 15, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

by now you've probably heard the news: One of Disneyland's top attractions, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, is getting a politically correct face-lift intended to make the ride more family values-oriented. It seems certain scenes from this wholesome attraction have created a stir among passengers and within the ranks of Disney's amusement park architects as well. In particular: Scenes involving naughty pirates chasing the damsels of a sleepy Caribbean village, Senator Packwood-style.

While deciding to upgrade the ride's technical aspects, Disney imaginEARS (yes, that's really what they're called) decided to go all the way -- make it a real '90s kind of ride. The pirates will no longer be chasing the women per se, but food -- food that just happens to be carried by women. (In the name of equality, a scene in which a buxom, booze-chuggin' woman chases a frightened male pirate will also be altered; she, too, will be after food, his food.)

According to Susan Roth, senior publicist for Disneyland, the lust theme "just wasn't appropriate for the '90s." The hipper, more PC Disneyworld in Florida has already implemented the food theme in its ride. The original theme park in Anaheim, Calif., just had some catching up to do.

Usually this kind of news story might merit an Associated Press-style brief in your local paper, or a 30-second joke on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But Bill Maher devoted one-third of his ABC debut of "Politically Incorrect" hashing over the topic with guests. The New York Times' Tom Kuntz bemoaned the renovations in Sunday's Week in Review section, arguing that Disney was being pecked to death by "the guardians of political correctness [and] the sticklers of historical accuracy," and accusing Disneyland of abetting the crime by "[y]ielding to complaints of sexism" -- a charge that Roth denies. The Washington Post, reported that "feminists were pleased" by the changes, even if fans of the "rowdy pirates" might not be. The Los Angeles Times and several other large newspapers ran full stories on the "controversy" as well.

Why all the fuss over a silly ride?

Actually, the Pirate makeover is not, as too many have suggested, simply about political correctness; it's also about that mother-of-all-headline-makers: family values. At first glance, it seems an odd mixture. While PC has remained in the intellectual domain of left-wingers and radical academics, "Family Values" tends to be a right-wing thing -- although during election year Democrats also tend to pilfer the "issue" for strategical purposes.

But Disneyland's managed to combine the two: using "feminist" complaints to reevaluate what constitutes family entertainment. "You have to measure what is appropriate for a theme park, where families are going to have a good time and not be offended," says Roth. "It's not a museum."

No, it's not a museum, but it's quickly becoming a mirror of the current state of American social discourse -- a discourse that neatly melds two conflicting ideologies: the conservative belief in the mythical nuclear family as the cornerstone of our society -- a dream that ignores the true state of American families -- and the liberal desire to appease any discomfort presented by reality by simply slapping on a new, purportedly more respectful label. Suddenly, polar opposites are revealed to be ... almost the same. No wonder they call it The Magic Kingdom.

Amidst all the hoopla, one tingly little fact remains: Disneyland's alterations to the ride are all superficial, much like the ideologies that initiated them. By simply replacing the pirates' lust for sex with an uncontrolled appetite for food, Disney hasn't exactly struck a blow against real-life, non-robotic raping and pillaging. And certainly the feminists who purportedly complained about the ride's sexual harassment theme won't be entirely pleased when they see the town's women reduced to mere servants, conveying trays of vittles to the hungry menfolk.

But Disney can't transform the ride completely, now, can it? "The essence of the attraction is pirates and they're invading a Caribbean town," Roth notes. "They're not boy scouts."

Then why change the ride at all? The ride is a remnant of two historical pasts -- one, the time of the ride's original creation; the other, a mythologized (if not utterly fanciful) pirate past. In its own playful way, it reminds us that women have not always enjoyed the respect and status they have today. Is it better to pretend that the past is a kind of utopia, to teach children that history can be written and rewritten to conform to present political demands? Disney seems to think so. Now they just need to finish construction and collect.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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