Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go -- Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is a fantastic amusement park ride. After schlepping around Disneyland with the sun beating down on you, feet blistered and sore, senses dulled from the saccharine sweetness of Disney magic, there’s nothing like a 15-minute sit in a bobbing boat, surrounded by cool air and scenes of pirate-y mischief. Fires burn, good men are tortured, and drunkards nap with adorable piggies. Hey, they’re pirates and no one is asking them to be saints. Pirates gonna pirate. But part of this ride is out-of-order: the bride-selling scenes.
The first features a line of captive women -- some elderly, some buck-toothed, most clad in white, all weeping -- tied together at the waist with a thick rope in a sad line. A banner above them proclaims “AUCTION - Take a Wench for a Bride.”
The weeping women are background decoration, while the true focus of the scene lands on two other women -- first a lady in red who stands proudly at the head of the roped line some distance away from her unhappy peers. She’s heavily made up and her pert bosom threatens to spill out of her top. She lifts her skirts with one hand to show off her legs, her other hand tangled in her lovely auburn locks. Her face is peaceful, even serene. Of course, she’s not the one for sale at the moment.
The woman on the auction block is dressed modestly and holds herself high with a sweet smile on her face. She’s also unapologetically fat -- well proportioned and lovely, but fat. She looks relaxed and proud, even as the auctioneer asks, "What be I offered for this winsome wench? Stout hearted and corn-fed she be." A drunken pirate cries, "Are ya selling her by the pound?" He’s ignored while the auctioneer instructs her, "Shift yer cargo, dearie, show 'em your larboard side." She complies and turns with the same docile smile.
(Fun fact: This “wench” has a name -- Tiny.)
In the next scene, the results of the auction are clear. Pirates race after their “brides,” looks of terror forever on the faces of the women. Near the end of the scene, riders see Tiny again as the ultimate punchline -- she’s the one in hot pursuit of a pirate. As the boat passes by, riders can hear her giggling.
Though she is pretty, clean and pleasant (the very essence of the “good fatty” trope), it’s clear to everyone involved in this narrative that Tiny is unlovable and unwantable, even by a marauding crowd of drunken rapists. Once she’s purchased, she’s is still unwanted, yet she is so desperate for physical contact, she pursues a man who other “worthy” women run from screaming.
At least, this was the version riders encountered until 1997, when there was a major renovation and someone thought the scene would be better if the women were holding food and racing around forever. Post renovation, Tiny chased after a pirate holding a loaf of bread and a sad-looking turkey leg. The line of thinking must have been, “She’s hungry for sex and food! There, isn’t that better?”
They also removed a part of the scene that featured a woman hiding in a barrel. Her would-be rapist asked riders if they’ve seen a “bewitched maiden in your travels? Oh, she be a lively lassie she were. Oh, I tell you true. It's alright to hoist me colours on the likes of that shy little wench!”
Throughout his speech, he clutched her stolen undergarments. “Favor, keep a weather eye open, mateys. I be willing to share I be!" In 1997, the woman was removed and the pirate’s focus turned to another feast of plastic food. In 2006, the barrel reopened but was filled with a greasy-looking Johnny Depp.
With the Johnny Depp update, Disney makes another attempt to modify this chasing scene by putting jewels into the hands of the women. Now Tiny chases a pirate who clutches a cheap-looking red-velvet jewelry box with a few strands of pearls pouring out. She still giggles as she runs.
There are Disney fans who bristle at the mere idea of changing a classic ride. “The fat bride is canon!” or “This is just another example of PC culture run amok!” But the ride has changed dramatically with the decades. Johnny Depp leering from a barrel is not canon. A musty-smelling fog screen plastered with Bill Nighy’s octopus face is not canon. And Disney knows these scenes with the brides are troubling. Why else would they continue to tweak them?
Luckily, there’s a solution to this mess. It’s elegant, it’s witty and it doesn’t make the ride into Boy Scouts of the Caribbean. It won’t require the ride to shut down for months or weeks or even a day.
Instead of pretending those pirates are after plastic pies or dull pearls, instead of continuing this narrative that a fat woman is so unlovable that she should welcome being sold into sex-slavery, let’s turn the narrative around completely. Disney ought to Imagineer up the biggest, fiercest close-range weapon and place it lovingly into Tiny’s waiting hands. Might I suggest a swinging flail full of morning stars? Or an elegant scimitar?
Her face will no longer be the face of one so desperate to be touched that she will take it mixed through with violence. Her face will be the face of a woman who knows her worth, delights in her strength and has a plan.