Feminism in a Corset: The Evolution of Elizabeth Swann

My first introduction to the idea of a “personal feminist evolution” didn’t come from a Tumblr blog post or award-winning documentary. It came from a Disney movie franchise. At the age of six, I found an empowered woman role model in Elizabeth Swann, the female protagonist of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. On the surface, Elizabeth doesn’t seem all that different from most female Disney characters. She is the beautiful daughter of a rich governor with a number of men chasing after her affections, and her main narrative centers around being the romantic figure in Will Turner’s life—or so it seems. After recently re-watching the original trilogy, I realized that there is a lot more to Miss Swann than meets the eye. Intelligent, brave, resourceful and strong-willed, Elizabeth shares many of the qualities found in the real-life feminists I admire. She embodies the struggling woman trying to navigate a male-dominated world. Not only that, but the development of these virtues is mapped out in a well-structured way throughout the entire series; a feat that many other movies fail to accomplish. Unlike Mulan, who immediately starts off her narrative with the headstrong personality needed to defy the patriarchy, Elizabeth Swann comes into her badassery in a more realistic way. Like most empowered women, her life experiences shape her budding, feminist ways.

Elizabeth’s navigation of femininity in the 18th century is quite a journey to watch. In the simplest example of the corset, Elizabeth both embraces and rejects convention. On one hand, she wears a corset like many other women of her time, but on the other hand, she also makes open remarks against the rib-crushing fashion statement. In one scene where a pirate is about to kill Will Turner, the attacker says, “I’m going to teach you the meaning of pain!” Elizabeth responds with, “Like pain? Try wearing a corset.” Not only did she completely save Will, but she made a witty criticism of social standards while doing it! However, she also uses stereotypical views of femininity to her advantage. For example, Elizabeth pretends to faint from corset suffocation twice in order to solve a problem. She also plays into expectations of feminine weakness to help her do things like sneak away from her father in order to save Will. Like many women, Elizabeth must both subvert and take advantage of various patriarchal systems in order to achieve her goals.

This brings me to my next point: self-sufficiency. Elizabeth knows what she wants, and she does not have time to wait for anyone to give her permission or stand in her way. When none of the other pirates are willing to rescue Will and Jack from Barbosa’s crew in the first movie, Elizabeth defiantly steals a dinghy and rushes off to save her boys. Elizabeth again takes power into her own hands when she is stranded on a desert island with Jack Sparrow. While he opts to get drunk and doze off, Elizabeth chooses to build a signal fire and then delivers a fiery speech in answer to his infamous question, “But why is the rum gone?”

Even in instances where Elizabeth seems to dip into misogynistic tropes, she still ends up being a well-rounded character with complex motives. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Elizabeth seduces Jack Sparrow into a death trap so that the rest of the crew can escape the wrath of the Kracken. While that seems like a misogynistic move by the writers, I beg to differ. Her engagement to Will does not deter her from serving the common good. Also, this action makes her bear the emotional burden of not telling her fiancé what she had to do to save his life, making her a complicated character. 

We also can’t forget how quickly Elizabeth jumps into the male-dominated action of the movie. By the second film, she is a sword-fighting machine who not only breaks out of prison, but succeeds in finding Davy Jones’ literal heart. She goes from a naive governor’s daughter to a ticked-off fiancé with lethal motives in the vein of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. All of that is merely a precursor for her role in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, in which she takes the place of a Pirate Lord (through feminine charms and false pretenses) and eventually becomes the Pirate King! She also delivers an awe-inspiring monologue that rallies the pirates to victory against the East India Trading Co. Take that, rampant capitalism! Even with all of that going on in her life, Elizabeth manages to maintain a fairly steady relationship with the love of her life, Will Turner. What a woman.

As someone still figuring out my role as a feminist, it is refreshing to see a character go through various stages and facets of being an empowered person in a world fraught with challenges. From both embracing and rejecting society to maintaining her femininity while ruling as the Pirate King, I love Elizabeth Swann for never letting a stereotype define her. She doesn’t have to be a badass vigilante or an obedient aristocrat’s daughter. She is simply herself.


Image credits: 1, 2, 3