The times they are a changin’

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen cultural touchstones undergo earthshaking change. From the announcement — quickly followed by the unveiling at Disneyland Paris — that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride would no longer feature the ‘Bride Auction’ scene to the undeniable diversity in the A Wrinkle in Time trailer to the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Dr Who, we’ve seen all manner of assumptions get toppled. And as is de rigeur these days for announcements of this type, we’ve seen an onslaught of reaction, both positive and negative, online. Much of the negative reaction, in all three cases, goes back to remarkably similar foundations: that it’s not how a given creative work was originally envisioned and that this is yet another example of political correctness taken too far.

At Thinkwell, we say: bring it on. We’re delighted to see more mindful and better representation in creative works. Storytelling, in our minds, is better when it’s not exclusionary or needlessly hurtful. Culture changes. Mindsets evolve. This isn’t a matter of being politically correct; it’s a matter of us, as a society, being more mindful, inclusive, and welcoming than we were when an intellectual property was initially developed decades prior. And thus, the things we have grown to love with the warm fuzzy halo of nostalgia may not look as fantastic in the clear light of day when we actually take a step back and think deeply about what these creative works tell people about our values and what’s acceptable.

It’s not how it was created to be, it’s not what Walt made. We get it. We love what we love, we cling to the good ol’ days, the touchstones of our youth. Some of us are still bitter about the removal of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from the Magic Kingdom in Florida, for instance. Pirates, however, is a great example of needing to change. It’s not a historical treatise on piracy in the Caribbean (if it were, it’s doing a really poor, whitewashed job of it), so the complaints that it’s somehow historically ‘accurate’ to have a bride auction fall flat. It’s meant as escapism, as a created world, not a historical diorama. With the heightened unreality and stylization of the feature films — which prominently have female pirates in them —  it’s a created world that Disney is inviting guests to be a part of. We see this beyond the ride and movies, too, from “Pirates In the Caribbean” on the cruise ships to the Pirates League makeover experience at Magic Kingdom to the Jake and the Neverland Pirates TV series. Disney wants guests to envision themselves as part of this world.

By that logic, of course the bride auction is overdue for reinvention. It’s emblematic of violence against women, a moment that many a parent has cringed at and distracted their children away from as, societally, we become more aware of just what this scene is telegraphing. There’s fat shaming, loss of agency, abuse, enslavement, all things that, again, we didn’t think twice about a couple of decades ago. Those things don’t belong in a creative world Disney is inviting everyone to be a part of. We know better now. And so, our experiences need to also be better.

We already see this push to ‘be better’ in action in a variety of ways in other attractions and events at both Disney and Universal. Disney has increased diversity and representation in its IP, from the casting choices in A Wrinkle in Time to the mixed ethnicity in Miles From Tomorrowland, Doc McStuffins embracing of a middle class African American family to the Latina Elena of Avalor. While the Harry Potter movies featured a white lead trio, the ‘world’ of Harry Potter itself is diverse by design; Universal upholds this sense of being welcoming to all, “you can be a part of this world” strategy in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both park empires have become more forward thinking in their marketing and events, too: Universal particularly excels at appealing to the large Latinx market in southern California (even incorporating a maze based on the La Llorona legend into its Hollywood Horror Nights) and Disney has gone from appeasing offended heterosexual men who happened to be in the park on the unofficial ‘Gay Days’ and distancing themselves from the event to embracing it entirely (down to rainbow themed merch in the stores, of course). These are all great things, which continually expand the worlds of Universal and Disney to let more and more people be right there in the heart of the story, not just on the fringes. And we’re eager to see how this continues to play out, from Universal’s Nintendoland to the potential for full on immersion in the Star Wars universe at various Disney Parks (especially given the increasing prominence of women and people of color in the IP).

So we see the upgrades — and let us be clear, we see these as upgrades, not changes — to Pirates of the Caribbean as the next step in this march towards being better and doing better. In a world where Disney is encouraging little girls to dream of being a princess, like Elena, or a pediatrician, like Doc McStuffins, or even dress up as a pirate themselves at the Pirates League experience, it only stands to reason that they’d elevate the representation of women from victim to victor, from princess to general. Long live the Redheaded Pirate, long may she reign.

Image courtesy of HarshLight on Flickr

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