“Take a wench for a bride” read the banner above the auction block. Front and center was a buxom redhead, clearly the Mercado’s prime merchandise.
Dressed in crimson and bound with rope to a chain gang of several more female abductees, she winked at prospective buyers as other prisoners cried into dainty hankies over their fate.
“Shift yer cargo, dearie. Show ’em yer larboard side!” the grizzled auctioneer commanded an abductee as the animatronic vixen lifted her skirt to show some leg, just as she had hundreds of times a day, thousands of times a year, since “The Pirates of the Caribbean’s” grand opening at Disneyland in 1967.
But last week came a change in the script. After closing April 23 for renovations, the iconic ride reopened June 8. Gone is the bride auction and with it, the idea of female subjugation as a punchline. Half-a-century’s worth of animatronic tears and a beloved though inappropriate tradition have joined the Disneyland history books, along with Tomorrowland’s “Adventure Thru Inner Space.”
It took several women’s movements, news of present-day human trafficking and a cultural revolution underpinned by the rise of #MeToo and the fall of Harvey Weinstein, but the redhead is finally liberated — and like “Westworld” android brothel madame turned rebel leader, Maeve, she’s found her voice.
The former sex trafficking victim has been recast as the wily, wisecracking Redd, the Disney attraction’s first female pirate. With a bottle of rum in one hand and two pistols tucked in her skirt belt, now she’s the one heckling the auctioneer as he solicits bids on “hearty hens, every one an egg layer.”
“Hey!” she yells. “Send the hens to Davey Jones! It’s the rum they want!”
And, no, hen isn’t a euphemism for a fertile female. The frightened characters in today’s Mercado aren’t the merchandise but townsfolk forced to drag their worldly possessions to the auction block — a chandelier, a grandfather clock, a stately marble bust that looks suspiciously like a piece of décor from the Haunted Mansion.
21st century awareness has arrived in New Orleans Square, and like a Rose McGowan tweet or Oscar acceptance speech about toppling the patriarchy, it’s stirred a debate among fans.
Disney traditionalists and aficionados have lamented and celebrated the recent upgrades to the Pirates of the Caribbean.
“I’m not saying that human trafficking is ok but the ride is about pirates. It’s been like this since 1967 there’s no reason to change it,” wrote one disappointed parkgoer on a Disney fan site in reaction to the news last spring that the scene was being taken out. Then there was this simple refrain: “Bring back the red headed wench!!!”
On the flipside, one post played with the old sexist dialogue of the ride to celebrate Redd’s arrival: “We wants the redhead … to be our new captain! I volunteer to be first mate!”
Disneyland Resort was no less crowded than usual on the Friday that the Pirates of the Caribbean reopened. It was like any other searing-hot day when shin-bruising strollers, long lines and crying toddlers challenged guests to believe in magic after paying $167 for a one-day park hopper pass, $20 for parking and more than they’d like to admit on food shaped like Disney characters.
But there was a palpable excitement mixed with the sweet smell of fresh beignets when Redd’s human double greeted smitten dads in New Orleans Square and shouted “You’re welcome!” to a mom who thanked her for returning to the fold in “a stronger” form.
A little Mouseketeer who stood next to the female pirate for a photo op wasn’t sure what to say. The girl looked up to Redd for guidance. “Put your fist in the air,” suggested the pirate. The little girl’s arm shot up in a reflexive show of power. “Very good. You’re a natural,” said Redd.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the park, Cinderella was offering white-gloved waves.
Families and youth groups waited upward of 35 minutes in the Pirates line, some reminiscing about the ride’s transformation from its not-so-humble beginnings as a technological marvel with a rollicking narrative to its modern role in launching a film franchise starring Johnny Depp as the saucy Captain Jack Sparrow.
The Pirates of the Caribbean has always held a special place in the history of the park’s development given that it was the last attraction personally supervised by Walt Disney, who died the year before it opened.
But a former Imagineer involved in the development of the attraction told the now-defunct fanzine E-Ticket that even Walt himself had some reservations about the scene. He said Walt asked, “ 'This will be all right, won't it?' He was just a little doubtful of auctioning off the girls. Was that quite 'Disney' or not?"
Only Disneyland’s skilled Imagineering team could render something as horrific as human trafficking into innocuous entertainment best consumed by voyeurs in mouse ears slurping frosty Dole Whips.
No matter how sexist, her scene deep into the 15-minute boat ride through murky bayous, skeletal shipwrecks and cool dark caverns was entertaining.
Like all that appears inappropriate and downright insulting in hindsight — the music of every other bell-bottomed rock band and gold-toothed rapper, Jerry Lee Lewis, Benny Hill — it was all about context. And given that pop culture has always seemed to favor the male gaze over gender equality, what choices were there?
When Pirates debuted, slavery likely seemed like a thing of the past. Horrifying news reports of school girls and women captured by marauding terror cells and human trafficking in the U.S. wouldn’t come to light in America’s living rooms for another 40 years.
In that time, Disney began turning out more princesses, and eventually, those princesses gave way to stronger female characters like the sisters in “Frozen,” the tribal leader of “Moana” and the fierce warriors depicted in “Black Panther.”
The Pirates’ new auction scene isn’t quite as busy as the old one, and one could reasonably argue it needs a little more finesse. But give the geniuses behind the drunken mechanized scoundrels some time to perfect the new narrative. It took them decades to make “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” a globally recognized refrain, even if the words “we kidnap and ravage and don't give a hoot“ meant female fans were buying into a decidedly problematic philosophy.
Some critics of the ride’s new updates — and there are several — have asserted that pirates shouldn’t be recast as more politically correct than they were. But if staying true to reality were part of the theme, then the pirates would have to be recast as multicultural (can’t you just hear Sean Hannity now?), children would also need to be auctioned as slave labor and at least half the characters would be stricken with consumption.
But who wants to see a swashbuckler coughing up blood into a stolen gentlemen’s hanky?
Other changes have elicited fewer complaints than the deleted wench auction. A fresh scene features a new pirate character caught between worlds: Depending on the angle, his face is either that of a living mortal or a hallowed out skull. At his feet is an octopus bearing jewels. The creature is a charming addition that speaks to the creative detail Disneyland introduced to theme parks and where it still pushes boundaries.
Narration from a previous incarnation of the attraction has also been reinstated, perhaps to assuage vexed traditionalists. It warns of cursed treasure and the perils of greed.
Those who lament the ride’s changes have argued that the trafficking scene was just a joke. It’s all in fun, so bring the wenches back! But when stealing rum from your former captors is just as fun, why return to the auction block?
It’s the same old tug-o-war playing out across every politically and socially charged sticking point, from North Korean diplomacy to kneeling football players. Do we pull the culture forward toward a more enlightened future or backward toward a time when apparently everything was simpler, women knew their place (the auction block) and snowflakes were part of weather fronts?
Disney’s modernization has not only meant more strong female leads like Redd — and brought Moana and the “Frozen” sisters into the park — change is also behind the forthcoming land inspired by “Star Wars” (please check back in 2019 to complain). But if the park didn’t move forward, we might still be feeding goats in the petting zoo.
Redd is progress, with a bottle of rum and sassy banter thrown in for good measure. What better way to sail into the future?