Strength in Swann
How a Governor's daughter and Pirate Queen taught me what it means to be a woman in a man's world.
Elizabeth Swann in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was everything I wanted to be at 10 years old— proper, intelligent, and resourceful. Somehow she excelled at being both stately and savvy, something I found deliciously appealing as an uncoordinated and grubby 3rd grader with a knack for discovering food in my hair instead of in my mouth. However, as the years progressed and the POTC franchise expanded, Ms. Swann grew with it. Consequently, so did I.
Let's begin dissecting this growth with the OG: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Before taking on the swashbuckling blockbuster POTC franchise, director Gore Verbinski had only directed a rom-com (Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts' quite endearing The Mexican), the cult horror classic The Ring, and a string of short films, so I'm going to go a limb here and say that producer Jerry Bruckheimer took a bit of a risk teaming up with Verbinski for this seriously well-funded Disney pirate adventure. Of course, that risk paid off more than anyone could have imagined, along with the risk of hiring Johnny Depp to portray the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow. In fact, Mr. Bruckheimer must have been a fan of risks; Keira Knightly, the actress chosen to portray the daughter of Governor Swann was not only just 17 years old, but was otherwise an unknown (her well-received film Bend it Like Beckham would not hit theaters until after she was cast as Miss Elizabeth Swann).
With the release of the first Pirates film, however, Verbinski and Depp would no longer be considered a risk, and Knightley would no longer be considered an unknown, having pulled in over $300 million gross profit. Knightley's portrayal of the young and curious Elizabeth Swann spoke to girls everywhere— you can succeed in a man's world.
Miss Swann fought male propaganda from the very start of POTC, intrigued by the idea of meeting a pirate. In her words, it would be "quite exciting," spoken to a dismayed crew of men, including Master Gibbs, who believed having a woman on board is bad luck (even a "miniature" one).
We then see a mostly-grown Swann, stubborn as ever and unimpressed with the latest fashion trends, i.e. corsets.
If that scene didn't influence my clothing choices for the rest of time, I'm not sure what would have. Clearly, if you don't want to fall off a building, you should probably choose comfort over corset. Of course, it's this sequence of events that leads to her meeting Captain Jack and subsequently getting kidnapped by his on-again off-again bromantic partner, Barbossa. She held her own there too... yes, she screamed a lot. But I mean, they were pirates, zombies, and they cut her hand. You'd scream too.
Speaking of getting kidnapped, she taught me everything I needed to know as a 10 year old about how to try and avoid it; hide in the closet. Also, if found, don't give the kidnappers your real name; "Elizabeth... Turner. I'm a maid in the governor's household." (She had the right idea, but clearly just gave them a better, more worthwhile name in their eyes).
It was also this cleverness that got her and Jack off of that rum-filled island, and is only the beginning of her transformation from curious teen to strong-willed Pirate Queen.
I left the first POTC a little taller and with a little more gumption than I'd originally had, thanks in part to Elizabeth Swann. I then waited a very long three years for the second installment, and when Dead Man's Chest FINALLY graced my local theater (grossing a whopping $423 million), I was 13 years old aka officially a "real" adult, and Elizabeth Swann represented one of the few female characters I looked up to that wasn't half-naked or decidedly damseled. <– I made up that word, go with it.
She lived in a world of men and thrived, only growing stronger when faced with opposition. As a pubescent "adult," having this type of strength was paramount to my development. It's easy to be strong and capable when surrounded by other strong and capable women, but when you're literally thrust into environments where pirates, smugglers, and even statesmen (I'm looking at you, Lord Beckett aka wedding-ruiner) are degrading your importance, standing your ground proves that much more powerful.
Which is exactly what Elizabeth does throughout DMC, from holding a gun up to Beckett to hiding on a ship to Tortuga as a cabin boy to pointing out exactly how useless men can be: “This is barbaric! This is no way for grown men to settle – oh, fine! Let’s just pull out our swords and start banging away at each other, that will solve everything!”
To finally, and painfully, making the tough call to save her men by sacrificing Captain Jack to the Kraken.
It's a guilt-ridden choice that will haunt her throughout the 3rd installment, but showcases that courage sometimes requires pain, and the "right" decision is not always clear. I looked up to this Elizabeth Swann, and while I didn't have any literal pirates to fight or lovers to save, I was steered away from bad choices and the cruel actions so many teens make knowing that Miss Swann would choose differently. Elizabeth helped me see the kind of woman I could become. And with the release of At World's End in 2007, this was solidified.
AWE was gritty and dark, and the choices Elizabeth had to make reflected that. She keeps the truth about Jack from Will in order to save him from her burdens. She chooses to keep fighting despite discovering the death of her father. She rises up into a captain of her own right after being given Sao Fang's pieces of eight and is eventually elected as a Pirate King.
She decides to bring the fight to Lord Beckett instead of hide behind a wall of ships, rallying her crews with an inspiring goosebumps-inducing speech that silenced any objections to her ability to lead (Master Gibbs, bet you don't think she's bad luck anymore).
Basically, she all but saves the entire Pirate legacy.
It's been ten years since we last saw Elizabeth Swann, and I've done a lot of growing up in that time. From a 13 year old empowered by the woman she saw on screen to a 23 year old empowering other women, I was able to walk into last month's release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man Tell No Tales knowing that Elizabeth Swann would be proud. In fact, she'd be proud of the entertainment world in general. In the past few years we've seen a huge increase in impressive women roles in film and TV (Wonder Woman, Rey in The Force Awakens, all of the Stark women in Game of Thrones), including our very own 5th POTC installment, which features Kaya Scodelario as the whiplash smart Corina Smith.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Of course, my favorite part of Dead Man Tell No Tales would without a doubt be the LONG-AWAITED revival of Will and Elizabeth's love story, showing us the unrivaled loyalty and strength Miss Swann (or I guess, now, Turner) has always possessed.
So next time you sit down to watch our old friend Captain Jack Sparrow in one of his many pirating adventures (minus that pesky 4th one we don't talk about), focus your eyes on the horizon that is Elizabeth Swann. You won't be disappointed with what you find.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is out everywhere. Rated PG-13.