The Girls Who Waited
Last night, I rewatched Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s one of my favorite movies, because it’s so fun, and lighthearted, and, unlike many people, I really love the character of Elizabeth Swann.
Or, at least, I loved Elizabeth Swann. Although I still enjoy her character and the first two movies, I can’t watch them without thinking about the way that her story ended, the ending that left me absolutely repulsed, as she stood on a beach, waiting 10 years for her true love to return.
In the context of the recent Doctor Who/Amy Pond sexism debate, it’s got me wondering about a new kind of “empowered” badass female character: the girl who waits. Her story plays lip service to empowerment. She either undergoes growth into a self-assured, confident individual, or always was one. She fights, and she stands up for herself, and she is intelligent and no-nonsense and great fun to watch. But, in the end, it’s all meaningless. In the end, her greatest achievement, her defining characteristic, is waiting for a man.
Elizabeth Swann does have some of the signs of fake “girl!power” empowerment. She hates corsets. She insists that the rules of propriety should be thrown aside, especially for love. But Pirates of the Caribbean is hardly a serious or historically accurate movie, and it’s all good fun. Elizabeth starts out the movies as an incredibly brave (if slightly naive and dreaming) young woman. She’s very intelligent, opportunistic, bold, and fierce in her beliefs, and over the course of the series, she grows into herself more and more as she pursues freedom. She manipulates the navy into saving Will’s life. She escapes from prison, steals the letters of pardon and goes off to save her fiancee, again. She outsmarts Jack Sparrow and kills him to save everyone else. She then goes into the underworld itself to rescue him. She almost ends the story as pirate king.
And then she gets married. Her true love becomes captain of The Flying Dutchman and cannot come ashore for 10 years. And so he drops her off on an island, and she waits. She does not have piratey adventures while she waits. She does not go home, and she does not stay to hang out with Jack Sparrow, and she does not keep her own ship. She just waits.
In the movie, at least to me, it was unclear whether Will would be free to stay on land after 10 years, or whether he could only see her once every decade before getting back onto the ocean again. According to the movie’s commentary, the answer is worse than both: he can stay on land after 10 years, but only if Elizabeth is faithful to him. Will’s life is literally determined by how good Elizabeth is at waiting. If he’s trapped on the Flying Dutchman, it’s because his wife is a cheating whore who couldn’t wait for him, alone, for a decade. If he escapes and they get to live happily ever after, it’s because Elizabeth is a true heroine, patient and virtuous. It’s because she knows how to wait.
Three movies worth of character growth and adventure, three movies of a character who clearly yearns for freedom as well as for love, reduced to a woman standing on a beach while her true love sails away.
Thanks, Disney. Thanks a lot.
And then there’s Amy Pond. Although her story is very different, there are some similarities in character. Instead of undergoing character growth throughout the series, Amy appears fully formed in the first episode as a sassy, sexy, confident young woman. Although many people have argued that her characterization is inconsistent, giving her traits simply when the plot requires them, she is, I think, brave and opinionated and willing to stand up for herself and for people she cares about. She also yearns for adventure, for freedom from mundanity. And she is defined, from the very beginning, as “The Girl Who Waited.” The Doctor promised her adventure when she was a little girl, and she waited for him… for twelve years. He promises her again, and she waits for another two years before she finally gets the adventure she dreamed of.
And even on her adventures, even as she shows that she is brave and capable and intelligent, she is always The Girl Who Waits. She waits for the Doctor to rescue her when she is kidnapped by The Silence. Despite the fact that Amy seems like she would be a fierce and protective mother, she waits at home while the Doctor attempts to rescue her baby. Whenever the Doctor decides to drop her off at home for a while so he can angst, she waits for him to randomly crop up again. Her whole life, her whole character, is defined by this waiting for the amazing man to appear and save her, or help her, or give her the adventure she dreams of. She never seizes it for herself.
Of course, she’s not the only character in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who who waits. One of Rory’s defining characteristics is his choice to wait 2000 years while Amy is in the Pandorica. Yet Rory’s wait only underlines how problematic the show’s treatment of Amy is. Because Rory chooses to wait. He waits as a protector, the lone centurion, a mythic figure who plays an important role in keeping Amy safe. When the centurion outfit appears later in the series, it’s a symbol of Rory’s fear-inspiring badassery. Amy is forced to wait, and it is a passive, weak sort of waiting. She hangs around and waits for someone to rescue her. By hanging around, Rory is doing the rescuing. Even when both male and female characters are waiting, the different expectations, the different prominent stereotypical gender traits, shine through.
And I am sick of falling in love with awesome female characters whose personalities and journeys are meaningless, because, in the end, their greatest “adventure,” their greatest purpose, is waiting patiently. Waiting for love. Waiting for rescue. Waiting for permission to have a life beyond waiting once again.