Skip to main content

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.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

9 thoughts on “The Girls Who Waited

  1. I absolutely agree with you about Elizabeth, which is why I… generally ignore that interpretation of the ending of AWE. I’m not sure if it’s hard and fast canonical that that is the island she and Will go to have romantic, magically leg-hair-less sex on (and let’s not get started on the fact that she gets pregnant the first time they have sex, because oi, that trope), or indeed that she’s stayed there the ten years between said magical hairless sex and the epilogue in which Will appears ten years later. If that is hard and fast canon, and the thing about her having to be faithful or else Will turns into a fish person is canon, then I would question what makes it so. According to what we see in the films, the reason for Davy Jones’s curse is because he gave up his duty of ferrying the dead, something he did because Calypso failed to show up on the ten year mark and theoretically may have been unfaithful during that time, but it’s caused by his actions, not hers. And author’s intent is so sixty years ago, Ted and Terry. Talk to Roland Barthes.

    The way I prefer to interpret it is that, during those ten years, Elizabeth lives Shipwreck Cove. Maybe she goes to meet Will on that island, because it’s sentimental and significant, but she doesn’t live there. She’s Pirate King, after all, and captain of the Empress; pirates have politics, and Elizabeth, rash and naive though she may sometimes be, is a diplomat’s daughter. She can do politics. So she spends those ten years losing some of her naivete and really learning how pirates work and being awesome and clever. Because no-matter how much she loves Will, I cannot see her, the character established in the films, ever being willing to just sit around and be a mother, all alone, and have sex once every ten years.

    *hem* Sorry, I may have a lot of feelings about Pirates.

    1. I love this theory. I think I’ll adopt it as my personal canon from now on (perhaps with an occasional adventure with Jack Sparrow thrown in).

      1. When one associates with Jack Sparrow, adventures are inevitable.

        Although I do also have to wonder whether she *would* be faithful, not in regards to turning Will into a fish person, but more… this is her childhood crush. They have the whole youthful infatuation thing going on. It’s *hard* to sustain youthful infatuation when the object of your affections is gone ten years at a stretch, and it doesn’t allow her to develop deeper, steadier types of feelings that would endure such absences. I feel like Elizabeth would get tired of waiting, and that her relationship with Will would very likely shift back down into just a friendship. Where she still loves him, is still absolutely willing to keep his heart safe, but… what they had isn’t really sustainable. And she wants a life.

        Of course, here I’ve strayed away from the issues of how the film treats her into pure conjecture, but, well. Apologies if that’s not allowed.

        1. Yeah, I think that’s another reason why the audio commentary explanation of “if she’s faithful, Will gets to return” really bothers me. She’s basically tied to her childhood crush, and if she decides that it isn’t worth waiting, or that she wants something different, she is directly responsible for *his* misery and the destruction of *his* life. That’s a pretty unfair burden to place on someone who’s never even been with Will for an extended period of time, thanks to all their adventures.

  2. 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.

    UGH! Either I didn’t know this, or I found out at some point and then banished it from my brain because it’s literally too awful to comprehend. I have to say, this series is one of those instances where I am so glad that “the author is dead” is now a thing, because I just decided, ‘Okay, there’s no way she didn’t go on being a badass pirate king and having adventures with Jack Sparrow. No way!’ And I love that Keira endorses this interpretation. :)

    And my heart, augh, it forever breaks (or rages, to be more precise) for Amy. And I hate that it seems to have been hereditary, as well, because season six did so much to quash the sense that River Song spends her life romping about having awesome adventures that just so happen to intersect with the Doctor’s every so often. “I live for the days when I see him,” etc., etc. I love the Doctor and River together, mostly just because Alex and Matt have the most exquisite and delightful chemistry, but I hate that their story became so bogged down in making River another girl who waited. I found their love story so much more moving before we knew the full story.

    Whyyyy is doing the Penelope thing suddenly so hip?

  3. Just to butt in…
    In defence of Elizabeth and the writers, she didn’t spend ten years just ‘waiting’ for Will. She had a child to raise and care for (yes, ok, pregnant first time, etc…) POTC is set in the 18th century. Elizabeth no longer has the protection of her father, Governor of Port Royal, nor Admiral Norrington, or, as far as we know, any other male protection that during that time would have been seen as necessary. Women in the 18th century had next to no rights, they were the property of their husbands/fathers. I know POTC ain’t one for historical accuracy, but them’s the facts. Even if she wanted to hook up with someone else – instead of ‘waiting’ for Will – in those times, a single mother from a rich family would be tossed out on the street. Apart from the two gentlemen I just mentioned, Elizabeth has only known pirates, of all people. Hell, she’s the Pirate King. And bringing up a child, wherever she was for those ten years, (Port Royal, Tortuga, Shipwreck Cove, London, America) would not have been an easy task. Bringing up a child is difficult, especially on your own, it doesn’t matter which gender you belong to. i doubt there would have been a lot of just ‘sitting around’. Elizabeth would have had to defend her ‘honour’, and if she did live with pirates, let’s not forget how close she was to getting raped in the first film (‘You’ll be dining with the crew, and you’ll be naked’). Just to re-iterate the point once more, Elizabeth had to bring up a child, with no support, while sustaining herself, fending off any sexual predators (we know she’s good with a sword) and just generally surviving. ‘Waiting’ barely comes into it.

    1. All of that is even more reason why this is a terrible ending for her character. She grew so much and became so determined and independent… and Jack adventures, Will captains his ship, and Elizabeth suffers? I also think that, since the movies are so historically inaccurate anyway, and present a kind of fantasy 18th century pirate world, that they could have some leeway on the “accuracy” of the options for female characters (as indeed they do at other points during the series).

  4. Great articles. I agree about the ending of At World’s End. There should have been so much more to her story. It is romantic and yes waiting for your love fits into the passionate romance in these kind of dramas. But, I agree, there could have been more to her story over the ten years her and Will are separated.

  5. Your argument doesn’t make any sense. “AWE” pretty much marked the end of Elizabeth and Will’s story. I get the impression that many of you are peeved that we didn’t see how Elizabeth spent those ten years without Will. The problem is . . . the “POTC” saga is not solely about her or even Will. Jack Sparrow IS the main character.

    I’m so tired of this view that a romantic interest for a woman character is a sign of her being weak or depended upon a man. I understand that a great deal of fiction – in novels, television and movies – tend to stick women characters with a romantic interest or be some male character’s romantic interest. I understand . . . to a certain degree . . . how tedious that can be. But if a romance is well handled, I honestly couldn’t care less.

    If a woman character is given a romantic interest, I would prefer that her union with a male character would be on equal terms and well written. The “PIRATES” movies have strongly hinted the equal nature of Elizabeth and Will’s relationship since the first movie. Not only does he love her, Will has a strong respect for Elizabeth. The only time when his respect lessen was when Elizabeth found out about the deal Will made with Sao Feng. And she gave him a tongue lashing that he fully deserved. When Will tried to prevent her from leaving with Sao Feng, she made it clear that he had no say in the matter. The movies have also hinted the depth of their feelings for one another. Elizabeth loved Will very much. And he felt the same about her. She loved him enough to wait ten years for his return. And I suspect that Will, who had risked a great deal on her behalf, would have done the same if their situations had been reversed.

    And because of this, I couldn’t care less that Elizabeth was forced to wait for Will. At least they got each other in the end.

    And honestly, if you think that Elizabeth spent those ten years simply sitting around and waiting for Will to show up, that only makes me wonder how much you really know about her character.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *