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When I Write Female Characters, I Look to Elizabeth Swann

by Emma Delaney Styles 10 months ago in movie review

For me, she is ultimate character-goals

We've all heard of various tropes and cliches often found within fiction, such as the 'impossibly perfect' Mary Sue and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We see the same stereotypes again and again both on the page, and on our screens; the tough girl with the heart of gold, the ice queen, the brainiac whose sole purpose to the storyline is to supply vital, plot-driving knowledge (that last one can be found in both genders). Enough.

She Escapes The Cliches

Yes, admittedly, the first Pirates does contain certain love-triangle tropes used time and again. Elizabeth Swann begins the series as the rebellious 'good girl' who falls in love with the wrong boy. Her love story with Will Turner also fits neatly into the stereotypical 'rich girl falls for poor boy against society's expectations' trope. She enters into the world of piracy as a damsel in distress... but, even that statement isn't entirely true.

The first film is the closest that we ever see Elizabeth fit the mould as a 'damsel-in-distress' character. Yes, she is kidnapped by pirates early in the movie, but before that, we see her as first, a young girl, and later a young woman, with a near-obsessive fascination for piracy, a sharp tongue and a sharper mind . It is her knowledge of piracy that leads her to request to be taken aboard the raiding pirate ship. While they would have kidnapped her anyway, as the Governor's daughter, and therefore a valuable bargaining chip, it's her own daring and intellect which prevents her from becoming a victim, and instead, she, unknowingly, begins her own journey into piracy. She's unafraid to negotiate, improvise, and, when those fail, fight back.

As the films progress, however, we see her move further and further away from the tropes. She carves out her own path. While she, in all three movies, has a goal driving her through the plot, typically either to save herself, Will Turner, or Jack Sparrow, we see her independence as much as her loyalty. She doesn't wait to be rescued, nor is she simply the one who rescues other characters. She's intelligent, but she's not the character designed to drive forward the plot with new information. She's romantic, but her love-life is not the be-all-and-end-all of her existence. She becomes a leader, without losing sight of the rest of her life, interests, and traits.

Character Arc

Touching again on the points made about, Elizabeth Swann has the strongest character arc in the entire series. In fact, script writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have said themselves that she is the main protagonist in the first three films of the series, in part because she has the strongest character arc of the three main characters.

Again, we see her transform from Governor's daughter, to pirate, to King of the Brethren Court. But, beyond that, we see her mature, find herself and develop into a woman. We witness her love life develop, from a forbidden crush to wife, with plenty of realistic doubts, hiccups and flirtations along the way.

She Is Not Just Made - She Is Mentored

In reality, we're made through our experiences, yes, we can all agree to that. The good, the bad, and the devastating, we grow through it all. Throughout the movies, Elizabeth has a tough time of it. She watches her new husband die before her eyes, her ex-fiancé die before her eyes, she commits murder in order to save her own skin, only to then travel to the literal ends of the Earth in order to bring her victim back from the dead, and then of course, there was that heart-wrenching scene when she witnesses her father's soul (body? essence of his former being?) floating to the nautical underworld/Davy Jones' locker.

One thing which makes her character all the more impressive, however, is that, while it's never explicitly stated, she's clearly being mentored by the best throughout the second, and especially the third movie. She's ever watchful, learning how to be a pirate not just from living as a pirate, but from living around the best pirates. And they take her under their wing, and mentor her - particularly Captain Barbossa, in the third movie. She parrots his words when it is opportune for her to do so, she learns tactics and strategy from him, and he seems happy to have her aboard his ship, rather than treating her as an inconvenience.

Even in the first movie, she shows a keen knowledge of ship manoeuvres and battle strategies. How would a prim-and-proper Governor's daughter know about something such as the 'bootleg turn'? A manoeuvre we later see a young Jack Sparrow use in the fifth movie. Clearly from growing up surrounded by the British navy, in a port town, and with an obsessive fascination for piracy, she's picked up a few tricks over the years.

She's Still Feminine

It can be a fine line, when writing a strong, well-rounded female character, in balancing her more stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, especially if she is the only female character present in a very male-dominated setting. It's easy to write a character as having to 'man-up', so to speak, in order to fit in with her male counterparts, or, at the other end of the spectrum, for a very feminine character to be seen as weaker, and less capable, and relegated to the role of damsel in distress.

We see multiple sides to Elizabeth's character throughout the original trilogy, yet, while we do see her progress from damsel-in-distress Governor's daughter, to pirate, to King of the Brethren Court, what really stands out in her character development is that she neither shuns her femininity in order to become 'one of the guys', nor does she suddenly develop new, stereotypically masculine traits to fit with her new 'role'.

She's not afraid to use her 'feminine guile' to get what she wants, whether it's agreeing to marry Norrington in order to save Will, kissing Jack Sparrow in order to chain him to the mast, or even using her wedding dress as a tool of negotiation. We see her disguise herself as a boy, but only temporarily, and otherwise she's unafraid to reveal herself in the male-dominated world of piracy that she is, yes, shock and horror, a woman!

She Learns Skills at a Realistic* Pace

*Granted, yes, it's never specified how much time passes between the first two movies, but it's realistic enough to believe that enough time has passed, firstly, for a grand wedding to be planned (and I imagine, for at least some guests to sail to Port Royal from England in order to attend), and secondly, for Will to teach Elizabeth how to sword fight. It's a believable skill for her to acquire, because we've already seen her fight in the first movie, albeit, with whatever weapon she can find, and never with an actual sword. Nevertheless, we know that Elizabeth can fight, she has the reflexes to protect herself, and she's a quick study. Therefore, we as viewers accept that Will would be able to successfully teach Elizabeth to apply her fighting skills to the sword.

Again, while we see that she is a quick study, gaining the skills necessary to become a powerful leader, it's a gradual development. Otherwise, POTC would be a single movie, and Elizabeth's much less realistic character arc would all take place in a single two hours. We see her make mistakes, and learn from them. She places her trust in the wrong people (namely, Jack Sparrow), and mistrusts those who she should know to be on her side. Her character growth and accumulation of skills takes place over at least a few years, rather than a few weeks or months.

She Chooses Her Own Path In Life

Ah... how fortunate she is to have such an accommodating father in the 18th century? Granted, realistically, there's not a chance that a high-born daughter (and only child, at that) would be allowed to pass up an 'advantageous' marriage for a lowly blacksmith. This is definitely the 18th century written with a 21st-century mindset, but let's forgive that for a moment.

From start to finish, Elizabeth Swann is a character with a strong mindset, and a strong sense of self. Even from our first scene with her, when she's 10-12 years old at the helm of a ship, she's not afraid to speak her mind. Her father shuts down Norrington because he deems a topic unsuitable? Elizabeth doesn't think twice about telling her father that, actually, she does want to hear what Norrington has to say, no matter how 'inappropriate' the topic may be. It's a small scene, but it's one that tells us a lot about Elizabeth's character.

Throughout the movies, we see Elizabeth time and again forge her own path in life, without ever developing a complex about being an 'oppressed woman'. She understands her father's protectiveness over her, as well as that of the men in her life - Norrington, Will, and even Jack Sparrow (his protectiveness is more subtle, but watch again - it's there in every plan he makes, especially in the first movie). She'll hear them out, but then make her own decision for her own life, whether its who she'll marry, whose side she's on, or her, ahem, career path (can piracy be considered a career? I suppose it can).

She's Flawed - And It's Problematic

Another trope too often seen is that a character's flaws are too often portrayed as an advantage. Mary-Sue is so stubborn, but her stubbornness gives her the focus to complete her mission. Janie-Loo has trust issues, but her wariness of new people means that she's also highly observant and an excellent judge of character, seeing straight through the facade of the bad-guy. And, of course, the love-interest of these characters always finds these traits so irresistible.

It gets quite boring, to be honest.

The best characters are those who are grey. They're neither good, nor bad. They want multiple things in life, things which may contrast against each other, or they may be completely lost and not know what they want at all. They're complex.

Elizabeth Swann is highly flawed. I mean, committing murder to meet her own ends is about as bad as it gets, for a character on the 'good side', after all. She makes errors of judgement, she pushes loved ones away, she's tenacious and manipulative. While these traits do help her to get ahead and to achieve her goals throughout the movie, it also results in her fracturing her relationship with Will, and the entire first half of the third movie is spent rectifying her mistakes.

There's More to her than her Love Life

Controversial statement, perhaps, as many would argue that her entire involvement in the films is due to her love for William Turner. Or, is Will's involvement in the films due entirely to his love for Elizabeth? Big difference.

I'd argue that it's most definitely the latter.

Throughout the movies, Elizabeth and Will are a partnership, albeit, not without their issues. While Will spends the first movie attempting to save Elizabeth, Elizabeth's entry into the plot line of the second movie is based around her design to be reunited and to help Will. While they spend the most time together during the third movie, their relationship is strained, but they stick together and work through.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth is never just 'the love interest'. Her motives are never driven entirely by her relationship with Will. She wholeheartedly joins the sides of the pirates in order to defeat the villains. She sets out on a quest to rescue Jack Sparrow, her motives there being to ease her own guilt, and to save a friend (friend?).

Her Personality Fits Both her Backstory and her Plot line

It's obviously a dramatic transformation, from governor's daughter to pirate King, and yet Elizabeth's personality, while developing, doesn't at any point make a dramatic u-turn in order to accommodate her new role. She's been brought up in a word of privilege, doted on as an only child, she's therefore unafraid to speak her mind and do as she pleases. I've touched already on her sharp mind and her use of knowledge accumulated bough during her childhood, spent surrounded by ships, ports and the British Navy, and that acquired during her adventures. We can see exactly how someone like Elizabeth, someone strong, intelligent and wilful, would suit the role of King just as much - better, in fact - than the role of Governor's daughter.

...Bad Writing Ruined Her Character Arc

And then... it all went wrong.

Ok, some would argue that Elizabeth Swann (and Will Turner's) story ended just as it ought to have done, but, personally, I would wholeheartedly disagree.

Elizabeth's motives throughout all three films are driven just as much by a lifelong fascination for piracy, as by her love for Will Turner. I think, while obviously the reality of piracy was drastically different to her childhood imaginings, she was clearly living the life that she had always wanted. And then... she ends the trilogy plonked back on land, having lost everything that she wanted - both the pirate life, and her man. It's a sharp fall for such a great character, and one that could have been written differently.

While we don't know explicitly what she does between the end of the third movie, and cameo in the fifth, besides becoming a mother, the fact that when we see her again, twenty-years-later, she is once again dressed in the corsets that she so hated in the first film (and which was used as a symbol of her escape from society's expectations and restrains), didn't do her character any justice at all.

Ups-and-downs in life are of course, realistic, and it can be incredibly brave to write a harsh decline for a beloved character, but when people are rooting for your character, don't end it there. Make the most of their character growth and development, fight back and leave on a high.

movie review
Emma Delaney Styles
Emma Delaney Styles
Read next: The State
Emma Delaney Styles

Part-time Parisian. Gluten-free against my will. Photographer. Writer. Lived in a bookshop for a while. Always on the hunt for free art, and good food.

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