What do women want? It's more than just the obvious attraction of good-looking men in puffy shirts.
In the wake of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies storming into theaters, looting and pillaging box office gold, pirates have become hip, sexy, and culturally correct.
It's about time the rest of you lubbers caught up, says I.
Once upon a time, when I wrote my swashbuckling novel, The Witch From The Sea, you couldn't get arrested writing about pirates. Not even a blip on the radar screen of pop cultural significance, pirate yarns were considered as dead as the moldering bones in Davy Jones locker.
Thanks to Johnny Depp and a tube of eyeliner, that's all changed. And pirates aren't just for little boys any more. Christine Markel Lampe, editor of the long-running cult pirate fanzine No Quarter Given, estimates that at least one third of her subscribers have always been women-even before the first Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut was launched in 2003. Some marketing genius at Disney must have figured this out; if they really thought their target audience was strictly adolescent boys, they'd have cast Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider, not Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.
What do we women want? It's more than just the obvious attraction of good-looking men in puffy shirts. Latter-day female pirate fans aren't content to play mere pirate wenches in our fantasies; we want to be pirates ourselves. Historically, women have always been bound by much stricter moral, social and sexual rules than men. Sidelined for centuries in the house, the kitchen, and the birthing room, women are even more susceptible to the lure of the outlaw life on the open sea, far away from religious doctrine, parental (or marital) authority, and housework.
I had all of this in mind-at least subconsciously-when I wrote The Witch From The Sea. I love historical fiction, and pirates have always been my favorite guilty pleasure. Why? Chalk it up to too many Errol Flynn movies on TV in my formative years. But I could never see myself as the typical heroine of a pirate yarn, some high-born noble lady flouncing around in her crinolines while the men went off and had all the fun. Wouldn't it be more interesting, I thought, to invent a heroine who was a working member of the crew, not a haughty, disapproving hostage destined to become the captain's swoony trophy bride. (Or worse still, reform him!) What if a woman became a pirate for the same reason men historically joined the trade? For the freedom denied them in the "civilized" world.
And thus was born my heroine Tory Lightfoot, an orphaned half-white, half-Mohawk Indian runaway, who flees the stifling gentility of Boston in 1823. Disguised in male clothing, she stows away on a merchant brig bound for the Indies, which is captured by pirates off the coast of Cuba shortly thereafter.
Women disguised as boys have been a staple of popular culture as least as far back as Shakespeare's time (when women onstage were actually played by boys). But there's plenty of historical evidence of real-life women, especially in the 18th and 19th Centuries, who dressed as men and became soldiers or sailors, either to join a husband or lover who was going to war, or simply to escape their constricted female lives. Anne Bonny and Mary Read are the most fabled real-life women pirates. Here in Santa Cruz, we have Charley Parkhurst, the rugged, cigar-smokin' stagecoach driver known for toughness, reliability, and colorful profanity, whose hidden female sex wasn't discovered until they laid her out for her funeral in 1879.
Unlike Charley, not all women who crave liberating adventure in fantasy or in fact long to become men. I wasn't interested in turning my character into a brawling, hard-bitten captain of her own ship. I also know that real pirate lives tended to be nasty, brutish and short; they were rarely as dashing as Flynn, or as cool as Depp. But the pirates in my book are a metaphor for the freedom Tory craves, an interlude of life off the grid in which she can discover her own identity (and still have rollicking adventures).
In "Writing A Woman's Life," the late Carolyn Heilbrun applauds the urge "to create women characters, and sometimes male characters, who might openly enact the dangerous adventures of a woman's life...the alternate life (the writer) wishes to inscribe upon the female imagination." Alternate lives that tweak outmoded and repressive notions of cultural propriety. So forget polite detective "cozies" and chick-lit. It's a pirate's life for me, says I.