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May 02, 2011

Rouse Says “Pirates of the Caribbean” Series Hijacks History

By Shilo Raube

Arrrggh. The swashbuckling theatrics of Pirate Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series, are much more than sources of escapist entertainment says Carnegie Mellon Associate Teaching Professor of History Roger Rouse.

With the fourth installment of Disney’s popular series, “On Stranger Tides,” scheduled to hit theaters May 20, Rouse sees more than the 18th century adventures of Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann on the big screen. He sees Disney’s strategy to increase profits and power.

“Disney heroizes Jack, Elizabeth and Will for learning to act in similar ways,” Rouse said. “And in so doing it encourages audiences to enthusiastically adopt these kinds of conduct, to associate them not with exploitation, exhaustion, and constraint but with excitement, independence, and the forging of a freer and much fairer world. One of the series’ many ironies is that it hijacks images of rebel piracy to promote conformity to confining corporate visions of the ways that we should live our lives.”

The films also are significant, Rouse argues, for what they omit.

“They never represent the slave trade and slaves’ work producing sugar even though these were the main sources of prosperity for the films’ elites and the main reasons the British were trying to control the seas. And at least until the very end, they never feature a mother or a wife, thus leaving out the crucial caring labor that women in these positions were expected to provide. All of this encourages viewers to be similarly inattentive to production, reproduction, and the people in the present who perform these kinds of work,” Rouse said.

Rouse uses “Pirates of the Caribbean” in his Global Histories course to provoke discussions about both the history of piracy and what he calls “the pirating of history.”

Maria Zayas, a senior in Modern Languages, said that Rouse’s lecture helped her to see how historians’ work influences popular culture by reflecting changing beliefs about the social landscape.

“Jack Sparrow can be seen as Johnny Depp’s take on Keith Richards as a pirate,” she said, “but for historians, he can be seen as the push and pull between different social forces.”

Rouse offers some advice for those planning to see “On Stranger Tides.”

“While you’re being entertained, give yourself the added fun that comes from working out what Disney is teaching us and whose interests its lessons may be serving,” he said.