Princesses, mermaids, Jedi, lionesses, superheroes. Disney has a rich roster of diverse female heroines. But Elizabeth Swann is different. Not better, for there’s no need to compare; every female character is an individual, with unique qualities to make her special. Still, Elizabeth sticks out, because her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films follows no standard pattern typical of the brand. She behaves in ways that feel more darkly, deeply human than anything else from the House of Mouse, and she has an incredible arc to back it up.
Some of that is due to the Pirates trilogy’s rating. As PG-13 films, they were allowed to mine that darkness in ways animated fare could not and cannot. But even with a looser rule book, it’s impressive what the creators got away with here. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is, after all, about as Disney as it gets; it’s literally based on a ride from the parks. So it’s fascinating that within that rubric, we got a heroine so feisty, so sexual, so feral—with an arc that only grows richer with each subsequent chapter, until a finale that makes her a literal king.
Here’s how Elizabeth Swann subverted tropes, broke all the rules, and became one of the best and most radical heroines in Disney history.
She immediately subverts the damsel-in-distress trope
When we meet Elizabeth Swann in the opening moments of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, she is young, curious, and ambivalent to her governor father’s strict and practical standards. In fact, when their ship comes across a fiery wreck and they stumble on a young boy named Will Turner in the ruins, Elizabeth hoards a pirate medallion she finds on him. Flash to years later, and an older Elizabeth still has the gold coin; she’s kept it secret all this time, and—as we soon learn—has developed a keen fascination with pirates, studying them in private, enamored with their danger.
It’s not just some cute childish obsession. Pirates are the sworn enemies of the sea, and association with them is punishable by death. Elizabeth’s flirtation with the idea of piracy could bring shame to her family and spell her demise, and yet she’s drawn to them anyway.
Her infatuation with darkness is a thread throughout the series, elegantly added to in each installment of the trilogy. But it also keeps her from falling into tropes she might otherwise be subjected to. When pirate Jack Sparrow arrives in her life, she’s often foisted into a damsel-in-distress role. And yes, sometimes it falls on the men—like Will, her love interest—to find her and save her. But she puts up her own fight, is always a step ahead of the men, and genuinely seems to enjoy her place in the adventure. And that whole “being rescued” thing doesn’t last long.
Her sexuality is never minced
The second film of the original trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, finds Elizabeth in a pernicious place. Thanks to her and Will’s involvement with Jack, they are both sentenced to death by hanging—on the day of their wedding. This splits them on a new adventure; Will heads off to find Jack so that he might free his fiancée, and Elizabeth’s father breaks her out of prison in the meantime. She disguises herself as a man and attempts to find Will and Jack herself, a journey that strengthens her, and splits her affections between the men.
Elizabeth Swann, who grew up obsessed with pirates, finds herself drawn to Jack. The entire film explores her desires in a way that is healthy and refreshing for a Disney franchise. She flirts with Jack; he exploits her darker side, and she the goodness in him. And though her loyalties still lie with her true love Will, this exploration of her sexuality is important, as it is for any young woman. Sometimes we yearn for what we shouldn’t. Crushes like the one Elizabeth has on Jack teach us things about ourselves. They’re normal cravings that deserve time and exploration like they’re given here, in the middle of a giant franchise movie.
Likewise, Elizabeth lusts for Will. Her sexual frustration over the cancelation of her wedding echoes through the film. Her scenes with Will are wrought with angst and passion. And also, temporarily, with distrust, a big theme in the third entry of the trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
She transcends the men around her and becomes a pirate king
The third movie is where Elizabeth’s arc comes to beautiful fruition. At the end of Dead Man’s Chest, she shackles Jack to the Pearl so that the Kraken can devour him and the rest of the pirate armada can be safe. The guilt over this action haunts her in the first act of At World’s End. It’s a burden she chooses to bear alone, and one that isolates her from Will… who has his own secret agenda to contend with.
The two are split by circumstance once again after saving Jack from the underworld. Elizabeth assumes the role of Pirate King after a meeting with the Bretheren Court, a title she uses to enact justice on the East India Trading Co., who killed her father. It’s she who leads every master rebel pirate of the sea against the bureaucrats who want to tame it to their bidding. And it’s she who is successful in that endeavor, securing justice for her father and saving the people who gave her new meaning and purpose.
But in the end, Elizabeth willingly lays down the title and pledges herself to Will, who is murdered by Davy Jones and is cursed to captain the Flying Dutchman ship, spending a day ashore for every decade at sea. To break the curse, Elizabeth has to be faithful to Will for those ten years. (The fifth movie undoes some of this mythology, but that’s a grievance for another time.) They spend one final day together at sea, and as we learn in a post-credits sequence, Elizabeth bore Will’s child and did remain faithful. For some, it was a disappointing conclusion for the character: from Pirate King to grieving wife. But there’s more to unpack in her choice.
Romance is key to her story, and that’s okay
Disney films are known for prioritizing romance in their heroine arcs. Sometimes that’s frustrating, sometimes it’s powerful. But it’s worth asking ourselves why we’re bothered by it. Romance is a natural part of life. In fact, one may argue, it’s a symbol of the most important thing there is in this world: love. In the end, Elizabeth hangs up her pirate hat for love. And it doesn’t disrupt her agency or erase her accomplishments.
If anything, the Pirates franchise shows that women contain the same multitudes as men. Elizabeth is a woman of society who secretly yearns for adventure and danger, and she gets it. But she also yearns for romance and connection with Will, and she gets that too. She assumes a kingly title, but that was never what she aspired to. For every bit of action, we’re reminded that Elizabeth’s love for Will is the thing that’s dearest to her. “I’m so ready to be married,” she tells Jack earnestly in Dead Man’s Chest.
The Pirates of the Caribbean films gifted us with a female character who gets it all. Swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, agency over her future, and a choice in the end to avoid a life of curses and death for a love so powerful that it can break an ancient spell. There’s not a thing wrong with that, and the Disney canon is better for having Elizabeth in it.
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