Rebellious Sailors by Rebecca Rode
What drives our obsession with pirates? It’s a fair question. Pirates are criminals, after all. There shouldn’t be much to admire about those who plunder and kill rather than lead a so-called honest life, yet Captain Jack Sparrow remains one of the most popular Halloween costumes year after year. To date, the TV series “Black Sails,” created as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island, has enjoyed four successful seasons. Readers can find hundreds of books about pirates online, nearly all of them portraying pirates as the protagonist rather than the villain. Even toy manufacturers have jumped into the ring with floating pirate ships and tiny plastic chests of treasure meant to occupy toddlers in the bathtub. What is it about these morally questionable characters that we love so much?
The answer lies in the color gray.
Unlike generations past, where audiences wanted heroes with no flaws and impeccable morals, we live in a world blanketed in confusion. Yesterday’s stark boundaries of good and evil have blurred with a hundred shades in-between. We relate less to Superman and more to Iron Man, to characters who see through flawed lenses and question truth and come to the wrong conclusion. These characters fumble about making mistakes, fighting for their own desperate and occasionally noble goals. It’s a phenomenon that can be seen across every medium of entertainment. We’ve had enough of Peter Pan, people are saying. We want more of Captain Hook.
But within the popularity of pirate stories, a new movement has begun to emerge. Female readers are no longer content to watch their male counterparts have all the adventures. They want their own stories. Sadly, there hasn’t been much of a place for women in the world of pirates across history. Far more people have heard of Captain Blackbeard than Anne Bonny or Mary Read, let alone Ching Shih, who commanded hundreds of ships and is regarded one of the deadliest pirates who ever lived.
No, female readers weary of seeing their gender portrayed as the sexy love interest or tortured sidekick are asking for lady pirates—women who seize command, direct their own lives with the point of a blade, and blow things up with heavy barrels of gunpowder.
If pirates are the alpha males of the fantasy world, lady pirates are the queens.
I still remember the first time I read Bloody Jack, the story of an orphan girl who disguises herself as a boy to join a ship’s crew. I saw both myself and my daughter in the headstrong Jacky Faber, a girl who breaks the rules in delightful ways. In fact, Jacky served as inspiration for my own Laney Garrow in Tides of Mutiny, who also disguises herself as a boy to survive, but for a very different reason. A band of female pirates nearly conquered Laney’s world. Now women sailors are immediately assumed to be pirates and executed, which complicates Laney’s dream of commanding her own ship. She must navigate her way through prejudice and terrible danger to pull off a not-so-little mutiny of her own.
This “girl in a man’s world” concept isn’t unique to Young Adult fiction, nor is it a passing trend or trope. It can be an unfortunate reality for 50% of our population. Viewers who have been paying attention will notice that the number of female-led novels, movies, and TV shows have soared in the past fifteen years. Has the market finally begun to correct itself after decades of male-dominated entertainment? It’s very possible. With few exceptions, the only successful movies with female leads before Twilight and The Hunger Games were romantic comedies. (Incidentally, both films were adapted from popular YA novels.) But it was only the beginning of a long journey. Marvel declined to create Black Widow’s origin story until long after they’d filmed multiple movies about her male counterparts. Authors were warned by seasoned mentors to avoid writing female protagonists to make their stories more “widely appealing.” Editors encouraged their female authors to use pen names that weren’t gender specific, advice taken by Joanne Rowling before publishing her Harry Potter books. While women in today’s western world enjoy more freedoms and privileges than ever before, we need to remember that many of them are still very new.
No wonder female readers have taken the YA market by storm. Like pirates, they’ve come to seize what’s rightfully theirs. They’ll never turn back now.
So why the surge of pirate books in YA lit? I believe that today’s teens aren’t as different from adults as we’d like to think. They want more than entertainment. They want to be challenged. They want to confront deep moral questions about society, find their own place in it, and conquer the uncomfortable shadows of gray that exist in of all of us. They want what any pirate wants—to face their demons and emerge victorious, blade lifted to the sky as the stars soften into sunrise.
I look forward to the day that young girls will feel as comfortable wearing breeches and a captain’s hat to their school Halloween party as they do pink ball gowns with plastic rubies glued to their heels. Or better yet, some glorious combination of both.
Like rebellious sailors determined to conquer the unpredictable seas, there’s a little bit of gray in all of us—and if pirates can be redeemed, so can we.
Rebecca Rode is an award-winning author of YA fantasy and science fiction that stars fierce girls crushing societal barriers. Her work has appeared on the USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. She lives in the Rocky Mountains with her family, two cats, overflowing bookshelves, and nerdy sock collection. Learn more about her books at AuthorRebeccaRode.com.