Margot Robbie and the fantabulous female pirates

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Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for she.

If reports are to be believed, Harley Quinn herself – Margot Robbie – is preparing to take to the high seas.

The Hollywood reporter claims Robbie will team up with Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson for a reboot of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Disney hasn’t confirmed or denied the report, but if social media is anything to go by, film fans seem excited by the prospect of the Dread Pirate Robbie.

But is there any factual, historical basis for a female swashbuckler?

Well… yes – if you want the short answer. If you want the slightly longer answer, read on.

Read, Bonny, O’Malley and Chin

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A time when men were men, women were also men and trousers were worn loose.

Superstitions from the heyday of pirates – the late 17th and early 18th centuries – meant women weren’t ordinarily allowed on ships. Sailors believed they brought bad luck and their presence would be punished with storms.

That being the case, some women disguised themselves as men in order to set sail – and Mary Read is perhaps the most famous.

She dressed as a boy to seek work on board ship, and ended up being captured by the notorious pirate Jack Rackham – nicknamed Calico Jack.

Along with another woman – Anne Bonny – she became part of Calico Jack’s crew.

Read and Bonny were both captured and sentenced to death in Jamaica. She claimed to be pregnant to secure a stay of execution but died in prison there in 1721.

Pirate fans may also be familiar with the name Grace O’Malley – the anglicised form of the 16th Century Irish leader Gráinne Ní Mháille.

Describing her simply as a pirate cheapens the story of a formidable leader and warrior – but her name certainly features heavily in the annals of great seafaring women.

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Pirate queen Ching Shih commanded the so-called Red Fleet.

Ching Shih began as a pirate’s wife, but when her husband died she took control of his band of corsairs herself.

She commanded an armada of 1700 ships, the largest pirate fleet in history, and was eventually pardoned by the Emperor of China.

Some of these facts have been shamelessly plundered (pirate pun intentional) from this excellent article from the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich – click through for many more.

Buccanneering in books and swashbuckling on the silver screen

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Patri-aaar-chy: Most piratical fiction has portrayed women as prizes or prey.

Much of our modern mental image of pirates owes itself to their portrayal in books and films.

Sad to say, it’s extremely unlikely real-life pirates went around saying “shiver me timbers” in improbable cod-Bristolian accents, and if they went “aaargh” at any point it was probably because they’d trodden on something sharp.

Accoutrements like wooden legs and parrots, we owe of course to Robert Louis Stevenson’s genre-defining Treasure Island.

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A novel entitled Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain was a hit in America in the mid-1800s – so much so that she is sometimes assumed to be an actual historical pirate.

But despite that, and real-life examples like the ones above, tales of female piracy have largely slipped beneath the ocean of history.

Naomie Harris and Kiera Knightley, among others, gave spirited turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean films – but in the end it all seemed to be about Captain Jack Sparrow.

Perhaps now, at last, the tide is turning.

Hollywood: A cutthroat industry

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Geena Davis in Cutthroat Island – it was a massive flop

If the reports about Margot Robbie’s pirate picture do turn out to be true, you can expect one film comparison in particular to be trotted out.

Because Hollywood has tried before to bring us a female-fronted pirate blockbuster, with 1995’s Cutthroat Island.

It boasted one of the biggest stars at the time – Geena Davis – backed up by a huge budget.

When it became one of the biggest flops of all time, the ‘sinking without trace’ metaphors almost wrote themselves.

“A joyless hodgepodge of the pirate genre’s flotsam and jetsam,” is the devastating broadside that marks its watery grave on Rotten Tomatoes, where it has a score of 38%.

Perilous waters, indeed.

But as a team, Robbie and Hodson certainly have form in taking a male-dominated movie franchise and flipping it on its head.

In 2016’s Suicide Squad, Robbie’s Harley Quinn was fixated on The Joker, who flies in to rescue her on a helicopter.

But in Birds of Prey – released this year – Harley realises she’s more than capable of rescuing herself.

Back in 2017 reports were swirling that Robbie was also set to do similar things with the Robin Hood legend.

Perhaps the wind is finally set fair for the female pirate blockbuster that will do justice to some of the real-life gender-role-busting buccanneers of history.

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