Captain Jack Sparrow, Radical Leading Man - Pirates of the Caribbean

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was not your average blockbuster hero. Even today, he stands out for his freedom-loving, gender-bending trickster persona, and we could certainly use more rulebreakers like him in our movies today. What made the Pirates of the Caribbean hero so popular? How did this particular swashbuckler shape today’s cultural landscape?


Jack Sparrow: “Today’s your lucky day because I just happen to be…Captain Jack Sparrow.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

“Is he drunk? Is he gay? What is he?” These were questions that Johnny Depp said Disney executives asked when they first saw his performance of Pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. But the rest of the world loved him. It was Jack’s appeal, above all else, that turned The Curse of the Black Pearl into a smash hit and spawned a lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

So what made this particular swashbuckler so popular? Jack is irreverent, campy, and silly—a far cry from the classically masculine, self-serious standard heroes of fantasy movies, and blockbusters in general.

Commodore Norrington: “You are without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of!”

Jack Sparrow: “But you have heard of me.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl

Back in 2003, Jack’s trickster persona, his embodiment of personal freedom, and Johnny Depp’s iconic, gender-bending performance created an alternative male role model that would shape our cultural landscape to come.

Here’s Our Take on why Captain Jack Sparrow was such an unusual hero and why movies today need more like Jack.

Jack Sparrow: “Drink up, me hearties. Yo ho!” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl

Jack the Zany Sidekick, A New Kind of Hero

Before you even see the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it’s immediately clear from the posters that Jack is the protagonist of the franchise…but he shouldn’t be! If you look at the cast of the debut film The Curse of the Black Pearl, it’s bland, noble Will Turner who fits the requirements of a typical hero, while Jack is written like a zany side character.

A hero’s story is supposed to have an arc. And Will Turner does — he needs to prove his worth to win the girl of his dreams. But Jack has no such lofty goal - all he seems to want is his ship back. Where Will has a journey he must complete, Jack’s story is just a return to homeostasis. In the beginning of most of the films, his balance is somehow disturbed, and for the rest of the film, we follow him trying to restore it. In the first film, Jack’s goal is to recapture the Black Pearl. In the second, he needs to get rid of the Black Spot. In the fourth, he needs to find the Black Pearl… again. And in the fifth, he needs to restore the ship to its original size. While Jack is occasionally given grander objectives — like when he pursues immortality in the third film—he’s at his best when he’s simply trying to get back to his normal — a state of happiness, self-sufficiency, and freedom.

Jack Sparrow: “Now bring me that horizon.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl

A classic hero’s story centers on transformation. But Jack’s journey is about remaining himself. There’s a special significance to this. Because Jack is such an unconventional person, staying true to himself and refusing to change is far more heroic than caving to the pressure to be more like everyone else. It’s precisely this fight to be himself that made him an inspirational figure to many.

Jack Sparrow: “I’m Jack Sparrow! The one and only.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

The whole concept of “the hero” originates from the epic poems of antiquity, where heroes were figures of legend — half-divine, half-human. However, in our age, heroes are also supposed to be relatable, to appeal to large audiences. So often a compromise is found—the hero seems ordinary, but turns out to be, or becomes, extraordinary. Will Turner thinks he is a humble blacksmith but turns out to be the descendant of a famous pirate. But there’s nothing ordinary or humble about Jack Sparrow.

Elizabeth Swann: “You’re Captain Jack Sparrow. You vanished from under the eyes of seven agents of the East India Company. You sacked Nassau port without even firing a shot.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl

Like the heroes of old, Jack is a larger-than-life creature of myth. So in retrospect, The Curse of the Black Pearl’s masterstroke was this splitting of the male hero’s role between two characters. Jack can be vivacious and peculiar, as long as conventional, humble, and handsome Will is there, too, checking all the ordinary-hero boxes. Where Will is noble and honorable, Jack gets to be morally ambiguous and self-serving.

Will Turner: “In a fair fight, I’d kill you.”

Jack Sparrow: “That’s not much incentive for me to fight fair then, is it?” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl

Where Will charges bravely into battle, Jack prefers to win by trickery.

Jack Sparrow: “We must fight… to run away!” - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Jack doesn’t really possess any of the markers of traditional Hollywood masculinity — bravery, honor, or adherence to heteronormative male beauty standards, yet he’s still presented as a man worth admiring and looking up to.

Will: “I said to myself, ‘Think like Jack.’” - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Unfortunately, a lot of the brilliance of the first movie was dimmed by clumsy efforts to shift Jack into a more traditionally heroic mode in the sequels. But by the fifth movie of the franchise, the writers got back on track by once again putting Jack alongside a more traditional male character, so he could escape those rigid narrative conventions that would only make him less interesting.

Henry: “Do you even have a ship? A crew? Pants?”

Jack Sparrow: “A great pirate does not require such intricacies.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Jack the Rulebreaker, The Freedom to Be Oneself

For the franchise’s principal writers, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, writing a movie about pirates meant exploring the theme of freedom.

Lord Cutler Beckett: “Jack will be free—a privateer in the employ of England.”

Will: “Somehow I doubt Jack will consider employment the same as being free.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Contrary to the popular image of romanticized pirates roaming the open sea doing whatever they please, in actuality, historical Pirates were members of highly structured criminal organizations. And likewise, in the movies, the pirates apart from Jack aren’t really any more free than the Royal Navy — they’re members of crews, who must follow their captains’ orders. Barbossa’s crew are even enslaved by an ancient curse. And Davy Jones’ crew, who are also cursed, have lost so much of their personal freedom and identities that they are becoming part of their ship.

Both the pirates and the sailors of the Royal Navy have to follow their respective laws, whether those come from the Pirates Code, the British Empire, or the Holy Bible. And even if pirates may be more lax about their rules,

Hector Barbossa: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

they still are not free from their own excesses. Barbossa’s crew are essentially imprisoned by their own greed, and Davy Jones’ crew by their desire for immortality. Only Jack transcends all these chains — he is the pirate of our imagination, who actually manages to be free.

Jack Sparrow: “Wherever we want to go, we’ll go, that’s what a ship is you know.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

How does he do that? From the start, he refuses to identify himself with any group, so he’s not bound by a set of external rules. Jack is no ally to the Navy, but he’s not on great terms with the pirates either. In the first movie, he helps Will and Elizabeth, because their goals align, but later on his loyalties become more ambiguous. Jack won’t commit to any band, alliance, couple, or group identity. What he does care about — perhaps the only thing he cares about— is defending his personal identity.

Jack Sparrow: “When you marooned me on that godforsaken spit of land you forgot one very important thing, Mate. I’m Captain Jack Sparrow.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

He always, always insists that he be called captain. He even insists on this point when he doesn’t have a ship to captain.

Commodore Norrington: “I don’t see your ship… ‘Captain.’”

Jack Sparrow: “I’m in the market, as it were.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Jack’s pride in his own personhood also comes through in how mindful he is of his few belongings. He has none of the typical pirate’s desire for loot and doesn’t have many possessions, but he always makes a point of recovering them.

Jack Sparrow: “Commodore Norrington, my effects, please. And my hat.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Even though he’s the poster boy for being yourself, Jack shows that this doesn’t mean your identity has to be static. In fact, the true Jack is sort of impossible to pin down — both literally and figuratively. He’s notoriously hard to capture, and he is also difficult to define. Jack’s character is a spin on the Trickster archetype, defined by cunning mischief, changing allegiances, playfulness, irreverence in the face of power, and ambiguity.

Jack Sparrow: “I’m dishonest, and a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Jack can seem epic in one moment and ridiculous in the next. Hyper-virile in one instant and effeminate in another. Jack’s character flits around, as captain Salazar says: “like a little bird”— and this refusal to be nailed down protects his selfhood from being explained or defined by others.

Officer: “Do you think he plans it all out or just makes it up as he goes along?” - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

His most prized possession is a magical compass that points to what its holder wants most in the world — a fitting symbol for a character who represents pride in personal identity. But when Jack is holding the compass, sometimes it doesn’t point anywhere.

Tia Dalma: “Jack Sparrow does not know what he wants.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

So Jack’s freedom comes via two means - not belonging anywhere, and not wanting anything.

Ultimately, thanks to Captain Jack Sparrow, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is really about this freedom to express one’s individuality, as well as the difficulty of forming and defining an identity in the first place.

Jack Sparrow: “Who am I?” - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

“What is He?” Jack, the Gender Pirate

As transgressive figures living outside the rule of law, pirates are a natural symbol for exploring what it means not to conform to gender norms. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise often highlights the social rules attached to characters’ genders.

Mr. Gibbs: “It’s frightful bad luck to bring a woman aboard.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Like the pirates and the Royal Navy, the films’ heroes and heroines have to abide by a set of laws — many of which are determined by their gender and some of which are quite literally stifling.

Elizabeth (about her corset): “I can’t breathe.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies sometimes poke fun at gender norms— like by having their characters crossdress, and in “On Stranger Tides” Jack’s sword fights with his double turns into a passionate embrace until the imposter is revealed to be his ex-lover, Angelica. Historic settings provide an excellent opportunity to question gender expectations because gender norms change so radically with time. To a modern viewer, the powdered wigs, rouged cheeks, and heels of male 18th-century fashions appear decidedly effeminate.

So history reveals that gender norms are determined by time, place, and context, rather than set in stone or dictated by some higher power.

Elizabeth: “Hang the Code and hang the rules! They’re more like guidelines anyway.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Jack Sparrow himself is ambiguous in his gender presentation.

Angelica: “You were the only pirate I thought I could pass for.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Even today, let alone in 2003, Jack’s appearance would be kind of remarkable for the protagonist of a mainstream franchise - gold teeth, the bandanna, the kohl-lined eyes, the matted locks, and many ornaments. In preparation for the role, Depp researched 18th-century pirates and decided they reminded him of rockstars. In particular, he modeled Sparrow after Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Both Keith Richards and Jack Sparrow are living legends, with a taste for foreign finery. And they also appear somewhat androgynous, like many iconic superstar musicians. Think: David Bowie, Prince, Marilyn Manson, or Brian Molko. Rockstars’ status allows them to experiment with their gender presentation more openly and with less inhibition.

Sparrow’s behavior can be interpreted not only as effeminate but also as queer. He’s definitely had plenty of dealings with women and even spars with an old flame, but he is not really interested in realizing himself romantically and his masculinity is not conditional on him “getting the girl.”

On top of the elaborate costume and makeup, Depp gave Sparrow a swaying gait, slurred speech, quirky mannerisms, and exaggerated hand gestures. These kinds of mannered speech, gait, and gestures are often stereotyped as “gay” or “queer” in the media. Initially, Depp’s performance was not well received by Disney’s higher-ups. Disney’s CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, even reportedly said that Depp was “ruining the movie.” But thankfully Depp stood by his choices, which reinforce the character’s message that the highest value is the freedom to be yourself.

Jack Sparrow: “But what a ship is…What the Black Pearl really is…is freedom.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Through both his ambiguous gender presentation and sexuality, Jack Sparrow let young people know - it’s fine to be different, as long as you’re true to you. In fact, it’s better than fine, it’s aspirational.

At its best, the franchise acknowledges the rich queer subtext of its plot and characters. For example when Elizabeth asks: “whose side is Jack on?” it seems as though she’s asking about Jack’s sexual orientation. In the second movie, Lord Beckett mentions meeting Jack before, and branding him a Pirate, but seems to be hinting at something more in their past:

Will: “How do you know him?”

Beckett: “We’ve had dealings in the past. And we’ve each left our mark on the other.”

Will: “What mark did he leave on you?”

Beckett: [silence] - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Later, in a tense interaction, it’s revealed that Jack’s magic compass, when held by Beckett, points at Jack. And when Jack encounters Elizabeth disguised as a man, he assumes she is propositioning him.

Elizabeth: “I’m here to find the man I love.”

Jack: “I’m deeply flattered, son, but my first and only love is the sea.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

In this exchange, we get both another hint at Jack’s potential queerness and the idea that piracy itself is a metaphor for non-conformist sexuality. The movies speak of piracy as though it’s an alternative to quote-“normal” lifestyles, echoing queer culture in that way.

Parallel to the queer motifs, the movies also feature some rather awkward attempts to heteronormalize Jack. Mostly this takes the shape of Jack making crass comments about women. In the second and third movies, a love triangle of sorts happens between Jack, Will, and Elizabeth and then quickly dissipates. In the fourth, we meet Angelica, Jack’s old girlfriend, but even though they supposedly once had a great love, their connection in the movie is more of a partnership-slash-rivalry. And when Angelica proclaims her love for Jack…he runs away from her. In the end, none of Jack’s romantic side-plots come to fruition. Despite the character’s obvious virility, his sexual orientation is left a mystery.

This ambiguity might be the result of attempts on the studio’s part to tone down the “gay pirate” for fear of alienating some audiences. Ultimately, it seems that Jack is coded as queer, but the movies stop short of explicitly labeling him as gay or bisexual. This practice of subtly hinting at characters’ alternative sexuality without discussing it outright goes back all the way to classic Hollywood — on the one hand, you might think that by the 2000s this kind of identity shouldn’t have to be smuggled into a blockbuster through subtext. On the other hand, looking back Sparrow was truly progressive compared to his traditional macho-hero contemporaries in blockbusters of that time, and even (arguably) compared to many mainstream heroes today.

And on a brighter note, by not allowing himself to be easily defined as either gay or straight, Jack Sparrow lets his audiences likewise be free to follow their compass wherever it leads.

Through Pirates of the Caribbean’s incredible success, Johnny Depp proved that blockbusters could succeed by starring zany, non-traditional heroes.

Jack: “I’ve never actually been one for tradition.” - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Daniel Smith-Rowsey wrote, “one should reckon with the possibility that Depp not only queered the blockbuster, but also spearheaded, or revealed, inherent queerness and weirdness in Western-world boyhood and childhood.”

Today, his legacy is complicated. We can see that Marvel, for example, learned from Jack Sparrow that it pays for blockbusters to embrace weirdness and idiosyncrasy. On the other hand, it’s hard to point to many mainstream transgressive heroes since Jack. And overtly queer featured characters remain strikingly rare in blockbusters today.

Captain Jack Sparrow provided a different and refreshing mainstream male role model for teens and tweens of the 2000s. And he sent the message that sometimes the supposedly “wrong” way, is the “right” way.

Weatherby Swann: “Perhaps on the rare occasion pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course?” - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

So Sparrow did a great service for young audiences who are finding themselves and forming their individuality. What teen doesn’t worry about their identity and presentation? About whether they are tall enough or thin enough or masculine enough or feminine enough or straight enough? That age of struggling with yourself is difficult and confusing for everyone. But with Jack Sparrow leading the way, it’s easier to find the true you.

Jack Sparrow: “I have a rendezvous beyond…my beloved horizon.”- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales