Last weekend, we went to the Northern California Pirate Festival. This was basically like a Renaissance Fair(e), in that there were lots of people in costume gnawing on smoked turkey legs, with a key difference being that the preferred exclamation was “Yar!” instead of “huzzah!” There were planned events, like stage shows, music, and a cannon “battle,” but the real entertainment was provided by people who just showed up to get their pirate on.
As with all forms of participatory culture, dressing up like a pirate is fraught with all sorts of interesting identity implications. I was struck not only by the elaborateness (and apparent cost) of many costumes, but also how they signaled various forms of independence and marginality. There were “goth” pirates. There were monstrous pirates, lifted from second and third installations of the Disney franchise, and who scared the bejezzus out of my three-year-old. There were also many more corsets than one is accustomed to seeing on a daily basis.
There were also lots of examples of the Johnny-Depp-channeling-Keith-Richards type of pirate…rock and roll as piracy, or piracy as rock and roll. What struck me most, though, was the gentleman who came as a pirate castaway, dressed in rags that might once have been the costume of a lowly deck-hand, and playing the role of a sun-addled hermit. His unfortunate dental choices must surely hamper him in real life, but they made his performance quite convincing. He seemed a perfect metaphor for the “cast away” feeling that lots of the participants seemed to harbor. A pirate costume, perhaps, transforms a perceived sense of marginality into a kind of powerful identity. It’s what Clifford Geertz might have called “a story they tell themselves about themselves.”
Or maybe it’s just dressing up like a pirate.
For the record, I did not wear a pirate costume, but I did eat a turkey leg.