In ‘Our Flag Means Death’, the Real Enemy is Heteronormativity

The queer pirate rom-com’s main antagonist perfectly encapsulates the struggles of contemporary queer fiction to carve and preserve a space of its own in heteronormative media.

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On March 24, 2022, Our Flag Means Death ended its first season on HBO Max to much critical and commercial success. Created by David Jenkins and executive produced by Taika Waititi, it stars Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate” an eccentric, docile, well-read nobleman who, undergoing a mid-life crisis, abandons his family to become a pirate. In search of adventure, treasure, action, and fun memories, Stede is the captain of the Revenge and its queer, colorful, and mediocre crew of misfits. The show costars Taika Waititi as the infamous Blackbeard — the most feared pirate to ever live — whose circumstances have him cross paths and eventually collaborate with Stede. The witty comedy has been hailed in LGBTQIA circles as a revolution in queer historical fiction storytelling. Most of the praise has been for its portrayal of masculinity, non-heterosexual attraction, nonbinary representation, and its portrayal of BIPOC. It’s been described as “[a] show about finding yourself and fighting for the people you love.” Our Flag Means Death showcases many instances of vulnerability, tender and loving relationships, and the ordeal of finding yourself against all odds.

Other shows have attempted to tackle the white cis-straight patriarchal cultural mythos that permeates historical fiction, but many do not do much more than insert a subversive character in an otherwise standard male-centered, straight story. Our Flag Means Death instead challenges the status quo by being an inherently queer show. Actual history tells that Blackbeard helped train the real-life Bonnet in the art of piracy after a chance encounter in the Bahamas. Historical accounts state that Bonnet became Teach’s virtual prisoner when he was taken aboard the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge as a “guest,” forced to accompany Teach on his many pirate raids until Bonnet was released back to his own ship. While this is what the historical accounts tell us, it is also the case that much of what happened while Bonnet was aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge remains speculation. Another show might have granted Blackbeard the role of a mentor and friend. Our Flag Means Death instead revolutionizes pirate media by making him Bonnet’s love interest. Through its use of irreverent humor and narrative liberties, the show tears down viewers’ perceptions of this historical era and makes us question long-held assumptions about historical figures, particularly regarding their genders and sexualities. However, it is not the first mainstream pirate series to address the existence of queer pirates.

In 2014, Black Sails, the first popular “queer pirate show,” began airing on Starz; it ended in 2017 after four successful seasons. Black Sails made strides in queer pirate representation by reimagining Treasure Island’s Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) as a bisexual British navy man who turned to a life of piracy after tragic homophobic encounters. This marks a huge change from the character’s literary origins, where he was simply the ruthless captain that hid the titular treasure of the novel. The show also featured three main queer female characters: Eleanor Guthrie (Hanna New), Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). Through the choice of reimagining the sexualities of various characters — three of these fictional, only one historical — the series took a huge step in gay and bisexual representation, though it was not without its flaws, especially regarding female representation. And while the show was progressive in its depiction of queer characters, it still portrayed piracy as a mainly white cis-straight venture. Some pirates were queer in their private lives but engaged in “masculine” acts of violence to achieve their goals. Queer pleasure is compartmentalized from their lives as pirates. Additionally, the series’ sole queer male character, Flint, is a white, cis, masc man. On the other hand, Blackbeard is depicted as the archetypical pirate. Black Sails was an epic violent pirate drama featuring queer characters, but not a queer show in itself. The show was still traditionally masculine and faithful to heteronormative perceptions of piracy.

Our Flag Means Death, meanwhile, is an inherently queer show due to its unapologetic queerness, its irreverence, and its subversion of the Western pirate mythos. This mythos sees piracy as an irredeemably violent, masculine venture with people engaging only in maiming, raping, pillaging, and murder. It also features Black pirates as still engaging in the same racial dynamics as non-pirate societies, even though, historically, many Black pirates resorted to piracy after escaping enslavement. In Our Flag Means Death, the Revenge features queer characters Jim (Vico Ortiz), a trans nonbinary pirate who uses they/them pronouns, Lucius (Nathan Foade) and Black Pete (Matthew Maher), who are in a loving relationship, and Oluwande (Samson Kayo), Jim’s love interest. Not only are the queer characters blissfully in their own element, doing all the things that the patriarchal, white, heteronormative society disallows them to do, but the characters that are not queer are also comfortable engaging in non-traditional masculine behavior: vulnerability, artistic pursuits, mutual aid, racial and gender equality, and a disinterest in violence and aggression. The most subversive characterization, however, is Blackbeard’s, who by the end of the season begins a relationship with Stede Bonnet. The king of pirates is no longer the embodiment of everything violent and masculine about piracy. Unfortunately, his right-hand man has something to say about this.

Enter Israel “Izzy” Hands (Con O’Neill), the right-hand man of Blackbeard and main antagonist of the series. Throughout the first season of the show, we see him be rendered aghast by everyone aboard the Revenge. Against his wishes, the crew engages in same-gender relationships, accept nonbinary pirate Jim (Vico Ortiz), and express little interest in pillaging and murder. He hates being aboard the Revenge, and this hate is exacerbated by Blackbeard’s apparent infatuation with Stede Bonnet. Izzy embodies the more reactionary and conservative white cis-straight pirate (and viewer). He is not only an antagonist in-show, but in real life, he’s a meta-antagonist, opposing everything that the show stands for. To his surprise, even his two henchmen, Ivan (Guz Khan) and Fang (David Fane) embrace the life philosophy of the Revenge crew. To his horror, Blackbeard is also changed after a short time aboard the Revenge. Izzy can’t conceive Blackbeard as something other than the embodiment of the white cis-straight pirate mythos, a violent, ruthless, authoritarian pirate king. For this reason, he constantly conspires to get rid of Stede. He incessantly plots to push Blackbeard into regressing back to his darker side, or Western culture’s dominant hegemony about piracy. Izzy is, in essence, a Black Sails character trapped in a show that continuously spoofs the type of intense piracy-driven storytelling of Black Sails. The villain represents the fear and anger of cis-straight white men about the reexamination of the past through lenses that are not their own.

One of the most meta moments of the show is when Edward Teach “goes back” to being Blackbeard after having his heart broken by Stede. We observe him putting on war paint and casting everything related to Stede Bonnet out to sea, all accompanied to the song Avalanche by Leonard Cohen. Izzy cannot contain his excitement at this turning point, and his glee is manifest even when Blackbeard cuts off one of his toes as punishment. Teach is no longer a character of this show, but of Black Sails, he’s queer but engaging in heteronormative masculinity. The reference stems from the fact that a cover of this exact song by Nick Cave was featured during one of the most story-defining episodes of Black Sails, this referential element of the show is pretty telling of some of the major critiques featured in its storytelling. The song features a queer character turning into the predominant perception of piracy in Western culture. Blackbeard becomes something akin to Flint, a violent, ruthless, masculine character that just so happens to be queer in private. In this way, Our Flag Means Death does more than just give us a witty queer pirate show. It single-handedly deconstructs and criticizes the type of fiction that tells a white cis-straight male story, adds queer characters, and calls it a day. Subverting heteronormativity doesn’t happen when queer characters engage in traditionally heteronormative acts, this just reinforces said norms. True subversion can happen when the norms are presented as what they are, limiting and oppressing, so not only the queer characters, but the straight characters engage in traditionally non-heteronormative acts. Shows that feature queerness should aspire to more, and Our Flag Means Death does just that.

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