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  • Ella Gammel

Avast! Gay Pirates! The Essential and Honest Queerness of Our Flag Means Death

**Warning: this article contains moderate spoilers for Our Flag Means Death.

“You were made to feel stupid by a bunch of shows — unintentionally, by and large, I think — but made to feel like ‘maybe I’m going to be up there. Maybe that’ll be me in this story.’ And then at the end of it feeling like, ‘Aw. No, it’s not me. I’m not in this one.’” When The Verge interviewed David Jenkins, creator and showrunner of the 2022 HBO Max hit show, Our Flag Means Death, the show’s representation of queer characters took center stage in the discussion. Our Flag Means Death follows Stede Bonnet, a real life British aristocrat who abandoned his wife, children, and cushy life to sail the 18th-century seas as a pirate. The show’s delightfully absurdist tone is owed to Bonnet and his eccentric crew, plus the ship’s surprise (and historically accurate) addition of Blackbeard himself. Our Flag Means Death (OFMD) is lauded for its realistic portrayal of queer people. Jenkins noted that the fandom’s shock and delight at OFMD’s accurate LGBTQ+ representation just goes to show how lackluster the media’s queer rep usually is. Our Flag Means Death’s specific brand of diverse, humanized queer representation is an essential and often unspoken kind that must be written more in media.

Our Flag Means Death’s queer representation is unusual but important primarily because of how the show represents its queer characters: as normal people. This uniqueness can be seen by contrasting Our Flag Means Death with the movies scored in GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index (SRI), which annually “maps the quantity, quality, and diversity of LGBTQ characters in films released by eight major motion picture studios.” GLAAD’s 2020 SRI findings revealed mediocre statistics for the 2019 year.

Of the 118 films counted from major studios (including studios such as Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, and Sony Pictures) in 2019:

  • Only 18.6% included LGBTQ characters.

  • Men continued to outnumber women characters at a ratio of 34 to 16.

  • Zero transgender or non-binary characters were counted in mainstream releases.

  • Of the existing LGBTQ characters, only 34% were characters of color, compared to 42% in 2018 and 57% in 2017 (although this percentage rose again to 40% in 2020. However, 2020 statistics are not entirely comparable because of the significantly smaller number of released films in this year due to the COVID pandemic).

  • One single LGBTQ character with a disability was portrayed in these movies. This was in the movie Five Feet Apart (though GLAAD criticized the movie for its usage of the problematic “bury your gays” trope).

So the first issue of LGBTQ portrayal in the media is quantity. A tiny proportion of films include any LGBTQ characters at all, and of these queer characters, most of them are white men.

This may not come as a huge shock.

However, to anyone who has watched Our Flag Means Death, what is equally apparent is how very diverse OFMD is. The show’s main pirate ship is a bit under 50% staffed with crewmates of color and over 50% staffed with crewmates who are revealed as queer in some way, shape, or form throughout the course of the show. This includes Blackbeard himself, played by one of the show’s executive producers, Taika Waititi: a self-described “Polynesian Jew.” Though the main crew is almost entirely staffed by men (with the exception of one non-binary character masquarading as a silent bearded man), plenty of powerful female characters exist onshore. Additionally, the ship’s lack of women is a historical accuracy that the show justly pokes fun at.

The second problem with LGBTQ portrayal in media is the treatment of LGBTQ characters. Of the 22 LGBTQ-inclusive films GLAAD counted in 2019, only nine included an LGBTQ character who had more than ten minutes of screen time. GLAAD points out the two categories LGBTQ inclusive films tend to fall into: either films like Rocketman and Booksmart in which the identities of gay and lesbians leads are a major part of the story, or blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4 that include queer characters in only one scene. While films like these (particularly of the Rocketman/Booksmart type) can be and often are beautiful and influential queer cinema (take Moonlight), the reflex to instinctively revolve a queer character’s arc around the struggles and triumphs of their sexuality, or, at the other end of the spectrum, to throw in a token queer moment for represenation points (such as LeFou in the 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast) completely misses an opportunity for a wide range of queer characters, especially when the majority of queer characters are white and male.

In Our Flag Means Death, the queer characters simply are. While one of the show’s most central plot elements is indeed a gay romance, the crux of the struggle is not angsty internalized homophobia. The issue is that the protagonist’s love interest is Blackbeard. As the show progresses, multiple romances blossom on the pirate ship, all of them queer, none of them ashamed of it. One of the romances, notably and importantly, is between a skinny and a fat character: also accepted by the crew without judgement. Jim’s nonbinary coming out scene is perhaps one minute long, and from that point on, every character uses Jim’s correct pronouns: no questioning, no transphobia, just blanket human respect.

While biggotry is a reality many LGBTQ people face, there is something so refreshing and humanizing about seeing yourself reflected, not as a brave victim of homophobia, not as a non-essential cash-grab, but as a character. OFMD is fun. It’s about silly pirates who fall in love. That love is interracial, queer, and without body shaming. Because, as a fan summarized in a letter to Waititi, “This isn’t only a love story between characters, this is a love story about all people. This is a love letter for those who are often forgotten.”


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