Now renewed for a second season, 'Our Flag Means Death' isn't just about pirates, it's about gender pirates, which are the very best kind.
As a big fan of HBO Max’s “Our Flag Means Death,” I was very happy to hear that it’s renewing Our Flag Means Death for a second season. If you haven’t watched it, you might be asking: why the big fuss about this show?
Well, first: pirates. Second: gay pirates.
Then, throw in dashes of humor, both dark and lighthearted, as well as the luscious costumes of a period piece, seasoned with modern sensibilities. Irony and cruel wit abound, along with heartwarming moments of connection.
What I find really fascinating, though, is the show’s veritable buffet of gender chaos. We don’t just get one model for doing or misdoing gender, we get a plethora. We see sexually voracious women (shoutout to Spanish Jackie! #lifegoals), tenderly communicative men, vengeance-driven non-binary folk, cross-dressing, clothes-borrowing, animal-communing, swashbuckling, and lots of other gender-expansive behaviors.
Even some of the typical gender performances don’t adhere to just one stereotype. Izzy, for example, is a violent force tugging Ed towards gruesomeness over kindness. And yet Izzy is bereft without the community that Blackbeard had created and nurtured. Mary steps outside prescriptive gender roles to embrace widowhood (and her hot painting teacher) while still raising her children and wearing fluffy dresses. Calico Jack pretty clearly represents the worst of toxic masculinity—the frat bro on steroids come to ruin everyone’s party but his own—but even he still cares about Ed.
Much of the show revolves around the importance of finding and maintaining found family, especially when it’s queer found family, which is a profoundly anti-heteronormative force. In (queer) found family, no one asks who’s the mother and who’s the father; rather, we form community where we can, not demanding rigid gender performances of anyone.
Stede’s collection of delightful misfits exemplifies found family. So does Blackbeard’s more disciplined and vicious crew. And so too does Mary’s community of widows.
And Stede’s actions in the final episode of season one demonstrate a new understanding of the significance of found family: perhaps the families we’re assigned (by birth; by marriage) are not the most functional ones, and we can choose to develop new kinship groups, new loving communities. Whether we’re thrown together or doing it intentionally, we can proceed in ways that foreground our values and demand human dignity for all.
Of course, it’s still a pirate adventure show, so there’s a fair bit of gore and general unpleasantness. But the show also ruminates on the causes of violence, suggesting, for instance, that Ed might not have grown up to pursue a pirate’s life if he’d had other options beyond abject poverty, and had not come from a family of origins with abuse and trauma. And there’s more to violence than the physical aspect: the party episode proves that, with passive aggression shown to be quite a sharp weapon (the parallel for today might be microaggressions; for all that they’re small wounds, we still bleed from papercuts, and if enough of them accumulate, our health rapidly degrades).
By refusing to show just one example of a person doing gender—like, this is the gay pirate character…no, there are a handful of them!—the show subverts stereotypes around gender and sexuality beautifully. We see conniving gay pirates and sweet ones, arrogant ones, and dramatic ones. The “here’s what a gay man looks like” stereotype is exploded, over and over again, in the show’s handling of its unruly cast. It doesn’t hurt that we see at least one interracial relationship too…take that, bigots!
With Pride month here, I am thrilled to have a new favorite show that doesn’t just have one queer character for me to point at. So often, in mainstream pop culture, we have to be happy with just one. One gay man, or one lesbian woman. One transgender character. Goodness only knows if we’ll ever see bisexual people (like me) or asexual people or aromantic people or… the list goes on and on.
So why not infuse your Pride with a little lust, gluttony, and wrath and hop aboard a gay pirate ship? Avast, me hearties, your views on gender and sexuality may never be the same!