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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Review: ‘Our Flag Means Death’ is the queer pirate show we’ve all been waiting for

The HBO comedy is a witty challenge to gender norms

 

By CORALIE LOON — arts@theaggie.org

 

Since its release in March, the HBO series “Our Flag Means Death” (2022) has become an internet sensation, quickly growing into one of “the most popular new series in the United States,” according to a Collider article.

The show stars Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet, a closeted aristocrat who, bored with his conventional life, abandons his family to become a “gentleman pirate.” During his voyage with his crew, he forms an unexpected friendship with the infamous pirate Blackbeard, played by filmmaker Taika Waititi, and they embark on a wacky and surprisingly emotional adventure.

Filled with British humor, camp and an array of unique pirate personalities, this show seems to have just the right combination of elements to gain both critical acclaim and a healthy (and very justified) fanbase. 

The show’s ability to tackle the trials and tribulations of piracy in a fun and lighthearted way led to some describing “Our Flag Means Death” as a “comfort show.” Most prominent is its unabashed celebration of queerness and gender nonconformity, which has led one Twitter user to crown it “the best gay pirate show,” although it might also be the only one. Another said, “Our Flag Means Death is the queer pirate romp I’ve waited my entire life for.”

One Twitter user went a step further, calling it the “greatest love story. ever.” And it might just be.

Stede’s budding romance with his buddy Blackbeard could’ve easily been reduced to another instance of queerbaiting — and, at least for me, this is partly what I expected after having been let down so many times by straight directors’ noncommitment to queer story lines. The portrayal of multiple queer relationships and individuals in “Our Flag Means Death” felt like a breath of fresh air, especially because of the show’s placement in an 18th-century world.

 According to Theresa Bauer, the author of “Pirates in Modern Media – The Queer Masculinity of Pirates in TV and Film,” popular pirates such as Jack Sparrow are an example of the bending of traditional masculinity, but they make up for this by asserting their heterosexuality. And while many historians acknowledge the fact that homosexual relations were pretty common among pirate crews, others question the extent of these relations or discredit their legitimacy.

While this skepticism in the name of “historical accuracy” may be well-intentioned, it undermines the fact of the matter: that queer people have always existed, during every time period and in every society. “Our Flag Means Death” is a response to the exhaustion of being denied screen time, non-tragic story lines and even existence.

This little show disrupts (in style) gender expectations all across the board: The female pirate Spanish Jackie has 20 husbands, although a few are killed along the way. Stede encourages his mostly male crew to talk about their emotions and reads them bedtime stories. Crew member Jim’s gender is purposefully ambiguous; despite disguising themself as a man out of necessity, they maintain the name Jim and find solace in not committing to one gender or another.

In fact, the only bad thing about this show is the fact that it hasn’t been renewed for a second season yet, leaving fans with (spoiler alert) a bleak and frustratingly unsatisfying ending. Hopefully, the popular success of the first season and the high demand for a second will lead to a continuation of the adventures of Bonnet and Blackbeard. The world deserves more pirates and more queerness, so why not at the same time?

Until then, you can join the pirate party by watching the first season on HBO.

 

Written by: Coralie Loon — arts@theaggie.org

 

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