Our Flag Means Death and the Treasure Hunt for Queer Genre Fiction

This post contains spoilers for the end of Our Flag Means Death season one.

Traditionally, fiction centring on queer characters has tended to be anchored in contemporary realism, making genre works—sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, historical, etc.— exciting and notable. This is true for basically every field and medium you look to: statistical studies like Malinda Lo’s note that “Historically, LGBTQ YA books have mostly been contemporary realistic novels”, making the slow increase of more genre works for that demographic intriguing. In the world of anime and manga, yuri, BL, and more general LGBTQIA+ focused titles also tend towards realistic settings, making series like Otherside Picnic and The Executioner and Her Way of Life really stand out for their clear positionality in sci-fi and high fantasy respectively.

When we get mainstream queer titles onscreen, they tend to be the Love, Simons and The Miseducation of Cameron Posts of the world. And these, of course, are important advancements! Every queer film that hits cinemas, every queer series that hits streaming services, is part of the evolving history of queer storytelling, and dismissing any one of them because they’re “just the same realist tropes again” isn’t helpful.

But it does mean that when a major network releases a work of queer fantasy, sci-fi, or in this case historical fiction, it stands out as something new and noteworthy. And it opens new, unique possibilities and ways forward that ought to be studied and celebrated alongside the simple fact of a “gay pirate show” existing.

I was drawn to check out Our Flag Means Death, a historical comedy inspired by the shenanigans of “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, because of the outpouring of love I saw for it online: an absolute social-media-wide explosion of fan art, positive reviews, and general hype. This lovestruck reaction painted a picture of a high-seas, swashbuckling rom-com in which, shock and awe, the main characters actually kiss after a season of underlying romantic tension. I had heard a lot about that kiss. I assumed it happened as the emotional climax of the series—tying a bow on the story and bringing it to some sort of happy conclusion, surely.

Woe was me when I watched the show and it turned out The Kiss happens in the second-last episode, and, in the approximately forty-five minutes that follow, absolutely everything goes wrong for the budding romantic relationship between Stede and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach.

The show ends with Stede and Blackbeard effectively broken up, Ed returning to his worst, violent piratical habits as a cheap Band-Aid for his heartbreak. Most of the crew is marooned, the other two romantic couples have also been split up in the process, Lucius has been pushed overboard, and Izzy Hands is the only person having a good time. It’s a shambles. It’s painful.

Or, at least, it would be, if genre convention didn’t tell me this was not the end of the story but the middle (or maybe even a first-act initial conflict, depending on how long the series will be). The Kiss served to cement Stede and Ed’s relationship as romantic, and also their story as a romance. Romances end with a Happy Ever After, though there is always turmoil along the way. This, then, was the turmoil, not the finale. When Stede gets in that goddamned dingy and starts paddling into the middle of the ocean in the final episode’s final minutes, we can be reassured that he’s paddling (however slowly) towards some sort of happy resolution.

Will there be drama along the way? Ooh, we can only hope so. But we’ll be able to suffer through it because we know what conventions this story is operating within, and we know there are certain rules that must be followed.

“But history!” you might say. Well, as much as Binge optimistically tags this series as “biography”, I think it’s safe to say Flag isn’t sticking to the truth. Some of it lines up, sure: there was a wealthy land-owner named Stede Bonnet who left his family to become a pirate, and he did hang out with, and eventually get his ship stolen by, Blackbeard. But rather than considering it a biopic, I think it’s more useful to consider Flag part of the long tradition of reimagining historical figures from this age of piracy in fiction—a tradition that goes back at least as far as Robert Louis Stevenson casting “Mr. Hands” as a villain in Treasure Island, and probably much further.

You think these mall goths are winning the approval of Historical Costuming YouTube? Absolutely not.

Via social media, showrunners have offered the reassurance that they’re not sticking to historical fact, but I should hope that’s pretty obvious from the content of the show itself. One of the first jokes involves Pinocchio, with characters from 1717 happily referencing a book that wasn’t written until 1883. Is it ludicrous? Yes, but it’s also funny. Because Flag is also a refreshing oddity in that it’s a historical comedy when the norm tends to be historical drama.

This fast and loose play with realism and accuracy in the name of a humorous tone also lets the show playfully sidestep, or outright avoid, some tropes that viewers might usually expect—and dread. First and foremost, as well as being reasonably able to assume that Stede and Ed will get back together, we can also reasonably assume they won’t die (a reassurance particularly welcome after another queer series decided to abruptly bury its gays only weeks after Flag’s debut). Because, history be damned, that’s not how this genre works, and Flag seems intent on playing into that so far.

Stede has already recovered from being stabbed twice; making him remarkably resilient, even in the face of lacklustre historical medical practices and the cinematic tradition of dead queer characters! Likewise, in a show where you can traverse the Caribbean in rowboats, is it really so ridiculous to suggest that Lucius survived getting pushed overboard? I reckon he’s going to pop up in season two with a half-assed explanation about clinging to the side of the ship and clambering up the barnacles like a rock-climbing wall. Implausible, maybe—but most importantly, it would be funny.

Another major example is Jim’s plotline. In a drama attempting to emphasise gritty realism, a “woman disguised as a man” would be under the looming, lingering threat of sexual assault or other gendered violence. I tensed up when Lucius caught Jim bathing, but the end result was a slapstick scene where he promises to keep Jim’s secret. Even when Jim is cruelly unmasked, there is some shock value, but the focus is mostly on how difficult it is to peel off their fake, wax nose.

Even when “revealed”, Jim faces no danger from the crew, just a bit of confusion, before everyone settles on the fact that Jim is still Jim regardless of whether or not the fake beard is on—and settles into referring to Jim by they/them pronouns, to boot.

It’s massively refreshing and relieving to see a “concealed gender” plotline play out like this (even The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea, aimed at a much younger audience, factors these grimy dangers into its worldbuilding). Again, genre convention comes to the rescue: it would be a massive pivot in tone to have Jim face these kinds of harsh realities, and Flag is nothing if not tonally consistent and delightfully unrealistic.

Though it’s not like there’s no trauma or violence in the series—it’s just more likely of the swashbuckling, double-crossing, getting-bloody-revenge-for-your-murdered-family kind. Because Jim’s gender isn’t played up as a big deal, space is freed up for the story to focus on these more pirate-y, adventure-y aspects of their life. The same can be said for Blackbeard, for Stede, for the whole cast: their queer identities inform the way they move through the world and through the story, but in the end are just one aspect of a greater genre narrative.

There’s so much to be said for how the characters’ queerness weaves into the narrative, informs and drives so much of this ultimately character-driven plot. Academic essays could be formulated around the show’s complex but affectionate explorations of masculinity; about the subtext inherent in Stede fleeing the stifling expectations of heteronormative family roles; about the contrast between the brutish, bully-boy Brits and the non-normative outcast pirates. There is queer subtext embedded in all of these plot aspects—except it’s also just queer text! No “reading between the lines” required, this can be enjoyed at face value.

Our Flag Means Death is not gay as in “it has m/m couples”, it is queer as in queerness informs every level of the story and interweaves with the genre aspects to create something entirely new—ultimately creating a genre work in which, because of its very genre-ness, queer audiences feel incredibly welcome and safe. And that, I think, is why people have gone so beautifully feral over this show. It’s genuinely something we don’t get to see very often, and I can only gleefully hope its success helps pave the way for more and more stories like it (and, needless to say, a continuation of this one!).

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1 Comment

Filed under Archetypes and Genre

One response to “Our Flag Means Death and the Treasure Hunt for Queer Genre Fiction

  1. Pingback: “Heh”: May ’22 Roundup | The Afictionado

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