David Jenkins’ and Taika Waititi’s Our Flag Means Death has taken the internet by storm recently — and for good reason. In an entertainment culture that is increasingly taken up by soulless IP grabs, Our Flag Means Death stands out as something borne from the genuine drive to tell a good story. One of the reasons the show has become so popular is that it connects with its audience before anything else. Where there is no brand to be sold or franchise to be widened relentlessly, this eccentric pirate show goes straight for the heart.
With sincerity at its core, Our Flag Means Death has subverted what it means to represent queer romance on screen. Queerness is in a continuous state of negotiation in mainstream film and television: when it does appear, queer story-telling is rationed out and sanitized to meet a commercial standard. In a big blockbuster hit, you can be queer as in “first gay character” queer, or queer as in “young and confused” queer, or queer as in “it’s all in the subtext” queer.
Your queer characters will rarely be one amongst many; they will not likely be above a certain age, and they will often be white and cis. Our Flag Means Death is so special because it refuses to abide by the normative standards of representation that we are used to.
There is no spectacle about the portrayal of queer characters in Our Flag Means Death because there does not need to be. What David Jenkins, Taika Waititi, and the rest of the creative team have tapped into is a desire for queerness to be incidental in a story, rather than made an exhibition of. As Jenkins himself states in an interview with Polygon, “We aren’t saying, ‘This is a gay pirate show.’ This is a pirate show, and that’s it.”. Indeed, the point is not that queerness should not be centered in a story — rather that it should be framed as a fully-fledged experienced to be explored, not commodified.
Perhaps the only downside of Our Flag Means Death’s approach to queer storytelling is that it is quite hard to go back to anything else. Queer audiences are so used to half-hearted, conservative queer romance on television and film, that many could hardly believe their eyes when the show’s two protagonists, Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach, solidified their relationship with a kiss.
After being introduced to Jim as a non-binary and witnessing Lucius and Black Pete get together in episodes prior, it is easy to forget that you can indeed have multiple LGBTQ+ characters outside dramas about queer people struggling against homophobia in the 20th century.
Certainly, stories about the historical struggles of queer people should and need to be told. However, queer characters should also be integrated into a diverse array of narratives that do not make a martyr of them or commodify their existence. The excitement around Our Flag Means Death is indicative of the poor standard of queer representation that currently exists in entertainment. And, with legislation such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill gaining traction, things could become a lot worse. At a time like this, the queer authenticity of Our Flag Means Death is needed now more than ever.
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