Groundbreaking Queer Joy in 'Our Flag Means Death' is the Future of Representation
If you’re queer, you’ve probably already heard of Our Flag Means Death. Despite an initial lack of promotion by HBO Max, the swashbuckling pirate rom-com has been an incredible success, largely due to word-of-mouth among the passionate fans. And why wouldn’t you want to tell your friends? It’s got great characters, pirates, jokes, Taika Waititi, romance, found family, loads of queer characters, and most importantly, queer joy.
This article contains spoilers for Season 1 of Our Flag Means Death.
Set in 1717 during the Golden Age of Piracy, Our Flag Means Death follows Gentleman Pirate Stede Bonnet and the crew of his ship, The Revenge. Stede has run away from his wife and kids to escape the “discomforts of married life” and become an adventuring pirate. He meets feared pirate Blackbeard, Edward Teach, and realise they each have something to teach the other. Stede teaches Ed to enjoy the fine things in life, while Ed teaches Stede how to be a better pirate. The romance blossoms from there, with a funny, heartfelt, occasionally heart-wrenching story about two middle-aged men falling in love for the first time. Their romance isn’t about overcoming shame or trauma about their sexuality, it’s about having the courage to chase what truly makes them happy, even when that’s not the things that are expected of them. Even if the exact circumstances may vary, it’s a queer story many can relate to today. Almost by definition, queer people often have to push back against the expectations of a cis-heteronormative society in order to transition, be with who they love, or otherwise live the life that will bring them joy.
But Stede and Ed are far from the only queer characters. Lucius and Black Pete are two men on the crew who have an adorable romance throughout the season, Blackbeard has a toxic ex Calico Jack, while his grouchy second in command Izzy Hands is shown to be in love with him in a very dysfunctional way, polyamorous pirate Spanish Jackie has eighteen husbands, and then, of course, there’s Jim and their boyfriend Oluwande.
Jim, played by Puerto Rican non-binary actor Vico Ortiz, is a non-binary pirate aboard The Revenge. They originally are pretending to be a man, wearing a fake nose and beard, while on the run for murder, but after the disguise is revealed they realise they’re most comfortable continuing to be Jim (minus the fake nose and beard.) They have a conversation with the rest of the crew explaining they’re keeping the same name, which the crew are supportive of, and the show effortlessly switches to using they/them pronouns for them. No fuss needed. Later, they encounter their Nana and explain they go by Jim now, which is accepted without issue. Not only is Jim a non-binary badass, they also have a romance of their own with best friend Oluwande, who joined them on the run. Like Stede and Ed’s romance, their romance arc isn’t based around their gender and sexualities but focused on trust and vulnerability between two people trying to work out if their relationship can work.
Jim’s storyline is an amazing display of just how easy it can be for nonbinary characters to be represented in any type of show, without subjecting the audience and actors to misgendering and trauma focused storylines. Fans have had an amazing reaction to Jim, with many people thrilled to have such a cool character be like them. Vico Ortiz has been interacting with the fans a whole lot and has tweeted about their happiness at the overwhelmingly positive reception, and the fans’ ideas about how the crew might support Jim’s gender journey, such as by whittling a packer, or the ship’s doctor performing their top surgery. A wooden packer probably isn’t as comfortable as a pair of Paxsies, but it’s really the thought that counts here.
Yaaaasss Roach! Im honestly living for all of these fan fic/fan art that include the crew mates as part of Jim’s journey. Black Pete whittles a packer, Roach performs top surgery? Im crying 🥺😭🖤✨— Vico Ortiz (@V_Vico_Ortiz) April 6, 2022
Undoubtedly what’s allowed Our Flag Means Death to have such powerful queer stories is that they hired queer staff to work on it. There were three non-binary writers, which Vico said in an interview with Pink News they found “Incredibly helpful” and a big change from usually being the only non-binary person in a production, especially for a big main-stream show like this. It’s a step in the right direction for mainstream television. Even without sexuality and gender being the main focus of the show, it’s led to a much more nuanced and authentic depiction than we’re used to in most media, including the idea that sexuality and gender is fluid (for example, there’s a moment where gay man Lucius and Jim kiss and Lucius considers his attraction to Jim) and there isn’t just one way to be masculine.
For what is really a very silly show (many fans liken the crew to muppets) Our Flag Means Death approaches queer stories in an authentic feeling, touching way, that’s not just incidental to the plot but the heart of it, without ever making it the butt of the joke or wallowing the trauma of queer experiences. For many people, it’s exactly what they’ve been starving for. Sometimes it feels like if you want to see queer characters, your only choices are tragic, trauma-filled artsy films, or shows about teenagers falling in love. If that’s what you love, then that’s great! But there’s a real shortage of media in other genres like sci-fi, fantasy, rom-coms or pirates (if pirates is a genre) that even acknowledges queer people exist. And there’s a real difference between stories where it might be mentioned that a character is gay, and seeing a queer narrative that focuses joy lovingly played out on screen. That’s what Our Flag Means Death does that’s so different to what’s already out there. And hopefully the huge tidal wave of support for will open the doors not just for another Our Flag Means Death season, but for more imaginative, fresh stories centring queer joy in mainstream media in the near future.
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