Pursed Lips, Leaky Ships: Our Flag Means Death as a Blunder of both Historical and Queer Representation

Meg Brennan
9 min readNov 6, 2023
Warner Bros/Discovery

In 2017 Tumblr user @ask-crammaster-ham posted what would become known as the Miku Binder Thomas Jefferson meme, one of several images of American Revolutionary War figures reimagined as members of modern fandoms and identifying with multiple branches of the queer community (Jefferson, for example, is a bisexual trans man obsessed with anime and a former drug dealer who always beats Alexander Hamilton at Pokémon). The posts were clearly inspired by the musical Hamilton, which had just swept the Tony awards for its depiction of 18th century America as a place of ethnic and cultural diversity. The posts have become known as a hallmark of cringe 2010s Tumblr culture, indicative of a sort of teenage imagination that adds glitter and charm to a marginalized existence.

Hamilton, too, has soured over time as its liberal bona fides have become a little less shiny, especially in a post-2016 world, where the superficial progress and optimism of the Obama era gave way to the ugliness and regression of Trump. The text of Hamilton can be interpreted as saying “we have overcome the original sins of the United States, so we can now celebrate her triumphs” — Jefferson is portrayed as a clever, ambitious, and flamboyant character, and the hundreds of people he enslaved are hardly mentioned, outside of the economic impact of slavery. After Trump began his presidential campaign with a speech calling Mexican immigrants rapists, the line “immigrants, we get the job done” would stop the show for several seconds of applause, despite how the characters saying it — Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette — were, historically, white men in significant positions of influence.

These works exist outside of reality, as does much of fiction, but in a specific space where the author is portraying historical figures and events through the lens of their own values, within their own specific society. This is different than some modern fantasy stories like Clone High or Once Upon a Time or Fables or Sleepy Hollow that portray historical/mythical figures in a modern context, “what if a historical figure time traveled to now.” Rather, it actions backwards: what if history was woke? What if John Laurens was pansexual?

What if the age of pirates was super queer?

Well, for one, it probably was — at least more than most historical texts might suggest. The Golden Age of Piracy (around 1650–1730) was an extremely homosocial and egalitarian environment, which would likely encourage close bonds between men. There was even a form of marriage — “mateloge” — that two pirates could join together in, though it’s worth noting that this sort of relationship did not have any romantic assumptions or prerequisites.

The main issue with the history of pirates (and by that we mean specifically pirates of the mid-Atlantic ocean and Caribbean sea during a very specific time) is that verifiable sources are practically non existent. There are almost no contemporary accounts, especially not from actual pirates, and everything else is shrouded in mythology. This, in turn, has made piracy a cornerstone of make believe and fantasy, from JM Barrie to Disney’s armada of films and rides to brands of rum. These non-historical pirates, the Captains Hook and Barbosa and Morgan, show that the concepts of piracy can be easily molded to suit the expression of any creator.

In (likely) reality, the life of a pirate was often short and brutal. Most pirates only engaged in the profession for a few short years before leaving, being killed, hung, or pardoned. Even Blackbeard, the most notorious of historical pirates, was only active for a few years and killed before he was 40.

We also cannot discuss the real-world story of pirates without mentioning the reason piracy was so popular around the turn of the 18th century: it was nearing the zenith of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where enslaved people from Africa were brought to the Americas and forced into labor of raw materials that was then sold and shipped to Europe for manufacture. The era enriched Western Europe and decimated Africa (over 12 million Africans would be forced into chattel slavery by the end of the practice in the 1800s). To a pirate, this meant that the ships transporting these goods — whether gold, materials, or human beings — were ripe for plunder. Although pirates have been lauded as having a modern democracy while most western countries still bowed to kings and emporers, there is little evidence that this humanity extended to any enslaved persons they found in ships they seized. Additionally, many pirates who came from middle or upper class families — such as Stede Bonnet — were raised on or owned plantations in the Caribbean.

With all that in mind, let’s discuss HBO/Max’s Our Flag Means Death, a show that — like Hamilton — attempts to use historical figures and events to forge a narrative of idealism: in this case, one where queer identities are common and accepted, and where emotional vulnerability is celebrated in a homosocial environment.

Our Flag Means Death is, at first glance, a workplace comedy set aboard a pirate ship. The protagonist is the “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), the previously mentioned Barbados plantation owner who left his family to pursue a life of piracy. At first, the fictional Stede and his historical source have several similarities: Bonnet really did have a large library, he really was a bad pirate at first, he allegedly did read to his crew on deck. In the show, Stede’s foppishness contradicts the brutality of piracy to comedic effect, his insistence on letting his crew “talk it over” when they would rather resort to violence brings out their emotional vulnerability. These are brutes whose hearts of gold are brought out to shine by Stede’s softness, a plot that — while not being necessarily original — works for a 30 minute comedy.

It’s also a relatively violent show, as bloody and gory as anything on HBO; pirates and their prey are dismembered, shot, stabbed, and burned. Blood sprays often and generously, especially when Stede’s ship, The Revenge, is commandeered by the notorious Blackbeard, played by Taika Waititi. Blackbeard is, at first, a brutal foil to Stede before he falls under Stede’s charms and softens, which turns into a queer romance between the two men that is heavily hinted at throughout the first season before culminating in a single kiss in the penultimate episode.

Stede and Blackbeard (or “Ed”) are not the only queer romance in the show; in fact, there is one canonically straight couple on the show, and even that is polyamorous. None of these relationships are questioned or victims of prejudice. When one character comes out as trans, their new name and pronouns are universally accepted without headache or misgendering. In one way this content is important; a healthy queer life does rely on having spaces that are not just accepting but inclusive. We shouldn’t ever discourage these spaces from existing.

But existing is a low bar to vault.

Our Flag Means Death has been lauded for “subverting” the trend of queerbaiting relationships between men on television — especially television that appeals to women on Tumblr (Sherlock, Dr. Who, Supernatural, Good Omens) — by allowing its romantic subtext to become text. Stede and Ed are meant to be a will-they-won’t-they story of enemies to lovers, of opposites attracting: the soft, emotionally intelligent partner and their hard-boiled, violent, closed-off counterpart, who see each other’s true selves in a way that transcends difference.

If only that story were subversive or even passionate. Here, for example, is the dramatic first kiss between our lovers:

Warner Bros/Discovery

And you could argue that this dry, closed-mouth lip locking is meant to be awkward and small, a sweet and gentle first kiss. Or you could see it as two straight men acting out homosexuality, expressing the bare minimum of physical touch.

There is more sex on the show — most of it offscreen — and there is more kissing, albeit still mostly done with church-like trepidation. This is in contrast to the violence of the show, the portrayal of which is never squeamish and often seems to take full advantage of the liberty afforded by HBOs lack of censorship. Why would the show appear to be comfortable to show Blackbeard chopping off a man’s toe and feeding it to him, but not him open-mouth kissing another man?

One answer is to cite how, in the United States, audiences have been trained to be more accustomed to violence than to sexuality onscreen. Perhaps Our Flag Means Death is meant to appeal to a younger audience that is more familiar with violence and coarse language than sex. Perhaps the creators felt that sex itself would be far too distracting, or that it didn’t fit into the tone of a hyper-violent workplace comedy.

Were I to diagnose the reason, I would cite the goal of normalization. You can see this in an interview where Waititi says of his kiss with Davies: “in Our Flag Means Death, it’s a massive talking point that two dudes kiss on the beach. I’m cool with talking about it because I’m really proud of the moment. But my dream is to be like the world of the pirates, where no one bats an eye.”

This “no one bats an eye” is telling; and exposes the core issue of many modern attempts at creating queer media centered around “normalization.” The common refrain is: “We don’t want to make this a gay love story. We just want to make it a love story. We don’t want to see these people as gay/queer/trans/etc, we want to see them as people.” In this way, Waititi is making two statements:

  1. Portraying queer relationships as unique to heterosexual relationships is a form of oppression that media should move away from, and
  2. Normalization is not normalization of the erotic

The problem here is that, of course, queer relationships are marginalized because they are seen as erotically deviant. To de-eroticize them is to placate a heteronormative, homophobic society that considers sexuality — especially anything other than a missionary p-to-v moment — dangerous.

Additionally, it assumes that the course of queer relationships is identical to that of heteronormative ones; that people experience intimacy and attraction in the same ways, regardless of gender or sexuality. This is false and, frankly, boring, and shouldn’t be lauded as groundbreaking.

And the argument here could go yes, maybe, but not every romance needs to be sexualized or eroticized; that is not the story that Our Flag Means Death is telling. True; but then we would need to contend with what remains: the violence and gore, the willful ignorance of history. In the first season Stede returns to his sugar plantation in Barbados, with no mention to the enslaved people that made it profitable. Instead, Stede’s wife is portrayed as a liberated woman who supports his love of another man. In the second season Blackbeard is portrayed as psychopathically cruel when Stede leaves him, which is later forgiven when he softens and allows himself to be loved again — which could be seen as normalizing abuse at the same time it normalizes queer love.

All of this could work if the story were a little more bold in its telling. There are almost no fictional portrayals of pirates that really reckon with the legacy of Transatlantic Slavery. Likewise, there are few mainstream portrayals of queer romance that are both romantic and told from a purely queer perspective. Doing so would, of course, need to contend with injustice in a way that goes beyond the nebulous “world of the pirates” freedom that is almost entirely fictional.

As with Hamilton and the Crammster Ham characters, there is nothing inherently wrong in exercising creativity with historical characters; often the results can be beautiful (that Lin Manuel Miranda sure can write!). But changing the way history is told reveals how the author sees the world around them, and what they expect from it. In Our Flag Means Death, we see a world that reflects a superficial version of our own: representation without conflict, sex without fucking, and freedom without meaning.



Meg Brennan

I write thinkpieces about theme parks and lists of things that aren’t related to theme parks. You can find my older posts on my Substack here: https://parksandc