Most people can remember a time when an on-screen queer kiss was relatively unheard of. Where the best shows were on The CW channel, BBC’s Sherlock was brand new, Supernatural was far from overstaying its welcome, and Teen Wolf was a budding TV show with an obsessive cult following. Yes, this is 2012, Tumblr is still a monolithic social media platform for nerds, and “female-presenting nipples” were 6 years away from being banned on the platform; ending Tumblr’s reign as the place to be for fanatics across the globe. Many of the shows previously mentioned had something quite innocuous in common: queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting is when a piece of media feigns some form of queerness as a way to garner attention from representation-starved LGBTQ+ fans. Most of the time, shows will make jokes or hint at characters being queer, only to vehemently deny their queerness in interviews, or continue to wink and nudge at queer fans with no intention of actually delivering. BBC’s Sherlock is infamous for this practice alongside Teen Wolf whose cast members went as far as posing cuddling together on a boat (or ship) to encourage fans to vote for their show during an award show, talk about transparent. For more information on queerbaiting, this video by YouTuber Sarah Z explains it well. The practice has been widely regarded as a cheap attempt to gain recognition from queer communities while still being able to remain “acceptable” to the mainstream. This practice has dwindled since 2012, but is still common in media directed at wide audiences like the Marvel franchise or The CW (still).
Hollywood and television media has had a long-standing fascination with queerbaiting, but they have also exploited queerness in a different way; queer suffering. Movies like Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Danish Girl (2015), and Brokeback Mountain (2006) are a few films on a long list that are obsessed with the suffering of queer people. Even in passing, movies like IT: 2 (2019) use homophobia and the pain queer people feel under homophobia as a fun little opener for their horror movie. Even in television; Castiel can say “I love you” to Dean, but he has to be sent to “super-mega hell” (the only thing the writers of Supernatural could muster after 15 seasons of writer’s hell) immediately afterward. Supergirl and their only transgender hero; Nia Nal, has a major conflict with her sister, who makes transphobic remarks at her, and resolves it in the most typical “that wasn’t the real me” way humanly possible. The moment admonishing her of all transphobia even when she was explicitly bigoted. All of these tropes are tortuous to the characters and viewers. These stories are not told to speak to queer people, but instead to fetishize queer suffering for a cisgendered, heterosexual audience. The big takeaway: Hollywood and television by extension, just won’t let queer characters be happy.
These tropes have damaged LGBTQ audiences to this day, but the tides are shifting with a queer romance and buddy comedy TV show called Our Flag Means Death. The show is a dramatized telling of the life of Stede Bonnet: “The Gentleman Pirate.” Bonnet was a wealthy man who felt discomfort in the lavish lap of luxury; married with kids and living in a large estate. Bonnet, fascinated by the lives of pirates during the golden age of pirating in the early 1700s, decided to become a pirate. Bonnet is an amateur at best and a walking disaster at worst when the most successful pirate of that era, Blackbeard, joins him in a series of raids lasting a short period of time before he takes command of Bonnet’s ship due to his lack of professionalism. Writer David Jenkins took inspiration from their story and asked himself one question before laying pen to paper; “Why the heck was Blackbeard on this guy’s ship?”
With that; Our Flag Means Death was born! David Jenkins takes the odd partnership between Blackbeard and Stede and combines it with the very queer reality that was piracy in the 1700s. Queerness and pirate culture were intertwined at the time, terms like “matey” came from the word “matelot,” a term used exclusively used to describe a same-sex union on board. In theory, the first laws to recognize same-sex marriages weren’t those of the Netherlands, it was those of the sea. Jenkins’ answer to his question is simple, “Why the heck was Blackbeard on this guy’s ship?” Simple, Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet were in love. The show is not formatted like a typical romance, in fact, it was initially marketed as a buddy-comedy. The show is a comedy at heart, but around the laughter, a tender relationship develops between the two main characters.
SPOILER WARNING FOR OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH
It doesn’t come out of left field either. Their relationship is built on half the series, being the ‘A’ plot of episodes five to 10. Episodes like “The Best Revenge is Dressing Well,” unashamedly flaunts queer relationships in its ‘B’ plot while building on Blackbeard and Bonnet’s relationship with an intimate moonlit exchange, Bonnet proclaiming “you wear fine things well” to him while tucking a piece of fabric into his breast pocket. Episode seven is quite literally called “This Is Happening,” so suffice to say the “abruptness” of the main couple’s relationship is non-existent. The show was written with the couple in mind after all. Jenkins said “As we were breaking the season and looking at how it would go, part of me knew that, yes, Stede and Ed’s romance was going to be real,” in an interview with Charles Pulliam-Moore of The Verge”. The build-up is very intentional, but the transformative way queer characters are approached for the romance genre.
The tropes earlier discussed are nowhere to be found in Our Flag Means Death. Characters are not punished for their queerness. “Anything goes at sea,” remarks one character, Calico Jack, as he describes his past relationship with Blackbeard. The pirates are unapologetic in their expression, homophobia is openly mocked, and conventional is far from the norm on The Revenge. The show openly punishes racist characters, (with racist actions having a 1 to 1 ratio with being dead) flaunts a non-binary pirate named Jim Jimenez, (played by Vico Ortiz) has a large cast featuring POC, and doesn’t even gratify homophobia. The manner in which Our Flag Means Death portrays queer people is a breath of fresh air, and is unique to its niche genre of “buddy-comedy-romance-period piece.” Deprived of the tropes of the days of yore- Our Flag Means Death and its critical success, despite the abandonment of the harmful tropes that haunt popular “queer” media to this very day, is a foreboding prophecy for the future of queer television. The whimsical comedic timing of the show is charming and lends to the appeal of the show. The roaring popularity of Our Flag Means Death sends more than a single message to the showrunners of the future. Queer people can be happy, and period doesn’t mean pain. Most importantly, people like seeing queer joy.
With the massive success of Our Flag Means Death on HBO Max, and the riotously successful launch of Alice Oseman's Heartstopper, there is a bright future for queer television -- a happier one. Finally, producers won’t think that LGBTQ+ tears are liquid money.