Silk and Leather: Soft Masculinity in Our Flag Means Death

Justin and Patrick take a look at how Our Flag Means Death brilliantly deconstructs toxic masculinity.

Captain Stede Bonnet isn’t your average pirate, as Our Flag Means Death shows. He is dressed in the finest fashion, surrounded by a library of books, and pays his crew in regular wages. “The Gentleman Pirate”, as he became known, was just that: a member of the landed gentry who left his comfortable life as a plantation owner in Barbados to sail the high seas as a swashbuckling pirate, driven by his unhappy marriage and desire for adventure.

Stede’s endeavors as a pirate have been depicted in plenty of media and is a favorite character in many hypermasculine depictions of Caribbean piracy. A recent example, the Ubisoft-developed 2013 video game Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, shows Stede as a rather unlucky and bumbling merchant whose attraction to piracy was due to the romanticized view of the pirate life from his interaction with pirate-turned-Assassin Edward. This is the general theme for depictions of Stede: a dandy out of his element.

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead

Our Flag Means Death
Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) in his finery / Our Flag Means Death, HBO Max

Our Flag Means Death, which premiered in March on HBO Max, certainly shows how unready Stede is to captain a vessel and pirate crew. His ship is indulgent (a whole library, on the ship!), his crew is not well-organized, and his skill is lacking. These are all historical facts about Stede, because he really did leave his upper class, landed life to engage in the criminal life of a pirate. He walks around in silk and other finery, he has a secret closet for his clothes, and he insists on paying his crew fair wages (instead of divvying up captured loot – meaning that his crew receives payment even if they do not manage to succeed).

But what is so unique about Rhys Darby’s portrayal of Stede Bonnet in this series is that his faults, the ones that the crew has most concern with and the ones that most get him into hot water (at least on a grander scale), are nautical or legal in nature: the death of a British officer on board, the treatment of indigenous populations by Stede’s fellow elites, gossip of high society life, running out of their supply of oranges needed to prevent scurvy, or the general illegal activities that come with piracy. Stede’s penchant for the finer things in life or even his softer, more high-class nature might be part of a joke, but never the driving reason behind why the crew might mutiny.

With the arrival of Taika Waititi’s Captain Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, Stede’s maritime knowledge begins to expand and his competency grows. Interestingly, in both the show and in historical fact, Blackbeard’s mentorship of the green Captain Bonnett occurs hands-on; Ed doesn’t just offer some pieces of knowledge, but instead joins Stede on his ship, showing him firsthand how to captain and pirate. As you have certainly seen on the internet, the relationship that blossoms is not just mentoring in nature, and for the first time in either of their lives, Ed and Stede find that happiness and true love can be found in another.

Our Flag Means Death
Blackbeard (Waititi, L) and Stede Bonnet (Darby, R) / Our Flag Means Death, HBO Max

Any show that openly portrays queer love among men actively challenges societal expectations on what it means to be a man. Toxic hypermasculinity is inseparable from many aspects of our society, and this harmful expectation for men to act and treat others in specific ways hurts not only those around them but the men themselves. These masculine expectations have changed greatly with the rise of morality-based conservatism, especially among those who adhere to tenets of Christianity and the inherently exclusive nature of the modern Western ultra-right. Portrayals of male characters in media quickly turned aggressive, toxic, and often militarized and violent. Male characters were expected to take what they want, refuse to lose, and never show their emotions. This similar expectation among many of those in Western society showed that men were not supposed to cry, they were not supposed to show affection, and when their honor or pride was threatened, they resorted to violence.

As queer people began to demand representation in all aspects of our lives, including in media, the pushback from the moral right was fierce. Allegations of grooming, sexual assault, and more abounded. Queer characters in media, especially men, if included were a gag, a punchline, or a terrible villain who would stop at nothing to do unspeakable things to respectable men. Not only were these depictions of queer people harmful and inaccurate, but they also hurt more than just queer people. The overzealous counter to any softening of masculinity was met with increased insistence on hypermasculinization. And the gruff, rough-and-tumble, idealized depictions of masculine archetypes–cowboys, soldiers, pirates-were a centerpiece of this resistance. Because there couldn’t possibly be a queer cowboy; what queer man would ever want to spend days with other men riding on horseback surrounded only by other men and idyllic countryside?

Pirates are a similar archetype: tough men who take what and who they want and when they want and carved out their own lives to do so. But the historical reality of piracy is that sexual freedom was just as important to them as financial freedom and the freedom to be one’s own man. In fact, at a time when homosexuality was explicitly outlawed and punished by the likes of the British Navy, piracy crews never banned same-sex relations. In fact, many pirates might have engaged in homosexual relationships and gender non-conforming behavior. And there are some historians who think that Stede Bonnet’s escape from heterosexual married life to the high seas could potentially be in pursuit of a lifestyle where homosexuality was permissible.

The portrayal of Stede in Our Flag Means Death could be that of a dandy, were he living in the 1790s instead of the 1710s. His high-class colonial origins are important to who Stede is, but this nature does not explain why Stede is queer. Blackbeard has more masculine trappings, in the modern mindset, wearing leather, tattooed, a full beard, and covered in weapons. In fact, Blackbeard’s aesthetic alone suggests the overmasculine interpretation of a pirate, and his expertise and sailing know-how support a level of competency in this idealized, masculine profession. Blackbeard is a murderer. He uses violence to take what he wants. And yet, Blackbeard falls in love with Stede.

Blackbeard (Waititi, R) with his first mate Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill, L) / Our Flag Means Death, HBO Max

Waititi’s portrayal of Blackbeard is one where you discover the fearsome devilry that the historical figure is so famous for was a shield. Blackbeard’s first on-screen portrayal sees him literally covered in smoke with hellish eyes the only thing piercing the fog. It is a mask he puts on to perform the role of the formidable pirate captain. But underneath that hardened, salt-blown exterior, Ed’s heart and emotions had been carefully locked away, having long ago become a monster that did not know how to find joy in his life. Just as Ed helps Stede with matters of the sea, Ed soon realizes that Stede is helping him with matters of the heart. And quickly, his jaded exterior crumbles away and a loving, quirky, and humorous man capable of so much love emerges from within. Ed realizes that he would do anything for Stede, change his entire life so that he could be with him, and when the world intervenes it shatters Ed.

Something that must be recognized is the nature of who plays Blackbeard in this series. Taika Waititi has long been seen as a refreshing artistic voice that counters toxic masculinity. As white men, we cannot address this topic in full accuracy, but it should be noted that it is an important fact that Waititi is Māori. His portrayal of masculinity in his writing, directing, and acting is certainly a challenge to mainstream toxic masculinity, but is just as importantly a challenge to Western masculinity as a whole. Māori masculinity is different and expectations for how men behave and feel has notable departures from their Western counterpart. Waititi’s masculinity is so refreshing for Western audiences because it challenges our Western perceptions entirely, and his interweaving of humor and serious plotlines are culturally significant.

Stede Bonnet
Lucius (Foad, L) and Stede (Darby, R) onboard the Revenge (full disclosure: Lucius is Patrick’s favorite character) / Our Flag Means Death, HBO Max

Our Flag Means Death is fun, queer, and diverse, but it also subtly reminds us of the historical reality of the era it was set in. When British officers treat with Stede on ship, they assume that Stede’s black crewmates are slaves, and the queer members of Stede’s crew hide their queerness from Blackbeard and his crew at first. Lucius, Stede’s scribe and artist portrayed by Nathan Foad, is the first queer character confirmed to the audience. Throughout the episodes following this reveal, and as he gets more and more comfortable around Ed and his crew, Lucius’s mannerisms change, growing less contained and careful, and more open and expressive as he spends more time around Ed. Other characters such as Matthew Maher’s Black Pete, Ewen Bremner’s Nathaniel Buttons, and Vico Ortiz’s non-binary Jack Jimenez subvert many of the expectations we have of masculinity.

The followthrough on queer love is important, but the most subversive facet of Our Flag Means Death is its portrayal of often legendary, idealized figures. Pirates have been constructed by media to be this archetype of the hypermasculine: men’s men who brave the high sea for riches and freedom, only stopping in port for drunken debauchery and women. In reality, piracy was often an escape from the structured, hierarchical society of colonial life and Our Flag Means Death is likely a rather accurate depiction of pirate life, even if it is a farcical interpretation of historical fact. Seeing men kiss on a screen is important, and we will continue rooting for it every time. But to see men on screen actively challenge what it means to be a man and be masculine, to engage with their emotions and be better for it, to prove that love for one another can be powerful? There will be many out there who will feel, maybe for the first time, that they don’t have to cut themselves off from their authentic selves. And for that, we will be forever grateful to Rhys Darby, Taika Waititi, the rest of the crew of the Revenge, and their faithful writers and directors.

By Justin Angebrandt and Patrick Dickerson.

Our Flag Means Death is available to stream in full on HBO Max. Be sure to also check out all of the incredible fan art on literally every social media site!

It is the official opinion of GateCrashers that HBO Max needs to #RenewOurFlagMeansDeath for a second season.

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