Categories
General

Becoming the monster: reclaiming queer monstrosity in Black Sails

By Lisa Verberne

When Hollywood introduced the Hays Code in 1935, villainy and queerness became closely related in the cultural imagination. The Code consisted of a series of self-imposed regulations that prohibited any positive depictions of homosexuality, for fear that it would ‘corrupt’ their viewers (Kim 2017, 158). Consequently, queercoded characters could only be shown if they were clearly morally depraved and punished for their misbehaviour. Many scholars have discussed the harmful representations that equated homosexuality with amoral behaviour (see for example Brown 2019; Kim 2017; Epstein and Friedman 1995). These criticisms are well-deserved since these villainous representations of queer people reinforce pre-existing stereotypes of queer people as perverted and dangerous. However, queercoded villains have also always had a strong appeal for queer spectators because of their defiant unwillingness to conform. Queer(coded) villains are not complacent, assimilationist or friendly. If they are crossed, they fight back: they bite their opponents, stab them or, in the case of NBC Hannibal’s (2013 – 2015) main antagonist, serve them up for a delicious dinner. It is not surprising then, that recently, television shows seem to be fascinated with queer villains and antiheroes. Shows like Hannibal and Killing Eve (2018 – 2022) force the viewer to be confronted with queer monsters and their multiple transgressions while, if not outright redeeming them, at least complicating their status as villains.

Black Sails (2014 – 2017) is one of those shows. It is set in the early eighteenth century and follows multiple pirate crews in their attempts to rule Nassau, a formerly British port on New Providence Island. The creators see Black Sails as an uncensored and mature prequel to Treasure Island (Stevenson 1883), a popular children’s book that originated with famous pirate characters like Long John Silver and Captain Flint. The show revolves around a central theme of stories, monsters and representation, which is implicitly and explicitly relates to queerness. The queerness of monsters in Black Sails is the subject of this article. In the following section, I will consider the way popular culture tends to represent the (queer) Other as monsters, arguing that this monster status is both harmful and empowering. The two sections following the theoretical framework will explore these two sides. First, I argue that Black Sails’ imperial England thinks of Nassau’s pirates as monsters, queering and Othering them. Then, I trace the storyline of captain Flint and argue that he is able to challenge colonial rule by appropriating and performing the role of the monster.

Meaningful monsters

Literature scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (1996) argues that the figure of the monster in the cultural imagination embodies the anxieties, fears and feelings of the context from which it emerged out of (4). To emphasise their own properness and virtue, society finds a scapegoat (often in the form of a racialised, classed, gendered or sexualised minority) that is symbolised by the figure of the monster (7-9). Sometimes, a single monster compounds and conflates multiple forms of difference, representing multiple groups at once (10). In other words, to create a flattering Self, Others are depicted as monsters. Monsters, then, are seen as being outside of the margins of society: their otherness means that they have crossed or transgressed the boundaries of normalcy (13).

On the one hand, Cohen (1996) argues, this depiction of difference as a monstrosity is extremely dangerous as it justifies oppression, violence and extermination (7-8). On the other hand, monsters can be liberatory because they show that living outside of the existing system is possible (11). The very existence of monsters is a powerful reminder that the system (for instance, heteronormativity or the gender binary) is always partial: there are always monsters who show us that the system cannot fully eradicate difference (12). In other words: monsters “ask us why we have created them” (20). If there was no difference, why would we need monsters to symbolise this difference? Cohen argues that monsters demonstrate a Derridean différance, meaning that they signify both monstrosity and non-monstrosity: they represent both the norms of the system that created them, as well as the arbitrariness and instability of that system (Cohen 1996, 4; Derrida 2018, 1623, 1634). Depending on your interpretation then, monsters can be othering and alienating or empowering and liberating, the Other or the Self.

Their destabilising potential means that monsters can become icons of non-conformity and resistance (17). Pedagogical scholar Mark Helmsing (2016) exemplifies this in his discussion of Disney villains. He argues that the fabulous antagonists of Disney fairy tales can be seen as examples of queer resistance because they know how to get what they want without conforming to the rules of the game (65-66). Although not all the villains Helmsing discusses are strictly monsters, his arguments are still relevant for traditional monster characters. Disney divas, as well as monsters, are extremely aware of their roles as public villains and take on this role with style (63). The space they carve out for themselves in a heteronormative world can be seen as a ‘queer counterpublic’: a space largely outside of heteronormativity where small queer utopias are possible (Berlant and Warner 2018, 2263–64; Helmsing 2016, 63). These queer worlds provide essential spaces of opportunity and resistance, but they are fragile and tenuous: Disney villains are always punished for their non-conformity. However, they always go out on their own terms, refusing to conform or willingly giving up their queer spaces. In other words, heteronormative discourses vilify Disney divas – and by extension, monsters – but the villains might be seen as powerful examples of queer resistance.

Pirates as queer monsters

The necessity of an Other in the form of a monster is a central theme in Black Sails. Black Sails’ England casts the pirates of Nassau as monsters, their difference implicitly and explicitly queering them. The pirates of Nassau form homosocial structures, they are largely unmarried and have a few democratically chosen queer leaders, men and women. Their refusal to uphold English values of citizenship, morality and economic organisation makes them an ideal Other: they are everything that England is not (or at least, they are everything that England pretends not to be). In the first episode, England’s most feared pirate leader, captain Flint explains that the English crown explains the pirates’ Otherness by turning them into monsters: “When the king brands us pirates … he means to make us monsters, for that’s the only way his god-fearing, tax-paying subjects can make sense of men who keep what is theirs and fear no one” (Marshall 2014, I). Here it is apparent that Flint is aware of England’s perpetual need to relegate anyone living outside of England’s economic, heteronormative and religious systems to the status of monsters. Even if most pirates in the show are not explicitly queer, their failure to conform to English standards queers them: Cohen (1996) reminds us that one form of difference (from English civility and citizenship) also blurs into other forms of difference, among which sexual and gendered difference (10). England, then, protects its own boundaries by speaking of pirates as monsters, queering them (13).

         Stories are the most powerful tool England has in its possession to solidify the representation of pirates as monsters. Flint mentions children’s stories as the most important genre of stories that distort and reduces pirates into antagonistic monsters (Steinberg 2017, XXXVIII). As stated before, Black Sails purports to show the real events that happened before the dramatised and vilified representations of the pirates in Treasure Island, a children’s book. Treasure Island has been incredibly influential in shaping the cultural understanding of pirates as dangerous, wooden-legged, parrot-holding monsters (Cordingly 1996, 30). Flint, then, correctly predicts the publication of Treasure Island, which will reduce Nassau’s pirates into the caricatural “monsters in the stories [England tells] their children.” Another scene in XXVIII (Steinberg 2017) shows an English maid reading out of A General History of Pyrates. Since this book served as a major inspiration for Treasure Island (Cordingly 1996, 22), the scene hints at the inevitability of the publication of the children’s book within Black Sail’s diegesis. The pirates realise that whether there is any truth to the representation of pirates as monsters is of no importance. As Jack Rackham, another pirate who is equally obsessed with a legacy as Flint, explains: “A story is true. A story is untrue. As time extends, it matters less and less … And then what does it matter if it was true when it was born? It’s found truth in its maturity, which is a virtue in man ought to be no less so for the things men create” (Steinberg 2017, XXXVIII). For the Black Sails characters, it is inevitable that over time, English stories of pirates as the dangerous and perverted Other will truly transform pirates into monsters.

One of Black Sails’ main tenets is the power of stories. By showing the way England distorts and conceals the legacy of pirates through stories like Treasure Island, the show demonstrates the violence that underlies the misrepresentation of the monstrous Other. However, in the storyline of captain Flint, it also shows how the Othered pirates use the imperial fear of the monster pirate to their own advantage, reclaiming its power.

Performing the monster: queer counterpublics and resistance

Although there are multiple queer leading characters in Black Sails, the connection between monsters, pirates and queerness is most explicit in the storyline of Flint. A series of flashbacks in season 2 shows Flint’s former life as James McGraw, a Royal Navy lieutenant in England who has been put in charge of helping Lord Thomas Hamilton deal with the pirate problem in Nassau. James, Thomas and his wife Miranda become political reformers, aiming to reconcile the British Empire and Nassau by offering the pirates pardons. After already having had an affair with Miranda, James and Thomas start a relationship with Miranda’s consent. When word comes out of this affair, Thomas is sent away to an asylum and Miranda and James are exiled.

James and Miranda relocate to Nassau, a place where Othered and exiled monsters can live outside of England’s rigid societal norms. Having been the victim of England’s violent homophobia, James implicitly understands Nassau as a queer counterpublic: “[the English] paint the world full of shadows and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light. Their reasons, their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn’t true … In the dark, there is discovery, there is a possibility, there is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it” (Steinberg 2017, XXXVIII). Whereas England represents piracy and Nassau as a dangerous shadow world outside the boundaries of civilisation (associating it with dragons, monsters), Flint realises that it is precisely this world outside of the light that frees him and his fellow queer(coded) monsters from English norms. He is aware of the liberatory power inherent in Nassau’s existence as a counterpublic, arguing that “the empire survives in part because we believe its survival is to be inevitable” while Nassau is powerful proof that “it isn’t” (Reiné 2017, XXXI). Consequently, James decides that England can never be allowed to remove the pirates from Nassau and restore the port to its English colonial state. Like England, he understands “the power of a story and how to harness it to his own ends” (Boyum 2014, XVI) and becomes the figure of the brutal and merciless monster ‘Flint’ to discourage England from meddling with Nassau. The exposition of his queer relationship with Thomas and Miranda made him a social outcast; here, the figure of a monster was pushed upon him by the rigid heteronormative mores of English upper-class society. However, in embodying Flint, James reclaims the archetype of the monster for himself, using the figure of the monstrous pirate and the fears that surround this character for his own gains: taking revenge on England and exposing its hypocrisies. In Cohen’s (1996) terms, the persona of Flint is a monster of England’s own creation and as such, he poses a threat to the very system that created him (12).

         This reclaiming of monstrosity is exemplified by episode XVIII in season two. James and Miranda return to the British empire in hopes of convincing the governor of North Carolina, Peter Ashe, that reconciliation between Nassau’s pirates and England is still possible. Things go south when Miranda is killed by Ashe’s bodyguard and James is put on trial for his piracy and ‘sodomy’. The jury of North Carolina sees James’ public trial as an opportunity to reinforce the story of pirates as perverted and morally depraved monsters “clawing at the very fabric of … [British] civilisation” (Boyum 2015, XVIII). They try to turn the trial into a theatre play, a story, in which the fearful monster is finally defeated: an announcer riles up the audience and prepares them for what they are going to see, the prosecutor holds a dramatic speech aimed more at the audience than at James and the outcome is fixed: James will be charged and subsequently executed in front of a cheering crowd.

However, as Cohen (1996)  argues, the figure of the monster simultaneously legitimises the existence of oppressive systems while also being a sign of that same system’s fragility (12). England, by propping its monster up on a stage, accidentally puts their own lack of power on display: in front of the jeering crowd, James refuses to apologise for his actions, showing the audience that he will not, cannot be disciplined or reformed into a civilised and straight subject. Instead, he uses the spectacle created by his prosecutors to his own advantage: he doubles down on his role as the monster by performing a villain monologue: “[everyone] is a monster to someone. Since you are so convinced that I am yours, I will be it” (Boyum 2015, XVIII). He then escapes the gallows and sets the town alight, reminding England “that they were right to be afraid.” Like the Disney divas Helmsing (2016) discusses, James realises that playing by the rules, assimilating and apologising was never going to save him from England’s violent homophobia and hatred of difference (64). Instead, he starts performing his role as a treacherous monster in a highly stylised and spectacular way, exposing England’s lacking power in the process (63). Although it was England’s oppressive systems that turned him into a monster, James knows how to strategically and spectacularly put his monster persona to use to remind England that some subjects will always resist its heteronormativity.

A failed revolution

After his near-execution, James gives up on his hopes of reform and reconciliation between England and Nassau. He tries to conspire with a maroon community (another counterpublic outside of England’s powers) to incite a full-blown revolution across the New World. Their revolution does not become a reality: Long John Silver – another pirate who might be James’ equal in his ability to craft a good story – makes James disappear, removing the revolution’s figurehead and stopping it before it had even properly begun. Silver tells his partner and maroon leader Madi that he found Thomas detained as a plantation worker in Savannah and that he sent James there as well. A quiet scene shows James returning to Thomas on the fields, visibly dropping the ruse of the monstrous pirate as he embraces and kisses him. However, the dreamy filter on the scene depicting the reunion, as well as the sound of birds flying up (a motif often referring to fired gunshots) makes it likely that the scene is only a story and that Silver killed James. James’ earlier reformist wishes do happen: Nassau becomes a legitimate English port and the pirates become merchant sailors for the crown. The danger of a pirate counterpublic is recuperated by England and the pirates are turned back into civilised, well-behaved English citizens.

         James, like many monsters and villains, is unsuccessful in his efforts to permanently change the status quo. However, the ending of Black Sails does not feel defeatist. The ambiguity of Silver’s story reinforces the show’s central theme of the power of stories. The fact that the reunion story is both true and untrue – as Rackham states in the next scene – serves as a reminder to the viewer to question the ability of a good story to conceal historical truths. Instead of the monster stories we grew up with, Black Sails shows us the pirates of Nassau as real people who were outcasted by the British Empire and whose very existence was criminalised. It showed us that, despite all odds, Nassau’s pirates could establish a monstrous counterpublic for themselves that was outside of imperial England’s oppressive systems, however temporary and tenuous it might have been.

Bibliography

Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. 2018. “Sex in Public.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2453–67.

Boyum, Steve. 2014. “XVI.” Black Sails. Starz.

———. 2015. “XVIII.” Black Sails. Starz.

Brown, Shane. 2019. “Madmen, Murderers and Monsters: Queerness in the Early Horror Film.” In Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy, 143–72. I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350987661.ch-005.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. 1996. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” In The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, 3–25. University of Minnesota Press. https://doi.org/10.5749/j.ctvtv937f.5.

Cordingly, David. 1996. “Wooden Legs and Parrots.” In Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Random House.

Derrida, Jacques. 2018. “Dissemination.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 3rd ed., 1608–36. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Epstein, Rob, and Jeffrey Friedman. 1995. The Celluloid Closet.

Helmsing, Mark. 2016. “‘This Is No Ordinary Apple!’: Learning to Fail Spectacularly from the Queer Pedagogies of Disney’s Diva Villains.” In Disney, Culture, and Curriculum, edited by Jennifer Sandlin and Julie Garlen, 59–72. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315661599-15.

Kim, Koeun. 2017. “Queer-Coded Villians (And Why You Should Care).” Dialogues@RU 12: 156–65.

Marshall, Neil. 2014. “I.” Black Sails. Starz.

Reiné, Roel. 2017. “XXXI.” Black Sails. Starz.

Steinberg, Jonathan E. 2017. “XXXVIII.” Black Sails. Starz.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. 1883. Treasure Island. London: Cassell and Company.