And They Were Co-captains: Gay Pirates and Queer Fandoms, by Eleanor Prytherch
On March 24, 2022, the final two episodes of the first season of Our Flag Means Death aired on HBO Max. Only a few weeks later, there are nearly 2,500 fanfictions listed under the show’s title on the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own. Its hashtag on TikTok has nearly eight million views. Virtually nothing of this fan community existed a month ago. Common hashtags and shorthand have already developed and been adopted by fans. To watch Our Flag Means Death and engage with the fan culture online is to watch a fandom form from the ground up, the likes of which fan culture hasn’t quite seen since the golden age of Tumblr.
From creator David Jenkins and producer Taika Waititi, it follows a novice pirate captain named Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) who is loosely based on the true story of a wealthy landowner who left his family behind to become a pirate and befriend the fearsome Blackbeard (Waititi). In Jenkins' version, however, Bonnet and Blackbeard fall in love. Naturally, a comedy show about gay pirates falling in love has garnered an incredible following among queer fans who have wasted no time in creating fan content from edits and art to stan accounts and fanfictions. The cast and creators have been enthusiastic in their engagement with the audience, and all of this makes for the most exciting and simply fun experience with fandom that I’ve seen since the days of “Superwholock” (a portmanteau created to refer to the joint fandom associated with Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock about a decade ago).
There are so many possible explanations for why viewers have become so enamored with the show, to the point where “pirate brainrot” has become a widely used term to describe the way so many fans are unable to stop thinking about and engaging with it. Our Flag Means Death at its core was created to subvert the expectations that so many years of similar shows have set up for their viewers, primarily the concept known as “queerbaiting.” This is a term that refers to the apparent practice of writers and showrunners to include queer messaging and subtext that never develops into true, on-screen queer representation, usually in order to keep large queer fanbases watching while avoiding the loss of network support. While Our Flag so easily could have gone down that road like so many shows before it, it doesn’t. Blackbeard and Bonnet share an onscreen kiss and even agree to run away together.
For those not involved in the queer fandom scene of the past decade, all this may not feel worthy of the sheer reaction it has elicited from fans. And yet, the whole thing feels almost too good to be true for many queer viewers. In sifting through Our Flag related content online for this article, I saw countless videos, posts, and comments with the same general theme: I can’t believe it’s real. Some commenters even wrote that they felt like the culmination of Bonnet and Blackbeard’s relationship was a dream, that they’ll wake up tomorrow and it will just have been another queerbait. What’s more is the thoughtful and lighthearted ways that the show handles representation of a laundry list of identities and situations. Racism and homophobia are acknowledged but not given a central role, queerness and fatness are never presented as a joke, two other pairs of characters develop queer relationships and share on-screen kisses, one of whom is canonically nonbinary (played by nonbinary actor Vico Ortiz).
The show itself is highly reminiscent of the kind of shows in the vain of “Superwholock” that amassed hugh online fan culture in the early 2010s, supported largely by queer audiences. It doesn’t take an anthropologist to understand why fandom is so appealing to queer people — fictional media provides an escape from a traumatic situation, and online communities are a safe and anonymous way to form support systems and meet others with similar experiences. Growing up in a rural area, online fandom quite literally sustained my mental health throughout my early teen years. Participating in fan culture was the source of so much joy and community in a time and place where it was lacking for me and my queer friends.
And yet, we were grasping at straws for a single crumb of queer representation. Entire fandoms would celebrate for weeks at the slightest indication of affection between two characters of the same sex. Nonbinary characters were only something to be dreamt about, or fan-created. This media environment mixed with queer hunger to see their stories in media created a culture primed for a flourishing fan content, particularly fanfiction. The website Archive of Our Own is pretty much exclusively for the public to post fanfiction, a tool queer fans use to create the stories of queer love and experiences that our beloved media denies us.
To me, Our Flag Means Death almost comes across like a fanfiction itself, with the relationships between characters and tropes used being evoking the kind of stories that audiences in the past have had to create themselves. Of course, this hasn’t meant that fan creations are any less abundant in the case of this show. In fact, the pure joy that the original content has inspired in its viewers has opened up all sorts of inspiration for fans, and it doesn’t seem so far-fetched this time.
Another quality that Our Flag shares with its predecessors is the simple fact that for many fans, engaging in the fandom community is more fun than watching the show itself. Once I finished the ten-episode season, I was “initiated” in a group chat my friends had made purely to share fan content about the show. I’m halfway through my first rewatch, yet I find myself more motivated to watch edits on TikTok and sift through memes and fanart on Tumblr and Twitter than I am to actually sit down and watch the show. The community that has sprung up around it in less than a month has created a fan experience unlike anything I’ve participated in since I was a preteen. It’s bittersweet to me that the whole thing is sustained by an audience of queer fans, utterly jubilant at finally being given the gift of visibility by one of the shows that we’ve poured so much of our passion, creativity, and love into over the years.