August 27, 2023.
This review contains spoilers. There is discussion of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and misandry.
I was predisposed to enjoy Our Flag Means Death, with good reason. I adored the dry humour of What We Do In The Shadows (2014) and its television spin-off Wellington Paranormal, and even enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok (2017) thanks to Taika Waititi's influence, despite not being fond of the MCU. Plus, Mateheke Waititi (Taika's sister) contributed to arguably the best FTM film/show in existence, Rūrangi, as a script consultant for its Māori storylines. Whenever the Waititi name has been attached to anything, I've passionately enjoyed the result. Taika Waititi plays Blackbeard in Our Flag Means Death, directed the show's first episode, and worked with creator/showrunner David Jenkins to solidify the concept of a romance between Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet (the main character). That romance, which is both compelling and well-acted, is a driving force behind the entire series.
Put simply, Our Flag Means Death is a comedic romance about pirates. GBT+ representation and actors of colour are baked into the show's very foundations, and it's just really watchable and funny. Even if you're not watching for the diversity, you're still going to have a good time.
Jim Jimenez with Oluwande Boodhari.
A character named Jim is introduced in episode 1. The crewmates of The Revenge, Stede Bonnet's ship, believe "him" to be a mute man, knowing very little about him except that he is skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Oluwande Boodhari is the only crewmate who knows anything substantial about Jim.
Jim's first appearance without a disguise.
At the end of this first episode, Jim is revealed to be wearing a disguise, which includes a fake beard and nose. Over ensuing episodes, it's revealed that Jim is concealing their true identity because they are wanted for murder.
Jim writing about constantly wearing a false beard.
Jim's disguise is eventually removed in front of all crewmates, who are immediately curious about who (and what) Jim is, especially considering seafaring myths about women being bad luck. In episode 4, when asked, "The whole time, you were a woman?" Jim replies, "Yeah... I guess. I don't know." It's subtly apparent that Jim is still figuring out who they are, and how they'd rather live. They quickly decide, however, that they do want to remain as Jim, but in a more authentic way (without the disguise). Sick of the questions and awkwardness, they say to the crew, "You all know me as Jim, sí? Just keep calling me Jim. Nothing's changed. Except I don't have the beard, and my nose is different, and I can speak now... Anyone got a problem with that?" Nobody does. From then onward, their gender isn't discussed.
Our Flag Means Death is a comedy that only loosely mirrors real histories, allowing for Jim to exist as a non-binary person in ways that stretch early 18th century reality. This allows for a relaxed viewing experience for non-binary people. Crewmates ease into using they/them pronouns for Jim, from episode 7 onwards, and it's not a big deal. I really loved how Jim's arc was handled. I loved that the comfort and mental wellness of LGBT+ viewers guided depictions of coming out, relationships, and self-identification.
The show simply refuses to handle some topics, operating within a limited, comedic world that bypasses many of the traumas LGBT+ people experience, and I personally think this is a valuable narrative choice. As an example, the non-binary actor who played Jim (Vico Ortiz) wore a chest binder throughout filming, resulting in a character who has a flattened chest, but the show doesn't tackle how such a character might bind. Many other shows and films would have been unable to resist the temptation to show Jim unwrapping bandages from their body, as per a dangerous stereotype in FTM, gender-diverse, and crossdressing media. Our Flag Means Death ignores that trope completely, and revels in the freedom of being a comedy rather than a faithful historical reenactment.
One of my favourite episodes is episode 7, where Jim's nana is introduced. The woman's reaction to Jim going by a new name is beautifully understated, bypassing hostility or awkwardness to focus on more important things; teasing of Jim due to their closeness with Oluwande, and questions about the revenge mission that has defined Jim's life.
Jim and Oluwande.
Oluwande's relationship with Jim is one of the show's most valuable, and touching, storylines. That's saying a lot, considering the grace and gentleness with which Stede and Blackbeard's relationship is handled, particularly in the final episodes of season 1. Oluwande's affection for Jim, and the fact that he is attracted to a person who is neither a man or a woman, is another example of Our Flag Means Death ignoring predictable questions. The fact that Oluwande and Jim fall in love, and have sex, doesn't need a label or a crisis of sexuality. The relationship between the pair is simply allowed to exist.
Jim and Jackie.
The only scene that made me uncomfortable involved a woman (named Spanish Jackie) flirting with Jim, making an unwelcome sexual comment that referred to an erection, and backing them into a corner in a way that would rightfully be unacceptable if a cis man had done the same to a cis woman.
In the context of the show, Jackie was actually trying to get physically close to Jim to pull off their fake beard and nose, and she wasn't necessarily motivated by sexual desire. That didn't really alleviate my discomfort, as the scene felt too similar to an old "comedic" trope of a man enduring the unwanted attention of a woman, and this supposedly being funny. The fact that the man, in this case, was the persona of a male impersonator didn't make the parallel any better. You can learn more about the comedic trope of women harassing men, and how this has long been mishandled, by watching this video essay. Jim, while in the role of a man, had to remain mute, which meant that they couldn't say "stop" or "get away from me" aloud... which obviously made the scene even more uncomfortable.
Whether the afore-mentioned scene will bother you as much as it bothers me likely depends on your background, whether you've been sexually harassed by women, and how consciously you analyse the differences between masculine and feminine characters when it comes to the framing of sexual harassment. To be clear, I'm not saying Our Flag Means Death is a bad show. I would still recommend watching it. However, this scene could've been handled better. If a cis man wanted to pull of a cis woman's disguise, so he made sexual advances towards her and pressed her against a wall in the same way Jackie did to Jim, I have no doubt that fans would've rightfully labelled him as a total creep.
There is stereotypical pirate-themed violence (stabbing, shooting, fighting), forced auto-cannibalism, cursing, and other expected drama. The show also handles racism, slavery, and classism in hilarious and intelligent ways, always with people of colour coming out on top. There are brief flashbacks and references to domestic, familial abuse and patricide.
You can read about Vico Ortiz's experience filming Our Flag Means Death here.
Season 2 Update:
S02E04 features a scene where a woman sits on a man's lap and aggressively kisses him, even though he verbally indicates his discomfort. The fact that Our Flag Means Death is a comedy doesn't stop this being a scene of sexual assault; if the gender roles were reversed, and a man did exactly the same thing to a woman, people would absolutely call it assault regardless of the show's genre.
Later, the woman lies about the encounter and says he gave her "a proper tonguing", at which point the man has to correct the record and say, "no, she kissed me". This is not funny. To understand why, consider this article, in which male survivors of assault tell their stories. "She painted a different picture," says one man, describing how he was utterly non-consenting, yet the woman who assaulted him lied and made it sound as though he'd been a willing participant. Another man says, "it took me twelve fucking years to realise that men could be raped at all", and he's not alone in his experience. Television shows like Our Flag Means Death are part of the reason that generations of men don't recognise assault when it happens to them, and don't even know that a man being kissed without his consent is wrong. "Kinda fucked up that it gets downplayed for men so much," another man says. Yeah, it is. It really fucking is.
What I saw in S02E04 was a common experience for male survivors... turned into a joke. The difference is that real men/boys don't have zany minor characters to intervene and prevent sexual assaults from going further, and real men/boys experience discomfort and distress in the wake of being assaulted by women, at which point many such victims are laughed at because a woman assaulting a man is funny or unbelievable. It's long past time for shows and films to stop minimising the seriousness of men being assaulted/harassed, especially when a show claims to be progressive, as Our Flag Means Death does. The double standard has to end. It impacts real men/boys who have too little support as it is.
Fans of this show would've furiously criticised the writers for depicting a non-consensual kiss as comedy, if that kiss was being forced onto a lesbian by a man. But, when it's a woman assaulting a gay man, apparently it's completely acceptable. Fuck that.
The character who kissed someone without their consent is not held accountable, is not admonished for initiating nonconsensual physical contact, and is never made to apologise for her actions.
I don't think I'll be recommending this show to anybody. I'm fed up. I don't give a fuck how inclusive the rest of the show is. And, yes, I did watch the rest of season 2 with my anger unabated throughout. I'm not going to applaud content that pats itself on the back for inclusivity, yet has disrespected and disregarded male viewers who have been raped and assaulted by women. Did any of the writers care how such viewers would feel, watching a woman sit on a man's lap and assault him? Did they consider the trauma of men who have been pinned down in such positions, unable to escape unwanted advances?
Queer media should be about solidarity, autonomy, and justice. That should include solidarity with men who have been sexually harassed and assaulted by women, who deserve to have their experiences respected. From The OA to The Umbrella Academy to Orphan Black, I am seeing too many examples of "queer" media failing to live up to the revolutionary solidarity that queerness should actually stand for.
It's not okay to kiss men without consent.
It's not funny to kiss men without consent.
If it's assault when a man does it to a woman, it's assault when a woman does it to a man.
I know many people will disagree with my take on this show's depictions of non-consensual sexual advances, and might seek to minimise the double standards which are glaringly apparent in Our Flag Means Death. But if taking non-consensual scenes seriously means that I'm a wet blanket, then so be it. A great deal of this show deserves praise and admiration, from the casting to the writing, and that appeal shouldn't have been poisoned by scenes which do nothing except downplay the seriousness of assaulting and sexually harassing people.
If you are a man who has survived sexual abuse, I recommend the site 1in6, which supports and advocates on behalf of men/boys who are survivors. It addresses the specific struggles faced by men. You are not alone.
Additionally, this article shares the experiences of a 50 year-old trans man named Trystan Cotten, who was unable to seek support for harassment due to being a man, and found that women laughed at his experiences when he tried to get help. If you have found yourself in similar situations, and you've noticed a horrific double standard since transitioning, please know that countless men have been through exactly the same thing, and it is not okay. We all deserve better.