by Char Q
There are a multitude of reasons to love Black Sails and to proclaim it “the best show of all time,” as the fans so often do, and one of those reasons is that it rewards analysis. Black Sails is many things: a manifesto demonstrating the power of solidarity between the oppressed in the fight against white supremacy; a commentary on how the history of the marginalized is a narrative manipulated by those in power; and a story about stories–to name only a few. But its open awareness of all of its themes is partially what makes it so powerful, self-referential, and multifaceted. That is especially true when it comes to analyzing the depth and complexity of the dynamics between its main cast of characters, nearly all of whom are explicitly or subtextually queer.
The need for more queer representation in media is an ongoing and popular conversation topic. More recently, many of the public discussions tend to revolve around people’s opinions that surely there must be One Superior Way to depict queer relationships and identities. For most, that superior way is considered to be “explicit representation,” often defined more or less as “queer content so obvious and loud that even cisgender heterosexual people can’t argue against its validity.” Interestingly, different people have different ideas of what, by this metric, constitutes as “good enough.” As a result, the goalposts seem to always be moving, and are based on the shifting sands of personal opinions. No single person has the authority to decide what “counts,” but that doesn’t stop many people from trying anyway. It is a debate fundamentally doomed to failure, because its basic premise is a flawed one: the value of queer representation should not and cannot be measured by the thoughts of those who misunderstand it at best, or act as queer oppressors at worst. To futilely attempt to measure it in such a way is to try to bend queer content to honor the impossibility of cisheteronormative standards or requirements, while seeking unwinnable, universal cisheteronormative approval.
So truly, what does it mean to be “queer enough,” either personally or narratively? Is it using a specific label to describe oneself? Proclaiming romantic love openly, in so many words? Visibly being in a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex, and defining it as such? Holding hands? Kissing? Having sex? The point is that there is no single or correct answer, and queerness as an umbrella concept is somewhat less about what one is specifically, and rather more about what one is not (namely, cisgender and/or heterosexual). Queer identities, relationships, and experiences are as diverse as every visible and invisible color in the wavelengths that make up a rainbow. Having enough variety in media to even scratch the surface of portraying that diversity should be the ultimate goal.
Black Sails is the rare piece of media that understands this concept, and embodies it to a groundbreaking and incomparable level. Because the writers built its narrative on central queer themes, Black Sails exists in an extraordinarily unique space: it includes explicit textual representation that meets the most popular mainstream standards, but it also includes subtext and queercoding to inform and enrich the story’s layers. Having the former meant the writers had the hard-won luxury of not feeling an obligation to sacrifice the latter, as well as the brilliance to recognize that there is value in and a need for both forms of representation to coexist.
The writers did not give into the false dichotomy that drags down so much of the common circular debates, as people argue that surely there must be only one correct way to depict queerness properly. Instead, by choosing to show a myriad of queer relationships both explicitly and subtextually–with no pressure to openly define all or even most of them by cisheteronormative standards–the show not only did right by its characters and what was best for its narrative, but it also exemplifies the very principles the story is about. The characters live and love diversely, while simultaneously acting as mirrors of one another in the literary sense. As they reflect and reveal each other’s traits, the resulting parallels between the more openly queer and the more subtly queer relationships highlight what the deliberate similarities can tell you about both. Underlining those similarities through these methods also effectively emphasizes how many of the characters are alike in more ways than they differ–or at least, in the ways that count the most.
As Charles Vane says to Billy Bones, “They can’t tell the difference between you and I.” The pirates are all defined in the same way by their oppressors, labeled as uncivilized monsters because they dare to fight for freedom, and love, and freedom to love without restraint. It demonstrates why solidarity amongst the oppressed is both valuable and essential. The various undefined examples of queerness that the show sets also take it a step further: true freedom is arguably being allowed to coexist authentically, beyond the constraints of expectation or the requirements of definitions. The diversity of such portrayals, depending on context, can even act as a commentary on the variety of real life queer experiences. Queer love, identities, and relationships are no less valid or impactful–or, in the case of fiction, no less canonical–for sometimes remaining somewhat undefined or understated. Simultaneously, when care is taken to define them, there is power in acknowledging such specificity without losing sight of how it does not or should not compromise the solidarity found in the community.
This is the value in subtext and queercoding as deliberate media languages. Such tools of the trade were invented to and are still used to navigate around imposed restriction and censorship of stories. If one knows or learns to stop seeing heterosexuality as the default, a whole world of depth comes to light, particularly when and where one can factor in precious knowledge of authorial intent. There should be no standard these media languages must be beholden to, or no requirements that they must adhere to, in order to be “good enough”; they can be placed with intention to be seen and understood, and if we see and understand them, then that is inherently enough in its own way. This remains true even when overt restriction and censorship are not present, such as was presumably the case in regards to Black Sails. These media languages are originally by us, for us, and there is beauty and power in their subtlety and complexities, as well as the shared community of understanding that they encourage. While explicit representation is undeniably important, overemphasizing it as the only valid way of canonically conveying queerness runs the risk of devaluing the inherent, inarguable canonicity of other methods–or losing acknowledgment of what makes them beautiful and valuable to include at all.
Including subtext and queercoding in stories encourages mutual conversations rather than passivity–conversations between a piece of media and its audience members, between one audience member and others, between one audience member and their internal self, and so on. Black Sails’ creators understood that intimately, and used it to inform and enrich their story, while also doing justice to their characters’ situations and dynamics with realistic–and thus, sometimes understated and complicated–portrayals. The result is some of the truest, most profound, and most nuanced depictions of queerness in a fictional narrative of all time. How apt it is that such a narrative was created by people who clearly both understand and revere how stories work.
This show is many things, but ultimately, it is an invitation and a challenge to look deeper. But like any invitation or challenge, the choice is left in the hands of the viewers. Black Sails is, of course, an entertaining piece of media even from a surface level perspective, and how deeply a person examines the media they consume is always optional. This show’s explicit queer representation also means that looking deeper is not a requirement for queer recognition, yet its creators still understood and exemplified the value of multifaceted queer portrayals. To consciously oversimplify this show and its varied subtext–or, worse yet, disregard those who highlight its complexities–does its creators, their work, and the points that this story is carefully conveying a disservice.
While the show mirrors its characters and relationships, it also holds up a mirror to viewers in a variety of ways. This topic is only one, and it connects to how the show makes us repeatedly aware of the power that stories hold, as it reminds us that the show itself is a story too. It asks us questions: This is a story, and stories have power, so what do you see in this? What do you take from it? What do your experiences tell you about its characters, and in turn, what do its characters reveal to you about yourself?
In the eternally applicable words of Jack Rackham, “It’s the art that leaves the mark. But to leave it, it must transcend. It must speak for itself. It must be true.” As a body of work, Black Sails speaks for itself quite clearly in multiple avenues. It has a lot to say, explicitly and subtextually alike, and demonstrates the power in and necessity of both.
It’s simply up to us how much we choose to listen.
Char Q (they/she) identifies as multiple passionate interests stacked in a human shape, often says they don’t know how to casually like things, and believes that storytelling is part of what it means to be human. Graphic designer by trade and writer by hobby, you may find them inadvisably writing character-counted media analysis as Twitter threads like it’s an extreme sport. Very occasionally, they write a longer piece elsewhere, as a treat.