From what I can tell, the idea of piracy being a metaphor for toxic masculinity in Our Flag Means Death seems to be a prevalent opinion from critics and fandom. I strongly disagree with this interpretation and would argue that this as a takeaway relies on classist and racist biases.
So, what does OFMD say about masculinity?
When asked, creator David Jenkins has this to say about the role of masculinity:
In his response, Jenkins actually ties piracy together with freedom of gender expression and contrasts that against a modern-day image of Fox News and Donald Trump, both of which are representative of a rich, white demographic.
Burlesque is a really interesting word choice here, evoking imagery of performance, exaggeration, and laughter. There’s a falseness to it, but an expectation for others to play along, regardless.
It’s noteworthy that when asked about masculinity, Jenkins doesn’t go towards the violence of piracy first, but instead chooses to shine the spotlight on the upper class, while criticizing the heterosexual, whitewashing of the pirate genre.
Within the show, we most clearly see the question of masculinity centered around Stede Bonnet as he grapples with heteropatriarchy. I know that people describe OFMD as a world without homophobia, but I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s less that homophobia doesn’t exist, and more that it’s watered down, and pushed just out of view. The show still engages with homophobia but does so through alternative means focused on an unspoken alienation that follows Stede his entire life as he fails to live up to expectations of masculinity as a child, and continues to fit uncomfortably within heterosexual family life.
The issue with presenting piracy as toxic masculinity is that the comparison necessitates aristocracy having the inverse relationship which is obviously problematic for several reasons.
The thing is, yes, Stede is derided for his incompetency as a pirate and often mocked for his softness and failure at presenting as masculine. However, the root of Stede’s trauma is firmly situated within the aristocracy. We do see plenty of moments of Stede being out of touch within the pirate world, where in the first episode he’s met with resistance at something as simple as sewing a flag. It’s interesting, however, that this opposition is short-lived where the crew picks up on sewing quickly and Wee John even admits to making dresses with his mother.
They then go on to talk about mutiny, but baby steps, ya know. Either way, although it’s not instant, there is freedom within the ship to push the borders of masculinity and engage in new activities.
You don’t see this same leniency within the aristocracy. At no point in time do we see that same openness among aristocrats. The only possible exception is the widow community Mary is friends with, but that community kinda literally necessitated the death of their husbands to occur.
It’s interesting because the vast majority of the time Stede’s moments of discomfort within the pirate lifestyle aren’t because he’s not masculine enough, but from being out of touch with the working class and doing stupid shit like showing up to Spanish Jackie’s in all-white suits. It’s easy to associate wanting nice clothes and soft material as the opposite of masculine, but it’s important to remember that in Stede’s world, these things aren’t feminine. Yes, there are definitely times when he’s mocked exclusively because he doesn’t fit within gender expectations, but Stede not being accepted into the pirate life isn’t a commentary on his gender/sexuality, it’s a rejection of his class position. Oluwande says it in the first episode: “We don’t do this because we want to, we do it because we have to.” Stede is a tourist in their world, where most of them aren’t there because it’s fun, but because they’re trying to survive.
In contrast, Stede’s rejection from high society is consistently based on his “feminine” traits. He experiences cruelty as a child for things like crying too much or picking flowers. There’s a purposeful isolation based on harmless behavior firmly rooted in his inability to fit in with the other boys. As an adult, he’s forced into a loveless marriage by his patriarchal father as an obligation to fulfill a man’s role. Something his father even highlights as his purpose as an aristocrat is “peasants marry for love.” Aristocracy is a prison for Stede.
One thing that gets brought up fairly often is the idea that piracy demonstrates a need for violence, and that by moving away from this, Stede and Edward can escape this violence through assimilation into the aristocracy. This is something that the show actively rejects, however.
There are two instances where we see this the most clearly. One is the episode with the French boat party. It’s interesting because the French aren’t what one would associate with toxic masculinity. Just like Stede, they love a fine fabric, music, food, and other softer things. They’re in makeup and extravagant wigs, and I’m sure would all shudder at the thought of wielding a sword. This doesn’t mean that they are a society free of violence though. Stede said it best, that pirates fight with their fists, and aristocrats fight using cutting remarks disguised as kindness. Sure, Ed had Fang skin someone alive, but the captain started it when he called him a donkey.
The violence of the aristocracy is simply hidden under pretty words and fancy dinner parties, and not even hidden particularly well. Simply look at the servants occupying the backgrounds.
We see this same violence demonstrated in episode one when the British come aboard. Until then, we only have Stede’s point of view on piracy as a culture of abuse and how he’s changing that, which is an accurate statement. But, what we don’t realize until the British come, is that this is a facet of Stede’s personality, not something inherent to the upper class. When the navy boards the ship, the culture of the crew shifts entirely, where they’re briefly ejected from the world of piracy, and placed into higher society instead. And when this occurs, we see exactly how stifling and abusive that culture is.
Yes, the crew is dressed in fancy clothes, wearing wigs, and drinking tea. None of these are things one would associate with “toxic masculinity,” but not engaging with that doesn’t lead them to a world free of patriarchy or oppression. For the first time, there is a hierarchy aboard, where previously the crew interacted as equals, but now the crew of color is forced into roles of servitude. Is this not violence? Sure, the conversation around the table is polite, but it’s a politeness that is obligatory where the rules of society force them to engage in uncomfortable situations. Stede is obligated to give a tour of the ship even though he doesn’t want to. Oluwande is unable to say anything in response to the verbal abuse directed toward him.
It’s only when the crew sheds these costumes and reacts violently against the British that their humanity is returned.
The association of pirates as being held captive by their need for violence, inability to discuss their feelings, and general roughness or “uncleanliness” is a deeply hypocritical ideal pushed by the aristocracy. We see far more genuine human emotion and openness from the pirates, whether that be anger, joy, sadness, or love than we ever do with the male aristocrats. Pirates are derided for their violence, but how many of them are escaping the confines of poverty or even slavery? And when it comes to being rough or unclean, are these really virtues we want to associate with negativity?
And yes, there is misogyny within the pirate world, and whatever the fuck Izzy got going on too, but it’s funny that this is the only place where gayness is accepted without a blink of an eye. Even when Izzy’s bullying Lucius a bit, at least he’s doing so for him being a lazy seductress with a smart mouth, and never as a way of punishing him for being gay.
There are definitely elements of the aristocracy associated as positively, but it isn’t black and white. We see Ed long to belong to that world, and people are quick to want to fulfill that fantasy of being accepted into the upper class so he can be showered with fine things, soft fabrics, and as much lavender soap that he could ever need, but this is a desire that needs to be challenged. There is nothing wrong with desiring these things and I agree he should receive as much as he wants, but we can’t mistake this for the aristocracy.
Ed’s desire for this life comes from the pain of a childhood in poverty. Of feeling lesser than, subhuman, and worth less than someone with money. He said it himself, he has more riches than you can shake a stick at, but he’s not looking for more wealth, he’s looking to belong in this rich, white world that will never accept him. The same world that Stede is fleeing from.
Wealth isn’t the liberation Ed is looking for, what he desires is love and acceptance. Yes, he wears fine things well, but the focus isn’t on his ability to adorn himself with riches that place more value on him. No, he’s what’s elevating these accessories. He’s what’s giving them value.
In the end, what we see throughout the series is Stede grappling with the weight of being stuck between two worlds: a pirate’s life vs that of an aristocrat. It matters that when he finally accepts who he is and who he loves, he follows this by renouncing any claim to his wealth. He gives up his place in high society because piracy isn’t a metaphor for toxic masculinity, it’s an imperfect place that grants Stede freedom.