ThesisPDF Available


The thesis analyses the depicted queerness and masculinity of pirates in modern media. It focuses on Pirates of the Caribbean and the TV show Black Sails.
Pirates in Modern Media
The Queer Masculinity of Pirates in TV and Film
Thesis zur Erlangung des Akademischen Grades
Master of Education
im Fach Englisch
vorgelegt im Fachbereich 05 Philosophie und Philologie
der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Theresa Bauer
Matrikelnummer *********
Februar 2019
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Rainer Emig
Dr. Wolfgang Funk
What's to be done with the unwanted ones?
The men who do not fit, whom civilization must prune from the vine to
protect its sense of itself. Every culture since earliest antiquity has
survived this way, defining itself by the things it excludes.
So long as there is progress, there will always be human debris in its
wake, on the outside looking in.
Black Sails - XXXVIII
1. Introduction .................................................................................................... 1
2. Masculinity ..................................................................................................... 2
2.1. Social Construction of Masculinity ........................................................... 3
2.1.1. Hegemonic Masculinity ...................................................................... 4
2.1.2. Subordinated and Marginalised Masculinities .................................... 6
2.2. Masculinity in Film and TV ....................................................................... 9
2.3. Piratical Masculinities ............................................................................. 14
2.3.1. The Golden Age of Piracy and Piratical Masculinity ........................ 14
2.3.2. Piratical Masculinity in Film and TV ................................................. 18
2.3.3. The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise .......................................... 20
2.3.4. Black Sails ....................................................................................... 32
2.3.5. Comparison ..................................................................................... 43
3. Queerness .................................................................................................... 45
3.1. Queer Theory ......................................................................................... 45
3.2. Queerness in Film and TV ..................................................................... 46
3.3. Queerness and Pirates .......................................................................... 56
3.3.1. Pirates - Historically Queer? ............................................................ 56
3.3.2. The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise .......................................... 60
3.3.3. Black Sails ....................................................................................... 66
3.3.4. Comparison ..................................................................................... 73
4. Queer Piratical Masculinity ........................................................................... 74
4.1. The New Queer Hegemonic Masculinity of Pirates on Screen .............. 74
4.2. Why Pirates?.......................................................................................... 79
5. Conclusion ................................................................................................... 81
6. Works Cited .................................................................................................. 83
1. Introduction
The Caribbean pirate has been feared and sensationalised during the Golden
Age of Piracy and continues to amaze modern audiences as a romanticised icon.
He has an immense commercial value built through costumes, children’s toys
and at the box office. He is the hero of our stories although he was the villain
during his lifetime; a development which opens an inspiring ambiguity for this
character. Modern media like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean or the TV show
Black Sails provide popular imaginations of this historical figure that attract large
audiences. The unique panache of the modern pirate fascinates audiences with
maritime action, limitless freedom and rebellion against British oppression.
But the modern pirate provides much more than entertainment with sea
shanties, swashbuckling fights, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. In this thesis I will
argue that the pirate genre seems to be able to merge societal criticism and
challenges to the status quo and still remain widely popular. Its male characters
defy the gender normative by not fully conforming to their expected masculine
identity, especially not as action heroes. Furthermore, it questions
heteronormativity by incorporating queerness and queer readings. Masculinity
and queerness are often defined as opposed to each other but seem to merge in
the piratical figure; an entanglement that sometimes makes it complex to
differentiate both aspects when analysing the pirate.
Since media reflects our society and society in turn reflects media, this
thesis does not only provide insight into pirate depictions in media but also into
concepts of masculinity and queerness in Western society. With the current
debate surrounding the Me Too-movement and masculinity in crisis, this thesis
reflects upon the representation of men and their masculine identities. Within the
queered context of piracy, masculinity becomes challenged and needs to
redefine itself. This provides possible new directions in which society will, or has
already, changed in terms of its definitions of both masculinity and queerness.
This thesis will focus on the depictions of pirates in modern media and
specifically analyse their masculine and queer identities. The first section gives a
brief account on the sociological aspects of masculinity and explains the concept
of hegemonic masculinity to provide a working theory for the later analysis.
Subsequently, forms of masculinity in Western film and TV are introduced to
embed piratical masculinity in media within the existing context. To provide a
basis for the further analysis, a concise account of piratical history and following
depictions of pirates in media, with a respective focus on masculinity, is given.
Since the pirate genre supplies a large number of films or TV shows, the most
popular in their category is selected for representation. With regard to the social
concept and the (piratical) representation of masculinity in film and TV, first the
depiction of masculinity in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and afterwards
in Black Sails is analysed. Both are compared to the way in which masculinity is
created in society and on screen, and the two franchises are then contrasted to
one other.
The second part focuses on queerness and begins by providing a short
overview of queer theory and terminology. Furthermore, the history of displaying
queerness in film and TV is briefly summarised. The concept of queercoding,
which has been and is still being utilised to portray queerness without openly
stating it, is exemplified and the term queerbaiting is introduced. After a succinct
synopsis of the potential queerness of historical pirates, Pirates of the Caribbean
and Black Sails are again analysed. Both are explored with a focus on queerness,
either by representation or through the afore expounded coding mechanisms,
and compared to each other.
The third and last part analyses how in the figure of the pirate, the
conventionally repelling concepts of masculinity and queerness merge by
employing the preceding findings. Their queered masculinity is then embedded
in the current trend in Hollywood and the question as to why the pirate provides
a perfect canvas to join both concepts is reflected upon.
Finally, the results are summarised, and potential prospects of further
research are indicated.
2. Masculinity
Masculinity and femininity are social constructs that, in some form or another, are
parts of social identity. No matter if people perform them or actively reject them
as identity markers, gender and performance or non-performance thereof are
primary classification criteria in our current society. Gender reveal parties for
unborn babies or the pink versus blue dichotomy that becomes most obvious
when entering the toy aisle: little princesses and fairies for the girls, knights and
pirates for the boys. Children’s toys are supposed to be fun but often should also
provide a learning experience for kids, so gendered toys (just like media) show
best, the roles to which we, as a society, expect those kids to conform. This is of
course a Western perspective on gender roles and is not or may not be applicable
to other societies.
The pirate has become a symbol for masculinity and is supposed to
provide identification for little boys, just like the princess embodies femininity and
is marketed to little girls. But how and why has the pirate become one of the
epitomes of masculinity? This chapter will give a brief overview of the social
construction of masculinity in our society and of its depictions in modern
(Western) media. I will then continue to give a brief insight into the history of
pirates and what is known about their performance of masculinity. With those
foundations in place, I will subsequently analyse masculinity in the film franchise
Pirates of the Caribbean (PotC) and the TV show Black Sails (created by
Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine, 2014-2017).
2.1. Social Construction of Masculinity
The human body has (in most cases) a sex that falls into the binary of male or
female, and gender is the social performance of the perceived sex of and by a
person. The gender of a person can be different from their sex or a person may
also reject to perform gender in a binary way, or at all. Masculinity or being a man,
is not something that a person simply has, it is a role one performs. So masculinity
does not require possession of a male sexed body and is not inherent to a male
sexed body, it is instead a practice of certain behaviours (cf. Combe and Boyle
12). People who do not conform to the mainstream gender roles assigned to their
sex often face scrutiny and exclusion, mainly by their own peer group. So it is
men who rate other men’s masculinity and ultimately set value to a ‘correct’
performance of it: men perform masculinity for each other (cf. Kimmel 186).
A concept of masculinity can only exist in a binary that contrasts it to a
concept of femininity to oppose and reject (cf. Connell 68). So masculine identity
is not created by affirming something masculine but by rejecting anything
feminine. Kimmel theorises that, because there is nothing to affirm and just
something to reject, this leaves male identity very fragile (cf. 186). This means,
that, for men, their masculinity needs to be reaffirmed and validated regularly. If
it is somehow questioned, their social stance and credibility in the hierarchy
among men and towards women might be jeopardised.
That social construct needs to be filled with meaning: Which actions are
considered masculine, how does a man need to behave to avoid scrutiny for not
being man enough, what do they need to say or not say, to be read as masculine?
Current research shows that there are no universal qualities that make a man a
man, but that
Manhood means different things at different times to different people. We come
to know what it means to be a man in our culture by setting our definitions in
opposition to a set of ‘others’—racial minorities, sexual minorities, and, above all,
women (Kimmel 182).
2.1.1. Hegemonic Masculinity
Prevalent in sociology and men’s studies is Connell’s concept of hegemonic
masculinity. She describes that several kinds of masculinities
(co-)exist in one society and one of them is deemed to rule the other forms of
masculinity (and women). This masculinity is then considered hegemonic. This
form of masculinity is institutionalised throughout a society, meaning it is
incorporated e.g. in schools, in sports and in the workplace (cf. Connell 21-44).
Just as gender is a performance, "hegemonic masculinity [is] understood as the
pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an
identity)(Connell and Messerschmidt 832).
Hegemonic masculinity is not something that is fixed. There is no certain
type of character that will be regarded as dominant at any given time or in any
given place. It instead describes the type of masculinity that currently holds the
hegemonic position in a specific society. This also means that the hegemonic
position can be occupied by a different masculinity if that society changes (cf.
Connell 76). As an example of change of the substance that hegemonic
masculinity is filled with, Carrigan et al. state that desiring young, beautiful men
(e.g. in Renaissance Europe) used to be compatible with hegemonic masculinity,
but that this now stands in conflict with hegemonic masculinity in modern Western
societies (cf. 156).
Although there is no general set of traits for hegemonic masculinity, we
know that the masculinity that answers the question of the legitimacy of patriarchy
best (or at least seems to) will be placed as dominant over all other masculinities,
because patriarchy ensures the subordination of women, and through this,
benefits all men (cf. Connell 77). Since hegemonic masculinity ensures the
subordination of women and defines itself mostly in antithesis and rejection to
femininity, it hence rejects femininity, and with it, also homosexuality. Gay men
are seen as feminised because they occupy the female position
and through this
blur the distinctive gender binary and are read as feminised. Misogynist or
homophobic behaviour is often used to create distance to femininity or
homosexuality and reaffirm hegemonic masculinity (cf. 21-44).
In Western culture, "the hegemonic definition of manhood is a man in
power, a man with power, and a man of power. We equate manhood with being
strong, successful, capable, reliable, in control" (Kimmel 184). Behaviours linked
to masculinity are sports (physical fitness and being able-bodied), heterosexuality
and success with women, eating meat and taking risks (cf. Connell and
Messerschmidt 851)
. Hegemonic masculinity also defines white, middle class,
early middle-aged […] [as] standards for other men, against which other men are
measured and, more often than not, found wanting" (Kimmel 184).
That most men are found wanting shows that hegemonic masculinity is not
normal, in the sense that it is not common. The number of men truly performing
it is very small, but still the hegemonic masculinity is seen as the most
acknowledged way of how to be a man. Every man must position and measure
himself in relation to this form of masculinity (cf. Connell and Messerschmidt 832).
Instead of depicting the status quo of how real, living men behave, hegemonic
masculinity presents wide spread ideas, fantasies or aspirations as a model
masculinity (cf. 838).
Next to, or rather below hegemonic masculinity, other forms of masculinity,
those that are subordinated or marginalised must exist. Men (and women) who
themselves are not enacting hegemonic masculinity may still profit from or enjoy
the patriarchal structure hegemonic masculinity ensures. They are complicit in it
That means that in a heteronormative society someone who desires a man must be female to
fit the norm. Gay men, as men who desire men, occupy the spot that this norm assigns to women.
For a very entertaining “list” of traits that are considered masculine in our society, I
recommend The Lonely Island’s (known from SNL) music video Equal Rights. In it, Andy
Samberg advocates for equal marriage rights for LGBT people, constantly assuring the
audience that although he stands for equal rights, he himself is not gay. In addition to saying
“I’m not gay” in between lines, he satirically references stereotypical interests of heterosexual
men such as sports, titties, hot wings and action films to “prove” his heterosexuality.
(cf. Combe and Boyle 12f.). It is also possible for a man to adopt either hegemonic
masculinity or a subordinated one (or even actively distance himself from
hegemonic masculinity), depending on what benefits him most in a specific
interaction (cf. Connell and Messerschmidt 841). Sometimes even "one of the
most effective ways of being a man in certain local contexts may be to
demonstrate one’s distance from a regional hegemonic masculinity" (840).
To ensure its hegemony, non-hegemonic patterns like queerness,
disability or non-white ethnicity are structurally oppressed by and/or incorporated
into hegemonic masculinity
(cf. Connell and Messerschmidt 848). Forms of
oppression include violence towards women but also among men, specifically
towards men who do not perform hegemonic masculinity (cf. Connell 83).
Violence is the most obvious instrument, but not the most effective or wide spread
one. "Cultural consent, discursive centrality, institutionalization, and the
marginalization or delegitimation of alternatives are widely documented features
of socially dominant masculinities" (Connell and Messerschmidt 846).
Performing hegemonic masculinity does not automatically result in those
men being the most powerful in society. Of course men in power can (and often
do) bear the markers of hegemonic masculinity, but a man performing a
marginalised or subordinated masculinity can also be protected through factors
such as social class or wealth and be in power (cf. Connell 77).
2.1.2. Subordinated and Marginalised Masculinities
Subordinated or marginalised masculinities describe all other masculinities
existing beneath hegemonic masculinity. Marginalisation of those groups is the
effect of being subordinated to hegemonic masculinity and, at the same time,
marginalisation causes those masculinities to become antithetical to hegemonic
masculinity. Equivalent to hegemonic masculinity, there is no fixed character type
that is always assigned to be subordinate or marginalised. In current Western
That happened e.g. in the 2000s with so called metrosexuality: Being gay was not part of
hegemonic masculinity and gay men’s masculinity oppressed, but parts of their behaviourisms
were adapted by straight men who enacted hegemonic masculinity. For example, David Beckham
(sporty, rich, popular with women, perfectly enacting hegemonic masculinity) “outed” himself as
metrosexual, which simply means taking (intense) care of his appearance and caring for fashion
and style while still being straight. Those “feminine” attributes were formerly associated with
women or gay men and were then incorporated into the hegemonic masculinity. That of course
didn’t change the oppression of gay men who enacted the same traits (minus being attracted to
culture there are certain traits that automatically ostracise men from being
perceived as part of hegemonic masculinity, such as queerness, disability, non-
Christian religion, non-white ethnicity or affiliation to a lower social class (cf.
Connell 78f.). Since this thesis focuses on queerness, I will only go into detail
about the subordinate masculinity of queer men. Nevertheless, it is important to
bear other factors of marginalisation in mind, especially since marginalisation
through several mechanisms at once is common
Recent research shows the consequence of the decline of the anti-
femininity norm (creating masculinity by rejecting femininity) is often homophobia.
Men who strongly rely on the anti-femininity norm to build their masculinity show
increasing homophobic attitudes if confronted with a perceived feminisation of
men in society. Men who do not endorse the anti-femininity norm do not feel
threatened by homosexuality after a confrontation with feminisation (cf. Falomir-
Pichastor et al.). In times where misogyny faces more and more scrutiny,
homophobia becomes the outlet for traditional men who enact the anti-femininity
The subordination of gay men is the most important trait of contemporary
Western society, because queerness in men is assimilated with femininity. A man
does not need to be gay in order to be subordinated; it is enough that he seems
gay or effeminate (cf. Connell 78f.). The inversion of that argument is not possible
though; regardless of perfectly performing all other aspects of hegemonic
masculinity and not “being visibly queer”, the dominant culture would still define
a gay man as effeminate and thus not as part of hegemonic masculinity (cf. 161f.).
Kinsman argues:
In its historical development heterosexuality is tied up with the institution of
masculinity, which gives social and cultural meaning to biological male anatomy,
associating it with masculinity, aggressiveness, and an ‘active’ sexuality. ‘Real’
men are intrinsically heterosexual; gay men, therefore, are not real men (166).
Consequentially, to comply with hegemonic masculinity, it is vital for men
who want to feel and be seen as masculine to in no way be, or seem to be, queer
(cf. Kinsman 165). One strategy to accomplish this is to only perform typically
Being queer and disabled, being a queer person of colour or being poor accumulate completely
different aspects of discrimination. As explained above, someone who is protected through wealth
and power often does not need to perform hegemonic masculinity to avoid facing discrimination.
The experiences of a wealthy and white gay man will differ immensely from the experiences of a
person affected by multiple factors of discrimination.
manly things and completely reject anything else. Men overact stereotypical
masculine traits to avoid being perceived as homosexual and therefore feminine
because they fear that their masculinity is unmasked by and in front of other
men (cf. Kimmel 190f.). Watching a so called “chick-flick” (a film intended for
female audiences) or a queer film poses a potential threat to their masculinity.
They would either not watch such a film or watch it in secret and later deny it.
Additionally they may publicly belittle and defame the film and people who watch
it (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 11f.).
This also exemplifies the other strategy men utilise to generate and
preserve their masculinity. As a coping mechanism they deride women and gay
men (and interests associated with them) and show misogynist and homophobic
behaviour to distance themselves from those groups (cf. Kimmel 190f.). Othering
marginalised groups to ensure their own masculinity is also accomplished by
either painting them as sissies who are not man enough or, as a complete
opposite, depict them as predatory, brutal and uncivilised monsters (often in a
racist context), from which of course the 'real' men have to protect society and
civilisation (cf. 192f.). Social mechanisms range "from informal name calling by
children to the criminalization of homosexual conduct" (Connell and
Messerschmidt 834).
Sometimes a subordinated masculinity develops into a social group or a
social identity, which is what happened with gay men (cf. Carrigan et al. 153).
Moreover, the image of the gay man has shifted tremendously in the last decade
from effeminate
‘gender invert’ to the new macho and clone looks that have dominated the gay
men’s community. This imagery challenges the previous stereotypes of
homosexuals that associated [their] sexuality with gender nonconformity and has
asserted that [they] can be both homosexual and ‘masculine’ at the same time
(Kinsman 175).
Although stereotypes are being challenged by this, queerness is still not part of
hegemonic masculinity in Western culture.
Another form of subordinated masculinity is protest masculinity. It is
a pattern of masculinity constructed in local working-class settings, sometimes
among ethnically marginalized men, which embodies the claim to power typical
of regional hegemonic masculinities in Western countries, but which lacks the
economic resources and institutional authority that underpins the regional and
global patterns (Connell and Messerschmidt 847f.).
It describes a milieu within one society that constructs a masculinity which
consciously rejects and protests the comprehensive hegemonic masculinity of
that society. Within the milieu, the protest masculinity occupies the hegemonic
position and thus becomes the hegemonic masculinity. From an overall societal
standpoint this protest masculinity is still a subordinated masculinity.
Taking queerness and its relation to masculinity into consideration, it has
become obvious why the separation of those two is problematic. For certain
(especially hegemonic) forms of masculinity, active rejection of queerness is a
core feature, and when analysing the piratical masculinities that are entwined with
queerness, separating those will not be possible in many cases.
2.2. Masculinity in Film and TV
The media representation of men and masculinity is rarely a representation of
actual men, but instead a representation that Hollywood thinks sells best. Though
this representation is not an accurate depiction of reality, it is a good indicator for
what hegemonic masculinity incorporates, since hegemonic masculinity is also
not rooted in reality but rather a fantasy, an ideal, and with that exactly what most
films project. This processed reality (mirroring our reality) is something that
people have created, people who are themselves a product of society and reality
and who show us their viewpoint of it. The film itself in turn influences our reality
and the perception thereof, completing the cycle (cf. Hißnauer and Klein 31).
When producing a film or TV series, decisions are not only influenced by
unconscious biases that are generated by socialisation and experiences but also
through conscious planning. For large US blockbusters with big budgets, the
casting of very “manly” actors creates more revenue (cf. Hißnauer and Klein 37).
Specific body-types are selected for specific depictions of masculinity: think
Schwarzenegger or Stallone and what body image and image of masculinity
audiences automatically associate with their bodybuilder physiques. The public
image of the actor and which roles he has played before also create a continuity
and association in audiences’ minds (cf. 32).
To create a successful film, audiences need to identify with it. However,
filmmakers cannot force an audience to do that. They can merely make several
offers for identification. Audiences can identify with more than one character, and
it is possible that identification shifts to other characters during the film. While
producing the film, producers include their ideas of their recipients and what might
appeal to them, so especially films that are supposed to reach a large audience
are made in a way that many different groups can find identification (cf. Hißnauer
and Klein 37f.).
If one film is successful with its design, many other films that function the
same way (franchises or imitations) are produced and create a trend. However,
the explicit rejection of that trend might also create new waves (cf. Hißnauer and
Klein 39). What becomes a trend, what sells to audiences, also allows
conclusions about the fantasies or ideas a society has; in this case what image
of masculinity a society regards as hegemonic. Heroes in big Hollywood
blockbusters will almost always try to depict the image of hegemonic masculinity
that is prevalent in society at that time.
As a short overview I will regard the depiction and change of hegemonic
masculinities from the 1980s onwards and briefly give examples of current
subordinated masculinities in film and TV. The focus lies on action films because
they are heavily encoded as masculine in our society. They are also mostly made
by men, with men and for men. That creates a cycle of masculinity: men produce
what they think other men can identify with and men watch and identify with what
other men produce because it gives them guidance on how to successfully
perform and reaffirm their masculinity.
Roughly, masculinity in film in the 1970s developed from sensitivity to hard
bodied macho muscle-men in the 1980s and found a new domesticated, loving,
conservative sensitivity in the 1990s (cf. Perberdy 101). The boom of action films
in the 1980s produced an image of excessive masculinity; a man with physical
omnipotence, hardness, decisiveness, authority and independence is depicted
as the ideal (cf. Morsch 50f.). They exert excessive violence and their bodies also
endure violations and injuries at the hands of their antagonists. The protagonists
are pessimistic and disillusioned about the political and social situation and thus
reject social norms and institutions. They operate outside of those norms and
have a self-imposed morale, and with that they follow in the footsteps of old
Western heroes (cf. 51). Since the 1980s, muscularity is still associated with
idealised patriarchal masculinity, though the amount of muscles society deems
attractive has changed (cf. Martín 127).
Towards the 1990s, action heroes like Schwarzenegger faded
. The hard
male body is now no longer depicted by a bodybuilder, but still as fit and healthy
(e.g. Fight Club, dir. David Fincher, 1999) and is still put through various physical
discomforts and violations (cf. Morsch 70). Action film protagonists often surround
themselves with a team and are no longer solitary. Violence is still a prevalent
theme for the hero, but he becomes more rational, concerned, providing and
devoted (cf. 63f.).
In the 21st century, films can no longer afford to be blatantly patriarchal.
Depictions of modern society portray a politically correct
and moderate
masculinity. In action films, this kind of masculinity is represented by actors like
Tom Cruise, who is muscular but not pumped and conventionally attractive to
women (cf. Martín 128). A common theme connected to masculinity was and
remains exploring and widening the (American) frontier (e.g. in the Western). In
times of “political correctness” and a now non-existent frontier, the masculinity
created by experiencing that frontier, by facing the uncivilised wilderness, is in
jeopardy. Consequentially, a fear of feminisation arises for some (cf. Perberdy
That does not mean that hyper-masculine depictions of men or depictions
of patriarchy have completely vanished from the screen; only that if the plot is set
in modern society, they are far less likely to occur. The pumped muscular hyper-
masculine body and the patriarchy have taken refuge in epic genre films such as
(pseudo-)historical or fantasy films (beginning e.g. in 2000 with Gladiator, dir.
Ridley Scott) or in dystopian futures or alternate societies as in The Handmaid’s
Tale (created by Bruce Miller, 2017)
(cf. Martín 128).
Stars of the genre even make an effort to reposition themselves through other roles and in their
star-persona as no longer hyper-masculine and macho. In interviews Stallone consciously
presents himself as intellectual and Schwarzenegger takes on domestic roles like in the
Kindergarten Cop (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1990) or Junior (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1994) where he becomes
I intentionally use that term in quotation marks since it has become a polemic term of the political
right wing, implying there is no longer freedom of speech in the Western world. In case of films,
the accusation is often that men are no longer allowed to be “real men” on screen because
“political correctness” forbids it (in reality, blatant misogyny now just faces backlash from
The Handmaid’s Tale of course heavily criticises patriarchy but is praised and criticised alike by
feminists. The reproach is the (almost torture porn like) focus on violence towards women; a
practice that for many has become too common in recent popular film and TV.
Combe and Boyle call the hyper-masculinity that is often relocated to
different societies or times, where it can be depicted as hegemonic without too
much backlash, “neoconservative masculinity”. Those men have a muscular,
strong body, they are the heroes of the patriarchy and display a hyper-acquisitive,
often xenophobic militarism (e.g. Leonidas in 300, dir. Zack Snyder, 2006) (cf.
Combe and Boyle 196f.).
In contrast to this stands a protagonist that Combe and Boyle find hard to
describe as classically masculine, a man that disrupts norms (including norms
such as the patriarchy) and identity positions and not only opposes, but actively
fights against “neoconservative masculinity” (e.g. V in V for Vendetta, dir. James
McTeigue, 2005). This so-called “post-Marxist agency” and the “neoconservative
masculinity are not binary but they depict two extremes of modern millennial
hegemonic masculinities (cf. Combe and Boyle 196f.). The reason why several
forms of hegemonic masculinity can coexist in the media landscape of one
society at the same time, while only one form of masculinity can be hegemonic
inside that society seems obvious but is important nonetheless: plots of films, TV,
books etc. can be set in various times, places and societies that can reference
our reality but can also be entirely fictional.
While the protagonist is the canvas on which the hegemonic masculinity is
portrayed, he needs supporting and antagonising characters. Just like hegemonic
masculinity in society defines itself in distinction to other, supposedly non-
masculine traits, on screen it requires a wimp for the manly man to contrast
himself to and to emphasise his masculinity, and with it, his hegemony
. Another
way to create masculinity for the leading man is a group of other men, a collective
similar to him in terms of masculinity and status, to confirm and authenticate his
masculinity (cf. Perberdy 107). A man whose masculinity is authenticated enough
can even use feminising objects or clothes where, instead of discrediting his
masculinity, it elicits a comedic effect or even makes him more masculine
106). Not only in these contrasting situations does masculinity or gender become
visible to us, but also when displayed where it does not seem to belong, like on
Think about Gaston and LeFou in Beauty and the Beast (dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
1991/ dir. Bill Condon, 2017) where that existing trope is satirically exaggerated to discredit
Gaston: LeFou (who, in addition to this, is heavily coded as queer) contrasts all those masculine
traits by not also admiring them but also by being the complete opposite of them.
In Fight Club, Tyler Durden wears a pink dressing-gown and it does not make him look feminised
but rather contrasts to his masculinity.
women, queer people, people of colour, or anything other than the white,
heterosexual man (cf. Combe and Boyle 11).
Regarding the antagonising position, especially when there is a distinctive
good vs. evil narrative in that film or TV show, without or little grey areas,
something monstrous is placed opposite the protagonist. Without a monster to
fight, the protagonist cannot be a hero, so distancing and fighting something or
someone monstrous constructs a hero and his masculinity (cf. Combe and Boyle
2). It is hard to define exactly what we specifically see as monstrous because
different monsters or monstrous deeds occur over different time periods and in
different societies (cf. 18). While in real life monsters are usually human people
who behave like monsters, on screen they can take on various fantastical forms.
In both media and reality the dominant group and mindset within a society
constructs as monstrous those people and ideas not conforming to its worldview
which established a range of possible monsters, from queer people to terrorists
or even aliens (19).
Combe and Boyle differentiate between monsters we make, e.g. Dr.
Frankenstein making Adam and ostracizing him because he is afraid of his own
creation (Shelley, 2017), and monsters found, like Grendel in Beowulf
(Hawbadnik and Meyer 2012). Society often tries to put the monsters made into
the category of monsters found, because we do not want to acknowledge the fact
that we are responsible for creating them. Monsters that are inexplicably and
inherently evil, as opposed to the hero, who is just as inherently good as they are
evil, are easier to abide because we never have to admit our part in creating them
(cf. Combe and Boyle 2f.)
. The monster-narrative as something opposing the
hegemonic masculinity is intriguing when it comes to pirates who have evolved
from society’s monsters to on-screen heroes.
Connell and Messerschmidt talk about the media reporting on the Columbine High School
massacre and note “how the issue of masculinity was withdrawn from scrutiny, leaving the media
with no way of representing the shooters except as ‘monsters’"(834). Hegemonic masculinity
cannot be criticised or found problematic, since it is something created by society resulting in
something monstrous. It is easier to brand the shooters as monsters found, than to acknowledge
complicity or responsibility in creating them (cf. ibid.).
2.3. Piratical Masculinities
To analyse modern depictions of pirates, it is vital to have a basic understanding
of the historical background of the figure. This chapter will provide a brief
overview of famous pirates, their society and masculinity and how they were
perceived by contemporaries. It will then progress to provide a picture of pirates
as they are depicted in modern media and then analyse the Disney franchise
Pirates of the Caribbean and the Starz TV show Black Sails with regard to their
depiction of masculinity.
2.3.1. The Golden Age of Piracy and Piratical Masculinity
Pirates were mostly former seamen, mariners or sailors in the merchant service,
the Royal Navy, or former privateers (cf. Cordingly 10). Turley provides a
distinction between the privateer, the buccaneer and the pirate. Privateers were
sailors that had a letter of marque, an allowance sanctioned by the English crown,
that allowed them to legally (only after British law of course) plunder enemy ships
in times of war.
The buccaneers
were mostly poor northern European settlers and not
originally seafarers, thereby not confined to life at sea. They sometimes pillaged
Spanish ships that strayed near their settlements but then began raiding Spanish
settlements and cities. Buccaneers were particularly antagonistic towards the
Spanish and were therefore not hated by the English but rather considered as
heroic figures by them. The age of buccaneers faded approximately around 1694
when piracy began to boom.
Contrary to privateers and buccaneers, the pirates attacked anyone, no
matter if the ship was French, Spanish or English. They mostly derived from
former sailors on merchant ships, privateers or from the Royal Navy. In 1694
Captain Avery began his exploits and gained public attention, which is often seen
as the start of the Golden Age of Piracy, which lasted around 30 years, until
approximately 1724. Society at that time deemed pirates hostis humani generis
enemies of mankind. Pirates were considered to have turned their backs on
A famous representative is Sir Henry Morgan, now mostly known for providing his name for a
rum brand.
society, and therefore to have declared war against all mankind (cf. Turley 32-
When pirates attacked a ship, they often offered the crew to join them and,
because of more comfortable working conditions, many men joined the cause.
Pirate crews were usually bigger than merchant crews and crews of the Royal
Navy and thus the workload was shared among more men (cf. Cordingly 69).
Sadistic captains could be disposed of and pirate captains only had a limited
amount of punishment they could inflict on their own authority. Contrasting to the
Royal Navy, where the captain’s authority was unlimited and often resulted in
severe punishments for crew members (cf. 134).
Piratical appearance was shaped by life at sea; pirates often had burned
and weathered brown faces, scars and injuries. Most of them wore short blue
jackets, baggy breeches, red waistcoats and a handkerchief or scarf around the
neck. They sometimes possessed exotic clothes from captured prizes and
dressed extravagantly (cf. Cordingly 11).
Pirates deliberately excluded themselves from society, thus being seen as
'other' by themselves and by society (cf. Turley 30). This does not mean that they
lived in anarchy. They had strict rules for life on board a ship, the famous pirate
codes. These were temporary contracts, binding while on board the ship and
often limited to a specific cruise. The code was signed by and binding for all crew
members including the captain, and ensured that everyone was treated fairly.
Violation of the agreed upon code was punished severely (cf. Archenholz 30f.).
Although conveyed differently to society at that time, violence committed
by pirates was mostly carried out to achieve a goal. Either to quickly find their
prize on the captured ship or to promulgate a terrifying image that would help
them in the future, as other crews would simply surrender in fear and everyone
would be spared the fight (cf. Cordingly 129f.). Regardless, a number of reported
violent acts were committed by sadists and "men looking for kicks to relieve the
Piratical masculinity was similar to the masculinity of any seafarer: "Life on
board a ship, already an exclusively male environment, fosters culturally
masculine qualities such as aggression and risk-taking, and requires physical
prowess" (Karremann 70). Cordingly goes even further and describes that many
E.g. Edward Low was a known sadist.
pirates “cultivated a macho image which was expressed in hard drinking, coarse
language, threatening behaviour and casual cruelty" (91). Already in the 18th
century, it was the sea who made a man out of boys; sometimes a positive and
almost magical transformation, it amplified or brought out already inherent traits.
But sometimes it was said that those men returned as monsters, only
recognisable as men because they walked upright (cf. Karremann 71f.). Hyper-
virile piratical masculinity shares many points of intersection with modern
versions of hegemonic masculinity. The masculinity of sailors and pirates was not
the hegemonic form of masculinity at their time though, as they were too far down
in the social order for that. The hegemonic position was instead held by
aristocrats and the upper class who presented a form of masculinity that
nowadays seems effeminate to us.
Notably most pirates dressed in rags, but Rackham and Captain Roberts
are remembered for taking care of their appearances. The narration around
Roberts describes him as ferocious, bold and courageous, a masculine contrast
to the effeminate way he dressed. Accounts of Roberts and Rackham unite
hyper-virility in their actions and effeminacy in their wardrobe (cf. Karremann
One of the first attempts to register famous pirates and their stories
originates from Captain Charles Johnson
published in 1724, right at the end of
the Golden Age of Piracy. Turley argues that Johnson is the one who started the
process of romanticisation for pirates to become the anti-heroes as we now know
them to be (cf. Turley 3). Johnson's General History is not always accurate and
some claims are made up or unsourced but it is often regarded as the most
reliable source next to accounts of trials (cf. Turley 74). Johnson provides
biographies of the most notorious pirates such as Captain Charles Vane (cf. 101
10), or John “Calico Jack” Rackham, who took over captaincy from Vane in 1718
and was executed in 1720 (cf. 11116).
Johnson also describes the famous pirated Edward Teach, known as
Blackbeard. He depicts him as fierce, wild and furious, with Blackbeard himself
adding to that image with "special effects" like burning matches in his hair. Turley
argues that Johnson's motive is to demonise Teach even more through this kind
Some scholars speculate that Captain Charles Johnson is a nom ne plume used by Daniel
of description and to emphasise his villainy. However, at the same time Johnson
also depicts him as heroic, courageous and very masculine, able to withstand
grave wounds in battle and still fight (cf. Turley 3f.).
In other stories in the 18th century, the dichotomy of the perfumed, well-
spoken, well-dressed, good looking, effeminate gentlemen captain vs. a (for king
and country) scarred sailor who is silent, brutish, disfigured and smelly, is widely
spread. That sailor is depicted as aggressively heterosexual, wanting sex with
women as soon as he is ashore, as patriotic, loyal and with newly learned
physical prowess (cf. Karremann 72f.). This description matches modern ideas
of masculinity even more, especially in contrast to the effeminate gentlemen
captain. Karremann argues though, that by displaying too much excessive
manliness in those accounts, it becomes too theatrical and thus insincere. The
hyper-virile pirate surpasses normative manliness and is left appearing
effeminate (cf. 75).
Women at sea were rare. We know that women have sailed on merchant
ships disguised as men but only few became pirates: the only famous female
pirates of the Golden Age were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Others also appear
at various points in time, such as Alwilda (Scandinavia), Grace O'Malley (Ireland)
and the great piratical leader Mrs. Cheng (China) (cf. Cordingly 71). Most pirate
codes prohibited women on board to prevent jealously and violation of that rule
was sometimes punishable by death (cf. Archenholz 34). In Johnson's General
History, Bonny and Read are shown wearing men's clothing, bearing weapons,
standing with feet wide apart to show ferocity and code them in a masculine way.
Their flowing hair (and of course the caption) contradicts this and creates a
certain ambiguity of their gender and character (cf. O'Driscoll 358f.).
Both are said to have been constantly crossdressing and pretending to be
male from early childhood on because of external, often financial, circumstances
and both later sailed under Rackam in disguise (cf. Johnson 125131 and 117
124). Witnesses contradict Johnson’s claim and testified that Bonny and Read
wore womens clothes if there was no chance of a fight (cf. O'Driscoll 367f.). They
were not as notorious and successful as many other famous pirates but gained
greater attention than them due to Johnson's General History and being the only
female pirates in the Golden Age that we know anything about (cf. Cordingly 59f.).
Their fellow crew members attributed boldness and bravery to Bonny and Read;
famously when their ship was captured, they and one other man fought and called
for the others to come and fight like men. Having lost that battle and standing
trial, Bonny allegedly said that had Rackam fought like a man, he would not have
had to die like a dog (cf. O'Driscoll 367f.). That kind of heroism and bravery is
coded masculine and to fit into that narrative, most accounts of Read and Bonny
deny their femininity. They are depicted not as heroines, but as women who adapt
masculinity like a costume in order to be able to subsist in an almost all-male
environment (cf. 371).
During the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates have been mystified and
villainised and at the very moment that the Golden Age of Piracy was over, the
figure of the pirate entered the popular imagination as a fascinating anti-hero who
habitually transgressed the limits set by society (Karremann 69). The figure of
the pirate continues to inspire stories, most famously Robert Louis Stevenson’s
Treasure Island (Stevenson, 1993), about Long John Silver and his hunt for
Captain Flint’s treasure; a story that has in turn spawned countless adaptations
in books, film and TV.
2.3.2. Piratical Masculinity in Film and TV
Modern films about pirates are mostly set in the Golden Age of Piracy. They take
place in the Caribbean seas and often try to provide some historical accuracy by
using famous pirates and their venues like Tortuga or Nassau, or by depicting
piratical society as truthfully as possible. The pirate can either occupy the
antagonistic position, like Peter Pan’s Captain Hook and his crew, or be the heroic
protagonist (Hollindale and Barrie, 1999). Although the pirate can be hero and
villain alike, more often he is neither and both at the same time. Modern
imaginations of the pirate are caught in the dichotomy of monster and hero,
marginalisation and idolisation (cf. Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 11). Pirates are
linked to the sea, which is fluid, open and stands for transgression of geographical
and also cultural borders. The pirate behaves just like this element and
transgresses borders but also societal norms (cf. Steinhoff "Mobility" 104). This
makes the pirate the perfect canvass for the depiction of a romanticised anti-hero
and opens up the possibility for “change and […] various and often contradictory
cultural meanings and positions", which makes the pirate such a popular figure
for creators and audiences alike (106). Pirate society is never represented as
truly lawless or anarchistic. It is simply a different form of order that actively
distances itself from British and colonial British society, which is often something
that has done or is doing pirates harm (cf. 108).
The figure of the modern pirate follows in the frontier exploring Western’s
and the 1980s action hero’s footsteps. The genre of the pirate film is
predominantly coded male or masculine and pirates display traits expected by
hegemonic masculinity. They are active and mobile - they are explorers, just like
in cowboy, wilderness and frontier narratives (cf. Steinhoff "Mobility" 110f.). In
older pirate films a common theme is an aristocratic, educated or higher society
captain who leads the pirate life because of some misfortune he suffered in his
past. He is noble at heart but has had to make questionable choices to survive
the wrong that has been done to him (cf. Cordingly 17). These types of pirates
are depicted as buccaneering heroes to rescue beautiful women from
picturesque villains in exotic locations and are by no choice of their own truly
piratical (171f.). Those films often end with a redemption arc where the noble
pirate captain is reinstated in a high position in society
Although the analytical focus of this thesis lies on PotC and Black Sails,
there is an artistic tradition of piracy in media that they are embedded in. Treasure
Island has famously served as a template especially for children’s media. For
example, Disney produced the animated film Treasure Planet (dir. Ron Clements
and John Musker, 2002), set in a futuristic space-steampunk world with aliens
and robots and with John Silver as a cyborg. Jim Hawkins is depicted as a
rebellious young troublemaker who finds his desperately-needed father figure in
Silver and learns how to be a man and take responsibility for his mother and
. The morals, values and gender roles do not deviate from the norm and
are “classically Disney”. It is a typical adolescence narrative for which Treasure
Island provides the required adventurous framework.
A more successful adaptation is Muppet Treasure Island (dir. Brian
Henson, 1996) with Tim Curry as John Silver and a long-loved Muppet ensemble.
While Treasure Planet is targeted towards older children on the verge of their
One example for this kind of older pirate film is Captain Blood (dir, Michael Curtiz, 1935) starring
Errol Flynn.
This film provides intriguing material for an analysis on how masculinity through fatherhood or
in father/son relationships is created and passed on.
teenage years, Muppet Treasure Island is intended for younger children
. It
features a younger Jim Hawkins and is spiked with song and colourful dance but
otherwise more or less true to the original.
While those adaptions of Treasure Island focus on a young audience, just
as their source material does, the female-led film Cutthroat Island (dir. Renny
Harlin, 1995) targets adult audiences and is intended as an entertaining
blockbuster. The film did not appeal to audiences in large quantities but is still
familiar to contemporary moviegoers. Remarkably, despite featuring a romantic
subplot for the protagonist Morgan, she does not lose her agency or forsake
piracy as a result of entering a relationship (a common trope for many “strong
women”), nor does she “redeem her femininity” in any way (cf. Steinhoff "Mobility"
114). Women in the pirate genre more often have at least a certain amount of
activity and power in comparison to other male-centred genres. Female pirates
always had at least some part in this genre although the men heavily outweigh
them. They enjoy independence and are often equal or superior to men, but this
is often undermined by situations in which they become heavily dependent on
men (cf. 110f.).
These examples do not, however, equate to the boom that the PotC
franchise created. They are either intended for children or did not do well at the
box office.
2.3.3. The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise
Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (PotC 1) (dir.
Gore Verbinski, 2003) is based on the ride of the same name in Disneyworld.
When pirates attack Port Royal, seemingly in search for treasure, they kidnap the
Governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann, because they believe her blood will lift a
curse under which they are suffering. After having stolen cursed gold, they exist
as undead skeletons unable to feel, eat or die, their true form only revealed by
moonlight. By returning the gold and paying with Elizabeth’s blood (who they
believe to be the daughter of a former crew member), they hope to regain their
humanity. Will Turner, a young smith who is in love with Elizabeth, sets out with
That does not mean that there are not parts for adults included. While rewatching it, I noticed
innuendos I never understood as a child. Miss Piggy’s winking “looooooooooong John Silver”
and Tim Curry’s smirk had gone completely over my head.
the pirate Jack Sparrow to rescue her. Jack is the former captain of the cursed
crew and intends to reclaim his ship and captaincy from Captain Barbossa, who
marooned him after a mutiny.
PotC is not like the other familiar Disney films and franchises but rather the rebel
child of the company
. The film is about characters who destabilise the status
quo, contrary to other Disney films that work to maintain it. PotC accomplishes
this mainly through the character of Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp, on
whom I will focus first (cf. Porter 151).
Following Depp's lead, the director and screenwriters fashioned a film that indeed
provides a synergistic complement to the Disney ride, but adds character
ambiguity, a troubled story arc, anti-heroes, and off-color humor to the
traditionally chaste Disney text (Petersen 70).
Sparrow and his ambiguity were considered a potential deal-breaker for
audiences expecting a classical Disney experience. In fear of the character
causing a box office flop, the promotional material for PotC 1 focused on showing
off the CGI and fight scenes instead of Sparrow. The popularity of the character
therefore came as a surprise to many and led to the following films capitalising
on this popularity by using mainly Jack for their promotional materials. In all five
PotC films, Jack is a consistent presence, supported and antagonised by various
other characters
Especially for the highly ambiguous and fluid character Jack, separating
his enactment of masculinity from his queerness is almost impossible.
Sometimes both will need to be discussed, remaining entwined, in this chapter
and later in the analysis of Jack’s queerness.
Jack is neither depicted as a good nor as a bad person. He kills, plunders
and focuses on his personal benefit. But at the same time, a reoccurring motif is
his assistance of others, even when this acts against his own interests (cf.
Fernández Rodríguez 10). Jack is a trickster who lacks morality, especially when
it comes to property and civilised propriety. He has no qualms about stealing and
tricking others or behaving in an uncivilised manner. Those traits become evident
At least it was when PotC 1 first came out. More recent films also break certain norms that used
to be standard for Disney.
This is set to change in the sixth, yet unnamed, instalment of the franchise, since Depp will not
be participating.
when his character is introduced in his first scenes in PotC 1 and they remain
true for all further instalments of PotC. When he first arrives in Port Royal, he
tricks the guard at the harbour and steals his money with a self-satisfied smile.
Later he makes Elizabeth reclothe him while he holds her hostage and seemingly
enjoys her discomfort. His justification for all his misdemeanours is simply that he
is a pirate and he only does what pirates do.
Almost antithetical to this blanket defence for his crimes, in various
instances he decides to do good, even at his own expense. Without any
connection to Elizabeth or potential personal gain, he risks being exposed as a
pirate by rescuing her when she is drowning. Heroic deeds like this alternate with
criminal behaviour and general mischief, effectively painting Jack as an anti-hero.
Just like his character can turn 180 degrees from one moment to another, Jack
is able to flip any situation or any person to his benefit (cf. Porter 152f.).
Just like Sparrow switches between being a hero and a criminal, he
switches between other binary extremes. His introduction at first is the epitome
of a fantastically masculine hero. He is standing at the very top of the mast,
holding on to the rigging. The sea wind blows through his hair and he looks
confidently ahead, accentuated by pompous, driving orchestral music. If one
were to stop the film right there and tried to guess what kind of character Jack is,
the conclusion would be the very masculine, heroic protagonist. At the very next
moment Jack seems to realise something is wrong and like an action hero he
grabs a rope to descend. In this moment, all built-up expectations about him being
heroic or masculine become shattered. Instead of being on a large ship with a
crew, he is alone on an almost submerged one-masted boat. He scrambles to
bail water out of his boat and his flamboyant way of movement becomes obvious.
His arms are flailing, almost as if he were constantly trying to keep his balance.
When he salutes the hanged pirates with his hat, he does so in a grand sweeping
gesture. When he arrives at the port, standing on the mast, his ship is sinking and
he makes it only just to the jetty. The music changes with him: his theme is
sometimes played pompously when he is heroic, tragically when he is saluting
the hanged pirates and skipping when he flamboyantly enters the harbour. The
very first two minutes of his introduction already point the audience to his
ambiguity as a character (cf. Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 45).
His expression of masculinity fluctuates between hyper-masculinity and
effeminacy. The hyper-masculine aspects are strongly connected to Jack’s heroic
side, while his effeminacy is often connected to his criminality or his focus on
personal gain. If we take into consideration what our society considers as
masculine, Jack overperforms some of those aspects and rejects, only reluctantly
or only sometimes performs others.
Jack often takes risks. His escape from Norrington and the guards after he
has rescued Elizabeth includes some reckless, almost ludicrous manoeuvres. He
could have been hurt or caught easily but somehow still makes it out unharmed.
His skills in a fight and as a sailor mark him as strong, physically fit and capable.
Bad luck seems to follow Jack: his crew has mutinied and then marooned him,
he gets captured by Norrington and faces a death sentence and when the fort is
bombed his cell is the only one that is not burst free. Despite all of this, he is
constantly able to either gain something from those situations or wriggle himself
out of them. Had he stayed with his crew, he would have become cursed, too.
Had he escaped from the cell, Will would never have found him, and Jack could
not have engaged in regaining his ship and crew with him. Every time it seems
like Jack is losing control, when he seems captured or in a predicament, it works
out for him. With his trickster-like nature, Jack is in control even when he seems
not to be. This also illustrates that Jack does masculine things like fighting or
taking risks but in a manner that is not entirely masculine. He is certainly skilled
and capable, but at the same time has a lot of luck and quite a few tricks up his
For Depp, pirates were the rock stars of their era with the status of legends
(cf. Porter 152). His way of playing Jack, as successfully reaching goals but
unorthodox in his methods and their implementation, matches with his
comparison. With a careless attitude about what the establishment thinks, Jack
gains grudging popularity and is above any conventions.
The freedom of being a pirate is also emphasising Jack’s masculinity. Just
like the 1980s action film protagonists and Western heroes, the pirate rejects an
unjust political rule and lives by his own morals. Piracy being an act of rebellion
and standing up against the injustice of British rule is the perspective PotC
provides for the audience. The audience’s sympathies are clearly steered
towards the pirates (particularly Jack) and not towards the British. Jack provides
the audience with the opportunity of exploring the unknown frontier: in At World’s
End (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007) (PotC 3), he leads us to Davy Jones’ locker and
in On Stranger Tides (dir. Rob Marshall, 2011) (PotC 4) to find mermaids and the
Fountain of Youth. Jack assumes this masculine coded tradition from Western
films and positions the figure of the pirate in PotC in the wake of their legacy.
Jack Sparrow seems omnipotent in what he manages to achieve, despite
all odds positioned against him. Jack is often left one last step away from
completing his (self-centred) goal when he faces a choice. In PotC 3 he desires
to become the immortal captain of the Flying Dutchman. He ends up finally
holding Davy Jones’ heart and only needs to stab it to complete his plan, but Will
has been fatally wounded and in the last moment Jack decides to save Will and
give up his ambition. Although Jack finds himself doing heroic deeds time and
time again, he does so with an eyeroll because it does not fit his image as a
criminal and pirate. Every heroic act, just like every establishment of masculinity,
is at some point refuted.
Jack establishes early on that he has no desire to be a hero. He actively
rejects the traditional role of the male hero off to save the damsel in distress and
explains this to Will, who wants to do exactly this, right at the beginning of their
quest. With this position Jack deconstructs the expected heteronormative plot (cf.
Steinhoff "Mobility" 125f.). He positions himself outside of the heteronormative
hero spectrum and, with that, rejects a core feature of how masculinity is created
on screen. Since Jack serves as the blueprint for the “good” pirate, he effectively
positions the figure of the pirate outside of the masculine heroic narrative and
with that outside of heteronormativity.
Although being a trickster helps him achieve his goals (which is in itself
very masculine), it makes him appear cowardly and unmanly at the same time.
In his first swordfight with Will in PotC 1 he employs every possible trick to win.
In comparison to Will, he fights dishonourably. Jack also tries to escape as soon
as possible instead of fighting it out until one can win and assert dominance over
the other. Jack tries to take the line of least resistance, which is certainly not the
most honourable or moral one. He performs heroic and masculine acts but the
way he does it (with flamboyance, luck and tricks) creates ambivalence. Although
his escape from Norrington in the beginning of PotC 1 is one of an action hero,
his facial expressions are certainly not. He spectacularly swings on ropes and
runs on beams all while being fired at but does not look like a stoic action hero
and badass. He screams and frantically tries to keep his balance, running
panicked and with flailing arms from the British soldiers. That scene is
paradigmatic for Jack’s masculinity: an ambiguous mixture of hyper-masculine
action, performed with cluelessness and effeminacy.
Will Turner is supposedly the male romantic lead that Jack cannot be. He starts
with classical heroic masculine ideals: fight the evil pirates, rescue his love, be
selfless and restore order. He puts himself, his ideals and goals in absolute
opposition to pirates, who for him have no honour. But the further the story
continues, the more those ideals blur. To accomplish his selfless goal, he is
forced to sell out some of those ideals, especially his detest of pirates. With this,
Will becomes more piratical (cf. Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 60f.). On the
surface, Will’s masculinity seems to match that of a classical romantic hero. Being
a skilled swordsman and blacksmith equip him with masculinity. He is competent
in his profession and an honourable man, which manifests in the way he fights
and treats Elizabeth.
However, by abiding to civilised rules and therefore not making advances
towards Elizabeth because she is higher in status, he emasculates himself. Jack
even questions his manhood during their first fight and asks if he is a eunuch.
Although being a blacksmith is connoted as masculine, it is a craft that demands
not only strength but sensitivity and compassion. Will is shown touching his
swords gently, proud of their delicate balance and finesse (cf. Steinhoff "Queer
Buccaneers" 66). He is initiated into manhood by being initiated into piracy. From
the conforming, rule-abiding colonial citizen, who is marked as impotent by not
being able to get the girl, he becomes a man and pirate who is able to have
Elizabeth (cf. 62). Even after his transformation, Will does not match the
masculinity often promoted on screen. In his connection to Elizabeth, who gains
autonomy with every step in PotC 1-3, he becomes the damsel in distress and
Elizabeth ends up saving him.
Additionally, for Will to be a true hero, he needs a proper monster to fight.
In the beginning, his personal monsters are pirates, because he only knows what
society taught him about them. The more he assimilates to them, the more he
realises that they are not truly evil and monstrous. Barbossa and his crew do not
prove to be proper monsters to hate and fight in PotC 1. Only Davy Jones and
British Rule and civilisation itself turn out to be the real monsters in Dead Man’s
Chest (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2006) (PotC 2) and PotC 3. The lines of hero and
monster become blurred: if civilisation is monstrous and Davy Jones is too
, the
pirate (and with them Will) stands in between. His heroism, and with it his
masculinity, is blurred. Pirates turn out not to be the real monsters he can
heroically fight against. If he fights against the real villains (Davy Jones and
civilisation), he aligns himself with pirates, who defy the civilised approach to
masculinity like heroism and honesty. In this scenario there is no side to choose
for Will on which he can maintain his integrity and ideals and his heroic
masculinity at the same time.
Barbossa’s crew of pirates are depicted as brutish imbeciles. They barbarically
destroy everything during their attack on Port Royal in PotC 1 and even harm
women and children. Diverse ethnicities, hairstyles and body types are
represented and not all of them are able-bodied. They rain down an assault of
ruthless barbarianism and weirdness upon the civilised, posh colony and cause
terror. Barbossa and his crew are in the antagonistic position and serve as the
“bad” monstrous pirates, but they are not unsympathetic. They are scary during
their raid or when working on the ship in the moonlight in their skeleton form, but
they remain likable. The endearing comedic duo of Ragetti (with his wooden eye)
and Pintel in particular keep the crew of the Black Peal sympathetic to the
audience. Both are perceived as scary when they abduct Elizabeth, but outside
of any fighting scenarios, they bicker like an old married couple and take care of
each other. This allows for their positioning to shift in PotC 2 and 3 towards the
“good” pirates. The crew’s hyper-masculinity is created through violence and
savagery. However, they are only “the muscle”, the rather dim henchmen who
follow their captain’s orders: this puts them in a subordinate position and
diminishes and inverts their hyper-masculinity.
I will later talk about how Davy Jones and civilisation being the villain in PotC is two sides of
the same coin.
Captain Barbossa is in many ways comparable with Disney’s Captain
Hook. He is the civilised dandy with a large feathered hat, only featuring a
monstrous side as an addition. He insists on an exquisite dinner with Elizabeth in
his cabin and has an air of civility around him at least for a pirate. Being a pirate
gives his civility a likable edge, he does not care if Elizabeth maintains a ladylike
eating habit although she is starving. Barbossa embodies a polite chivalry, free
from the chains of performance that Elizabeth despised in Port Royal. Being
civilised and intelligent could have given Barbossa a certain arrogance and
femininity in comparison to his coarse and hyper-masculine crew. What prevents
him from being read as feminised (like the British), is this rejection of specific
parts of civilisation. This renunciation of aspects of civilisation is what makes him
a pirate and a manly man at the same time. His position shifts from antagonist in
PotC 1 towards a fatherly figure for Elizabeth and Will in PotC 2 and 3. This arc
of becoming a father is finalised in Dead Men Tell no Tales (dir. Joachim Rønning
and Espen Sandberg, 2017) (PotC 5) where we learn at the end that the female
protagonist is his daughter and he sacrifices his life to rescue her
. Through
fatherhood, he grows as a person and as a man. He gains two major aspects of
masculinity: he becomes a father and a hero in saving his daughter.
Early on, PotC 1 directs the audience’s sympathies towards the pirates. The film
cuts back and forth between the scene where Jack is ridiculing and taunting the
two British guards at the harbour and Commodore Norrington’s ceremony. The
ceremony and Norrington are accompanied by flimsy and delicate music,
everything is stiff and posh and the audience pities Elizabeth in her corset: the
scene radiates tangible discomfort. Jack’s humorous scenes in between are like
a sigh of relief. The way civilised society and the men in it are depicted as
restrictive, snobbish and arrogant. Norrington and Elizabeth’s father are always
concentrated on what is proper and expected and are overly concerned about
looks and appearances. Norrington is ignorant and snobbish, bureaucratic and
cold-hearted, while Governor Swan is incompetent, impotent and cowardly (cf.
Barbossa is a character that lives through several redemption arches. Since a lot of them are
seemingly emphasised via queercoding, he will be dealt with in more detail in the analysis of his
Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 40). Although Norrington is later redeemed and
has a few sympathetic moments
, he mainly acts in the position of the villain.
The true villains of PotC 1-3 are the British rule and the men who embody
it. Contrary to Barbossa and his crew, they invoke no sympathy in the audience
and are the common enemy of the “evil” and “good” pirates. Norrington is an
emotionless bureaucrat who dismisses Will when he wants to rescue Elizabeth
in PotC 1. Contrasted by Wills spirited heroism, Norrington appears as the exact
opposite: unheroic. Their prim appearances and overly civilised mannerisms
make British men appear unmanly in PotC. Civility becomes the façade behind
which they hide their shortcomings. Governor Swan hides his cowardice through
his position, the law and civility, whereas Lord Beckett hides his sadistic cruelty
and excuses his inhumanity with the intention to protect civilisation. Civilisation
and all associated behaviours and mannerism are coded as negative. But it is
coded twofold: for modern audiences, the British civilisation appears feminine.
Although not considered feminine at that time, the stiff and fancy clothing, the
wigs and posh speech are unmasculine by modern standards. Civilised British
men thus appear as evil, feminised and powerless to modern audiences (cf.
Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 40).
Davy Jones is the monstrous villain and, at the same time, victim of the
British in PotC 2 and 3. Norrington steals his heart
and with it, Beckett forces
Jones in PotC 3 into his service to hunt pirates. Jones serves as the figure of the
heartbroken man, turned into a monster by the rejection of a woman. In some
scenes, the audience is moved to pity and can understand him, often when he is
depicted as vulnerable and lovelorn. These scenes are not used to redeem him
or excuse his actions though: he is not the tortured hero who became cruel by no
fault of his own. Jones’ lovesickness and his entitlement are his weaknesses. He
is not strong enough to face rejection without turning to betrayal and cruelty. The
rule on his ship is reminiscent of the hierarchical structures of colonial rule, of
hard conditions on slave and merchant ships and the cruelty of their captains (cf.
He allows Will’s and Elizabeth’s marriage at the end of PotC 1 and becomes a fugitive of the
law in PotC 2. He re-joins the British forces under Beckett and holds Davy Jones’ heart hostage
for his services to the British crown. Only shortly before his death in PotC 3 he finally redeems
himself. He realises that what he has done under the pretence of the law is wrong and helps
Elizabeth escape.
Jones has removed his beating heart because he could not bear the pain of loving the goddess
Calypso who he felt had betrayed him. The only way to kill him is by stabbing his heart, therefore
the British can hold him hostage by possessing his heart.
Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 38). Jones enslaves his crew, punishes them
severely and twists the rules to his advantage, which is close to the British way
of maintaining power through cruelty and violence. That Davy Jones becomes a
victim of the British does not serve to make him appear better, but for the British
to seem worse. Jones is feminised by his alignment with the British, and by his
weakness of character.
Masculinity becomes obvious in places where we do not expect it. In the mostly
homosocial society of pirates, women were rare but still existed. Elizabeth’s
narrative technically positions her as a damsel in distress for the hero to rescue.
However, I have already discussed that Will is not the classical hero and,
accordingly, Elizabeth is not a damsel in distress. She shows bravery and wit
when Port Royal is attacked and defends herself with all the means she can
muster. She does not sit still and helplessly waits to be rescued, but is active and
has agency. Activeness as well as agency are traits commonly associated with
masculinity and are rarely found in female characters in male-dominated
.The films make a point out of Elizabeth being capable and badass. The
common humoristic trope of someone divesting themselves from their weapons,
constantly pulling out new ones from hidden places on their body and creating a
huge pile, falls to her (cf. PotC 3). Furthermore, she becomes one of the nine
Pirate Lords, is then elected Pirate King, declares war on Beckett and England
and leads her men into battle with a grand speech. Keira Knightly is famous for
her tomboyish and androgynous characters and fills the character with action as
well as femininity (cf. Fradley 307f.). To distract the men from fighting, she acts
as if she is fainting. With this she acts out the heteronormative feminine role
(damsel) given to her and highlights the absurdity of that gender role for herself
as a character (cf. 296).
Although Elizabeth is in a masculinised position, some conventional
aspects of femininity remain. In some scenes she is still heavily objectified and
“The Sexy Lamp Test” measures something similar to the Bechdel Test and addresses the fact,
that films often feature a “strong female character” (often the only relevant female character) who
has no relevance to the plot and lacks agency. To illustrate this, the test asks to replace her with
a sexy lamp. If the plot still works, the female character has no agency and is only relevant to the
story for being sexy.
constantly needs to re-establish her agency, e.g. when Sao Feng (from whom
she later takes over the title of Pirate Lord) sexually harasses her. The other
characters' agency is never questioned, and they never have to fight for it or
regain it, they just intrinsically possess it. Elizabeth grows from a confined and
unhappy lady to an active pirate, despite her love entanglement. For many female
characters (especially Disney characters) finding love is their ultimate goal and
once they have accomplished it, they lose their agency. It seems that Elizabeth
is allowed agency beyond this, but in a post credit scene in PotC 3 it becomes
nullified. She is on land, a mother and patiently waiting for her seafaring husband
Will to return, as if her piratical ambitions were eradicated (cf. Steinhoff "Mobility"
123f.). Despite three films working hard to establish Elizabeth with masculine
coded characteristics such as agency, capability, control and success, she ends
up with a classical Disney heroine ending.
This treatment of Elizabeth, and in PotC 4 of Angelica, allows a meta view
on how the franchise treats woman and femininity. Jack meets someone who is
impersonating him and it turns out to be Angelica, a former lover. She beats him
in a spectacular swordfight and kidnaps him to find the Fountain of Youth.
Angelica is depicted as a deceiving femme fatale
. When Jack later wants to
maroon her, she uses the “weapons of a woman” to avert it: she tells him she is
pregnant with his child and that she loves him. When this obvious lie does not
affect Jack, she becomes furious, she curses, screams and shoots at him. Later
when Jack saves her life because her father had betrayed her, she is ungrateful.
Angelica is a strong woman but painted in a negative light throughout the story.
She is also not that way by her own making, but is a complete product of Jack’s
actions. She had wanted to join a convent but shortly before that, Jack took her
virginity and told her he loved her. When that turned out to be a lie, she got mad
at him and therefore turned from faithfully devoted good Christian to deceitful
femme fatale pirate. Angelica lacks self-determination and autonomy in her
actions. She is almost always directed by the men in her life and when she is not,
she reverts to deceit and hysterical temper tantrums. Angelica exists to represent
cliché feminine stereotypes (mixed with enough “action babe” traits like fighting,
Just like the mermaids who are first introduced into the franchise in this film and deceive men
with their beauty to drown and eat them. Only the captured mermaid Syrena (whose tears are
needed for the Fountain of Youth) is redeemed of this negative designation by falling in love with
a man.
to not anger modern female audiences) for Jack to reject and establish his
masculinity over.
In the PotC franchise there is no man performing flawless hegemonic masculinity.
The leading men, like Jack, Will or Barbossa, have feminised aspects and
incorporate some traits of marginalised masculinities. The most outstanding
example, Jack Sparrow, skips animatedly between hyper-masculinity and
marginalisation. Despite featuring strong women who break societal rules, the
film manages to portray and endorse patriarchy. The obvious forms of patriarchy,
civilisation and the British, are discredited by being villainised and feminised.
Piracy seems like an antidote, a form of freedom from a cruel system of
repression. But PotC does not deconstruct the patriarchy, but simply gives a
different answer to how to maintain it. The hegemonic form of masculinity is
independent from certain character traits but is deemed to be the best agent to
ensure and maintain patriarchy. PotC’s protagonists depict a feminised hyper-
masculinity that deviates from heroism and paints them as anti-heroes.
Nevertheless, this masculinity is able to maintain patriarchy whereas the British
civilised masculinity is not. Elizabeth cannot be tamed by Norrington, Beckett or
her father, but is able to be tamed by a piratical Will. Her confinement by
civilisation and weak, cowardly men hiding behind the law and rules, is depicted
as utterly negative. Her confinement on land, waiting for Will to return from sea
and taking care of their children, is the happy ending for Elizabeth that is served
to the audience. Additionally, the depiction of Angelica with misogynist
stereotypes does not upset the audiences because she is so easy to dislike.
Jack’s part in her “creation” is excused and dismissed with a shrug and the notion
that Jack is just Jack and does what a pirate will do.
PotC provides a “piratified” form of masculinity that takes the hegemonic
position and ensures the patriarchy despite incorporating traits of marginalisation
and subordination.
2.3.4. Black Sails
Black Sails is a Starz TV show created by Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine,
which concluded with four seasons. It is a homage to, and prequel of,
Stevenson’s Treasure Island mixed with historical pirates and events. Characters
from Treasure Island are introduced and a backstory for their conflicts is created
and the story of how Flint’s treasure was acquired and hidden on Skeleton Island
is depicted. Historical pirates added include Charles Vane, Jack Rackam and
Anne Bonny and later Edward Teach. Flint is a successful captain based in
Nassau, whose vision is to create an independent pirate community there. He
plans to raid the Urca de Lima, a Spanish ship loaded with gold, with which he
wants to finance his dream for Nassau. He searches for the schedule that
describes the ships course and finally discovers it has been memorised by John
Silver. Silver had been on a ship attacked by Flint and had recognised the
schedule for what it was, joined Flint’s crew and tried to sell it behind Flint’s back.
When his scheme is uncovered, he destroys the schedule and makes himself
invaluable to Flint. Over the course of acquiring the gold, Silver and Flint become
partners. Later, together with the Maroons and Nassau’s pirates, they plan to
wage war against England and civilisation itself. The show features intricate
subplots and fluid character constellations as a result of questionable loyalties
and intrigues.
In comparison to the source material, which was rather targeted at young
children with pirates as the monstrous villains, Black Sails caters to older
audiences and is full of moral ambiguity. Treasure Island provides a masculinity
filled with contemporary imperialistic values, represented by Jim: loyalty, bravery
and strength. Black Sails is rawer, grubbier and less polished, its protagonists are
sweaty, greasy, violent and hard (cf. Myrvang 26f.). Just like PotC, Black Sails
positions the pirates as the likable protagonists, but shows characters that act
violently and dubiously.
The show differentiates between what is part of a story and needs to be
carried out for appearances sake and what lies beneath it. The image the pirates
as a collective sell to civilisation is an intentionally monstrous one. When we see
Flint’s crew attack a ship right in the beginning, crew members are wearing fake
fangs, warpaint and scream and yell to appear barbaric, all to arrive at an easy
surrender with few casualties. As soon as the fight is over, they become less
threatening and try to win over new members for their crew (cf. S01xE01 I). It
is not only the pirates who are concerned about their image as perceived by
civilisation, but the piratical leaders in particular also need to keep up
appearances for their men. The crew members are often brutish, violent and
unintelligent men in need of instant gratification. They are unable to work towards
a distant goal without guidance and lack foresight. They follow whomever they
are either most afraid of or who is most likely to secure them a prize, as these are
the men they respect.
To match these requirements, leaders put on displays of extensive violence and
power to show strength to their crews although it is not in their nature. Flint uses
excessive violence to (re-)establish his role as captain and at the same time his
masculinity. Flint is depicted as intelligent, ruthless and with a determined goal in
his mind, which he will do anything to accomplish. He neither shies away from
direct action and violence, nor from scheming and deceiving people. He uses any
means at his disposal to reach his goal: become pirate king and defend Nassau
from the civilisation that wants to brand pirates as monsters. He moves with
intent, seems somehow larger than life and, although he is not very tall or
muscular, he has impressive presence. Excessive displays of violence are
sometimes genuine and triggered by rage but are mostly calculated to assert
dominance and hegemony. When he brutally fights and kills Singleton, a crew
member who challenges his captaincy, he makes an example of what happens
to men who betray him. Because Billy
had told him before that the crew thinks
him to be weak, Flint publicly kills Singleton and emerges drenched in blood,
restoring a strong image. He combines it with a scheme surrounding the missing
page of the schedule to blame it on Singleton (cf. S01xE01 I).
Flint is not intrinsically violent or cruel. He is educated, loves books and
enjoys domesticity. But he is aware that this would compromise him in front of his
crew and tells Billy: “Flint: So you can probably guess, it isn't as much fun to tell
stories about how your captain makes a home with a nice Puritan woman who
Billy Bones, one of the characters of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, is part of Flint’s crew in Black
Sails. The show provides a backstory for how the quarrel between John Silver and Billy Bones
came to be.
shares his love of books” (S01xE05 – V). When his image is strong enough and
he can get away without violence, he does so. He does not take part in the torture
of a captured captain, although Singleton mocks him for it (cf. S01xE01 I). His
ultimate goal is to turn Nassau into a Nation of Thieves, independent from
England, and to be able to finally walk away from the sea to find peace (cf.
S01xE02 II). To achieve this goal, he uses the façade of the character Flint,
which he put on when he became a pirate. James McGraw
becomes more and
more buried in the violence of his alter ego Flint. The audience is shown glimpses
of the soft but strong man he used to be when he is with Eleanor
and Madi
who he treats like daughters, or with Miranda
Flint is bothered by the violence and deceit he uses to accomplish his
goals. Killing Gates, a long-term friend, and being perceived as a villain,
contradicts his self-image. James McGraw hates and fears Flint but needs to
outsource the hardness and violence because they are incompatible with his true
character (cf. S02xE04 XII and S02xE09 XVII). The appearance Flint has
created for everyone (with only few exceptions, like Silver) is that of the powerful,
risk-taking, successful and violently masculine man, who defends his position on
top with all means necessary. He has created this image because it will help him
to achieve the goals of his softer side, of James. Although most leaders among
Flint understand and accept a soft and gentle side, the uneducated and short-
sighted crew members do not. To persist in this society and be on top, Flint must
perform this kind of masculinity despite it taking a toll on him. This selective hyper-
masculinity is only portrayed towards people he needs to impress, whereas the
audience knows his true character, including his love of books and domesticity.
The negative effects and personal suffering caused by the hyper-masculinity he
needs to display clearly criticise it. Furthermore, Flint is queer: a fact that puts his
masculinity in a subordinated and marginalised position in our society. As does
his soft, bookish and domestic nature.
I will be using “James” and “Flint” consciously to differentiate between the past and core of the
character vs. the violent pirate-persona.
Eleanor Guthrie provides her familiy’s name under which pirated goods can be resold. She is
the head of the black market and Flint’s ally in his dream for Nassau. She later sides with England
and marries Woods Rogers.
Madi is the daughter of the Maroon queen and is, together with Flint and Silver, part of the
triumvirate that wants to lead the pirates into war. Madi and Silver are romantically involved.
We also get to know James McGraw in flashbacks as of season two, when he meets Thomas
and his wife Miranda in London. This will be analysed in detail regarding Flints queerness.
A character that displays a similar brutality and hardness to Flint’s public persona
is inspired by a historical pirate: Charles Vane. Contrary to Flint, Vane feels no
remorse or disruption towards his hyper-masculinity. Being a former slave and
protégé of Blackbeard has formed him. He is physically threatening and very
muscular. Vane positions himself unequivocally and without pretence:
Vane: Eleanor, when I take something from a man, his ship, his money, his life, I
don't hide behind a clerk. I don't hide behind the law. I don't hide behind anything.
I look him in his eye and I give him every chance to deny me. That is legitimate
(S02xE06 XIV).
The masculinity he expresses is in many ways similar to the Western and action
hero: strong, reliable, in control and with a specific code of ethics that is removed
from the ethics of society (in this case England). What contrasts Vane and Flint
is their outlook after experiencing misery. While Flint still hopes for contentment,
Vane believes contentment is a trap that will enslave him again:
Vane: All these things, porcelain, books all so goddamn fragile. The energy it
must take to maintain it all. And for what? I can understand a woman’s desire for
domesticity, but a mans? That I cant understand.
Flint: I cant understand how you cannot understand. You have no instinct
towards earning for yourself a life more comfortable?
Vane: I dont. And had I that instinct, I would resist it with every inch of will I could
muster. For that is the single most dangerous weapon they possess, the one they
tempt. Give us your submission, and we will give you the comfort you need. No,
I can think of no measure of comfort worth that price. (S03xE08 XXVI)
Vane rejects feminine coded traits and behaviours, as for him they mean
inhibition and captivation and remind him of being a slave. Because of his
convictions and personal moral code, he decides to become a martyr. Eleanor
has urged his trial and public execution in the name of England and Vane knows
that his death is the only way to start the revolution in Nassau. He refuses to be
rescued and riles up the masses.
His attitude mostly serves him well in pirate society but sometimes
impedes Vane. He does not control his men in any way and they are unruly,
violent and cruel. Because they destroy more than they earn and later because
they abuse and rape Max
, Eleanor grounds Vane and denies him further raids.
Especially Max’s treatment paints Vane as unsympathetic for the audience. But
Vane is neither sexist nor is he a hero or gentleman. Eleanor punches him in front
of his crew and he strikes back. When he takes care of her injuries, he tells her
to never challenge him in front of his crew again (cf. S01xE01 I). Vane has no
qualms with Eleanor challenging him in general, he even claims that is what he
used to love about her (cf. S01xE04 IV). But even for him, an open challenge
to his masculinity in being punched by a woman might undermine his captaincy.
In many ways Jack and Silver are positioned contrary to the depiction of both
Vane’s and Flint’s masculinity. Jack, who is modelled after John “Calico Jack”
Rackham, knows that he is and will never be a hyper-masculine, violent pirate.
He chooses his fights accordingly and prefers to solve conflicts with his wit and
Jack: When I came here, I had nothing but my name and my wits. A man in a
place like this, surviving on those two things alone, he suffers indignities, slights,
ridicule. But I overcame it. I used the wits to build the name. I became
quartermaster to a crew that struck fear into the hearts of many, many men.
(S02xE01 IX)
Not only is he self-aware about his strengths and weaknesses, he also knows
when someone else is better suited for the job. He lets Max take over the
business in the brothel and later the negotiations with Mrs. Guthrie (Eleanor’s
grandmother), because he knows that she can do it better than him (cf. S01xE07
VII and S04xE07 XXXV). In most combats, he steps aside and lets his partner
Anne Bonny fight, because she simply outperforms him. Jack is secure in his
personality and abilities and does not feel emasculated by a woman like her. In
their relationship, she takes on the stereotypical masculine role of the quiet,
reclusive fighter and he negotiates their path through life
. He plans and
schemes and always has the long game in mind.
Max is a cunning and intelligent woman who works her way from prostitute to Madam of the
brothel and finally to governing Nassau. In the beginning she is romantically involved with Eleanor
but after season two with Anne Bonny.
His portrayal in Black Sails matches with his historical model: “There is no record of Calico Jack
using torture or murder, and he seems to have gone out of his way to treat his victims with
restraint” (Cordingly 57).
When Anne and Max begin their relationship and Jack notices it, he is hurt,
but he does not rage full of jealously. He acts with the intentions of Anne’s
happiness and freedom and is later invited to a ménage-à-trois (cf. S02xE02 X
and S02xE03 XI). To be masculine, a success in seducing woman is vital. The
expected reaction conditioned into audience’s minds by other portrayals of men
in situations like this could have been to cut out Max as his opponent or try to
control Anne. Jack shows that he values and respects Anne’s choices as his
equal partner. Although he is wounded by her choice, he does not let his male
ego take over which shows a strength of character. A situation that is often used
to undermine and attack a character’s masculinity is navigated gracefully and
respectfully by Jack. The show decidedly does not portray the stereotypically
hyper-masculine path which prioritises the male ego, maintained by the
possession of a woman.
This does not mean that Jack is unable to stand his ground or to fight as a
captain. He plays the long game and picks only certain battles for himself which
he usually wins. In a negotiation with another captain to divide a prize fairly
between his crew and the other, he can either physically fight or let his crew be
defrauded. In this instance, he decides to personally fight the opposing captain
and kills him in a messy, bloody fight (cf. S02xE06 XIV). He also takes charge
of Nassau when it needs to be defended:
Jack: I never approved of Eleanor Guthries harsh mothering of this place. I
believe my record on that issue is in good order. That said, if youre going to
behave like children, then I will be your daddy. When this meeting breaks, I will
address the street, your crews, and I will persuade them that a defence of this
place isnt just desirable, it is critical to their ability to call themselves men
(S03xE03 XXI).
Jack’s confidence in who he is only wavers once: after his good friend Vane dies,
he throws himself into a fight with the British and is wounded. While Anne is taking
care of him afterwards, she calls him out on his reckless behaviour and risking
his life mindlessly. Jack wants Vane’s death answered and desires to be
someone who Vane would have been proud of. In his grief, he tried to be the
hyper-masculine pirate covered in his enemies’ blood, just like Vane. Anne
reminds him that they are not here to prove anything and that this behaviour is
nothing like him and not complementary to his character (cf. S04xE01 XXIX).
Jack’s ability of self-assessment and lack of false pride portray him as
possessing a grounded and resilient masculinity and make him one of the most
successful pirates in the show.
Like Jack, Silver does not display hyper-masculinity. In the first two seasons his
actions and intentions are purely self-centred: he does whatever secures him the
Urca gold so he can retire and live a carefree life.
Silver: Because I don't want to be a pirate. I'm not interested in the life. Not
interested in the fighting, not interested in the ships. […] But being a pirate on this
crew for a little while longer, it offers me an opportunity I don't believe I can find
anywhere else on Earth: one big prize. And with it, freedom (S02xE02 X).
Silver is very clearly an opportunist and has no interest in heroism,
leadership or approval from anyone and is not ashamed of this. Being accused
of cowardice or weakness does not affect or offend him, as he has accepted this
as part of his identity. When Billy suggests torturing the information of the
schedule out of him, Silver informs him that this will not work. Billy assumes this
is, because Silver believes himself to be so tough that he can withstand torture,
but Silver corrects him: “Silver: No, I mean I have an exceptionally low tolerance
for pain. Id say anything to make it stop(S01xE03 III). Silver knows that his
value as a person is not being a hyper-masculine fighter or a skilled sailor, but is
instead his ability to read people, tell stories and to sway the crew to his side. It
becomes his most powerful tool and he soon becomes as good as Flint at it, if
not better (cf. S02xE08 XVI). Although Silver does not like violence, cannot
stand pain and is not in a position of power (in the first two seasons), he is not
depicted as emasculated. He is a trickster character whose ability is to survive
with all odds pitched against him.
Silver changes over the course of the second season which is symbolically
finalised in the season finale (cf. S02xE10 XVIII). Vanes quartermaster wants
Silver to give him the names of the men who will most likely join his crew and kill
the men Silver does not recommend. He refuses and they restrain him on a table
and start beating his leg with a hammer. Silver never gives up any names, no
matter how hard they hit him and refers to the crew as my men. He has taken
up responsibility and shows loyalty to the crew at great personal cost. Silver has
grown from self-serving opportunist to conscientious leader. His damaged leg
cannot be saved and, while recovering from the amputation, his crew elects him
as their new quartermaster in his absence.
Season three shows a gruffier and darker Silver. He has grown a beard,
longer hair, wears a thick coat and seems matured. He has become more serious
and is no longer the boyish trickster and coward he was before (cf. S03xE01
XIX). As a result of the suffering and trauma of losing his leg and his new leading
position as quartermaster, he struggles with his identity and displays a different
kind of masculinity towards the men. Because of his disability he no longer feels
helpful, of no value and even like a burden to his crew. He desperately wants to
prove that he can do his share of the work and is mortified every time the crew
assures him that they will take care of him
Muldoon: Fuckin' hell. What part of let us take care of you did you not
understand? If it wasn't for you, we'd all be planted at the bottom of the Charles
Town bay. We got a debt for that. It ain't right not to let us pay it.
Silver: All the shit we been through the last few months, do you wanna know
what the most terrifying part of all of it's been? We'll take care of you.
Muldoon: I get it.
Silver: Do you?
Muldoon: 'Course I do. Look at me. I know what it's like to be afraid of being the
one ain't strong enough to stick. But it don't work that way, yeah? And even if it
did, it wouldn't work like that for you (S03xE02 XX).
Muldoon, who is a good friend of Silver’s, dies right after this conversation
because he is jammed beneath deck by a crashing beam and cannot escape the
water slowly filling the hold. Silver is unable to save him and is thrown into even
deeper despair by this helplessness.
Silver, just like Flint, takes on a hyper-masculine façade for his men. He
uses a peg leg despite his wound not being healed enough to withstand it, as
crutches would make him look weak
. He is aware that he needs to keep up
Among pirates it was granted that a crew member injured in a fight was to be financially
compensated for his loss. Contrary to the Navy, who simply cast out disabled soldiers who then
often dropped into poverty, pirate crews still provided shares of their prizes and cared for disabled
crew members.
He does not have those concerns towards Flint. When Flint trains him in swordfight, Flint thinks
it will be an issue for him to take off the peg leg. Silver says that it is only an issue when he needs
to control how the men see him. He and Flint are so close that there is no need for pride or
pretence (cf. S04xE09 XXXVII).
appearances to stay in a leading position. He only shares his weaknesses and
concerns with Madi and Flint.
Silver: I cannot look weak. I cannot feel weak. I cannot be weak. Not in front of
my men. Not in front of your men. Not at all. For some time now, I have been
holding my entire world together with both hands, keeping my men in line, seeing
to their needs, and the only way that endures is if I look the part. And I cannot
look the part while being poked and prodded or while drooling through an opium
haze saying who the fuck knows what. So, I will endure this the way I have been
enduring it (S03xE06 XXIV).
This cumulates in Silver’s first display of excessive violence. As Dufresne insults
Silver and Flint and disparages Silver as only half a man without power, he slaps
him down and stomps his head in with his iron peg leg (cf. S03xE07 XXV).
Silver reclaims his violated body and symbolically redefines his marginalisation
as a weapon. He later has gained enough standing and security in his position
that he uses a crutch after he loses his peg leg. Silver’s value and masculinity are
now generated through his position as a political leader of his community. He
adapts to a more masculine behaviour and at the same time becomes
marginalised through his disability. One reason is to compensate for the
marginalisation and at the same time his new leading position demands that
façade of him. Additionally, the trauma caused by it and the exposure to such
violence done to his body darkens his disposition.
Silver becomes more and more aware of the toll this darkness and violence
takes on him and begins to understand Flint better. He confides in Billy and later
realises that with their war against England, they will be caught in an endless
cycle of violence. This kind of violence and this kind of hyper-masculinity only
generates losses and grief. It is also neither inherent to Flint, Madi or Silver; only
a persona each one of them generate as leaders and which will sooner or later
destroy them from the inside. Silver’s goal becomes to put a stop to all this, to
find a non-violent solution that will help them find the peace they intended to
create with this war.
Silver: This is what it would be. Time after time after time. Endlessly. The
measuring of lives and loves and spirits so that they may be wagered in a grand
game. How much ransom can be afforded for the cause? How many casualties
can be tolerated for the cause? How much loss? That isn't a war. That is a fucking
nightmare. And I cannot take a single step towards leaving this forest till I know
it's over (S04xE10 XXXVIII).
The toxicity of this dynamic has been hinted at by showing the suffering of
characters throughout the entire show. By Silver finally ending the violence and,
with it, the display of hyper-masculinity, the series makes the reflection of this
No. I did not kill Captain Flint. I unmade him. The man you know could never let
go of his war. For if he were to exclude it from himself, he would not be able to
understand himself. So, I had to return him to an earlier state of being. One in
which he could function without the war. Without the violence. Without us. Captain
Flint was born out of great tragedy. You know this. I told you this. I found a way
to reach into the past and undo it (S04xE10 XXXVIII).
Violence and hyper-masculinity in Black Sails are born out of excessive trauma
(through violence itself) or tragedy. At the same time, violence and the trauma it
causes are considered an initiation ritual into manhood. Mrs. Guthrie accurately
describes it: Mrs. Guthrie: That would seem to be the history of Nassau, too,
wouldn't it? A cycle of violence that benefits none and consumes all” (S04xE07 –
XXXV). Boys are quite literally baptised in blood to become men. Dufresne, the
accountant, is bookish, good with numbers and innocently boyish and is afraid
when he is forced to fight for the first time. In the fight, he bites someone's aorta
and gets drenched in blood (cf. S01xE05 V). Subsequently, he becomes
quartermaster and gets a tattoo and short haircut by the crew. Dufresne jokes
about it being an initiation ritual (cf. S01xE07 VII). This is the beginning of the
end for him: his delusions of grandeur soon lead to him becoming a villain in the
The only difference between Dufresne compared to Jack, Silver and Flint
(who were all at some point covered in blood) is that they have a support system
that keeps them from turning truly villainous. They have friends and partners with
who they can indulge in their soft, “feminine” side and learn to differentiate the
façade from their true character. What Silver realises is that this support system
will stop being enough sooner rather than later; especially if the support system
itself consists of people caught in the same vicious circle. To protect himself and
the people he loves from the consequences of hyper-masculinity and violence,
he ends the cycle
. Boys are made men by experiencing violence and men are
made monsters by experiencing too much uncompensated violence.
Black Sails portrays a wide variation of sophisticated and diverse leading
female characters. Although I will not analyse them in detail, their treatment by
the show and its men is significant and needs to be addressed. Although
masculinity is usually generated through the rejection of femininity and often
misogyny, the leading men do not act in this way towards women. Flint, Vane,
Jack and Silver respect and value the women in their lives. Especially Max, Madi
and Eleanor are in positions of power and are respected by their men or people.
Though they all need to prove their positions, they do not need to prove
themselves simply because they are women. Although Eleanor later defects to
the English side, she is never attacked on the grounds of her femininity by the
male protagonists. Contrary to these men, the common pirates and the British do
devalue her because of her womanhood
. But their masculinity does not serve
as a role model: they are uneducated in case of the pirates or in the antagonistic
position in case of the British. Women are and stay on top and the men who are
positioned to be respected by the audience do not generate their masculinity
through misogyny.
At first glance, the masculinity portrayed in Black Sails is a violent, omni-
potent and larger than life hyper-masculinity. But upon a closer inspection, the
show heavily criticises this and positions itself in favour of softness, acceptance
and compassion. In the end, what it means to be a man is to follow a code and a
specific form of honour. The people the show positions as weak are the ones who
have surrendered their beliefs to England and civilisation. Neither effeminacy,
queerness or disability eradicate masculinity. Masculinity is individual to
We see the same in Anne: she has suffered trauma and has been sexually violated by her
former husband. When Jack violates her trust because he accepts his new crew’s demands of
not taking a woman on board, the amount of trauma Anna can take is reached. She succumbs to
excessive violence and Max becomes her support, guiding her back through gentleness and love.
The pirates in Nassau stage Eleanor’s trial in London. They enact it with a high-pitched
speaking, cross dressing man who is impersonating her. They are contemplating that she must
be sad that the men filled her purse with gold, but never something else (S03xE01 XIX). In later
episodes she tries to conform to what is expected of women in England (as Roger’s wife). Eleanor
gives up the autonomy she has fought for: during an attack she hides with the other women
beneath the fort and stitches completely contrary to her true character. Eleanor: If the street
understands us better when I sit among your men’s wives rather than your men, if the world makes
more sense to them that way and your authority grows because of it, as uncomfortable as it may
be, then that is a compromise I am willing to make” (S04xE01 – XXIX).
everyone: it means knowing who you really are and holding on to that knowledge
and not wavering from it.
2.3.5. Comparison
PotC and Black Sails have a different target audience and therefore a different
outlook. While PotC is a Disney franchise that aims to be enjoyable for the whole
family, Black Sails targets a mature audience with violence, nudity and intricate
plots. Although the only theme they seem to have in common is piracy set in
Golden Age, it is precisely this theme, that constructs fascinating parallels: they
centre on a specific form of masculinity and both question current hegemonic
Jack Sparrow comically bounces back and forth between excessive hyper-
masculinity and effeminacy and cowardice. With that ambiguity, he not only
becomes an unpredictable source of amusement for the audience, but also
demonstrates the absurdity of hyper-masculinity. PotC does not put this criticism
front and centre; it cannot afford to, as a family-friendly film with Disney values. It
keeps it hidden behind hilarity and disguised as comedic entertainment. Only
when one starts to look for the masculine hero and does not find him, the subtle
position becomes apparent. At the same time, PotC emasculates the British men
and thus the pirates appear as the most masculine inside that fictional society.
Jack Sparrow (or even Will Turner), when taken out of this fictional context and
positioned next to a 1980s bodybuilder action hero or even a 1990s action hero,
would reveal that PotC’s pirates do not display hegemonic masculinity. In addition
to this, its pirates often bear markers of marginalisation. Pirates in supporting
roles have disabilities, are older or are of non-white ethnicities; even Sparrow
himself is portrayed as non-white.
Black Sails features very extreme forms of hyper-masculinity but also
criticises it explicitly. The finale centres on rediscovering softness and love and
shedding the toxicity of hyper-masculinity and its circle of violence. The main
characters Flint and Silver are marginalised through queerness and disability but
portray hegemonic masculinity as an intentional façade. They are aware that they
need this for their men to respect them and value them as their leaders. Black
Sails focusses on the toll hyper-masculinity takes on them and other characters
and criticises a society in which this form of masculinity is needed and admired.
Generally, modern pirate films or TV shows depicting the Golden Age have
one thing in common: the pirate is the sympathetic protagonist to the British
colonial antagonist. From feared hostis humani generis in the late 17th and early
18th century, their role has shifted towards a more heroic position. Neither PotC
nor Black Sails portray them as heroes, they are anti-heroes with morally
ambiguous attitudes. The fact that the pirate genre positions anti-heroes as
protagonists creates new possibilities in portraying their masculinity which PotC
and Black Sails utilise. The classic hero, in film and TV, has a self-sacrificing
personality, acts in a black-or-white moral dichotomy, is reliable, strong, beautiful
and ends up with a heteroromantic love interest he has fought for the entire film.
He portrays what the contemporary audience considers the hegemonic form of
masculinity. The hero as the protagonist and the (unrealistic) ideal he represents,
is shaped by, and at the same time shapes, societys idea of hegemonic
Intriguingly, the pirate genre positions the anti-heroic pirate as the
protagonist. The identification of the audience with the protagonists is suddenly
filled with piratical ambiguity and criticism of hyper-masculinity. The conditioning
of the audience is to regard the position of the protagonist as the same position
in which hegemonic masculinity will be displayed. Filling the protagonist position
with piratical masculinity leads to piratical masculinity being perceived as
hegemonic by the audience. Although piratical masculinity is a subordinated and
marginalised masculinity (and even actively rejects hyper-masculinity), in this
context it occupies the hegemonic position. Significantly, this elevates piratical
masculinity to a unique position that it should not be able to occupy because of
its subordination. Piratical masculinity often includes a form of queerness in
addition to the aforementioned positionalities already rejecting hegemonic
masculinity. Queerness signifies men as subordinated to an even greater extent.
How queerness in modern depictions of pirates is generated and how it affects
their masculinity will be analysed in the second part.
3. Queerness
This second part will first provide a working definition of the term queer and then
give a short account on how queerness is portrayed in film and TV. Open
queerness and the methods with which characters are and were coded as queer
will be introduced. I will also summarise the discussion regarding the question of
whether the pirates of the Golden Age were queer or had homosexual habits.
The following analysis of queerness in PotC and Black Sails will be based upon
this discussion.
3.1. Queer Theory
Queer Theory developed inside and alongside Gender Studies and includes the
study of sexual orientation and gender identity, among other things. Queer is an
umbrella term for sexualities and gender identities that deviate from the norm.
Sexual orientation is more complex than a binary of homo- and heterosexuality.
Even the image of a scale between those two concepts is misleading. Sexual
orientations like asexuality or pansexuality cannot be effectively placed in a binary
between homosexuality vs. heterosexuality. If a queer gender identity is added to
this it becomes even harder to place the sexual orientation within a binary. A
person whose gender identity is non-binary or fluid cannot be defined by being
sexually attracted by the same or opposite gender, since their gender itself is not
situated on the male/female binary. In addition to this, the term queer can have a
broader range than the acronym LGBTQ in describing the community. In a
broader sense it can even incorporate everything outside of monogamous,
heterosexual, procreative intercourse (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 5-7). But as a
working definition I will use queer to describe non-heterosexual orientations and
people who are not cis-gendered. Gender identity and sexual orientation are often
entwined, especially in the perception of queer people by non-queer people:
effeminate men are labeled as gay and strong women as lesbians (cf. 7).
The term homosexuality was first coined in the 19th century to describe an
abnormal medical condition and was mostly used for gay men. Before that
concept was introduced, gay men were often called sodomites. So labels like gay,
homosexual or queer would not have been used by contemporaries during the
Golden Age on Piracy. Homosexuality was only declassified as a mental disorder
in America in 1974. Being gay nowadays is not only a sexual orientation anymore,
but has also become personality type, almost like a character-trait and is a vital
part of a person’s identity (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 4).
3.2. Queerness in Film and TV
Representation of queerness in media matters because people are greatly
influenced by the media they consume and look for identification in it. Queer
adolescents in particular can find successful role models that they can follow and
who help them become more secure in their identity if they are able to see
themselves represented in media (cf. Gomillion and Giuliano 331333). People
identify with an idol in the media either because they want to be them or because
there are similarities to their own experiences. For young members of the LGBTQ
community, idols often function as examples of how gay people behave and look
like and provide public validation for their identity (cf. 343-345). For non-queer
people, media representation often provides the first or only insight into queer
peoples lives and realities.
Therefore, negative or stereotypical portrayals of queerness (e.g. as
flamboyant) impact young people in particular in a negative fashion and result in
queer people feeling excluded from society and limited [in] their identity
expression" (Gomillion and Giuliano 343).
Queerness in cinema has two major manifestations. “Queer cinema
describes openly queer films about queer topics (e.g. Brokeback Mountain dir.
Ang Lee, 2005) and the study thereof. It stands in contrast to heterosexist
mainstream films and how queer audiences perceive them (cf. Fradley 298). To
understand modern manifestations of queerness on screen and why we identify
certain behaviours as markers of queerness, it is vital to understand the cinematic
tradition that they stem from.
In the films of the1920s, the figure of the silly pansy was a "flowery, fussy,
effeminate queer soul, given limp wrists and mincing steps" (Benshoff and Griffin
24). He was never explicitly labelled queer, but those behaviourisms distinctly
coded him as such. In that period being homosexual meant wanting to be the
Kinsman gives a great summary of the history of homosexuality from the first use of the term
in 1869 until now (cf. 170-175).
opposite gender (“the gender invert”), so effeminate men on screen were
intended to be read as homosexual (cf. 21). In the 1930s, the Production Code
was introduced in Hollywood. Films were censored and no longer allowed to show
"sex perversion" or anything perceived as racy. The figure of the effeminate
pansy was not purged, but instead now came with an alibi-wife. He still had an
intimate and affectionate connection to another man on screen and his wife was
never really shown, but heterosexuality was still constructed even if only on a
surface level. Queer people were not only portrayed as funny, silly and amusing
but also as villainous and evil, especially in post-war Hollywood: Nazis were often
depicted as non-gender conforming and sexually perverted (cf. 2437).
With the end of the Production Code era in the 1960s, homosexuality was
allowed to be portrayed on screen openly. Slowly, homosexuality began to be
decriminalised and the first open protests and community building began with the
famous Stonewall Riots in 1969. Homosexuality was still treated derogatorily and
was condemned (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 85-103). In the late 1960s and early
1970s, Hollywood became more (sexually) experimental and open concerning
queer characters, since they no longer had to abide by the Production Code. The
societal displeasure with those films led to dwindling audiences and forced
positive queer depictions on screen back into the closet. With this, the evil,
villainous queer stereotype returned (cf. 135-145).
Successes like Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (dir.
George Lucas, 1977) brought audiences back to the cinema. Homosexuality in
mainstream media was back to being connotated (e.g. Star Wars C-3PO is
coded queer) (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 145-149). More and more queer
filmmakers of that time started to make their own movies, specifically about the
queer experience (cf. 153-171). With the surging AIDS-crisis in America in the
1980s, there was a right-wing backlash against positive queer depictions, and at
the same time a backlash from the queer community against negative depictions
of queerness in media. The mainstream media followed the right-wing backlash
and the vicious “killer-queer” resurfaced (cf. 177-183).
During the AIDS-crisis queer filmmakers produced AIDS-features:
educational films on the matter which also tried to eradicate the prejudice that
being gay meant being HIV-positive. They also documented the queer
communities, the harsh reality of the AIDS epidemic and their response, grief and
struggle. In the late 1980s, the term queer was reclaimed and gained popularity
in the LGBTQ community (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 201-216). In the 1990s the
New Queer Cinema emerged. It was a movement that produced niche,
independent films by queer people about queer people themselves (cf. 219-243).
In the 1990s a highly stereotypical version of queerness was portrayed in
mainstream media, mostly revolving around male homosexuality
. Films
featured a token queer character, very often the gay best friend of the protagonist.
He was only queer by name: very masculine and specifically actors known to be
straight were cast and they used very stereotypical coding. Displays of affection
between gay characters were reduced to a minimum. These characters were
meant to appease the straight mainstream audience, for queer audiences they
did not read as queer. The token queer character’s purpose was to further the
heterosexual romantic main plot and provide some drama for entertainment.
Sometimes with their queerness being the joke itself (cf. Benshoff and Griffin
For the heterosexual man to be “accused” of queerness still meant
possible social exclusion and evoked fear. In the late 1990s and early 2000s,
were often being accused of or fearful of being perceived as queer
and thus unmanly. Plots that featured this trope were mostly about these men
failing to get close to women and then being transformed into an attractive alpha-
male (cf. Greven 72f.).
Another trope surrounding homosexuality in the media of the 1990s is the
“homosexual heterosexual”. A straight character is mistaken as homosexual,
often depicted and perceived as hilarious to watch, as the straight character is
confused and squirming (cf. Becker 200f.). For the joke to work, the confusion
has to be believable: the character has to embody some gay stereotypes for it to
feel genuine.
These stereotypes include loving the opera, being fussy, very neat, very
well dressed or liking to cook. These traits are not inherently homosexual, most
In most cases male homosexuality is the more visible and sensational form of queerness for
the mainstream. Not only do most media depictions feature gay men, but they also face more
attention and prejudice in society than queer women. Contrary to men, two women holding hands
can easily be dismissed as two good friends being affectionate because it fits the female gender
role: this often renders queer women invisible.
The categories of “alpha” and “beta” men is often used by right-wing, anti-feminist men’s rights
activists or by so called “pick up artists”. They categorise men in masculine “alphas” who are
dominant and successful with women and deem them as superior to “beta” males.
of them just speak of a sophisticated or even just an average person. But despite
this, most of these traits are associated with stereotypical depictions of women,
leading to an effeminate look for a male character (cf. Becker 202). Again,
queerness is generated by incorporating the stereotypical gender roles of the
“opposite” sex. The straight character becomes aware that he is read as gay and
panics; he frantically scrambles to assert himself as straight. At the same time,
he declares that being gay is fine and that he is not homophobic but also
emphasises again that he is not gay.
This trope shows that being queer was still scorned. As gay people
became more visible in society, it triggered straight US-America's anxiety about
the boundaries between hetero and homo. For a politically liberal straight man a
problem arose; if he aligned himself with queer rights, it became a threat to his
masculine and heterosexual identity, meaning he might be read as gay himself
(cf. Becker 200f.). Queerness on screen was tailored to straight mainstream
audiences and fed more stereotypes, all while queer actors were told to stay in
the closet because it might ruin their careers (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 248f.).
In the Gay Summer of 2003 the US-American Supreme Court ruled in
favour of gay rights and, on TV, queer shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
(created by David Collins et al., 2003-2007) became popular. At the same time,
a public fascination with metrosexuality lead to marketers studying consumption
habits of gay men. Their aim to market formerly off-limit products, those that had
previously been perceived as too feminine and too “gay”, to straight men further
blurred lines between gay and straight masculinity (cf. Becker 219f.).
Two main trends took hold in Hollywood in the early 2000s: queering
content as heavily as possible without losing straight audiences and de-queering
content to make is accessible to mainstream audiences.
Intriguingly, queer connotation and metaphor seem to be running rampant in
Hollywood these days, perhaps because of the increased number of openly gay
people working behind the camera. Queer connotation is used to expand
characterization or subtext, especially in fantastic genre films such as [...] Pirates
of the Caribbean (2003) (Benshoff and Griffin 262).
With a queered content, films tell the audience that it is good to be different from
the norm, but it often becomes problematic when straight audiences are able to
read the "code". When they identify the difference portrayed by the characters as
queerness, it can cause public backlash as happened with Shrek 2
(dir. Andrew
Adamson et al., 2004). This reveals that straight audiences were often not
accepting of queer people in real life (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 262).
On the other hand, Hollywood also de-gays its characters during this
period. Achilles and Patroclus, who can arguably be interpreted as historical
lovers, are displayed as cousins in the film Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2004).
Brokeback Mountain, a film about the love of two cowboys, toned down its gay
love scenes, afraid to scare away straight audiences. And Alexander (dir. Oliver
Stone, 2004), a film about the famously bisexual conqueror Alexander the Great,
does not even feature a kiss between him and his lover Hephaestion but rather a
sex scene with his wife. This faced criticism from the queer community, as the
feeling arose that gay identities of historical figures are edited out of history books
(cf. Giltz 40f.).
A study in 2006 showed that either a TV show is specifically queer (such
as Queer Eye, etc.) and hence represents queerness, through making it the very
concept of the show, or LGBTQ people hardly appear at all. Out of 679 regular
characters on shows that year, only 9 were canonically queer, equating to 1.3%
(cf. Villarejo 2). Compared to those numbers in 2006, GLAAD’s current report
Where We Are on TV shows a record high of 8.8% of openly LGBTQ characters
in TV shows (cf. GLAAD 6). These numbers do not include characters that are
coded queer.
But what exactly are the tools with which characters on screen are coded queer?
Queercoding (or connotative homosexuality) is a type of characterisation that
implies queerness through subtle mannerisms, costuming, or speech patterns
(Benshoff and Griffin 9). It is a
set of signalswords, forms, behaviors, signifiers of some kind that protect[s]
the creator from the consequences of openly expressing particular messages.
Coding occurs in the context of complex audiences in which some members may
A bartender can be read as a transgender person in transition, jokes are made about Pinocchio
wearing women’s underwear and the Big Bad Wolf in grandma’s clothes appears to be confused
about their gender. This caused alarm for concerned parents who were afraid that their children
could be exposed to potentially queer content such as this.
be competent and willing to decode the message, but others are not (Radner and
Lanser 3).
Queerness is not immediately apparent by looking at a person. Films only have
a limited amount of time, so they use stereotypes and long-established codes to
make the invisible queerness visible to viewers.
Codes for queerness include: A man who is described as liking flowers,
the delivery of the actor (the flip of the wrist, a smirk in the right moment), queer
names (woman named George or Frank), the costume, make-up and hair
(obvious make-up on men, frilly clothing), or specific types of music associated
with the character appearing on screen. Codes work with contrasting and
challenging the norm of gender identity expression. Men usually do not wear
make-up or dress and behave flamboyantly, so a man performing like this draws
the eye of the audience and signifies that something is queer about him (cf.
Benshoff and Griffin 15f.).
Queercoding is often not intended to be read by non-queer audiences.
Furthermore, queer people may read the same content differently than straight
audiences. This way of reading the content and understanding the code is
learned through exposure and belonging to the community. Famously Disney,
which promotes a romantic, heterosexual, patriarchal family structure, has been
read by queer people as queer. In the 1930s, being a "Mickey Mouse" was
branded as a code phrase for being gay inside the community to protect from
outsiders (cf. Griffin 48f.). Coding can enter a film at almost any level. Not only
the director, but also actors, writers, the costume department, editors or
composers can introduce queercoding into a film (cf. Greenhill 112).
Disney provides great examples on which queercoding can be exemplified
on, as almost every Disney film features a character (most often the villain) that
is coded queer. For example Ursula in The Little Mermaid (dir. Ron Clements and
John Musker, 1989) is modelled after Divine, a cult drag queen (cf. Griffin 146).
Female Disney villains who read as queer over-perform femininity and, with this,
highlight how gender is in general a performance. This places the assumed
gender binary of straight audiences in question. They move and speak with
enormous style and panache”, with grand sweeps of their gown or cape, and love
spectacular and flamboyant entrances (74). They often try to sabotage the
heteroromantic main-couple, but not because they want one of them for
themselves (which would imply a heteroromantic interest), but just because they
want to. This antagonism towards heteronormative relationships reads as queer
(cf. 74f.).
Male Disney villains on the other hand do not overperform masculinity, but
often behave in an overly civilised manner. Peter Pans (dir. Clyde Geronimi et
al., 1953) Captain Hook hides his villainy behind refined airs commonly
associated with the English dandy (Griffin 76). He speaks and moves in a
melodramatic fashion and dresses extravagantly in a lavender blouse with ruffles,
a deep red velvet coat and a huge purple hat with a swinging feather. He has an
intimate connection to his boatswain Smee, who he heavily depends on and who
is his emotional rock
. “Though cutthroat, the pirates under Hook's command are
not above singing about the pleasures of being a pirate while doing minuets and
then waving tiny pirate flags while they wiggle their hips in precision like chorus
girls (76). With similar mechanisms Shere Khan is coded queer (The Jungle
Book, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967). He displays refined and cultured
behaviours, moves and speaks in an overly civilised fashion and stalks Mowgli,
who he finds “delightful”, in a gentlemanly way. Despite or because of this,
everything he does or says is predatory and emanates danger (cf. Griffin 76f.).
Although mostly villains are coded queer in the Disney franchise, The Lion
King (dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) provides evil and good
queercoded characters. Throughout the film, Disney promotes the heterosexual
romance as the meaning of life, but the villain Scar never has an interest in
heterosexual mating and continuing The Circle of Life" which the film centres
around (cf. Vraketta 112f.). He wants and needs to destroy the heteronormative
nuclear family to usurp the throne (cf. Griffin 211f.). After Scar takes the throne
the land dies and society perishes, which symbolises that procreation and life is
not compatible with gayness. The lionesses do not accept Scar and he develops
a strange and seemingly unnatural relationship with the hyenas (cf. Vraketta
114f.). He is physically weak and uses insidious plotting and catty remarks, as
opposed to masculine strength to achieve his goals (cf. Griffin 211f.). Scar uses
effeminate gestures and never gets his hands dirty. He lets hyenas do the work
while he stands by, painting him as cowardly. All this describes Scar as only
E.g. Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (dir. Wolfgang Reitherman et al.,
Dustin Hoffman (Captain Hook) admitted in an interview that he and Bob Hoskins (Smee)
played their characters as a gay couple in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation Hook (1991).
posing as a lion. He is not a brave, strong, real lion he is not a real man. These
are negative stereotypes towards gay men, villainised in the character of Scar (cf.
Vraketta 114f.)
On the other hand, The Lion King features queercoded characters on the
good side. The bird Zazu is fussy and pompous and Timon and Pumba are coded
as the gay adoptive parents of Simba. The “good gays” see Simba as the rightful
heir and ruler and help him regain the throne (cf. Griffin 211f.). Although they do
not participate in “The Circle of Life” themselves, they support and help uphold it.
Their queerness is also less problematic than Scar’s because they do not belong
to the ruling class. Zazu, Timon and Pumba are not expected to be leaders and
to be role models, so their lack of procreation and manliness does not tumble the
general heteronormativity of the society
Sometimes the main characters in Disney features are coded as queer.
The young women Merida (Brave, dir. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman,
2012) and Mulan (Mulan, dir. Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, 1998) are rejecting
their femininity and their films can be read as queer coming-of-age stories (cf.
Pugh 24). The stories of Ferdinand the Bull (dir. Dick Rickard, 1938) and The
Reluctant Dragon (dir. Alfred Werker et al., 1941) position their male protagonists
as queer. Ferdinand has no interest in fighting or in the typical masculine
behaviour that is expected of him. His love for flowers codes him queer: “pansies”
and “buttercups” are not only names for flowers but also derogative terms for gay
men, so flowers have developed into a code. Ferdinand’s story revolves around
the frustration of others with his unwillingness to fight and be masculine. The film
ends with him still smelling his beloved flowers and in no way affected in his self-
worth, as a bull who would rather live peacefully than fight (cf. Griffin 64f.).
The dragon in The Reluctant Dragon also has feminine hobbies like writing
poetry, is a pacifist and can be read as genderqueer. It asks that one turns around
when it showers and is drawn with something that could be eyeshadow. Some
critics even misgendered the dragon as "she" because of this (cf. Pugh 29f.).
Creator Andreas Deja is gay and said this played a big role in the characters he created. He
made major contributions to Scar and other queercoded Disney characters.
Disney films feature quite a few queercoded characters. In Aladdin (dir. Ron Clements and
John Musker, 1992) the Genie and Jafar are both coded as queer. The Genie constantly changes
appearances and behaviours, switches between genders and acts sometimes masculine and
sometimes effeminate. He also uses queer slang. While the Genie tries to help, Jafar intends to
destroy. Jafar’s creators admitted that he was intended as gay (cf. Griffin 147f.).
These films illustrate that queercoding female protagonists appears acceptable
in modern times but queercoded male protagonists are only found in older Disney
films. The reason might be that the studio currently anticipates financial failures
with queer male protagonists. Thus, they become supporting characters for the
heteroromantic couple or antagonists. Arguably, with women gaining more rights
and a weakened patriarchal structure, men need to uphold masculinity more than
they used to. In the 1930s or 1940s, where both Ferdinand the Bull and The
Reluctant Dragon came out, patriarchy and masculinity were not as challenged
as they are today. Loving flowers and poetry are an obvious “code” for queerness
to modern audiences because it challenges modern hegemonic masculinity
heavily. The “homosexual heterosexual” trope in the 1990s has decoded this for
straight audiences. For contemporary audiences of the 1930s and 1940s though,
it still worked as a code; meaning that not everyone was able to read it.
Disney draws a lot from fairy tales and those, or fairies and fantasy in itself, are
closely associated with homosexual men in Western culture: a gay men is often
called fairy”, queenor princess (cf. Griffin 62). Disney and fairy tales also
depict a fictional reality away from the harsh reality of life. In these fictional
realities, marginalised people get to flee into a magical world, meet their prince
charming and end up being rewarded for the endurance of their hardships and
former vilification
. Queer people identify with that marginalisation, hardships
and love, and this provides a hopeful perspective for their future. It is not hard to
ignore the heteroromantic plot in exchange for the depiction of a world of endless
possibilities (cf. 63). Disney is a prime example of how queer people interpret and
interact with media that is originally not intended for queer audiences. It also
shows how queer people who are involved in producing film and TV enter code
into it for their community to read.
Because queerness in modern society has become more and more
accepted, the line for a character to transgress from being coded as queer to
being queer has become thin. If creators code a character queer, more and more
Queer people, especially gay men, continue to be fascinated with Disney and so it has
become queer culture, e.g. dressing up (in drag) as Disney characters for costume parties or
Halloween (cf. Griffin 73).
people are able to read them as such. The coding itself has not changed much:
effeminacy in its various forms still symbolises queerness for a male character.
Sometimes creators do not want or cannot make the character officially queer but
still want them to act queerly. Therefore, they often write alibi heteroromantic love
interests for them to characterise them a straight on the surface. Queercoding
has become tricky but also lucrative for creators. Queer audiences actively fight
for representation in media and if they feel a show or film might deliver on that,
they consume and support it. Creators use this to market their content to the
queer community but will often not make the transition from queercoding to actual
representation in fear of losing straight audiences. This phenomenon is called
Queer Baiting functions by implying an unfulfilled sexual-tension or dynamic with
constant ‘No Homo’ reminders to keep the whole thing just out of reach, hence
the ‘bait’. It pits the canon against queer folks’ desires for representations, all the
while promising ‘hey maybe next episode’ (Baker).
It appeals to the queer demographic just enough to spark hope to see actual
representations of queerness but at the same time keeps it subtextual and coded
enough to not lose straight audiences. Making a couple or character officially
queer could brand the film or TV show as queer content, which is a label that
does not attract straight audiences and can even chase them away. Queercoding
deliberately fuels and then exploits the desire for representation of queer
audiences, while still mainly catering towards straight audiences.
When so called bromances
are portrayed on screen, queerbaiting is
often part of it. In The Interview (dir. Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, 2014),
Rogan’s and Franco’s characters are very close. The humour is constantly hinting
at gay content between them, but it never really becomes explicitly gay. Greven
describes The Interview as an “endless series of gay-baiting jokes(7). Usually
the two men in the bromance do not acknowledge these tensions between them
and a heterosexual love interest is written in for at least one of them (cf. Greven
Bromance is a portmanteau of bro/brother and romance, meaning two male best friends (=bros)
are very close to each other and show emotions and intimacy. Because this seems to be so rare
in male/male friendships and might be confused with the two of them being romantically involved,
the term “bro” is inserted to make sure it is understood as a close friendship and, most importantly,
as straight.
106f.). Films that use queerbaiting as a joke are targeted to anyone but a queer
audience (cf. 7).
The transition from queercoding to queerbaiting is often blurry at best.
Characters can be coded as queer without the intention of baiting queer
audiences, but intention is hard to prove. Especially when queer creators want to
sneak queer content into otherwise straight media via coding, one cannot accuse
them of queerbaiting. Queerbaiting in most cases builds on queercoding to
provide a basis on which queer audiences might be baited. McAlpine suggests
the distinction: “If the creators don’t deny it, and the characters don’t deny it, then
it’s not queerbaiting, it’s queer coding.If characters constantly remind the
audience that they are not queer with no homo-statements or by having a
heteroromantic love interest, they are queercoded and with that coding also bait
queer audiences
. If within the content, no one denies the queerness, but
creators do so in interviews or on social media, it has the same effect.
3.3. Queerness and Pirates
To connect the figure of the pirate with queerness on screen, I will give a brief
summary of the debate about homosexuality among pirates of the Golden Age.
Hereafter I will analyse the depiction of pirates in terms of queerness and
queercoding in modern media.
3.3.1. Pirates - Historically Queer?
Modern depictions of pirates are often based on what we know from historical
accounts. To analyse the queerness we find in modern depictions of pirates, it is
vital to have a basic understanding regarding the potential queerness of their
historical models. The fact that it was mostly men who went to sea and formed a
homosocial society over long periods of time, has invoked the same speculations
about homosexuality as in the military. In the popular imagination, anxieties
about what might happen to the male body on board a ship seem to turn equally
and […] interchangeably, on both physical prowess and the conspicuous
consumption that signals effeminacy and sodomy (Karremann 74). During the
The textbook example for queercoding is the TV show Supernatural (created by Eric Kripke,
2005-present) which has been doing this for years with their characters Castiel and Dean.
Golden Age of Piracy the punishment for sodomy, in both British society and the
Royal Navy alike, was death. Nevertheless, queer men were rarely hanged like
murderers but rather faced imprisonment or standing in the pillory (cf. Cordingly
There are no historical accounts explicitly confirming that pirates of the
Golden Age engaged in homosexuality, but many historians have theorised about
it. The perception of pirates used to be mostly that of womanisers, but Burg's
Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition weakened this image (cf. Cordingly 100f.). Burg
compares the homosocial piratical society to the society in prisons. Studies of
prisons show that circumstantially, homosexual encounters in (forced)
homosocial societies are more likely than in "mixed" societies (cf. Burg 107f.). He
applies this empirical research to pirates and reasons that pirates also had a
homosexual habitus. According to Burg, a large number of pirates were engaging
in circumstantial homosexuality. These pirates would have sex with women
should the opportunity arise, but some were actually gay and would not touch
women. Furthermore, he describes the piratical society as sexually excessive in
general (cf. 107f.). Burg also discusses that (pirate) captains were often isolated
from their crew as a result of their position and, in order to compensate, they
sometimes had sexual relations with young servants and cabin boys.
Burg’s argument has produced many critics who do not outrightly deny
potential homosexual acts among pirates, but question his reasoning. Cordingly
considers Burg's examination of the sexualities in pirate society remarkable but
deems his comparison of pirates and prisoners to be not fully convincing (cf.
Cordingly 100f.). Burg is deemed to be speculative in his belief that many pirates
were gay and that they commonly engaged in queer intercourse. Turley later on
provides a more nuanced account of piratical queerness, in which he also focuses
on how the popular imagination has sexualised pirates (cf. Fradley 300). His book
often provides the basis for a wide range of academic research on pirates.
Although there is no definite evidence of pirates in the Golden Age being
queer, we know of Chinese pirates in the early 19th century who frequently
engaged in homosexuality. However, most queer sex among these pirates was
an initiation ritual that, depending on the report, would or could be considered
rape. So it is unclear what was willing practise of homosexuality and what was
forced (cf. Cordingly 100f.).
What we do know about homosexuality of pirates in the Golden Age is
mostly speculative:
There is no mention in this code, or indeed in the codes drawn up by other pirate
companies, of homosexuality. Since it is hard to believe that the pirates were ever
prudish about such matters, we must assume either that homosexuality was
never an issue among them, or that it was so widely practiced and tolerated that
it was not necessary to include it in any code of conduct (Cordingly 100).
The economic anarchy of pirates is well documented but their sexuality (and the
question whether that same anarchy shaped it) remains ambiguous. This implicit
or repressed queerness makes the figure of the pirate even more tantalising (cf.
Turley 85). It is not only tempting for modern day audiences and creators to
explore, but also for contemporaries. Blackbeard was not only famous for his
swashbuckling raids but also for his sexual preferences. He is said to have had
several wives
and it had become known to the public that he allegedly forced
his wives to have sex with several members of his crew while he was watching.
That violence and voyeurism was very unconventional or even repelling, but at
the same time scandalously exciting to contemporary civilised readers. However,
not too unconventional, as consensual homosexuality would have been (cf. 5).
The notion of Blackbeard engaging in consensual sex with men would not
have fit his image:
The sodomite is the feminized, effeminate sexual criminal. Blackbeard, too, is a
criminal, but his crimes are explicitly economic. On the surface, Blackbeard's
sexuality is depicted as excessively masculine. His hypermasculinity precludes
any suspicion that he might indulge in sodomy (Turley 5).
This also connects Blackbeard’s masculinity to suspicions of queerness: he is too
masculine to be read as homosexual and a lack of masculinity equals queerness.
However, despite no accounts of Blackbeard having gay sex, following the
modern-day definition he could still be considered queer for his alleged voyeurism
and polygamy.
The potential lesbian affair between Anne Bonny and Mary Read gained
the same public attention and spectatorship. Mainly through the General History
we know that Bonny and Read had heterosexual marriages and even had
It is not clear whether the term wife was meant in the legal sense. There are suggestions that
satirical mock marriages were performed with Blackbeard and the respective prostitute he was
children. When Read joined Rackham’s crew she was crossdressing
and some
accounts say that Bonny desired her and then later discovered that she was a
woman. The fact that Read was crossdressing allowed the contemporary
audience to “accidentally” imagine a racy lesbian affair without feeling guilty or
explicitly naming it as such. Read and Bonny were often depicted together and in
a later version of the General History, the word “lover” was used to describe them.
Although the word “lover” did not necessarily mean they had an affair, it leaves
audiences with a tantalising ambiguity to fill with their imagination (cf. O'Driscoll
A further hint at queer sex occurring among pirates is the so called
matelotage. Matelotage was a concept that originated in the early 17th century.
The early buccaneers and multinational maroons from Hispaniola and Tortuga
(the brethren of the coast), lived stranded on the islands. They often bonded in
pairs with legal implications suggesting a kind of same-sex marriage but these
were mostly master/servant (slave) relationships (cf. Lane 90). The matelot
receives food and shelter or is repaying his debts and in return his master gets
the matelot’s labour. This system was later adopted by pirates, but the matelot
was not treated like a slave anymore and it became more of a (legal) partnership
(cf. Burg 128f.). Matelots shared everything they already possessed and what
they would come into possession of (cf. Archenholz 38). A matelot would also
inherit his mate’s possessions (cf. Burg 128f.).
In the early concept, being master and matelot sometimes had a
paedophilic aspect when the matelot was a youth. Burg also argues that
matelotage developed further than a simple legal binding and most partnerships
were also marriages of love. He claims that those relationships had clearly
homosexual characteristics among pirates (cf. Burg 128f.), though faces criticism
for this:
It has been suggested, on virtually no evidence at all, that matelotage also
included a homosexual element. It is, of course, not unlikely that some pirates
were homosexual, but the same is true of any occupational group, and there is
no reason to suppose that matelotage was in any way significant either of
homosexual preference or situational homosexual practice (Fox 7374).
Crossdressing is also a form of queerness but shall not be explored further. For a distinguished
analysis of female pirates, their femininity and public perception thereof, I strongly recommend
Sally O’Driscoll’s The Pirate’s Breasts (2012).
Even with contemporary sources, it is hard to tell what has been sensationalised
for civilised audiences during and immediately after a pirate’s lifetime and what
is based on facts. The pirates themselves did not report on it and all other
accounts leave scholars speculating.
Although there is no proof of an early form of gay marriage among pirates
or a widely spread homosexual practice, the modern umbrella term queer still fits.
Matelotage, crossdressing or voyeurism can all be considered queer. Irrespective
of historical accuracy, these speculations have heavily influenced our modern
perception and depictions of pirates. They are, at least in some form, depicted as
marginalised and queerness is very often chosen as the factor to accomplish this.
3.3.2. The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise
PotC’s success as a Disney blockbuster is mainly attributed to the character Jack
Sparrow. Unexpectedly popular, he became the centre of the franchise and the
character around which every film revolves. Jack’s “weirdness” in particular is
fascinating to audiences and he became one of the most vigorous characters of
that time. I argue that the “weirdness” perceived by many straight audiences is
excessive queercoding. Steinhoff, who has contributed an extensive in-depth
analysis of queerness in PotC, argues that although at first glance it seems like
a heteronormative Hollywood blockbuster, it harbours queer potentials (Steinhoff
"Queer Positionalities"). As previously discussed, the masculinities in PotC
feature several aspects that designate them as non-hegemonic. Queerness is, in
addition to this, a factor that marginalises the characters’ masculinity to an even
greater extent.
Jack Sparrow is a very physical character with distinguished gestures,
facial expressions and articulation. His costume and make-up already code him
queer: his eyes are outlined with black kohl and he wears pearls in his hair and
in his braided beard. His costume is detailed with bric-a-brac and shawls dangle
from his belt, swaying with each of his exaggerated movements.
His flamboyant costume, make-up, moves and facial expressions are highly
theatrical and always bordering on exaggeration. His gestures reproduce
stereotypically gay or effeminate moves and reflect a high degree of self-
conscious artificiality and stylization (Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 48).
Jack runs with flailing arms and his body language and facial expressions are
hyperbolic. He is coded queer through the traditional methods: the template of
the limp-wristed pansy wearing make-up is applied to a pirate and creates Jack
Sparrow. It is the stereotypically overperformed effeminacy of a gay character on
screen that codes him queer. He moves and behaves like a diva, extravagant
and glamourous, to the extent that the queer news magazine The Advocate
compares him to Dr. Frank N. Furter
, with a sexuality that cannot even be truly
captured by the term pansexual (cf. DeCaro 76).
Jack’s interactions with other characters also have strong queer
implications and are brimming with sexual innuendo, especially with Will. Their
first confrontation in PotC 1 ends in a homoerotic sword-fight and, before they
start duelling, Jack slowly drags his sword up and down Will’s, smiling
suggestively. This phallic double entendre creates sexual tension between the
two men (cf. Steinhoff "Queer Positionalities"). Furthermore, the black spot that
is delivered to him because of his debt to Davy Jones, serves as an AIDS
metaphor (cf. Fradley 306). The deliberate casting of Johnny Depp adds to the
character’s queercoding
. Before PotC he was known for ambiguously queered
roles, e.g. in Edward Scissorhands (dir. Tim Burton, 1990) or Ed Wood (dir. Tim
Burton, 1994) which brings queer ambiguity through roles associated with Depp’s
star persona (cf. Fradley 306).
In antithesis to this characters queercoding through effeminacy stands his
hyper-masculinity. Thus, his representation of gender and sexuality are highly
ambiguous. In addition to the previously discussed hyper-masculine aspects of
his identity, his behaviour towards women remains to be explored. Despite his
queercoding, there are constant reminders of his heterosexual interests. As Jack
cuts open Elizabeth’s corset, in order to allow her to breathe again, the guards
note that they never would have known to do this. Jack’s remark that they must
never have been to Singapore implies that he has gotten many women out of
their corsets there and is familiar with women’s undergarments. In addition,
multiple women slapping him upon his arrival in Tortuga suggests numerous
heterosexual encounters (cf. PotC 1). Largely PotC 1 leaves the audience to
He is the main character (played by Tim Curry) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim
Sharman, 1975)
In the beginning, Disney was not happy with Depp’s casting, the director fought for it (cf. Fradley
speculate about Jack’s sexuality: no orientation is explicitly confirmed or rejected
and this creates a highly ambiguous character. PotC’s dandified version of the
pirate thus denaturalizes normative categories, representations and concepts of
identity(Steinhoff "Queer Positionalities").
The ambiguity of Jack’s sexuality is weakened in PotC 2 and 3. His
queercoding through effeminacy is not lessened but his heterosexuality is
emphasised. A former romantic relationship between him and Tia Dalma is
strongly hinted at and additionally Elizabeth begins to see him as a potential
partner and even kisses him (cf. Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 51f.). Jack even
openly rejects queer implications. Elizabeth, wanting to join his crew, states she
wants to find the man she loves while dressed as a man
and speaking in a lower
voice. Jack reads this situation as a man flirting with him and replies that his only
love is the sea. He makes a panicked and throwing away gesture to his friend
Gibbs and has a weirded out, almost disgusted facial impression (cf. PotC 2).
Jack clearly positions himself as straight, un-aware that his demeanour is queer.
With Jack, PotC has created a character that embodies ambiguity: the
characters representation constantly oscillates between heroic, anti-heroic,
comical, and campy(Steinhoff "Queer Positionalities"). With an everchanging
masculinity and sexual orientation, Jack cannot be truly defined. The franchise
presents an homage to the hyper-masculine Hollywood pirate and at the same
time deconstructs him with excessive queercoding (cf. Steinhoff "Mobility" 126f.).
PotC 1 was celebrated by queer and straight audiences alike. Queer
outlets celebrated Jack as a colourful character who defied labels, as well as
Depp for being sure enough in his masculinity to play such characters (cf. DeCaro
77). In the beginning, Sparrow had been considered a risky character by Disney
because they feared he might scare mainstream audiences off, so the marketing
for PotC 1 rarely portrayed him. But Disney quickly realized that the image on
which to capitalize was not that of the cursed Barbossa or the earnest Jack [sic;
Will] Turner, but the leering pansexual pirate (Petersen 75f.).
Steinhoff notes how unexpected it was for Western audiences to embrace
Sparrow and his queerness. She argues that either audiences truly accept and
celebrate non-conformity and queerness, or that it is discredited through comical
effects and thus rendered harmless for the normative society (cf. Steinhoff "Queer
Elizabeth’s crossdressing is also a form of queerness but will not be analysed further.
Buccaneers" 57). I argue that the latter is true and additionally that straight
audiences are unable to read the code because of this. Because Jack’s
queercoding is compensated by hyper-masculinity and comedic effect, it makes
him just seem “weird” or generally norm-defying. Notably in PotC 2 and 3,
producers have additionally weakened Jack’s queer position by having him
explicitly express hostility towards homosexuality
and writing in more
heteronormative love interests. Because of these mechanisms, Jack stays coded
for most straight mainstream audiences and only queer audiences are able to
read the code.
Comments by producer Jerry Bruckheimer about PotC 1 disregard any
awareness of Jack's queerness, though this changes with PotC 2 when Depp
hints at it. Since PotC 1 suggests a queer reading a lot more than PotC 2 or 3, it
would make more sense the other way around (cf. Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers"
47). These instances add queerbaiting to queercoding. The producers might not
have been aware of how heavily they queercoded Jack in PotC 1 and how queer
audiences would pounce on it. It seems that in fear of straight audiences gaining
enough knowledge about the coding to scare them away, it was toned down and
openly denied for the following films. So as not to lose queer audiences, enough
of the code was preserved and some hints in interviews were positioned. This
shifts PotC from simply queercoding in PotC 1 to additional queerbaiting in the
following films.
Jack’s exaggerated queercoding could easily distract from other characters’
rather subtle queer positionalities. Will Turner, who occupies the position of the
masculine hero though he does not truly fulfil the criteria for the position, exhibits
queer aspects as well. His expected arc as the heterosexual male hero set to
rescue the damsel in distress is challenged by Jack. Routinely the audience is
encouraged to support Will in his efforts but are swayed towards the weird
underdog Jack in PotC. This undermines Will’s heterosexual romantic efforts and
re-centres the narrative on Jack. Thus Jack disrupts the traditional
characterisation and queers Will’s position in the story (cf. Petersen 73).
Which dampened queer audiences enthusiasm for the franchise.
Jack’s own queerness affects Will: through his constant flirting with him,
Will’s sexuality becomes destabilised as well; he is queered by proximity (cf.
Steinhoff "Queer Buccaneers" 50). Furthermore, Jack questions Will’s (hetero-)
sexual prowess by asking if he is unable to satisfy Elizabeth sexually, maybe
even because he is a eunuch (cf. Petersen 74). Moreover, Will’s story of
becoming a pirate serves as an analogy of a classic coming out story: he needs
to (re-)discover who he really was all along and finds the pirate within himself,
buried by society’s expectations. Ironically, the new found pirate identity (which,
in the context of the coming out story, is a queered identity), helps Will to
transgress the borders of his former social status which has been an obstacle to
him and Elizabeth getting romantically involved (cf. Steinhoff "Queer
Will’s identity as a heterosexual hero and masculine protagonist is
constantly both reaffirmed and questioned. The audience can never be sure if he
will act piratically or heroically, queered or normative. In the end Will is living both
lives. He has taken the piratical position as Davy Jones successor, ferrying souls
lost at sea to the afterlife while also leading a normative life with wife and kids
ashore: just like Jack, he is both inside and outside the closet at the same time
(Steinhoff "Queer Positionalities").
The duo Ragetti and Pintel serve to secure sympathies for Barbossa and
his crew and differentiate them from the true villain, the British. Furthermore, they
serve as cute, queer comic relief. They banter and argue like an old married
couple and care for each other at the same time: with the treasure, Pintel hopes
to finally buy a new eye for Ragetti. When they find women’s clothes in a chest,
they hold them to their bodies and interact playfully with a delicately laced
umbrella; commented only by another crew member rolling his eyes at them as if
this is a sight he is used to. They later cross-dress in the clothes as a diversion
and Ragetti compliments Pintel on how nice he looks. The situation is comically
resolved by Pintel trying to choke him for that comment; without the comic relief,
the queerness in that moment would have been blatant (cf. PotC 1). PotC 2
expands their queercoding through adding a surrogate “child” to the pair as they
now futilely try to care for the former prison dog. The franchise always portrays
their queerness with tongue-in-cheek comedy to lighten the plot or fight scenes,
their queerness is never truly feasible and remains a farce (cf. PotC 1).
Fradley compares Ragetti and Pintel to Timon and Pumba or R2D2 and
C3PO and argues that Disney and PotC is aware of its queer audiences