My last post covered the successes of the contemporary series Black Sails. Specifically, my discussion focused on the show’s depiction of same-sex relationships between men in the world of pirates as represented through the characters of Captain Flint, Thomas Hamilton, Blackbeard, and Vane. Though the show certainly highlighted an aspect of the early modern maritime world that receives little to no attention, there were also aspects of the series that contributed to the overarching cultural narrative of pirates as rebels, erotic objects, and pillars of strength. Though, historically, pirates might be found to fulfill some of the aforementioned qualities, it is worth reiterating that all was not grog sloshing, freedom seeking, and sexual carousing. I would like to begin this post with a similar sentiment to the first: this post is not meant to be viewed as a film critique or as an evisceration of the series. There was much to the show that is supported in historical documentation of pirates (far more than most contemporary representations can boast); however, the intention here is to highlight the ways in which certain sexier parts of the pirate world are brought to the fore while other, truer aspects of the pirate world are more dimly lit. The discussion to follow will focus primarily on the ways in which the bodies of the pirates were eroticized for the consumption of the viewing public through a close look at the characters Vane and Bonny. Pointedly, I contend that the choices made by producers tacitly reinforces the cultural narrative of the exotic and erotic quality of the pirate but also contributes to the contemporary cultural consumption of hyper-sexualized material. I argue that through their eroticized bodies, audiences become intimately attached to the characters and the pirates in the series become, in the eyes of the audience, the champions of freedom and active agents in the fight against colonial tyranny. This discussion will help to highlight the ways in which the pirate continues as a cultural object imbued with the qualities many either hope to have or hope to experience.
To begin, the contemporary representation of the bodies of the pirate characters (and what they do with those bodies) in shows like Black Sails, is a primary way through which the hyper-sexualized trope of the fearsome pirate is evoked, reinforced, and eroticized. In Black Sails, there are two ways through which the pirate is hyper-sexualized and, thereby, reinforced as a character one not only wants to be but also might want to be with. This idea is crystallized in the costuming and performance of the character Charles Vane, based on an actual pirate whom Daniel Defoe describes as “having always treated his Consort with very little Respect, assuming a Superiority over him and his small crew, and regarding the Vessel but as a Tender to his own.”1 The image, below, will serve as an opportunity to discuss the character further as he is represented to a contemporary audience and how this particular interpretation of the character titillates while also inflaming the cultural perception of pirates:
This image of the character Vane, flanked by characters Jack Rackam and Anne Bonny, presents the pirate as a calm, suave, hyper-sexualized, and rakish personage and one who is in control of all that surrounds him. The costuming and posturing of the character immediately generate the descriptions because the pirate Vane, at least in this image, is the only one shirtless, gaze fixed on the camera, jacket slung haphazardly behind his shoulder, and mouth slightly agape as he brings his hand close to his lips. The image reproduced here permits the space to discuss the ways in which the bodies of characters are placed on display for the consumption, and titillation, of those watching and through that display exacerbates and further shapes the cultural perception of pirates. The bare, chiseled chest of actor Zachary McGowan stands in stark contrast to the characters who accompany him in this particular image (and, arguably, throughout the series) and the viewer’s eye is drawn to this difference immediately, which is by design. In fact, according to the work of Dean MacCannell, “Pornographic ecstasy is expressed by the opposite form of opposition: the eyes are closed and the mouth is slack open. (See figures 1 and 2). It is semantically similar to a-sexual expressions of pain. The difference seems to be that ecstatic pornographic expression does not involve tight closure of the eye or knitting of the brows; the eyelids are merely drooped, and the forehead remains smooth.” 2 Such is the case in the image above and in many scenes throughout Black Sails where strong, primary pirates are presented. The slack-mouth, relaxed expression, and hands moving toward the mouth access and register a sexual response in the audience as the presentation of the body communicates (albeit non-verbally) sexually availability, virility, and desire. The hyper-eroticized reading is generated through the bare chest and sexually suggestive hand approaching mouth agape. Alternative to the presentation of pirates in Black Sails, many historic descriptions demonstrate that pirates were most often described as not only fearsome, but filthy, immoral, and certainly not as fodder for lust and sexual furor. David Cordingly quotes a description of the pirate Lyne found in The Boston Gazette of March 28, 1726 where the pirate crew were described as “much wounded and no care taken in dressing, they were very offensive, and stunk as they went along, particularly Line the commander; he had one eye shot out, which with part of his nose, hung down to his face.”3 This is only one description of a singular pirate in his crew; however, it is worth noting that other pirates received similar descriptions, Edward Teach being one. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the Captain who arrives at the Admiral Benbow is described as “a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white.”4 These descriptions stand in marked contrast to the image of Vane as he strides next to his companions. I contend that the image, reproduced above, is similar to what Laura Mulvey calls “The male gaze” in her theoretical piece “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In her work, she explores how this particular perspective helps to reinforce and recycle images of masculine dominance and female (or an “other’s) subordination. In the instance of Black Sails, the show is succeeding in producing a particular gaze; however, this one presents the male body as a point of focus and consumption and through that focus, the producers are working to shape a cultural reaction. In fact, it could be argued that the interpretation of pirates presented is a manipulation of cultural consciousness in order to redirect popular attention to pirates as not only erotically desirable, but worth the adoration and fierce attachment the audience ultimately feels for the characters, reshaping the audience’s approach to the character.
Using Mulvey’s idea of the scopofilic gaze, I argue that costuming and characterization help to encourage and facilitate the eroticizing of pirate bodies (and, in particular strong pirate bodies) in such a way that the audience is then invested in the characters not only emotionally, but also sexually. Mulvey argues, “Each is associated with a look: that of the spectator in direct scopophilic contact with the female form displayed for his enjoyment (connoting male phantasy) and that of the spectator fascinated with the image of his like set in an illusion of natural space, and through him gaining control and possession of the woman within the diegesis.”5 Based on Mulvey’s description (again, taking it from the alternative viewpoint where the object of focus is male) the hyper-sexualized body of the pirate becomes the erotic fixation of the audience and through that attachment, the audience becomes emotionally involved with the characters. If the pirates were to be reproduced in their historically accurate framework, the argument can be made that the audience would not become as fiercely attached; for, the visual presentation of the pirate body would not necessarily open and fulfill the same powerful and deeply intimate drives and pulls of the erotic representation. The description of the image of Vane, outlined above, as well as the particular way in which the part is played come together and help to suggest that Mulvey’s “gaze” is at play in the manipulation of the audiences’ allegiances; for, in the moment when he is hanged in season three episode nine, audiences were outraged and grief-stricken. I argue that this reaction is one facilitated by the producers so that the audience is primed and spurred to applaud the ultimate revolution that his death initiates. In creating this reaction, however, the show succeeds in fomenting a cultural perception of pirates that is, in many ways, quite different from the historical documents that describe the actual pirate.
One of the unique aspects about Black Sails (there are many other reasons) is that it also accesses Mulvey’s theoretical idea of the male gaze as it was originally conceived (i.e. that producers create images that are meant to not only titillate male audiences, but are created so that men feel that they might, through that gaze, be in control of the body of the sexualized object). One of the historical liberties that the producers take with the show is in the presentation of a female-female relationship between the character Max and Anne Bonny (an image of which is included below).
It would seem that producers used the historical connection between Bonny and Read to inspire a sub-plot of the series which focused on the erotic relationship between Bonny and the fictitious Max. History documents how Anne Bonny dressed herself as a male sailor in order to pass on the pirate ships on which she sailed and that in the time she spent in pirate ships, she eventually came in contact with the pirate Mary Read.6 Throughout several sources, it is mentioned that Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Jack Rackam were a part of ships together and that, titillating as it sounds on the surface, Anne Bonny fell in love with the “handsome” Mary Read as she was clothed in men’s clothing. Daniel Defoe shows that
The producers of Black Sails highlight and exploit this aspect of history, in the service of titillating male audiences, through sexualizing the cross-dressing of these historical characters and also through misinterpretation of historical documentation like that located in Defoe’s General History. To begin, I argue that the producers of the series read a passage, such as the one above found in Defoe, to mean that Rackum, Bonny, and Read were a part of sexy ménage-e-trios in which Rackum found himself in the middle of an erotic fixation between two women. The compromise is that he is brought into the confidence between the two women and enjoys their favors when and if they permit him entry. Such is the case in many episodes of the series where Bonny is found erotically engaged with the character Max. In these extended erotic scenes, it would seem that the producers are directly playing to the male erotic fantasy of female pirates engaging in same-sex erotic expression and are making pointed cinematic decisions which place the camera’s direct focus on the naked, entwined bodies of the two women. In fact, the process used in the erotic scenes between Max and Bonny are almost identical to what is outlined by Mulvey where she makes the argument that the sexual object is “fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film, and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look.”8 Black Sails is rife with scenes where sexual encounters between the two women are in stark focus. In fact, it could be argued that the scenes in which the women are erotically engaged enjoy a greater amount of air time than the similar opposite-sex or even male-male sexual interactions. In the case of Captain Flint and his sexual relationships with both Hamilton and Miranda Barlow, there is less focus on the actual sex act itself and more focus on the implied sexuality (especially in the case of the sexual encounters between Hamilton and Flint).
To return to Anne Bonny, the show certainly took liberties in recounting the story of her life and I contend that it was done so with an eye toward garnering a more robust viewing audience and securing the allegiance of audience members to the historical pirates portrayed. The truth of Bonny’s life, historically, is far more complicated than the show delivers and is certainly not quite as titillating as producers of Black Sails would have an audience believe. In terms of Bonny, her erotic fixation with Mary Read appears to end when she is confronted with the information that Read, too, is a woman as is evidenced above in the excerpt from Defoe. It is clear, in Defoe’s account, that both women dress as men and Bonny becomes infatuated with the “handsome Young Fellow” who is Read dressed in men’s clothing. Once Read realizes the fixation, however, she reveals her true identity “to the great Disappointment of Anne Bonny.” Rackum is only let “into the Secret also” that Read is a woman (like Bonny) so that he does not kill her in a jealous rage. There is no indication that the women engaged in any erotic exchange; in fact, it would seem that the discovery of their similar genders rendered the possibility unsavory to both parties. Bonny and Read’s chosen manner of dress, and their ability to “pass” in the hyper-masculine space of the pirate ship, certainly transgresses the gender binary and provides fodder for discussion concerning the performance of gender. In that same vein, their “transgressions” produce a sexualized reaction in that audiences come to expect that if one performs as the opposite gender, perhaps it is in service of “tricking” a “forbidden” love object into bed with them.9 What is important to note, however, is that this historical fact was manipulated in order for it to become a sexualized subplot for the consuming audience. The work of Laura Mulvey works here in that the producers are reframing and reimaging history so as to focus attention on the erotic subtext of an historical figure where an erotic subtext does not actually exist. Producers capitalize on the liminality of Bonny’s gender performance and succeed in recycling the tired narrative that cross-dressing also produces same-sex attraction.
Historian Hans Turley at least underscores the argument that the figure of Anne Bonny might be viewed as erotically charged and sexually suggestive. He argues specifically that “Bonny’s explicit sexuality, oppositionally gendered in a predominantly homosocial world, alleviate the anxiety caused by the libertine homoerotic implications of the all-male pirate world. Secondly, these representations of the female pirates, in turn, subvert conventional gender norms for the reader because Ann Bonny and Mary Read are pirates in the first place.”10 It is perhaps Bonny’s juxtaposition against the backdrop of the all-male world that made her a primary target for the hyper-sexualization as well as a prime candidate for the same-sex affiliated sub-plot; however, it is another space through which the contemporary cinematic world succeeds in producing and circulating a narrative of the early modern world that is sometimes wholly untrue and inauthentic and often only in the service of titillating viewers. This is not to say that female-female erotic encounters did not occur in the early modern world. In fact, historians such as Katherine Crawford discuss the nature of same-sex relationships between women at length. It is important to note that Crawford actually highlights the connection made in the early modern world between cross-dressing and female-female erotic relationships. She notes that “Shakespeare’s heroines include the cross-dressing Rosalind (As You Like It), Viola (Twelfth Night), and Portia (The Merchant of Venice), all of whom found themselves entangled in same-sex erotics.”11 But the choice to conflate sexual desires and gender presentation is an error which has far-reaching consequences. For one, it reiterates that female-female sexual interaction is purely in service to the male fantasy and gaze. Secondly, the differences between cross-dressing and same-sex erotic desire (sometimes, both at once) is conflated thereby erasing the singular and sometimes intersectional experiences of each.
To close, the series definitely highlights aspects of the early modern world that receive little to no attention in the cultural sphere. That said, there were choices made in the telling of the historical realm of pirates that succeeds in reinscribing notions of piracy in the cultural consciousness which are not supported by historical documents. In the case of the male pirates, especially Vane, the motivation seems to be one of garnering support and affiliation with the pirates produced on the screen. Viewers either want to be like him or be with him but, either way, ultimately push for his (and others’) success in the thwarting of colonization because the viewers are intimately attached to the characters. In the case of Bonny (and the small glimpse audiences receive of Read at the close of the series), viewers are treated to yet another depiction of a strong female character who ultimately must be feminized so as not to overshadow her masculine counterparts. Her masculine choice of dress must be tempered by her hyper-sexualized desire for the character Max and those extended scenes in which the two enjoy erotic release together, the masculinized dress can be overlooked in favor of voyeuristically watching the buried reason behind her masculinized dress (i.e. a hidden and lascivious desire for women, albeit wholly fabricated). Within the cinematic gaze, male viewers are able to control the image of Bonny and are able to retell her historical narrative to explain the dichotomy of her dress against her concealed gender. Ultimately, through these sexual sub-plots, the producers succeed in generating audience interest in the series and are also able to hold that audience’s attention. The story that is told to and accepted by the audience, however, is a troubling and much deeper concern for the modern world.
- Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, (ed. Manuel Schonhorn, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1972), 136.
- Dean MacCannell in his piece “Faking It: Comment on Face-Work in Pornography,” The American Journal of Semiotics 6 (1989) 4: 153-162, 164-174.
- David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, 12-13.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (Ed. John Seeyle, New York: Penguin Classics, 1999), 3.
- Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 839.
- David Cordingly argues that both women were actually raised as boys, in their early childhood, and shipped dressed in men’s clothing to avoid detection by fellow sailors and pirates (Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996) 61-62). Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, discuss how Bonny and Read cross-dressed in order to pass as members of the crew. This cross-dressing is also echoed in Hans Turley’s Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity. In none of these publications, however, do any of the scholars indicate that Bonny and Read participated in same-sex sexual encounters.
- Daniel Defoe, General History of the Pyrates, 156-157
- Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 841.
- The two possibilities (either gender fluidity and/or the sexualizing of gender) bring to mind the song “The Handsome Cabin Boy” which underscores some of the same questions and discussions concerning gender and sexuality as are highlighted above. An example of the song is located in The Library of Congress and can be viewed here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/amss.as201250/?st=text
- Hans Turley, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 98.
- Katherine Crawford, European Sexualities, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 208.