Generally, if you’re someone queer looking at pop culture, you’ll have to learn to read between each line to find traces of queerness. Members and perspectives of the LGBTQIA+ community are often downplayed and excluded from mainstream movies and television. Queer viewers must fight over any bits of potential queer material that surface in the fringes, likely to the tune of derogatory comments like “you’re reading too much” from straight viewers. But sometimes a treat can come to queer viewers in the form of extremely entertaining and open queer representation that manifests itself in projects beyond the world of indie movies or somber dramas. Sometimes you can appear in projects like the new TV shows. Breaking off and Our flag means death for example.
Sure, none of them pull off a single punch that will topple homophobia forever, no pop culture property could do that. However, each of the shows offers strange characters and stories that you can’t walk away from. Even better, both productions eschew tired queer stereotypes while showing how members of the LGBTQIA+ population can exist in any story of any gender. The quietly subversive nature of queer representation in both shows manifests itself in ways that are as varied as they are exciting.
This is evident even in the fact that both shows emphasize male queerness. Every segment of the LGBTQIA+ population has had to deal with specific struggles in terms of how they are represented in pop culture, and gay men are no exception. Going back to the days of the psychiatrist. Frederick Wertham Initiating a moral panic over the notion that Batman and Robin embody “a wishful dream” for homosexuality, two men being intimate with each other has been seen as highly grotesque in mainstream pop culture. Two women kissing at least can be seen as arousing to the male gaze (which is its own form of homophobic dehumanization), while two men hugging are supposed to attract no one and alienate everyone.
This nonsensical idea has become popular in mainstream American pop culture and has allowed gay men to often appear only as a source of ridicule. Within Breaking off and Our flag means deathHowever, the paradigm has changed. In the latter show, all men on screen are gay unless proven otherwise. A ship full of male pirates at sea, led by real-life swordsman Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), are quite fluid in their sexuality, while many of these crew members engage in romantic relationships with each other. All of this is treated fairly nonchalantly, and even Bonnet’s wife eventually reacts with joy, not horror, when she learns that her ex-partner is in love with a man.
Rather than serve as something to poke fun at, this facet of the story is an integral part of Our flag means death exploration of how liberating it is to give up social expectations and embrace oneself. The rampant presence of queer men here allows for a variety of personalities to emerge among these individuals. No two members of Bonnet’s crew are exactly alike, which allows for a greater variety of comedic opportunities and signifies the reality that no two gay men are exactly alike either. Even better, queer types aren’t the only part of the LGBTQIA+ community represented here. Crew member Jim (Vic Ortiz) is non-binary and is even referred to with they/them pronouns on screen. His personality eschews any stereotypes of non-binary people in favor of a swordsman so unpredictable that he would impress Jack Sparrow.
Breaking off, by contrast, doesn’t have loads of homosexuals in every frame, but its depiction of same-sex intimacy is no less thought-provoking. Here, the queer comes from Irving’s characters (John Turturro) and Burt (christopher walken), who work in separate divisions on the “cut” floor of Lumon Industries. The duo’s initial chance encounter gradually morphs into repeated encounters, each deftly using cinematic language typically reserved for heterosexual couples to suggest the blossoming affection between Irving and Burt. Wistful gazes, more intimate shots of their faces, soft music, all indicate that love is in the air in this cold and sterile workplace.
Eventually, Irving and Burt come to terms with the fact that they’re in love with each other, a development that impressively avoids going down the usual narrative route of getting a character emotional about the idea that they’re gay. The concept of being gay is not treated as strange or unexpected. Irving doesn’t resist the idea of being in love with Burt because he is a man, but because the Lumon manual to which he has dedicated his life prohibits romantic attraction of any kind. It’s a great way to avoid predictable narrative paths while reinforcing just how restrictive Lumon’s workplace is.
The mere presence of this relationship is also exciting in the way that it subverts the typical use of queer in science fiction storytelling. As late as 2018 movie Be quietScience fiction movies and TV shows have often used the presence of queer coded characters to indicate the “weirdness” of the future. They are supposed to function as intimidating pointers to a world gone wrong for viewers of cis-het. On Breaking offHowever, that dynamic has been reversed. The romance between Irving and Burt is a flower that blooms in the desert of detachment that Lumon has created. These two provide hope that the separate parts of these workers can have fulfilling lives and relationships. Queer embodies hope here, a welcome departure from sci-fi convention.
Meanwhile, on these two television shows there is a welcome presence of older gay men. Bonnet’s actor, Rhys Darby, is a middle-aged man, while both Turturro and Walken are in their 65s. This is not the usual age range for queer men in the media, as young people are the default setting for queer storytelling. But anyone at any age can be gay and have satisfying relationships. Within Our flag means death and Breaking off, this truth is embodied without either show stopping to make self-deprecating jokes about the ages of their respective queer characters. The presence of middle-aged and older gay men is another aspect of queer treated as part of everyday reality.
Best of all, they’re both TV shows that aren’t inherently about being gay. Granted, there is absolutely nothing wrong with TV shows or movies that orient their plots around queerness, especially when they come from LGBTQIA+ creators. But that shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of queer perspectives. Our flag means death is a tongue-in-cheek comedy with more bravado and fun than the previous three pirates of the Caribbean movies together. Breaking offMeanwhile, it’s a riveting exploration of how corporations abuse and dehumanize workers within a sci-fi setting, an achievement that would make both phillip k-dick and Sorry to bother you proud.
Neither of these shows is where you would find stories about normalized and varied queer experiences. And yet here they are. Not only do queer people exist here, but they are allowed to reinforce their sexuality in ways that go beyond oppression or anxiety. These individuals reach quiet moments of tender emotion, like Irving and Burt’s near kiss in a garden or Bonnet and Blackbeard (Taika Waititi) kissing on a cliff while talking about the future.
Too often, the glorious complexities and realities of queer people are treated in pop culture as subtext at best and completely erased at worst. But with Our flag means death and Breaking offDon’t just watch wonderful, pleasantly messy queer characters. We can also see how easy it is for these stories to flourish in any program. If a pirate comedy and sci-fi social commentary can deliver the goods on queer representation, then any TV show can. Hopefully these shows are simply the start, rather than the end point, for future norm-breaking of what queer people can accomplish in pop culture.
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