The Queer Americana: It’s a Rom-com About Pirates
by Marco Ammann-Bianciardi
On March 24th, 2022, when Blackbeard and the Gentleman Pirate kissed in front of a sunset, the internet exploded. “Our Flag Means Death,” the HBO show which featured the kiss, was suddenly the No. 1 in demand show on HBO. #OurFlagMeansDeath was No. 1 trending on Tumblr for three days, a statistic which is practically unheard of, and kept trending in the top ten for another week. Online creators who made work related to the show suddenly saw their works skyrocketing in likes and reblogs faster than any others. Within two weeks a show which, by the internet’s standards, was non-existent, now had a firm footing on every single social media platform one could download on their phones.
All because of one little kiss?
Yes. All because of one little kiss.
Part One: “Out of Time” and Timelessness
In 1974 a woman named Diane Marchant published a short story. It was probably one of hundreds of short stories published that year, many of which have most likely been forgotten by everyone save for their author. It was published in a small magazine, unknown to the broader public, and was only about a page long. It was titled “A Fragment Out Of Time” and it would forever change the queer experience and what it meant to be queer in media. This is because it wasn’t simply a short story, it was fanfiction.
“I’ve known I was queer since fifth grade,” says Sophia Longmuir, an Franks Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) drama Junior with a bright blue pompadour haircut and an 80’s Queen t-shirt, “and I’ve also been surrounded by fandom basically my whole life. My first movie marathon was Star Wars, I was reading Sherlock Holmes by the time I was in 3rd grade, and I can recite every episode of Star Trek.”
A loud and proud nerd, Sophia greets people in Klingon (a Star Trek alien language) and has spent much of her teenage years researching and cataloging queer history within fandom.
“Although I was surrounded by fandoms or popular pieces of media, I was never really involved in fandom spaces until I knew I was queer… a part of that is because I felt like it was kind of my duty as a queer person. It was part of my job description to do research and look more into things that were important to the queer experience,” she said.
It is a misconception believed by many that fandom and fanworks (fanart, fanfiction, fanmixes, etc.) was the product of the internet. In fact some historians of modern culture will argue that fanfiction is one of the oldest ways of storytelling (many fandom circles will joke that “what is the Bible if not fanfiction?”). Even fanfiction as we know it, a piece of writing which makes a new story out of the existing cannon of another piece of media, existed pre-internet.
The earliest pieces of fanfiction were simply shared between friends as a part of book clubs or people who liked the same TV show. Interestingly, the majority of early fanfiction authors were 1960’s middle class housewives who had enough time on their hands to do deep dives into daily television. “A Fragment Out Of Time” is widely known as the first slashfic (a fanfiction which is primarily about the romantic pairing of two male characters) because it was the first one to ever be published. The ones that came before it only ever existed between friends, written in letters or hidden in journals, and so none of those authors could ever really be known by name.
Out of Time was not published in your average magazine. Before the internet fanworks were published and shared throughout the community through things called “zines.” A zine was a self-published magazine which collected art, stories, and articles from fanworkers across the community (often following one central theme or pairing) and mailed prints of the zine to anyone who subscribed. This was a way to share ideas about the cannon beyond a small group of friends, and it was the beginning of fandom as we know it.
A common question asked of modern historians is “but what does it matter?” After all, a group of kids making little drawings of their favorite TV character doesn’t seem like an earth shattering thing— it certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with queer culture beyond the concept of slashfics — but, the impact fandom has had on queer people is truly profound.
During the 1910-20s, queerness in film was surprisingly commonplace. Despite the fact that homosexuality was illegal, there were no laws stopping it from being shown in movies. While there were some art films made, which hosted entirely queer casts and spoke openly about queer life in abstract ways, these were few and far between. Most queer characters in films were only mere caricatures played for laughs—the butch woman and the effeminate man were put there to be made fun of and look ridiculous. Nevertheless, a persecuted people were seeing themselves on screen.
All of this would end with the 1934 Hays Code. As the economic depression tore through Europe and America, the U.S. government became concerned with upholding a certain standard of life to be portrayed on film. This was a way to police early Hollywood, to only show the public what conservative religious leaders wanted people to see. Written by a Jesuit priest and a Catholic publisher, the Hays Code outlawed films which included any relationships between people of different ethnicities, “white slavery,” childbirth, and homosexuality, among other things.
Suddenly film makers had to become extremely creative with how they represented certain themes in their films. This was more or less the beginning of subtext in movies. The audience had to read more deeply into the situations and characters to understand what was going on because very little could now be shown outright. The audience even moreso had to have a strong understanding of the social cues and rules of the time period because filmmakers would use these cues to suggest things about characters without stating them. Out of this grew the film trope which would shape queer representation for the next 80 or so years: gay=monster.
Anyone who has grown up in America during the past 100 years has seen this trope at least once. You probably didn’t notice it, but it was there. Unsurprisingly most prevalent examples are also the most egregious. The villains of Disney movies you have been watching throughout your childhood are some of the most blatant examples of post-Hays-Code homophobia in film.
In 1953 the Disney animated film “Peter Pan” hosted the infamous Captain Hook— an effeminate man dressed in pink and frills who preys on little boys. The 1989 “Little Mermaid” featured Ursula—a selfish villain who creators have admitted to basing off of a famous drag queen. In 1992, “Aladdin” had Jafar—once again, an effeminate slender man in pinks and purples. Even their animal movies show the same trope with “The Lion King”s villain, Scar, as having flowy movements and a thin more feminine body.
The fact that many of these villains are simply stereotypes of queer people is not a mistake, and the damage it has done runs deep. When a child watches these films and sees an effeminate man as the villain and a hyper-masculine man as the hero, what assumptions do you think they will make when they go out into the world and see these kinds of people in real life? What happens when that kid ends up being queer, but the only time they see themselves reflected in film is when they are the bad guy?
There is a reason that the horror genre and alternative culture has such a strong hold on the queer community. A movie about a vampire having to hide away from society for fear of being discovered feels far more real to the queer community then any Sixteen Candles or Brady Bunch. When someone tells you that they hate that character because they are evil and irredeemable and they deserve what’s coming to them—that hurts, and one starts to feel irredeemable too.
“Growing up I didn’t have shows like ‘She-Ra’ or ‘One Day At A Time’” says Sophia, “ and I wasn’t really interested in watching ‘Glee’ or— god forbid —”The L Word.’ But I needed queer representation, I needed to see myself onscreen, I craved that. I never felt a part of a community at my school and so I wanted to be a part of the queer community and I wanted that to also be seen by the rest of the world. So, I would see it in everything. I would watch a movie and find some way to make it queer,” she said.
Once again, fandom stepped in. Suddenly it wasn’t just you who was reading these characters in this way, now there were hundreds of other people who felt the same. People who related and sympathized and reassured you that you were not wrong for feeling this way. Fandom turned the negative into the positive.
Fandom has shown queer people, especially queer kids, the representation they never saw in popular media. The first slashfics were written because people saw the inherent queerness of certain pieces of media, although because of the time period, that queerness could not be expressed openly. In many ways fandom is the state of being queer.
Continued in Part 2