Welcome to the Unicorn Scale: Black Sails

By Talia Squires

March 02, 2017



Photo credit: istock/Naypong

Welcome to the Unicorn Scale, our measure of the quality of bi representation in media past and present. Here's a quick breakdown of how it works.

One Unicorn - All the bis are evil and/or dead. Mostly you know they're evil because they are bi. Also they're probably obsessed with sex and incapable of true love. Or maybe they realize the error of their ways and are "cured," discovering that it was just a phase and they really are gay or straight. In other words, atrocious and harmful misrepresentation of bisexuality.

Two Unicorns - There are bi characters, and (shock and awe) they aren't all evil or dead! Nor are they really fleshed out representations of bisexuality, though. Often they are simply used to make a storyline juicier, but aren't treated like real people.

Three Unicorns - Good job, you have one or more decent bi characters, but their portrayal fails to reflect the greater world of bisexuality. Maybe they are just a token character, only represent bisexuality as non-monogamous, only acknowledge female bisexuality, or fail to actually use the word "bisexual" describing themselves despite their obvious bisexuality.

Four Unicorns - Yay, you did it! You've portrayed one or more well rounded bi characters who accurately reflect the diverse ways that people can be bi. Please give us more!

Every other Thursday, I'll be reviewing something new and talking about the quality of bi representation. Although I do consume a ridiculous amount of media, please hit me up with suggestions on Twitter @taliaasquires

Without any further ado, let's jump into the madness that is Black Sails on Starz. There will be spoilers for seasons 1-3, I'm not touching 4, so you (and I) can all binge it when it's finished airing.  As much as possible, I am attempting to separate the other issues of this show, quality of dialogue and acting for instance, from bi representation. Obviously, this isn't ever totally possible, but I am not going to try and argue whether a show is good or bad, I simply let you know what's going on with the bi characters.

What I Liked: 

There are so many bi characters. A huge problem when talking about representation of any marginalized group on television is that you're almost always dealing with a lone representative character in the entire show/film/book. They often end up being a collection of harmful stereotypes or an unrealistic paragon. Let's face it, no one character can represent an entire community, and when the entire burden of representation is put on that character the representation is often lacking.

The obvious solution is to have multiple characters representing multiple groups. Black Sails has four major bi characters. Some of them behave better than others, they come from different walks of life, have different pasts and different motivations. Why is this important? Even though the show is set in a largely fantasy version of the golden age of piracy, it lets viewers know that bisexuality isn't something that only happens to people with troubled childhoods, indecisive people, rich people, or any other single group.

I also really like that for the most part there isn't a lot of angst around the characters' bisexuality. Their relationships may cause problems in the semi-historical context of the show or in their interpersonal relationships, but their bisexuality isn't something with which the characters themselves have issues.

What I Didn't Like:

It's almost all ladies. For the most part, the bi characters are women. Anne Bonny, Eleanor Guthrie, and Maxine are the three main bi ladies of the show. Additionally, there is a rotation of prostitutes who may or may not be bi, but do sleep with both men and women. Because much of the women's storylines are set in a brothel, even though they are not all prostitutes, there is a lot of female sexuality on display. It does often feel gratuitous (which is kind of part of the charm of the show). There are definitely times that it seems like female bisexuality is being used as an excuse to show double the boobs.

Although I find her character infuriating, Eleanor Guthrie is one of the main women who is clearly bi. She has two romantic relationships throughout the series. One is with the prostitute, and later madam, Maxine and the other is with pirate Charles Vane. Her problems include wars, invasion, and pirate infighting. They do not include feeling angsty about whether she is or should be more attracted to men or women. She doesn't seem to worry about it at all, nor does the show. Her bisexuality is just an accepted fact and not up for debate.

Eleanor and Max

The women are also more diverse than the men. They are prostitutes, pirates, educated aristocracy, queens, and business women. They occupy a lot of different roles in the society portrayed. There are difficulties associated with being a woman, but it is clear that women in the world of Black Sails can be a lot of different things and behave in a lot of different ways.

The men are a little more disappointing. In general, the men are portrayed as hyper heterosexual. There is a lot of sexual violence and for the most part the men adhere to very rigid ideas of masculinity. Whereas no one bats an eye at the idea of two women in love, no one in the show seems to even imagine that two men could be in love. It is assumed that every man in the show is heterosexual and fits a very narrow idea of masculinity.

The show plays with this assumption of heterosexuality when it reveals Captain Flint is bi. His sexuality is meant to shock the audience, it is clear that we were meant to believe that all the men of Nassau are heterosexual. The show doesn't reveal the fact that Flint was in a relationship with Lord Thomas Hamilton (and Hamilton's wife) until season 2. Once we learn about it, Flint's relationship with the Hamiltons is portrayed as a loving and healthy one.  Eventually, we find out that the consequences of Flint's relationship with Lord Hamilton have been shaping the major story arc of the show.

Although it does ultimately portray male bisexuality (in flashback), Black Sails still makes it the exception and a shocking revelation. It's not nearly as simple as the non-issue of Eleanor's bisexuality. Captain Flint isn't from the same world as the other pirates. He was in the British Navy, he's educated, and he's got some convoluted plan for saving the pirates from themselves. The consequences of his same-sex relationship basically propel the entire plot. The women of Black Sails can be bi, gay, or straight, but it takes a truly extraordinary man to be anything other than heterosexual.

So where does that leave us?

The Rating:

There are definitely a lot of not-so-great bi tropes in Black Sails, mostly in the shape of untrustworthy and promiscuous bi folks. These tropes do contribute to proliferating harmful stereotypes about bisexuality. I mind it less in Black Sails because these behaviors aren't inherently linked to the characters' bisexuality. The show is full of promiscuous, double-crossing, violent folks and their terrible actions are totally unrelated to their sexuality.

Ultimately, I give Black Sails a solid 3 unicorns. Yay for bi people; I just wish they weren't all ladies.


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