“What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be. From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.”
– Ocean Vuong, A Letter to My Mother that She Will Never Read
There’s been a surge of queer media that conforms itself to Hollywood’s standards of normalcy in the past two decades. We see it in movies such as Love, Simon, a notable example of the good old-fashioned high school rom-com storyline simply being turned gay; we see it in shows such as the The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s political satire that takes place in a utopia where being queer is a desirable quality in a race for electability. We are surrounded by queer stories that attempt to normalize the queer experience and assimilate us. You could say that a lot of queer stories today lean on non-queer storylines.
I have no personal qualms with stories that attempt assimilation. Nevertheless, I believe telling queer stories though that lens has its limits, like I believe any attempt to fix an oppressive system by expanding said system instead of collapsing it has its limits.
Here, we’ll focus on two notable examples of queer storytelling that break standards of normalcy: In the Flesh and Black Sails. Black Sails, a prequel of sorts to Treasure Island, is a show following famous pirates during the Golden Age of piracy; In the Flesh is a show about zombies — a kind which you can cure — beginning after the apocalyptic moment of the Rising (the term used by the show to describe the waking of the dead).
In the Flesh and Black Sails have had an undeniable impact on me. This impact is largely due to the intrinsic connection between queerness and monstrosity that both shows rely on in their stories, a connection that subverts and deconstructs the history of queer representation. Much in Foucault’s spirit (and unlike Foucault himself), Black Sails and In the Flesh attempt to reorganize and reimagine the discourse around queerness.
But to understand this impact, we must also understand the Queer Monster.
Not so long ago, queer stories weren’t your normal everyman narratives. They couldn’t be your normal everyman narrative, because queer people weren’t “just like everyone else.” Queer people were “others,” and stories about queer people made sure you knew that. What better way of making one aware of queer people’s “otherness” than by linking queerness to monstrosity?
We use monsters to point at something which we do not perceive as “normal,” meaning that which we do not regularly encounter or that which we believe we should not encounter at all. For decades, that has been the plight of the LGBTQ community: the Hays Code, the moral production code which Hollywood movies practiced between the 1930s and 1950s, forbade the showing of any sexual perverseness on screen and enabled the exclusion of queerness from media. It also established some ground rules about the inclusion of it. In The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about queer representation based on Vito Russo’s book of the same name, it is said that “For all its efforts, [the Hays Code] didn’t erase homosexuals from screens. It just made them harder to find. And now they had a new identity as cold-blooded villains.”
Those cold-blooded villains were queer-coded monsters. They were effeminate men who preyed on the innocent; they were butch women who corrupted the innocent; they were crossdressers who harassed the innocent; they were vampires and werewolves who killed the innocent, and they all got their grotesquely violent punishment by the end. Being “other” and being punished is what allowed queer people to exist in media under the Hays Code because it taught people that that’s what queers are and that is what they deserve. Queer media was all about the Queer Monster.
It’s only natural that in response to that offending history, queer representation will end up rejecting this monstrous identity. We, as a community, are trying to reject it. While niche queer media might attempt to reclaim it (think of the New Queer Cinema), in popular media there is a clear attempt to cut the umbilical cord between queerness and monstrosity. I want to claim that we lose something in the process, and that what we lose can be found when we look at In the Flesh and Black Sails.
The pirates and zombies of In the Flesh and Black Sails are inarguably monsters in their respective ways — other, scary, often dangerous, often hated, often ostracized. In both In the Flesh and Black Sails, the focal characters — the heroes, so to say, who are literal monsters — are also explicitly queer (rather than queer-coded). In Black Sails and In the Flesh, the monsters we follow are treated as such because they are both literal monsters and the allegorical kind: queer. In the Flesh and Black Sails do not simply reject or embrace the Queer Monster — they use the historical connection between queerness and monstrosity as the base to their stories on how the world creates its oppressed.
In In the Flesh, Kieren Walker struggles with his past suicide; that is how he died and that is why he has risen as a PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferer, the show’s politically correct term for a zombie. Kieren’s suicide followed the death of his best friend, Rick Macy, with whom Kieren was having an evidently queer relationship. Now, Kieren is back in his hometown as a lone PDS sufferer. Later, it will turn out that Rick has also risen and is back in town, and Kieren’s relationship with him will be at the forefront of season one — but we are introduced to Kieren on his own.
His town fought at the front lines of the apocalypse. At the beginning of the show, the authorities are only now managing to control the zombies with the help of a medication that calms them and is forcibly administered to them. The town suffers from collective trauma. Kieren is isolated and feared as a PDS sufferer by his sister (for a while), neighbors, and community. But that’s not the only reason his presence in the town is frowned upon. His queerness is always there on the periphery of the town residents, and especially of Rick Macy’s father, who has always hated Kieren because of it. Kieren was banned from the Macys’ home; it is implied that Rick has been sent off to join the army (and find his death) because of his relationship with Kieren. Kieren’s monstrosity as well as his queerness are the key factors of his ostracization, both considered axes of oppression, both constantly intersecting. He is never hated only because of one or the other. He is both queer and a monster because that is precisely the point that the show is trying to make.
So is James Flint in Black Sails. The central of all central characters, Flint is a radical, revolutionary pirate who aims to destroy the British Empire. In season one, he seems like an unruly and blood-thirsty man chasing down a big treasure, but from season two onward we realize that what he really wants is freedom for people of all walks of life — and the destruction of monarchy and hierarchy. This desire stems from a tragic personal downfall caused by queer love: James Flint, then named James McGraw, falls in love with Thomas Hamilton, an aristocrat with a big dream of changing the world. Thomas is also the man who introduces James to revolutionary sensibilities by saying pirates should be pardoned and not hanged.
Thomas and James want to assimilate pirates into a society that rejects them. That leads to the unveiling of their relationship, to Thomas being locked up and then presumed dead, and to James and Thomas’s wife Miranda (who has functioned more like a beard but is, throughout the show, nevertheless a companion) being exiled. Society’s treatment of queerness as monstrous has both forced James into being a pirate — a literal monster who now calls himself James Flint, a signifier of the transition — and made him realize that while the mere existence of monsters is dictated by the higher powers as a fact, in actuality, it is a completely unnecessary concept in a functioning society. Pirates turn monstrous when exiled like himself; queers turn monstrous when treated as criminals; monsters are simply created by the higher powers.
The deconstruction of Flint’s character — from a bloodthirsty, greedy pirate to a big-hearted, wishful gay man — is the micro version of the deconstruction of the idea of monstrosity throughout the show. Black Sails is a story that tells us that anyone can easily be mistreated and outcast if we allow a definition such as “monster” to exist. It never tells us that we’re all the same, though.
In his final monologue, Flint says:
“This is how they survive … They paint the world full of shadows and tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light. Their reasons, their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn’t true … In the dark, there is discovery, there is possibility, there is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it.”
What James Flint wants by the end of the show has changed since his days with Thomas. It is not to assimilate monsters, but to eradicate the idea of monstrosity. Along the way, he realizes that in order to do that, he must be the monster everyone claims he is. “Everyone is a monster to someone,” he tells the British Empire on trial before he is supposed to be hanged. “Since you are so convinced that I am yours, I will be it.” James Flint takes it upon himself to be the Queer Monster, so he can change the world.
The thing about the Queer Monster is that its media presence is a direct result of real-world events. Outlawing homosexual acts, promulgating discrimination against transgender people, encouraging violence — or at the very least, indifference toward violence — against queer people, positioning us as sick, letting a pandemic kill our community while sitting idly by, and so many more acts done by “normal” people against us “other” queers have created the Queer Monster. It is ingrained not only in the history of my representation, but in the history of my existence. I have been targeted as dangerous even before I understood I am part of a community that has been targeted as dangerous even before they were a community. I have been defined as a monster even before I defined myself. Queerness functions as the intersection between literal monstrosity and the allegorical kind: “other” both in its form and its essence, in its shapes and desires. In the Flesh and Black Sails understand that. They understand that once a monster has been created, it exists no matter how wrong creating it was. They never, not once, shy away from either their characters’ queerness or monstrosity. The point of their stories is that we can’t do that.
Even as we are introduced to more PDS sufferers who aren’t themselves queer in In the Flesh, the subtext of the correlation exists. PDS sufferers are advised and made to hide the features of themselves that make their true identity known with make-up and prosthetics; they pretend to eat and drink even though food and drinks, if consumed, make them physically ill; they must constantly make sure the people around them are comfortable with their presence by assimilating. In Kieren’s case, assimilating as a “normal” person and not a PDS sufferer is reminiscent of the actions he must take to assimilate as a “normal” person and not a gay one. This becomes even more pronounced when Rick returns, and the two must face not only their post-mortem reunion, but their relationship as well.
Rick completely denies both his sexuality and his monstrosity — he refuses to admit his feelings toward Kieren even as one can easily pick up on them, and he not only pretends to eat and drink human food, but rather actually consumes it before throwing up in secret. While Kieren learns to accept his identities with the help of Amy, a PDS sufferer who rejects the notion of assimilation altogether, Rick goes through the opposite process.
In a notable moment during season one, in which Rick wants to shoot another PDS sufferer, Kieren puts himself between Rick’s rifle and the “rotter” (the show’s derogatory term for a zombie). “They’re like us,” Kieren tells Rick, confronting Rick with both his identities in one single line, positioning them both together on the same side. “They’re like me. Are you going to shoot me as well?”
Rick doesn’t. He makes the group he has been hunting with hand the “rotters” in for treatment in exchange for money. This moment sticks with Rick and eventually leads to his death after he refuses his father when the latter demands Rick kill Kieren. But more importantly, this moment is when Kieren reclaims his own monstrosity, the same thing James Flint does while being put on trial. This moment is the moment Kieren begins his own fight.
James Flint, meanwhile, joins forces with Madi, a black woman who becomes his co-leader and seems to be the only one who can completely agree with him. Speaking of what drives her to fight this war against the world, she brings up the voices of her ancestors in her head. It is “their war, Flint’s war, my war.” Black Sails regards its story on a larger scale than the private and on a bigger moment than the now. The existence of monstrosity as a concept must be eradicated for the sake of humanity. At one point, James Flint orders his crew to not leave anyone behind on the battleground. That’s exactly what we gain when we use monstrosity in queer storytelling: we imply a fight that doesn’t leave anyone behind.
While In the Flesh relates a story on a much more personal level, it still touches upon universal themes. In season two, when Kieren meets Simon, a PDS sufferer who has been tortured and is now in a cult that is trying to bring forth the “Second Rising” and a second apocalypse, two different paths of radicalization take shape at once: one is Simon’s radicalization through Kieren, who insists on being humane and compassionate — as opposed to human — and the other is Kieren’s radicalization through Simon, who refuses to play by society’s rules. Simon and Kieren seem to be opposites, but they learn from each other. They also fall in love.
When Kieren resists a drug that turns PDS sufferers rabid, we know it is partially thanks to Simon helping him in his reclamation of monstrosity. When Simon refuses to bring forth the second apocalypse, we know it is thanks to Kieren helping him see value in the world. The story of In the Flesh is one of balance. “You are incredible, Kieren,” Simon tells him. “I’m just a person who didn’t want to do any more harm,” Kieren answers. By refusing to adhere to both the idea of being a “normal” human and the idea being a monster, Kieren simply eradicates the concept of monstrosity altogether. Kieren refuses to be defined.
The kind of illumination, this crystal-clear pride and simultaneous anger that is ingrained into the narrative of In the Flesh and Black Sails, is what makes them not simply stories about queer people, but queer stories through and through. That is important. When Kieren Walker refuses to be defined, I learn how to refuse to be defined, too; when James Flint refuses to leave anyone behind, I learn to not leave anyone behind, too.
It’s hard to belong when you fight for change. That’s why it’s hard to fight for it. The shows don’t shy away from that, either. Flint and Madi’s revolution is eventually stopped by a white man who prefers to compromise and assimilate, even while that means Madi, Flint, and countless others will suffer. Madi and Flint must make their peace with this, and let their fight go. The notion of it remains, though — it rings through in the show’s ending. As we watch the monsters resist on-screen, we understand that we are resisting, too. The characters’ rage against the inaccessibility of life is not only the show’s narrative, but also a call for action. The show ends with the line, “The stories we want to believe, those are the ones that survive.” And by God, do we want to believe the possibility of change.
The fight between assimilation and anti-assimilation approaches amongst the queer community is familiar to any person who has stepped foot in queer spaces: should we toe the line, or should we resist it? Is the mere existence of a line paradoxical to the existence of a queer community? It’s a debate that matters to our everyday lives, to the kinds of battles we choose, to our interactions with politics and politicians. When it comes to us as a community that is observed from the outside and speaks as a whole, the winning approach has long been assimilation. We have long been saying “we belong.” We are not “others.” We are not the slurs that are thrown at us. We are not monsters.
It’s not wrong to want to fit in. It’s not wrong to tell people who have been treated like monsters that there is nothing wrong with them. It’s the continuous paradox which our community must grapple with — this world which has rejected us is the only world which we can be a part of. Assimilation is the easy solution. But it’s not a lasting one, and it’s one that might prevent us from standing by our Black sisters and brothers in their fight against the hegemony that kills them like it kills us. It’s one that demands we leave people behind. In the Flesh and Black Sails illustrate that in order to truly change the world, we must change the way we think about the world. We cannot simply switch our definitions within it. As long as monsters exist, the system which has created them and their oppressors will exist. But we cannot belong while we dismantle this system. We must truly be those monsters they say we are.
Before their life fell apart, Thomas writes to James, “James, my truest love, have no shame.” In Inflammatory Essays, Jenny Holzer asks, “Is liberation dangerous?” and then answers, “Only when overdue. People aren’t born rabid or berserk. When you punch and shame you cause what you dread.” When we stop being ashamed of what was made of us, when we reclaim our monstrosity, the “otherness” which is deeply rooted in us, that is when we move toward a world that we can all be a part of. This is what In the Flesh and Black Sails have shown me — the importance of the intersection between queerness and monstrosity. In an ideal world, there aren’t any monsters; but for now, to get there, we must be the Queer Monster.