My sister and I have recently gotten into the Starz series Black Sails. Partly because of pirates, and partly because it’s on Hulu now, which our dad pays for (don’t judge me I pay for my own Netflix). The show is kind of a prequel to the book Treasure Island. We’re currently on season three and while this isn’t going to be a review of the show, though I do recommend it, I wanted to talk about a phenomenon it made me think about.
When the main characters in a book,comic, movie, or tv show are what would normally be considered villains, such as a thief or assassin, we as an audience are forced to find new areas where we draw the line as it were. Using Black Sails as an example, all the characters lie, steal, cheat, and have either killed or caused the death of another. Piracy is illegal, and in real life despite the grey areas not many people would be inclined to like any of the leads. Therefore in order to enjoy the show one has to contend with the fact that there is going to be lots of violence and lots of sex. In Black Sails I’ve found that one of the areas lines have been drawn is in regards to rape and race.
One of the main characters, Max (a prostitute), in the first season is raped by some pirates and (spoiler alert) those men pay for it with their lives. As far as I know none of the characters we’re meant to root for have committed that crime regardless of how shady they are in other social interactions. Men who are highly disrespectful of woman aren’t shown in a positive light in general and either learn their lesson or their hypocrisy is made clear.
Also in the first season we are met with a character who, to sum up, is against piracy and attempts to set up Captain Flint and his crew to prevent them from going after a very valuable ship. In another story maybe this man would be seen as a hero, and once again as an audience given that we’ve accepted piracy as okay, what is it that makes this guy any worse than them? The answer is that man happened to be keeping slaves on his ship. Black Sails doesn’t always handle race perfectly (there are only two important black characters right now), but it doesn’t shy away from it, or the realities of the time period. All the black pirates and in the case of Max, prostitutes have way more to loose in this world, because to England they were never free to being with.
Even now in season three none of the main characters treat characters of a different race as lesser. One pirate, Anne Bonney (another awesome female character), gets upset at the idea that a man who makes a racist remark against Max is what society considers good and moral. Obviously as a black woman myself this is what makes the show more enjoyable to watch, but it also makes it easier to empathize with the pirates we’re meant to root for and really think about why we draw certain lines in real life.
There is one other example in Black Sails about where lines are drawn, but it is pretty heavy with spoilers from the second season so if you haven’t watched the show yet, it hits you better if you don’t know. I will say that because the issue is personal to Flint it’s not as over reaching as the other two issues I mentioned, at least not in the same way.
Moving on from Black Sails, as I alluded to, this is something I noticed in other things I’ve watched as well. Most of the time the moral line is drawn at Sexual violence which is important, because it says that the creators of popular media take it seriously and can hopefully influence society to do the same (although we obviously have a lot of work to do in regards to how the law and every day people treat rape). Unfortunately I’ve also seen this used somewhat negatively as it’s very often that we see characters get away with being racist because the audience is meant to see more direct violence as a bigger problem. There are plenty of white male characters regardless of whether the show is a satire or not that people are still meant to root for even though they’ve made racist remarks, which to me says something about both society and the creators of those shows (who are often white themselves). I haven’t (and to be quite frank don’t want to have) gotten past the first season of Mad Men, but as far as I’m aware if we’re to have any sort of emotional connection with the main characters we’re supposed to ignore some of the sexism and anti-semitism, which is not something I’m personally comfortable with doing.
Watching or reading a story with clear cut good guys and bad guys definitely has a time and a place. Sometimes it’s comforting to simplify and know that the good guys won and that’s the end. Other times it feels a little cheap, which is why we watch shows like Black Sails where people’s actions are surprisingly more reflective to where we are as a society. However at the end of the day we as an audience all have to draw the line somewhere. Racism and Sexism effect both me and the people I care about which is why I respect programming that proves you can be edgy, morally grey, and have badass characters that respect women and people of color.
Where do you think you draw the line? Why? Think about it, and as usual stay informed.