Unfortunately with mainstream television programming, we’re used to being more disappointed than not when it comes to depiction of lesbian characters and how their sexuality is defined. (Case in point, the recent news on Fox’s Backstrom.)
And while Starz’s new pirate drama Black Sails doesn’t define the sexual orientation of characters of Eleanor (Hannah New) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) even though they have a steamy sex scene in the first episode, that’s part of the point given the period of the series.
Photo courtesy of Starz
Here’s how Eleanor is described in the promotional materials for the show:
Beautiful and determined, Eleanor is the daughter of Richard Guthrie, the wealthiest black marketer in the Bahamas and the chief fence/supplier for the many pirate crews of New Providence Island. Left by her father to oversee all his dealings with the pirates in Nassau, she owns and operates the tavern on Nassau’s main street. Eleanor wields considerable influence, leading her to form a pact with Captain Flint that will either bring her dream of complete independence to fruition, or doom it entirely.
Max is described as “seductive, cunning, and coolheaded” and works as a prostitute in the brothel. We get a hint of the possible trouble between Eleanor and Max in the promo materials for the show, which warn, “when her aspirations and Eleanor’s begin to conflict, their relationship, and Max’s well-being, take a dark turn for the worse…”
During the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, the cast and creative team were present and AfterEllen asked co-creator Jon Steinberg about the sexuality of New’s Eleanor, to which he replied, “It was really important to us that, if we were going to explore this world, that gender had to be a part of that, well beyond just stock wenches and the occasional cross dressing pirate; that there were women in this world, and they had very specific challenges, and they had very specific expectation,” he explained. “I think both through Eleanor and through Max, Jessica Parker Kennedy’s character, and through Anne Bonny, that Clara Paget plays, we wanted to explore three very different women…[and] how they dealt with the expectations that either they were living under or that they were in the process of shedding and figuring out a way to exist in a world that men ran but in which they had something to contribute.”
After the panel we sat down with New to ask in more detail about the role, the intimate scenes with Kennedy and what she thinks about society’s need to label sexuality.
AfterEllen: Tell me about this time where the show is finally about to air in a couple of weeks and the show–and you–are getting all this buzz now.
Hannah New: It oscillates between pure excitement and just so happy that finally everyone’s going to see it and start to engage with these characters in this world and these story lines. And then terror seeps in as well but I think more than anything the excitement is taking over at this point and it’s going to be interesting because we’re going to be back filming and we’ll be in a little bubble again when it all releases. It’s going to be really interesting and I’m sure I’m going to be on the phone being like, “What’s it like? What’s everyone doing? Are they enjoying it?”
AE: Well, talk to me about your approach to Eleanor and, of course, everybody always wants definitions like, “Is she gay? Bi? What is she?”
HN: I think that’s what’s really interesting about this world is that when you break down those barriers, you break down the barriers between gender and sexuality, people can be much more fluid and she doesn’t have to conform to any kind of societal norm. She’s not married and I think outside of marriage, there was very little legislation about sexuality outside of marriage. It didn’t really exist, of course.
I think it’s really interesting when you look into the history of sexuality and you look at how lesbianism became defined and how it became legislated. I suddenly realized that, “Wow, I’ve got this opportunity to play this woman who is growing and developing without those constraints, without that obligation to be part of anything, to be part of a group.” She is completely on the margins of all of that.
I think it’s really interesting because I remember I read an article by Tony Kushner [playwright, Angels In America] about labeling and I think that’s something that he’s explored so much in his work. When I suddenly realized that someone like that is going to be put on television, I thought, “That’s a huge breakthrough” and I think it’s really important, especially at a time now where we’re starting to talk about equality in real terms. We’re starting to talk about legislation and making it fair and I think that’s really progressive.
Some people might feel that by not defining her, it kind of draws away from her identifying with a particular group but I actually think that it’s a stronger move to be a fluid woman whose sexuality is completely her own and she’s in control of it and she doesn’t have to answer to anyone. It’s incredibly empowering. I can’t express how excited I am about it.