Queer Awakenings in the Media
words by Thomas Giblin (he/him), illustrations by Yi Jong (she/they)
culture & lifestyle writer
We all remember our first crush, whether it be an innocent playground romance or an obsession with someone who never knew you existed. This first dance with love, where we see the eternal beauty in the ordinary, can be frightful - a queer awakening means processing feelings you've never experienced before. The media we consume can be a powerful force in revealing these feelings, helping shape our tastes and identity.
The following stories of queer awakenings were told to me by friends and whānau. They illuminate the characters from television and film which made their heart aflutter - from Lola Bunny, to Frodo.
Rebecca: Marceline from Adventure Time. Also Meg, from Hercules and Jade from Victorious.
"They are all goth emo mommies that I want to degrade me."
Alan: Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
"The first male characters who lived together and even shared a bed that I saw on mainstream television as a child."
Bert and Ernie have long been gay icons, but their sexual orientation is contentious. Debate rages over whether or not they are gay, but considering they live together and share a bed and bath, you can read between the lines. Back in 2014, a bakery in Northern Ireland run by devout Christians refused to bake a cake that featured the duo. Who knew homophobia could extend to frosting and filling?
Mahi: Lola Bunny from Space Jam.
"It wasn't a sexual reaction because I was only six. Space Jam had just come out and it was instantly my favourite movie. I saw it in cinemas three times and got it on VHS by winning a competition."
"The first time I saw Lola's entrance scene, I was completely infatuated. I would rewind and rewatch and rewind and rewatch and get shitty if anyone talked during it. I never wanted to be Lola. I always wanted to be Bugs Bunny, who wins Lola over with his goofy charm."
"I didn't actually realise how impactful Lola was on me as a child until a couple of years ago when I saw Space Jam 2. They had taken away her curves and her sultriness and I couldn't figure out why that made me so angry."
Harry: Danny Phantom, Jake Long from American Dragon and Zuko.
"Only Zuko in season three. The shaggy hair was hot and he had a better attitude. He's cool and I'd like it if we kissed."
"Oh, and Beast Boy. He had a cool power, was funny and didn't take things too seriously."
Milly: Rey, from Star Wars.
"I saw The Force Awakens several times in the cinema because I thought I liked the film. It turns out it was because of Rey."
Star Wars has stumbled towards representation with the same-sex kiss in The Rise of Skywalker, an example of "pandering, not progress", even if director J.J. Abrams says otherwise. So is Rey, an LGBTQIA+ (new) hope? When she appeared as 'Dark Rey' fans certainly seemed to think so - and Twitter went feral for her new look.
Isabella: "The villain from Kim Possible. Shego?"
"Nina Dobrev in The Vampire Diaries. I don't know
if I want to be you or be with you."
"Angie from Shark Tale. Wait, no. Lola not Angie. The sexy fish."
Gabbie: Olivia Rodrigo, Vanessa from Phineas and Ferb.
"I thought Olivia Rodrigo was really cute in a way that I idolised her for her genius. Then I realised, no, she's like... really cute. Cute crush, cute."
"Vanessa was like, gorgeous. But also, I loved how she was understanding of her dad's character, like understanding she can hate him but not really. She was also a child of divorce, so maybe that's why."
David: Matt from Digimon and Frodo.
"Matt for the style, hair and personality. Frodo for those eyes - eight-year-old me didn't know how to act. I would use Google image search right when it was released and type ‘Elijah’."
"It isn't the physical attraction as much. I found them pretty, and there was some unconscious attraction, but the main thing was wanting to be with them emotionally."
"The first time I was conscious of being attracted to a guy or character was Jeremy Sumpter in the
2003 Peter Pan. When he kissed Wendy at the end, ten-year-old me wanted him to be kissing me instead."
Cam: Chloe Sevigny in Boys Don't Cry.
“Is that controversial? There's this scene where she sings karaoke, and Hilary Swank's character falls in love with her. I fell in love too."
Described by critic Roger Ebert as "Romeo and Juliet set in a Nebraska trailer park", the film landed Hilary Swank an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brandon Teena.
The author reflects
When I was a kid watching TV, I just thought my favourite characters were cool. Later in life, once I'd realised I was into guys, I was like - oh, I had crushes on them. When it came time to look back at a childhood through the lenses of lived LGBTQIA+ experiences, obsessions became crushes, friendships morphed into romances, objects mutated into keepsakes and encounters transformed into awakenings.