In case I haven’t mentioned it anywhere on this blog before (I honestly can’t remember if I have), I identify as a bisexual woman. While I didn’t really come to complete terms with it until late in high school, I’m pretty certain it was something I’ve been aware of almost my entire life. I was talking with a (gay male) co-worker recently about how we came to terms with our queer identities and have found that the both of us were hugely shaped and influenced by the media we consumed. And I don’t mean that any particular collection of songs or movies or cartoons made us not straight – it’s more that we were turned on by select artifacts that tapped into something special that we may not have been able to place a finger on at the time. Straight isn’t and shouldn’t ever be the default in the first place, and I do think that kids on the LGBT spectrum are somewhat aware of this (if not consciously) and thus gravitate to that which they are attracted to the most.
After this conversation with my friend, I decided I would try to compose a list of the most important pieces of pop culture that really tapped into my bisexual coming-of-age as a young girl. As the title implies, I’m not sure when I’ll be completing this. I plan on just adding stuff as I remember them, until I’ve simply run out of things that I could positively say have made some kind of marking on my youth. It should also be worth noting that I am a Millennial (I’m actually turning 25 later this month!), and thus many of the choices here would definitely reflect that. I’m hoping that fellow gay/bi/pan folks reading this will have at least something to relate to, whether they are also 25 or somewhat older or younger.
Just so we’re clear, though, my intention is not to suggest that any characters or real-life people listed here are queer. I am not “ruining” your childhood, so don’t even start with any of that. Y’all can take your fragile hetero-egos all the way home.
t.A.T.u. and the “All the Things She Said” video
While having this conversation with my buddy, one of the first examples the instantly came to mind (and for the first time in about ten years, actually) is t.A.T.u. In case you don’t know or don’t recall, t.A.T.u. was a music project from Russia, consisting of Yulia Volkova and Lena Katina, who gained notoriety in late 2002 for their most successful single “All the Things She Said” and its corresponding video. Notably, the video features themes of lesbianism and includes a shot of the two girls sharing a kiss, which invoked worldwide controversy. Now, this was during a time when I was just starting to get into popular music and I do remember being specifically prohibited from watching this video. You see, I had a traditional Catholic upbringing and was pretty much denied any viewing or listening of materials that contained mentions of sex. Not just gay sex – any sex. Imagine my mom’s dismay, then, when a video featuring two attractive white girls in schoolgirl outfits kissing in the rain made wide circulation across VH1, my favorite channel at the time.
Of course, I always found ways of watching the video during my own precious alone time. It helped that I also really liked the song (although I can’t really say with certainty that it holds up at all today), as well as their follow-up single “They’re Not Gonna Get Us”. The lyrics of this second single, I think, take on the lesbianism angle more explicitly (“Nothing can stop us / Not now, I love you / They’re not gonna get us”) and this is especially reflected in their MTV Movie Awards performance in May of the following year. I distinctly remember sitting down and enjoying the show casually, only to be bestowed by a euphoric presentation in which 20-30 girls in schoolgirl outfits dance and sway around, strip down to their undies, and end the song with dozens of open-mouth kisses. It was just so different from whatever else I was consuming, and I think it was an important marker in realizing who I was and where my interests lie.
Sure, the revelation that the two girls aren’t actually lesbians and that the music industry was definitely exploiting the theme for publicity and sales significantly lessens my overall respect for the group overall (also, they’re both homophobic, so there’s that). Still, there must have been a reason that a duo so particular to the early 2000s had popped into my head with such immediacy during that earlier conversation. Looking back, it was probably the huge uproar over their video and performance (which was totally silly in retrospect) that caught my attention as a child. It’s probably because deep down, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. And also, quite possibly, I simply wanted to be them as well.
Gaz from Invader Zim
I briefly mentioned this on my Twitter, but I think I should make it blog-official that, yes, I did have a thing for Gaz Membrane. I should mention that as a youngster, when I found a new movie or show I enjoyed, I regularly became obsessed – watching it all the time, over and over, until I just got sick of it or simply moved on. This was certainly the case with Jhonen Vasquez’s Invader Zim, ever since its premiere in spring of 2001. While there were many things about it I loved (not least of all its bizarrely morbid sense of humor and equally as dark artwork and animation, which always really impressed me), I always saw Gaz as a low-key favorite. And how could I not! She had such cool spiky purple hair, loved pizza, piggies, and video games, and had this dark, brooding personality that I always found so cool. Certainly one of the most prominent TV show characters that I wanted to not only be friends with, but also become.
Kathleen Hanna, “Rebel Girl”, and Bikini Kill in general
My 13th year was a really big an important one for figuring out who I am and what I like. It was the year that I discovered alternative rock music, that which existed outside the confines of whatever was being played on popular radio and TV (I have the Fuse channel to thank for that, I think). I also discovered Nirvana, which would become my favorite band for the next couple of years; once I found out that Kurt Cobain was friends with Kathleen Hanna and also dated Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, I was motivated to check them out. What I found was some of the rawest, loudest, most outlier type of music I’d been exposed to until that point and I fell in love immediately.
Hanna herself pretty much embodied all the confidence and personality that I – an insecure, friendless young teen – really wished I possessed, with an air of flamboyancy that I never saw in any of my older role models. Her lyrics were probably my first ever experiences with feminism, even if the word itself didn’t mean much to me at the time. “Rebel Girl” especially stood out to me as a righteous anthem for girl love, the likes of which I had never been exposed to. It was the first time I had heard the word “dyke”, while also being the first time I had heard it reclaimed in such a positive manner. And even if I couldn’t quite comprehend the feelings at the time, “You know I wanna take you home / I wanna try on your clothes” was such an important line in helping me realize that, hey, I think girls are total babes.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
This one is a relatively conventional choice, as I’m pretty certain that RHPS practically turned everyone gay, but I’ll digress. I first watched the movie early in high school, then went to my first audience participation screening shortly thereafter. Since then, I’ve been to dozens more and have watched the film multiple times on my own time. While these viewings have dwindled in frequency in recent years, there’s no denying how close I hold this movie to my heart. It was one of the first times I was taught that I could enjoy sex and be sexy in very unconventional ways, pretty much any way I wanted to. Having the religious background of my childhood, this was so refreshing and exciting to learn and I’ve treasured any and all creative modes of self-expression since.
Of course, Tim Curry was a big factor in pulling out my inner queerness. His performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter – an individual who wears makeup and platform heels with such confidence, people of all genders seem to melt at a mere gesture – was unlike anything else I had seen before. Subsequent viewings made me realize that I couldn’t possibly not be bi. Tim Curry is hot as hell, but Patricia Quinn and Susan Sarandon especially appealed to me in completely different ways. Hell, I even have a spot in my heart for Meat Loaf, belting out his brief number atop a motorcycle and clad in a studded leather jacket. My dream guy, certainly.
Most importantly, with each viewing of the film, I slowly found myself removed from Brad and Janet’s confused and bewildered perspective. Instead, I became increasingly enamored by the Rocky Horror universe, much like a warped 50s sci-fi movie where the hetero nuclear family is suddenly not assumed to be the “norm”. I mostly just want to live inside this much more exciting world, where I no longer have to closet myself from individuals I assume are untrustworthy or will make shallow assumptions about my own character. I just want a world where I can do the Time Warp, kiss some girls, and have a good ol’ time.
Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls
Another show that I was obsessed with in my younger days was The Powerpuff Girls, an obsession I shared with my slightly younger cousins. We would often play pretend as if we were the girls going on our own adventures and engaging in our own high-octane battle sequences. I would always play Buttercup in these scenarios, and if you’ve been paying attention you could probably guess why. Unlike her two sisters, Buttercup explicitly eschewed most feminine or girly things, with her most obvious personality trait definitely being her sassiness. Distinctly voiced by the incomparable Elizabeth Daily, everything about Buttercup practically screamed “tuff girl who won’t take no for an answer”. Given that my alternative would’ve either been the bossy leader or the cute girly girl, there’s no denying which road I was most drawn toward.
Judy Funnie from Doug
If it isn’t already evident by now, cartoons had a huge impact on my upbringing. I watched a lot of them growing up and still love them now as an adult, especially since I can look beyond the simple plots into much larger contexts. While I never really got into Doug as a kid, Doug’s sister Judy always stood out to me as a minor character that I think deserved more recognition. She was very artsy, tremendously dramatic, and had this kind of mod vibe to her that I always imagined I would encapsulate when I was a teenager (I didn’t). Yep, I definitely found her quite attractive.
Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice
Yep, I can say with much certainty that Lydia from Beetlejuice was one of my first full-blown crushes that I had on any female character on any medium (besides good ol’ Gaz). I watched the movie for the first time in early high school, when I was first getting into a really big goth phase, and she was pretty much everything I most desired to be. Her black clothing, pale skin, and infatuation with all things morbid and supernatural really tapped into the very similar interests I was possessing on my own. Still struggling to make real friends around this time, I always saw myself as inexplicably different from all those around me. Thus, the way that Lydia describes herself as “strange and unusual”, with an added air of confidence, really gave me hope that I could one day be loved and accepted as a unique and interesting person. I’ve seen numerous Winona Ryder roles since then, but I’m not sure if anything really tops the warmth and appreciation I have for this one.
Miss Trunchbull from Matilda
I was conflicted as to whether or not I should add this one, but in the end, I think this character is so important to my queer coming-of-age for a few reasons. These days, I’m more obliged to offer my appreciation to Pam Ferris for such a flamboyant, physical, antagonistic performance; however, I always found Miss Trunchbull to be the stuff of my nightmares as I was growing up. While I won’t be so quick to ignore the definite child abuse that went on through the course of the film, I feel that other aspects of her character deemed scary and monstrous are worth taking into consideration. She is tall and broad-shouldered. She stomps when she walks and was a champion in shot put. She is loud and low-tempered. She rarely smiles, and only menacingly. She wears clothing that is never form-fitting and only in neutral shades. She doesn’t wear makeup. She is brash, never polite, and demands that everything be done as she sees fit, as twisted as it often is.
In other words, she detracts the male gaze at every possible turn. Even if her attitude toward children were more favorable, these superficial factors alone would inherently grant her the role as a villain, simply because there’s nothing in her appearance or personality that matches up with those deemed favorable and womanly in narratives of time’s past. She is monstrous and will never find love and she must be destroyed.
Looking back on the character now, I can’t say I feel a lot of sympathy for the character (once again, the Chokey is real child abuse), but the outlook I have on her now is far more refreshing. The film may have unintentionally rode upon a horrid intersection of misogyny and homophobia, which certainly did a number on my own self-esteem when I was still a young, questioning preteen. However, the most positive thing I could say about the character is that it offered an alternative, another way out of the tight grip of feminine gender roles that I already knew at the time were going to be a real pain in the ass in the years to come. Though it’s been a good while since I’ve watched the movie, I don’t recall many men even interacting with her in any way throughout the course of the film. My best guess is that she’s scared them all away – which is awesome.