Thursday, June 20, 2024

My First Queer: 19th Century Girls

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This article is part of the My First Queer series, a site-wide series of articles written by some of our non-straight Fandomentals contributors. Each will contain their thoughts on their first experiences with queer media and what it meant to them. Enjoy!

Growing up I didn’t watch much television.  And by that, I mean I didn’t watch any TV outside of a couple episodes here or there of Gossip Girl and Gilmore Girls in high school.  All of my media consumption growing up consisted of books.  So. Many. Books.  Every Sunday after church, my mom would take my sisters and me to the library or Barnes & Noble (my holy place) to pick out books that she would approve of.  So yeah, sheltered childhood.

It took me some time to realize that “My First Queer” wasn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as I’d expected it to be, but rather two sets of books, both set in the 19th century, Little Women and the Gemma Doyle Trilogy.

Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott contains absolutely zero queer characters.  I just thought I’d say that upfront.  In fact, the four March sisters of the story are encouraged to grow into the eponymous ‘little women’ of moral standing.  The sisters each face their own setbacks and struggle against society as “high-spirited girls,” but none more so than the lead character – Jo March.

Jo marches to the beat of her own drum (yes pun intended).  She is everything I always wanted to be as a little girl reading by flashlight at night.  She is a writer who fights for her right to be viewed as worthy.  Her stories are ones of adventure.

So where does the queer come in?  Stick with me here for a minute.  In Little Women, Jo has a best friend named Laurie – the boy next door.  In a conventional story, Jo would’ve ended up with Laurie.  They were perfect together, right?  Best friends since childhood who cared deeply for each other.  When Laurie proposed, however, Jo turned him down.  She saw their relationship clearly – they were always meant to be friends, but they would be at each other’s throats their whole lives if they got married.  And besides, she loved him like a brother – why couldn’t he love her like a sister?

Here it is!  This is the queer!  When I first read Little Women, this was the relationship that struck me most.  The main character didn’t have to end up with the boy she should!  They were able to be just friends, and that was okay.  Sure, there were repercussions, such as Laurie marrying Jo’s sister Amy (which I never forgave him for), but Jo didn’t have to marry a man and have the life she never wanted!  After spurning Laurie’s proposal, Jo moved to the city where she was able to express herself and be free!  We’re going to pretend the part where she actually does get married, and to a man, though because Alcott herself supposedly only wrote that in to appeal to her audiences.  Alcott herself never married.

So maybe Little Women didn’t have any explicitly queer representation, and others may never have felt what I did about it, but it was my first experience reading something and seeing that things could be different.  That the fairytale can be about getting published and living for oneself and not marrying the boy next door.

The Gemma Doyle Trilogy

When I was in late middle school and early high school I was obsessed with historical fiction (still am) as well as fantasy (yep, still guilty), so the Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray was a no-brainer for me.

The series follows the eponymous Gemma Doyle, a sixteen-year-old girl living in India in the late 19th century who, after the death of her mother, is sent to boarding school in England where she learns that the visions she’s been having point to her being part of a society of magical women.  Boarding school witches? Sign me the f* up!

Throughout the series, we get to know Gemma and her three best friends: Anne, Pippa, and Felicity.  They each had qualities I saw in myself, but it was Felicity who I kept being drawn to.  Felicity was the leader of the girls.  She was a huntress who wanted nothing more than to earn her inheritance, so she could live a life of luxury on her own.  Her dream always sounded a bit lonely to me, until I understood that she wanted Pippa to join her.  Pippa, however, had dreams of being swept off her feet by a prince.  Both their dreams were dashed when Pippa died.

My heart ached for Felicity.  Her best friend – the only person she truly loved and cared for was dead.  Through a series of events, the girls were still able to see Pippa in the magic realms, but she had changed, there was an evil brimming beneath the surface of her porcelain skin.

As a reader, it was easy to tell that Pippa could not be trusted, but Felicity refused to believe that “her Pip” was really gone.  For two whole books, Felicity defended Pippa at every turn.  Felicity’s dedication made me want to forget all about Pippa’s darkness.  Anne and Gemma could not understand Felicity’s dedication, but I was torn.  I knew that Felicity wasn’t seeing things clearly, but somewhere inside me, I could tell there was something about their relationship that earned that dedication.

Then, it came.  The lines that changed me:

“My whole life I’ve been ordered about. Now I shall give the orders.”
I’ve never seen Felicity so wounded. “Not me,” she says. “I never ordered you about.”
“Oh, Fee.”
The old Pippa surfaces for just a moment, hopeful and childlike. She pulls Felicity to her. Something I cannot name passes between them, and then Pip’s lips are on Fee’s in a deep kiss, as if they feed on one another, their fingers entwined in each other’s hair. And suddenly, I understand what I must have always known about them—the private talks, the close embraces, the tenderness of their friendship. A blush spreads across my neck at the thought. How could I not have seen it before?” – The Sweet Far Thing

My reaction was nearly identical to Gemma’s.  Of course, they had been more than just friends.  Why hadn’t I seen that?  It was, of course, because I had never really known that that was a possibility.  And here it was, right in front of me.  Two girls dedicated to each other, in love.  And what was wrong with that was not that they were two girls, but that one of them was slowly turning into an evil creature.

They didn’t have their happily ever after, but they got me thinking that maybe a girl like me could too.  Sometimes what you want is a knight in shining armor, but the best girlfriend can be that knight.  Just like Felicity was for Pippa.

It strikes me that my most formative “first queer” experiences were subtle – one not even explicitly queer and the other a sub-plot in a trilogy.  Looking at all the representation beginning to pop-up all over the place though, I have hope that other little girls don’t have to wait until high school to read a scene with two girls kissing.

Maybe several years down the road people won’t even remember their “first queer,” but I’m okay with knowing that mine come in the form of books that I still cherish and reread to this day.

Images Courtesy of Penguin Random House, LLC

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