Friday, April 19, 2024

My First Queer: Victorious

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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!

Hey everybody! Today I’d like to talk about a show that is very near and dear to my heart. One that I still love and rewatch to this day. And that is…the Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious.

…Yes, really.

So, for those who don’t know, which I suspect is most of you since this show started eight years ago and was canceled six years ago. A quick summary: Victorious is about the shenanigans experienced by one Tori Vega (played by Victoria Justice) after she is accepted into a performing arts school in Hollywood. She meets a group of eccentric (by which I mean most of them should either be in therapy or a mental hospital) characters and works to become a pop star.

That’s pretty much all the important stuff. Victorious is the opposite of serialized. Not only is there no overarching plot, there aren’t even any two part episodes. To be fair, that is somewhat the norm for sitcoms, and a few characters do undergo development. Still, I readily concede that this show has not had a large cultural impact. In fact, if it does sound familiar to you that’s probably because you were looking at the Wikipedia pages of some of its stars, most likely Elizabeth Gillies or Ariana Grande.

So, with that being said, why do I care? Why do I want to talk about a Nickelodeon show that got three seasons (technically four, but the fourth season was made by cutting the third in half so I say only three) and ended roughly half a decade ago?

Well, because Victorious holds a very special place in my heart as both my first fandom and my introduction to femslash. Both things that led to me being able to start my journey to realizing that I was A) trans and B) a lesbian. No joke. I…don’t know where I’d be in my life were it not for this show. Maybe some other fandom would have come along and lit the fuse. Maybe I’d have come to these realizations in some non-media related manner. Or maybe I’d still be living as a desperately confused and depressed conservative cis guy. Who knows? The point is that while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Victorious saved my life, it did change my life, and I feel that that deserves discussion.

So, how did this happen? How did Victorious become so important to me? Well, this story begins with fanfiction (rarely a good sign). In Victorious one of the main characters is Jade West (played by Elizabeth Gillies) and she…she’s just one of my favorite characters ever. I adore her. Jade is my ideal best friend.

Anyway, Jade has a somewhat adversarial relationship with Tori throughout the series. I say somewhat because it starts out very antagonistic and softens over time from ‘we can’t stand each other’ to ‘we bicker a lot because that’s what friends do.’ And because snark battles are my favorite form of flirting, I started to ship the two. Of course, I didn’t know it was called shipping at the time. I had no idea there was a name for it. I barely even knew what fanfiction was. I’d only recently discovered the medium around the time I started getting into Victorious. At the time, I didn’t even know what Tumblr was. I’m not sure I’d even heard the term ‘fandom’ at this point.

So, there I was just looking through my new discovery, (I believe my first fic was a Beetlejuice/Twilight crossover actually). I thought to myself, “Hey, I know romantic fics are a thing…I wonder if anybody else is getting the same thoughts about Tori and Jade that I am?” and clicked my way to the Victorious section of the site, then started adjusting the search filters.

I was very new to this whole ‘fanfiction’ thing, and just barely starting to fight back the homophobia instilled in me by my parents and their religion. So I figured that maybe one person wrote something, and it was probably going to be porn but at least it would be something. What I was not expecting was to find dozens of stories. Dozens that, as the show went on, would become hundreds. I was suddenly exposed to the fact that no, I was not weird for wanting to see two girls flirt and date and be happy together and fall in love and maybe kiss along the way. I was not alone. There were all sorts of people thinking the same things as me. Others were watching the exact same show and having thoughts similar to mine.

This was, as you probably gathered, mind blowing. The closest I’d come to gay before was the Sweeps Week Kiss that Heroes had in its final season (the only season I’ve seen actually), which I did spend a lot of time thinking about, but I thought it was just because it was ‘scandalous’. It took me an absurd amount of time to realize oh hey, I wanted to be one of those girls. Like, I didn’t piece it together until a while after I found out about the Jori (Jade + Tori) fandom, and a few others as well, which is why it’s just a footnote in this tale.

Even after learning about femslash and that no, it wasn’t all just porn, I still didn’t quite piece everything together. I still just figured I was a straight guy. The implications of the fact that almost every ship I liked was WLW never really sank in. Just “La di da di da, I’m a straight guy who doesn’t really like straight romances, and always chooses to play a female character in video games whenever it’s an option, and who mainly relates to female characters, nothing significant about this!”

Yes, it would take me another two years to put the last few puzzle pieces together. And when I did, I did so largely thanks to, again, Victorious. Namely, at some point I discovered Tumblr. I know that it was first in the context of Jori, but I admit that the exact details of how and why escape me. It could have been a search result on Google, or a fanfic writer could have put a link in their notes segment. I don’t remember unfortunately. But regardless of how it happened, I started trawling through the #Jori tag on Tumblr. This in turn lead to following links to the posters’s blogs, which in turn lead to looking at other tags, and finally discovering the existence of transgender people.

No, really. I grew up in two very conservative states, to very conservative parents, and went to very conservative middle and high schools. Like, so conservative that when a student would defend gay marriage, the rumor mill would immediately declare that said student must be gay because why else would they be pro-gay marriage, and I just kind of accepted that.

By the time I was 18, the closest I had come to discovering trans people was clips of ‘Sweet Transvestite’ I saw in the Nostalgia Critic’s Top 11 Villain Songs list and Bugs Bunny tricking dudes. My entire context was basically just jokes and dudes getting their rocks off by wearing panties. And that didn’t really look like it was going to change until I started branching out on Tumblr. It’s not really something that gets brought up at my home unless my parents are angry at me, and then it’s just in the context of why I can’t be trans.

The best analogy I’ve been able to come up with for the ‘if you’re trans why haven’t you always known, or at least figured it out sooner like that kid on TV’ question/argument is this. Imagine growing up and needing glasses. And I mean really needing glasses, like everything is blurry and kind of vague looking. But nobody you know has glasses, and nobody comments on your vision and the issues stemming from it. You never really see (ha) anyone discussing glasses in media, so you assume your experience is normal. And then one day you discover glasses and suddenly you have a context in which to view your issues, and a realization that no, not everyone has this struggle and yes, there is a way to deal with it, even if the problems stemming from it can’t be erased.

In this analogy Victorious is the friend who notices your vision issues, and after realizing what’s happening drags you to the eye doctor to get tested and get a prescription. Sure, they aren’t the eye doctor, they didn’t pay for the glasses, and they don’t even wear glasses. But without them you never would have gone to the eye doctor and found out what the hell was going on.

You can see why Jori had my attention, right?

Now, you’re probably thinking ‘that’s a nice story Molly, but how’s this relevant to me? Is Victorious worth any thought without all these emotions attached?’

I would say…yes. And I want to establish that I’m not running purely off of nostalgia and half-remembered memories. I did go back and rewatch a bunch of episodes when I was contemplating this article. To see if it still held up now that I’m an adult or if, like with most things I liked as a child (particularly live action Nickelodeon/Disney Channel shows), it was hard to sit through. And to my extremely pleasant surprise, it does hold up. Quite well honestly. It helps that Nickelodeon actually got some teen actors with experience; half the main cast had performed on Broadway already, and not in small roles either. This means even when the writing is off, they’re able to sell it fairly well. As an adult, Victorious isn’t even a guilty pleasure, it’s just…a pleasure.

The plot is basic of course, with most storylines wrapping up by the end of the episode they were introduced in. But basic and bad are two different things. This frankly isn’t the kind of show that needed complex plotting, or that would have been helped by it. Giving Victorious season long arcs would have required fundamentally changing what the show was.

Where Victorious shines (ha) is in its characters. In particular there’s Tori herself. One particular problem that shows up in sitcoms, especially those made by the likes of Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, is that the main character (if there is a clear main character) tends to be rather bland. They’re the one we’re here to root for ninety five percent of the time, so they’re likely to come off as just sort of vaguely and generally flawed but not too flawed. Anger, jealousy, and other negative emotions can be expressed, but usually only at certain characters and in certain situations. But Tori gets mad at everybody at some point. It’s not always justified anger either. The show goes out of its way to portray Tori as being in the wrong more than once. She has to be called out and apologize.

And at the same time, Tori is still a fundamentally good person. A flawed one, yes, but also a kind, helpful, and optimistic person. I know that ‘likable but flawed’ is a low bar, but you’d be surprised at how many sitcom protagonists can’t clear said bar.

And then we have the other characters. There’s Jade, who I mentioned loving earlier. She is the angry goth girl who likes dark and spooky things. On the scale of goth girls, I’d say her aesthetic is more important than it was with Sam from Danny Phantom, but less so than it was with Lydia from Beetlejuice. Her relationship with Tori is the only relationship that really develops throughout the series. And I’m not talking about relationship in a romantic context (not entirely anyway), I mean the way they treat each other and interact. This is largely due to the fact that Jade is the only one whose relationship with Tori is remotely antagonistic, and so there’s a way for it to positively change.

Even without a romantic lens, I quite like the relationship between Jade and Tori actually. Both change the other—Jade makes Tori less of a pushover and more willing to stand up for herself, while Tori makes Jade kinder and more empathetic. Also, Jade’s favorite movie is called ‘The Scissoring.’ and her social media profile is ‘scissor love.’ Make of that what you will.

As for the other characters, we have Andre (played by Leon Thomas the 3rd) who’s the most consistently kind character in the series, though he doesn’t handle stress well. There’s Cat (played by Ariana Grande) who is…very spacey and should probably be on some medication. Robbie (played by Matt Bennet) is a nerdy, neurosis ridden boy with a rude split personality that manifests in the form of his ventriloquist dummy. And there’s Beck (played by Avan Jogia), the closest thing to a straight man in the group being the calm, honest, and straightforward one (also the only one who never sings).

Okay, I admit that most of my praise has to have the caveat ‘for a Nickelodeon sitcom’ but let’s be fair: compared to Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, or Young Sheldon, Victorious is freaking One Day at a Time (Netflix). And honestly, I really just enjoy the heck out of this show. And I won’t pretend that my experiences haven’t colored my appreciation.

Seriously though, Jori for life.

Images Courtesy of Nickelodeon

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