Perched there in my little Barney the Purple Dinosaur chair right in front of the TV, I sit and sob, crying my eyes out as Mary Poppins grips the handle of her umbrella and flies away, shrinking smaller and smaller until she vanishes off the screen and the credits start to roll.
“Is she gonna come back?” I turn and ask my mom, lip pouting.
“She’ll be back!” my mother says, as she gets off the couch. Her hair is in a high ponytail and she wears high, white Hanes socks that bunch up at the ankles of her gray sweatpants. She makes her way to the VCR, rewinding the tape for the third time on any given day. Horizontal lines begin to squiggle across the dark screen as the film starts over again from the beginning.
When you think female nineties nostalgia, you think Spice Girls, TLC, Jennifer Anniston in a white t-shirt and high-waisted jeans on Friends, maybe Destiny’s Child or Britney Spears later on in the decade. The image of 1964 Julie Andrews in a frilly white dress dancing next to animated penguins probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
But me? I’m still too tiny to appreciate these more grown up aspects of pop culture. I still sit in a high chair while my mom feeds me Boston Market macaroni and cheese from a black, plastic container. I still have trouble making it to the bathroom down the hallway of our condo, warm pee soaking through my “big girl panties.” I still laugh that soft sort of giggle without a care in the world—the truest innocence.
To me, Mary Poppins is magic. She’s the queen of clean. She’s a wonderful singer. She’s my best friend. It could be her sharply pressed black pea coat or her bright white smile that intrigues me. It could be her “no bullshit” attitude. It could be the way she takes over a fancy house with fancy China, things I am not well acquainted with. Whatever it is, I watch intently, over and over again until the VHS is worn, as she restores messy bedrooms at the snap of a finger, toys flying in reverse from the floor to the shelves and drawers where they belong. She pulls objects out of her magical bag, sings songs, and hangs out with a cool chimney sweep, all while teaching the rich, mean white guy to pull the stick out of his ass, and I want to be just like her.
Mary has a trick for everything. She turns jobs into games—shitty things into fun things—with simple tips. She is cleanliness, creativity, and most importantly control. Her ability to control, whether through magic or not, appeals to me even when I am just a little kid, before I’m ever judged for who I am, before I ever know what it’s like to grasp for control over how others see me.
When I grow up, I’ll realize that Mary did not only have control over image in terms of the way she presented herself and the way she kept the Banks’ home, she was also single-handedly controlling an upper class family dictated by a miserable man who I can only assume represented the entire patriarchal structure. So with George Banks as the antagonist trying to run his home like a dictatorship, it makes perfect sense that Mary should be my hero.
To most, Mary Poppins is a symbol of poise and dignity—always right, always with her nose turned toward the sky. But to me, she is order. She is the happy medium between work and play. She is magic in the most realistic way.
When I’m little, I don’t know any gay people. I don’t even know what “gay” means. There is no one in my personal life who is “out” and though my mom always turns the radio up louder when an Elton John song comes on and my dad always drums the steering wheel with his calloused fingers when we listen to Queen in the car, we never discuss the sexual orientation of rock musicians over dinner. It’s the nineties; to be gay carries a ginormous stigma. This doesn’t mean there are less gay people, there are just less gay people who feel they can comfortably be out. Bill Clinton has only recently been elected and his administration has already rolled out the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for members of the U.S. military. The leftover scare tactics of the eighties AIDS epidemic still seep through as justification for denying marriage equality. People are marching for their rights, just as they always have, in New York, in California, just over the bridge in Philly, and all over the country. Things are happening. Queer people exist. But to kids like me, they are virtually invisible.
Besides Mary Poppins, my mom is my role model. So is Stephanie Zinone from Grease 2.
Like all great American films, Grease was followed by an incredibly terrible sequel, Grease 2, which aimed to re-create the musical splendor of the original. It failed miserably delivering God awful songs like “Do It for Our Country” (in which a super rapey male character traps a female character in a war bunker and tries to convince her to have sex in the name of the Statue of Liberty and Disneyland) and “Reproduction” (in which a creepy science teacher gets a major boner while teaching the subject to a room full of high school students who are actually all like thirty-two years old). But five-year-old me overlooks the dreadful musical numbers and even worse acting to focus on the shining star of the film: Michelle Pfeiffer as Stephanie Zinone.
She is my girl crush before I ever know what a girl crush is. Before I ever know it’s possible for girls to like other girls.
I’m not allowed to say “badass,” but I know that Stephanie Zinone is one. She smokes cigarettes and chomps her gum obnoxiously and no one, I mean no one, has ever looked so cool. She spends the majority of her screen time shooting down scumbag guys in leather jackets. At one point she literally says, “Maybe I’m tired of being someone’s chick.” Her outfits are to die for and she straddles a ladder and sings, “No ordinary guy is gonna do.” I am in Kindergarten at a Catholic school where I wear a plaid uniform and try to kiss the cutest boy in the back corner of the classroom. Obviously, she is my idol.
One summer, during my several-year-long Grease 2 phase, our entire family goes to Wildwood for vacation. Just as any good carnival or amusement park or boardwalk does, the piers on the Wildwood boardwalk are filled with miniature merry-go-round rides. Some are classic, like the carousel ride: two floors worth of porcelain-looking horses with long golden poles right through the middle of their backs to make them bob up and down as the ride spins. Some have boats that float in a round pool of water, small enough for babies and toddlers to be buckled into as the ride goes round and round and their parents take photos with disposable cameras. But the best one, the best merry-go-round at the Wildwood boardwalk, is the one with the motorcycles.
In Grease 2, Stephanie denies the advances of T-bird leader, Johnny Nogerelli (a knock off John Travolta who clearly suffers from Napolean complex), and falls instead, for a mystery man on a motorcycle who inspires the corny little musical number, “Who’s That Guy?”. She blows off her job at the gas station, hops on the back of Who’s That Guy’s motorcycle, and rides off into the sunset.
In line for the motorcycles at the boardwalk, I shuffle my feet nervously, eyeing the exact one I want to ride. It’s shiny and black and gold with a leather seat—the best one of all. When I make it to the front of the line, I keep my eye on that bike, making sure no other bratty little kid touches it with their sticky, ice cream fingers. I shove my tickets into the ride operator’s hand and run full speed toward it. I buckle my own seatbelt before the operator can get to me. Before the ride has even started, I’m gripping the handlebars, the thin lines in the rubber making indents on my tiny palms.
Once the ride begins to move, I’m the coolest fuckin’ kid in the world. The nighttime spins around me, the same faces passing me by every couple seconds, as my baby brain plays the chorus to “Cool Rider” on repeat. The headlight of my motorcycle shines dully ahead and my mom waves, but I ignore her, pretending to be on an open road just like the one Stephanie rides down—wind in my hair, not a care in the world.
“I want to be her,” I think each time I watch the movie. But when I get older, I will realize I wanted to be with her.
In elementary school, boy bands are taking over the world. The only boy band I care about is *NSYNC and the only member of *NSYNC I care about is Lance Bass. I am unentertained by Justin’s popularity. JC is nothing but a Justin wannabe. Kris and Joey are mediocre at best. I only have eyes for Lance.
I snatch up any magazine I can find with *NSYNC on the cover and find a giant, centerfold poster of Lance’s face in J-14 or Tiger Beat. I collect tacks from the junk drawer in the kitchen, pin it to the wall in my playroom, and consider it my most prized possession. I get home from school every day and run up the stairs to see Lance’s crystal blue eyes staring deep into my soul.
Each time the boy band releases a new music video, I watch carefully for his brief moments of camera time. I buy my best friend an *NSYNC poster for her birthday and she hangs it on the back of her bedroom door. Every time I sleep over her house, I admire it. I even have a beanie baby bear dressed in a t-shirt with Lance’s face on it—a “collector’s item.” I keep it in a plastic case so as to not damage something so valuable. (Years later I will look up its worth on Ebay: a measly $10.)
Throughout my years of undying love for Lance, I have no idea he is gay. He doesn’t come out publicly until 2006, when I am thirteen. I don’t come out until 2014, when I am twenty.
Right around the same time my best friend Megan and I start making out at high school parties while boys watch, we develop an obsession with the MTV reality series, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. The model/Myspace celebrity/musical artist, who announces that she is bisexual in the first episode of the show, searches for love in a group of both men and women. One of the women is a lesbian named Dani. Dani is hot. “I’m not a lesbian,” I say, “but she’s hot.” She is the definition of what I understand to be “butch” with short skater hair and boyish clothes. She has a million dollar smile and Megan is in love with her, maybe because of these qualities or maybe because Dani looks exactly like the drummer she wants to fuck from a local band.
Though I’m invested in Tila Tequila’s show, I’m far more invested in The Real World. The new cast of season twenty-five meets in Las Vegas and I watch as more drama unfolds than ever before. Two of the roommates, Dustin and Heather, fall quickly into a relationship, but halfway through the season, a huge secret is revealed: Dustin has done gay porn. I watch as Dustin tries to explain his way out of it with phrases like “gay for pay,” telling the other roommates he has never touched another dude, just been naked around them. I watch as Heather tries to decide if she can still be with him after he has kept this secret from her. I watch as Michael, the religious, prude roommate, asks Dustin if he is allowed to be around children because of his “past.” I watch as Dustin has a full blown panic attack at the possibility of people thinking he’s gay.
I also watch his porn, where he does, in fact, touch other dudes.
Reality shows, I realize, are the only places I see gay or bi people. If they exist on reality TV, they must exist in reality, right?
Once I know for certain that queer people do exist, and that I am one of them, I contemplate how I got here, not yet realizing that I’ve been here for all my twenty years of life thus far.
I reflect not just on the feelings I’ve had, but on the clothes I’ve worn, the activities I’ve taken interest in, the people I’ve spent most of my time with, because society tells me these are all things that can make me gay, that it’s a learned behavior, a lifestyle choice. And I believe that for a while.
I relate it to the boys everyone assumed were gay in high school. The classmates, the friends, the younger brothers. The ones who hung out with groups of girls in perfumey bedrooms and joined in as they made up dances in the closet mirror, swaying their hips to some pop song. The ones who’d sit on the floor with their elbows resting on the edge of the bed and their chin on their knuckles listening intently as the girls gossiped about boys. All of the things that girls did, those kind of boys wanted to be involved in. Or maybe it wasn’t that they wanted to be involved in “girly things”, maybe it was more so that they wanted to be like girls. And maybe it was because their female classmates, friends, sisters were the only people they looked up to.
I think so much about this concept that I start to wonder if maybe my whole life I’ve been trying to be more like a boy. Because boys can like sports and boys can wear loose shorts and boys can have crushes on girls and maybe even kiss them. I trace myself back to the beginning, a squiggly line like the one you’d draw to navigate a maze, and begin to think that maybe I spent too much time around my male cousins growing up. Maybe if I hadn’t learned to throw a football the right way, if I hadn’t dressed up as Frankenstein for Halloween, if I hadn’t wanted to know what it’d be like to pee standing up, I wouldn’t be gay.
Then I wonder if maybe I’m just making excuses for who I am because the rest of the world seems to need an explanation or someone or something to blame.
When I become an actual grown up, with a full-time teaching job and an ache for my youth, I find that there are lots of straight people, young and old, with severely disturbing misconceptions about LGBTQ+ people. One of these misconceptions is a myth that originated somewhere deep in the fiery depths of homophobia. It dictates that LGBTQ+ people must have learned their ways from other LGBTQ+ people. Gay people must have had gay role models. Monkey see, monkey do. The gayness is contagious, if you will.
Branches of this rationale often present themselves to me in the places I’d least like them to, like the classroom, for instance.
On one occasion, I am eavesdropping on a conversation between two ninth grade boys. The bell has just rung and they are among the last few students in my classroom.
“Yo, he tried to high five me after a game,” the first student says as he finishes shoving a notebook into his backpack. It’s a hot day in May and his shirt is still damp with sweat from gym class the period before. The room smells like must. “I had to pull my hand away cause like…he’s gay.”
The second student cocks his head and crinkles his eyebrows in confusion.
“I’m not tryna catch it, you feel me?”
“That’s kinda . . . ”
“Nah like, what if he touches me and it turns me gay? I’m not about that!”
Student two quickly gives up on what might’ve been a defense and they laugh together instead, following one another out the door before I have the chance to intervene.
“It doesn’t work like that!” I call after them from my desk as the door slams shut. I lay my forehead on my keyboard in defeat.
It occurs to me one night in grad school during a list activity, that I cannot recall a single queer role model from my childhood. As an adult, I’ve got Janelle Monae and Hayley Kiyoko and Sara Ramirez and practically every character on Orange is the New Black to look up to, but as a child, I had none. I didn’t know a single famous LGBTQ+ person until someone told me Ellen DeGeneres was a lesbian.
While the fact that the characters I watched as a child and the people I grew up around were overwhelmingly straight helps on a minor scale to refute the argument that people learn to be gay, the greater issue it brings up is the serious lack of representation of marginalized people in television and movies that has always existed.
Nineties shows like L.A. Law and Roseanne were some of the few of their decade that touched on LGBTQ+ topics, with episodes here and there involving gay or transgender people. Friends even had an episode called “The One with the Lesbian Wedding.” But the queer characters in these episodes of television didn’t have lead roles. Most weren’t recurring and some didn’t even last longer than a single episode. In fact, they often were only there to serve as the butt of an overdone gay joke or a lesson learned by the shows’ main, straight characters.
In recent years, we’ve seen a steady increase, a boom almost, in representation of marginalized groups in television and movies. Shows like Transparent work to normalize the existence of transgender individuals and make concepts like sexual fluidity easier for close-minded people to understand. Shows like Insecure denounce the negative stereotypes of black people as thugs and offer a full black cast of excellence where they are not secondary characters to white leads. Moonlight, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017, is centered completely around a young, black man discovering that he’s gay. We’ve been graced with shows full of queer characters of color like Pose, Orange is the New Black, and The Bold Type.
This kind of entertainment, this kind of art, a lot of which has emerged in response to the bigotry of our current administration, is making a difference. It’s allowing people who are not cis-het, who are not white, who are not the majority, to see others like them on screen, to see themselves reflected back for once. And while Hollywood seems to be moving in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.
Though LGBTQ+ people may finally be getting the representation we deserve in shows and movies made for adults, kids’ television and movies still fail to normalize queer relationships.
Children’s shows like Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie and PBS’s Postcards from Buster have faced significant backlash from conservative groups in response to having gay couples on their shows. There are entire message boards dedicated to debating whether or not it would be appropriate for Elsa to have a female partner in the recent sequel to Frozen. When the live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was released in 2017, people started petitions against the film because of “LeFou’s gay scene,” one where he can be seen for upwards of two seconds dancing with a man in the background of the ball. For this reason, the movie was banned in countries like Kuwait and Malaysia.
To normalize such concepts as two married moms or dads or a kid struggling with their gender identity should be a welcomed, if not encouraged act at this point in history. No one is asking writers and producers of children’s entertainment to “sex up” kid’s shows and movies, as is often the argument against queer representation. But perhaps by watching shows and movies with queer characters in casual roles, the shock value would fade and queerness would become natural, like us.
LGBTQ+ people are real people and though the kind of acceptance we’re searching for starts with the morals and values parents teach their children, what harm does it do to have those morals and values reinforced by the screens their eyes are so often glued to?
As for kids like me, maybe they’ll have a chance to feel validated by a TV or movie character during a tumultuous and confusing time of self-discovery. Maybe they’ll recognize themselves so much in someone, they’ll want to be like them when they grow up. Maybe they’ll find a role model, in the truest sense of the term.
I recognize now that Mary Poppins may be partly responsible for some of my obsessive compulsive tendencies. Sure, I pick up most of my anal retentive habits from my parents who are neat freaks in their own ways, but when I find myself lining up the remotes on the coffee table or folding the throw blanket that will inevitably be unfolded again in a matter of minutes, I realize that my goal in constantly cleaning up is to always have things look immaculately organized. “Spit spot,” as Mary would say. “Practically perfect in every way.”
But I often wonder what else she could have inspired in me, had she been a queer character.
She’d float on down, her umbrella boasting the colors of the rainbow, wearing a power suit and clunky Doc Martens. She’d take one look at that pathetic Mr. Banks and throw her head back in a fit of laughter. She’d still be neat, precise, a hell of a singer. She’d still make friends with Bert, the chimney sweep. But in the end, she’d entice Mrs. Banks to leave her miserable husband and the two of them would fly away, the children hanging onto her boot straps with big, bright smiles across their faces. They’d move into their own little house in London, one that’s always clean, but full of joy.
If this had been the Mary Poppins I knew, or any character I knew for that matter, perhaps I might have known myself.
Jackie Domenus is a queer writer and educator from New Jersey. She is currently working toward her MA in Writing at Rowan University where she also earned a BA in English. Her work has appeared in Watershed Review. She is the creator and editor of a local poetry zine called Rlly Bad Poetry.