The power of queerness in The Umbrella Academy

Queerness, love, and superpowers come together in The Umbrella Academy.

A stolen kiss on the sofa knowing everyone is out the house or asleep, the rush to hide what happened the night before, spilling secrets over glasses of wine, far away from prying eyes—these are experiences that, in many ways, are just as prevalent for LGBTQ+ people in 2020 as they were 60 years ago. We see this in tender moments shared by Vanya and her love interest Sissy throughout season two of The Umbrella Academy.

When Vanya lands in 1960s Texas, she forgets her past, but in doing so, discovers her queerness. 

When Vanya Hargreeves lands in 1960s Texas at the beginning of The Umbrella Academy season two, she forgets her past, but in doing so, discovers her queerness.  In Dallas, Number Seven finds her power outside of her role in the academy through meeting Sissy Cooper.

The Umbrella Academy has been unapologetically queer since its opening episode. Klaus, a pansexual and non-binary sibling, falls in love with a soldier called Dave in season one and Vanya has been queer coded in her portrayal by Ellen Page, baggy clothing, and, in the final episode, white power suit.

In season one, Vanya dates Leonard Peabody, a manipulative individual only using her for her powers. Despite her queerness being readable to the audience, she stays with Leonard, believing he will help her to use her newfound powers, achieve her goals of holding first chair, and, ultimately, bring her the validation and love she didn’t receive as a child.

In stark contrast, season two sees Vanya heal, in part through meeting Sissy Cooper, a Dallas housewife who takes her in. And it’s in this season that Vanya’s queer coding becomes unabashed, completely shameless LGBTQ+ joy.

In this season Vanya’s queer coding becomes unabashed, completely shameless LGBTQ+ joy.

In the first episode of season two, Vanya and Sissy share a glass of wine in the ranch’s barn, away from the farmhouse, where Sissy’s husband Carl and son Harlan are. The two women wear pyjamas and grin at each other as they reveal the secrets they’ve long kept to themselves.

Sissy admits she has plans to run away.

“Why?” asks Vanya. “So I can breathe,” Sissy replies.

Paralleling the suffocating heteronormativity faced by LGBTQ+ people, the camera flicks between the characters, as Vanya’s eyes look into Sissy’s with a knowing gaze.  It’s a look of quiet queerness, of knowing the pain of trying to fit in, of not needing to say a word to let someone know you understand.

The scene is framed not in a sexualised or deviant way, but instead the blossoming romance is quietly prevailing, nuanced, and true to life – something not often seen in mainstream shows, let alone in superhero epics.

Image Credit: Netflix

A few episodes later, Sissy and Vanya share a kiss on the sofa while Carl is away, before having sex – scenes that are handled delicately and with a tenderness queer stories are rarely afforded. While the sex and morning-after scenes are beautiful, it’s the emotional intimacy between Vanya and Sissy before and after they kiss that they’ve both been longing for.

Sissy tells Vanya that her life has become “a little bit smaller every day” following her marriage to Carl and birth of her son. As Sissy describes her pain, Vanya sits quietly.

“You don’t even notice the box that you’re in.” Sissy’s breath wobbles as her words start spilling out of her mouth. “Until someone comes along and lets you out.”

The camera pulls away from Sissy and shows Vanya, her eyes shiny with tears. Just as Vanya starts to say she can’t stay, Sissy kisses her.

As the two women share a tender moment, one that confirms their affection for one another, the music rises, string instruments joining the piano and the rest of the orchestra. The series affirms what the audience has already figured out: this is a liberating love.

More than simply being the instant that Sissy embraces her queerness, the kiss marks the start of a relationship that makes Sissy aware of the “box” she’s in. More than just dreaming of a different life, Sissy takes her first steps towards living the life that she wants to lead.

Seeing a portrayal of a healthy and true-to-life queer romance between women on one of the world’s biggest streaming services, and on a show that has been in Netflix’s top ten since the end of July, is affirming, wonderful and joyous.

queerness love good and gay
Image Credit: Netflix

While Ellen Page describes Vanya as “deeply, deeply repressed” before meeting Sissy – both through Reginald’s subdual of her powers and suppression of her queerness –  it’s clear that her relationship in season two frees not only Vanya, but Sissy as well.

Their relationship gives both the power they need to live as their authentic selves. For Vanya, that means rediscovering her literal power, learning to love as her true self, and reconnecting with her siblings. For Sissy, it means having the nerve to stand up to Carl, to reject the life set out for her by society, and to unashamedly love her neurodivergent son.

In fact, Sissy’s queerness doesn’t just give her the ability to stand up to Carl on behalf of her son, but for herself as well. She tells her husband that she loves Vanya and that she and Harlan are going to go and be with her. She tells him he has no choice but to let her go.

Carl is killed in the resulting physical altercation and Sissy lets go of the final anchor holding her back. As she breaks out of the box society and her marriage held her in, Sissy leaves the ranch and heads into her own future somewhere far away from Dallas.

The pair’s love for one another allows Sissy to break free from her previous life, trapped with an unloving husband and worrying about her son. It is her relationship with a woman that gives her the confidence and command to change her life.

Vanya and Sissy’s story is a tale of tender kisses, vulnerability, and standing against bigotry. Through both quiet, intimate moments and clear declarations of love, they portray queerness at its mightiest.

The power created by their relationship doesn’t just allow Sissy and Vanya to live as their authentic selves, but shows queerness as a superpower in itself.

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