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How genre uniquely captures what it feels like to be in a healthy romantic relationship
If you’ve ever been in a really good, healthy romantic relationship, then you know that there is no way to describe your love that doesn’t sound hyperbolic or corny AF.
“She’s the very best.”
“Ze changed my life forever.”
“They’re my person.”
“He makes my heart sing.”
Despite the fact that these comments are indicators of genuine affection, all of the above make me want to barf and I’m guessing they might make you sick, too. (Thanks, Valentine’s, for making February the barf-iest.) There’s just no good way to put all the incredible feelings and experiences of really healthy love into words without sounding like cheesy goofballs full of gross emotions that are challenging to understand and even weirder to share with another human being.
I speak from experience. My partner and I have been together for seven years, and though we have had some seriously rough periods of time, we’ve come out on the other side as twitterpated as ever. We’re like the heart eyes emoji personified, and honestly it’s so overwhelmingly wonderful that I regularly weep in my therapist’s office about how lucky I am.
If you’re reading this and going, "Wow, this person really has issues with relationships," let me just say: DUH. Also, what? Are you, dear reader, a well-adjusted person who had role models of loving (i.e. not anti-queer, sexist, controlling, gaslighting, etc., etc., etc.) relationships growing up? I believe that makes you the weirdo.
Listen, I’m not anti-cheese. I love being cheesy with my partner, but I lament that there are so few ways to describe my love that aren’t saccharine or just … extra. (And, if you’re tempted to blame rom-coms, we’re not here for that, so take that hatred elsewhere.)
Luckily, we have genre fiction, where metaphors for love abound. In our realm, creators have figured out how to capture that light-on-your-feet, got-the-best-bae feeling in ways that won’t nauseate you.
Zoë and Wash (Firefly and Serenity)
In Firefly, we get to know the fearless crew of Serenity, a ship captained by former Browncoat, Mal, and his stalwart second-in-command, Zoë. While much of the sexual tension of the series (and the film that follows) exists between Mal and Inara, the healthiest relationship is that of Zoë and her husband slash Serenity’s pilot, Wash, A.K.A. Hoban Washburne.
In many ways, Zoë and Wash are easy to ignore. They are relatively stable and really only fight about one thing: Zoë’s loyalty to Mal. At times, Wash exhibits jealousy, questioning why she trusts him so much. Honestly, his jealousy gets way too much screen time, but we do get to see Wash get over himself in his relationship and realize his partner’s passion for her work and her colleagues is something to be supported and encouraged. It does kind of feel like I’m giving Wash (and by proxy creator Joss Whedon) a gold star for not continuing to be a sexist poop-face, but… yeah, I guess that’s what I’m doing. It takes a lot of introspection and reflection to realize you’re treating your partner unfairly and Wash gets there.
By the time of Serenity’s release, Zoë and Wash reach peak supportive, having each other’s back until the very end and becoming the hashtag goals they’re known for. Their relationship is an object lesson on getting over your own BS so you can be there for the person you love.
Waverly and Nicole, a.k.a. WayHaught (Wynonna Earp)
When Waverly and Nicole first meet in Wynonna Earp, they’re complete strangers who share an unanticipated spark. While their relationship is a stunning example of how to handle the coming out experience when one person needs time to figure their sexuality out, it’s really in Season 3 that we get to see this loving couple reach maturity.
Early in Season 3, it’s revealed that as a child Nicole survived a massacre, which was also a sacrifice to the season’s Big Bad, Bulshar. At the same time, Waverly has learned that her dad is a literal angel. And, while Waverly has been used to relying on Nicole, her rock, she has to learn how to support her partner who is processing and re-living deep trauma. There are moments when they struggle and get frustrated, but Waverly supports Nicole as she investigates her past (while running for Sheriff, because Nicole walks in two worlds). And, when the script flips again, Nicole supports Waverly as she researches and finds her father, wielding his powerful ring to destroy demons.
Despite their love being tested time and time again, Waverly and Nicole figure out how to overcome the obstacles they face together, patiently working through life changes (such as coming out or say finding you’re the only survivor of a series of ritualistic massacres), choosing to support one another despite their concern for one another’s safety. No damsels here, folks. Keep it moving.
Sara and Ava, A.K.A. AvaLance (Legends of Tomorrow)
Sara, the bisexual captain of a time ship called the Waverider, initially butts heads with Ava, a Time Bureau agent, on Legends of Tomorrow. They disagree about how best to protect the integrity of the timeline, but as many good love stories show, their animosity turns into mutual respect turns into flirting turns into love.
In Season 4, which returns from hiatus in April, Sara and Ava’s relationship has evolved. The two are madly in love (seriously, the season premiere is just a giant rainbow of queer adorableness) and they’re learning how to be vulnerable with one another. Though it’s just the tip of the iceberg in Season 4's “Wet Hot American Bummer,” Ava begins sharing her feelings about being a clone and what that means for her in terms of human connection. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Ava when she describes keeping a photo of the two actors who once pretended to be her parents on her desk at work.
Ava bemoans never having a childhood, but luckily the Legends now have a warlock on board who concocts a potion that will turn both Ava and Sara into children. Yes, there’s a plot-driven reason for the decision, but really, it’s an excuse to see the rigid, near-robotic Ava try to be a kid. And, for those of us who maybe missed out on massive parts of our childhoods due to trauma, it’s pretty fun to see her try to be a kid — and succeed, albeit awkwardly.
Where’s Sara for all this? She’s listening and asking questions and encouraging her girlfriend to try something scary and sharing about her own childhood, which was pretty rosy until she almost drowned while on a date with Oliver Queen. In a relationship where Sara frequently takes up more space, it’s refreshing to see Sara foregrounding Ava’s experience and fears. Simultaneously, it’s powerful to see Ava be vulnerable with Sara.
“Wet Hot American Bummer” also explores Sara and Ava’s differing parenting styles, which we can only pray we’ll one day get to see in its full glory on screen.
Eleanor and Chidi, A.K.A. Cheleanor (The Good Place)
Eleanor and Chidi meet after their deaths on The Good Place. And, since the timeline after their first death resets hundreds of times and the two fall in love a good number of those times, let’s skip right ahead to Season 3, when we finally get to see Eleanor and Chidi choose to be together and act on that choice.
Having discovered that the algorithm that determines the fate of every human upon death has not let a human into the real Good Place in over 500 years, Eleanor, Chidi, and their friends appeal to the Judge for an opportunity to prove that humans can improve given the right conditions. She allows them to do so in a new fake Good Place, but they have to work in tandem with the real Bad Place. In Season 3's “Pandemonium,” the unexpected occurs: Chidi’s ex-girlfriend, Simone, is placed in their experiment by meddling Bad Place demons. Her memory of Chidi and his friends has been erased, but she’s still Simone.
The problem is that it is up to Eleanor, Chidi, and their friends to help the newcomers improve, not just to determine their own fates, but to prove that the algorithm is fundamentally flawed and requires updating. Chidi worries he will mess up, act too weird or let it slip that he knows Simone, and cause the experiment to fail, so he asks to have his memory wiped, too.
Eleanor discusses Chidi’s decision with him, but ultimately supports him, despite her own pain and fear. She lets go, knowing that she’s going to miss him, but that he won’t even remember her. It’s a devastating turn of events that will break your heart even more when Eleanor says, “We’ve found each other hundreds of times before. We can do it again.”
Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship captures the feeling of being in love while the world is burning around you. The first date they go on takes place in a mailroom two inches from the Good Place beyond a door humans cannot open. The first time they have sex is right after Eleanor breaks into tears, realizing she’s terrified their relationship will end. And, once they finally have a chance to make things right and be together while they do so, their relationship does end, allowing them each to perform their roles and change the fate of humanity.
It may be counterintuitive, but breakups are a part of many healthy, loving relationships. Sometimes nothing goes wrong between two people, but life (or in this case, death) still pulls them apart. Eleanor and Chidi model how to handle a breakup while acknowledging one’s pain.
Sapphire, Ruby, and Garnet (Steven Universe)
Each of the above examples provides a compelling case for how genre can illustrate the feeling of being in a healthy relationship. But, when it comes to love and relationships, there’s one show that beats them all: Steven Universe.
The first time we meet Ruby and Sapphire is when they have been forcefully de-fused by an enemy in Season 1's “Jail Break.” As Gems, aliens who have human constructs, but are actually just really cool precious gems, Ruby and Sapphire have chosen to live together as Garnet, a fusion with a personality all her own. On the Gem Homeworld, their relationship and Garnet's fusion are considered taboo. Homeworld persecutes and forces them apart because of their “unseemly” nature.
Ruby and Sapphire fuse into Garnet and win the day in that episode (and many others), but when they find out that Rose Quartz wasn’t who she claimed to be, they fall apart (literally) in Season 5's “Now We’re Only Falling Apart.” Rose had been the one to encourage Ruby and Sapphire not to question their love and instead to live together fused as Garnet. Learning that they’d been deceived, Sapphire panics, believing her relationship to be a lie. Ruby, who takes Sapphire’s reaction poorly at first, ultimately seizes the opportunity to learn more about herself and her desires without Sapphire’s influence.
Ruby finds that what she really wants is to choose to be with Sapphire, not because it’s fated, not because Rose said so, not because it’s what the clairvoyant Sapphire foresees, but because it’s what Ruby wants. Based on a suggestion from Steven, Ruby turns that desire into a proposal and in Season 5's “Reunited,” Ruby and Sapphire marry and fuse as Garnet in front of their friends and family.
There’s really nothing like fusion as a metaphor for a healthy relationship. As in fusion, a good relationship has at least three components: partner A, partner B, and the relationship itself.
What does it mean that your relationship becomes its own entity? Well, that it must be cared for, nourished, and respected in its own right, not just as two (or more) individuals, but as an item unto itself. In Steven Universe, that means that Garnet is a real, valid person who has needs and desires and if things are off with either Ruby or Sapphire — or if things are off between Ruby and Sapphire — Garnet’s fusion will fall apart.
In polyamorous relationships, there’s always another component beyond any one coupling or grouping. And, Steven Universe captures the beauty of polyamory wonderfully with Flourite, a member of the Off Colors, Gems rejected by Homeworld. (She’s my TV bae. Don’t @ me.)
For an extra exploration of the dynamic between people in relationships, check out Season 4's “Mindful Education.” Stevonnie, the fusion between Steven and Connie, gets advice from Garnet on how important the balance between the two people and between them and their fusion is.