The French Cartoon that Led Me to Fandom and Friendship
Priyanka Bose on How Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir Helped Her Overcome Loneliness
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The first time I realized I had been abandoned by my best friend was in fifth grade, at my birthday party. I had invited her and all the girls in my class to a party at my house, where I had an elaborate series of arts and crafts set up inside, a delicious cake, and a bubble-blowing kit on the back porch. An hour in, only one girl had shown up. A second girl showed up an hour later. She apologized and told me that the reason she was late was because my best friend, to my shock, was hosting her own party and had told everyone not to come to mine. The girl who told me this had felt bad for me, and she’d just come to explain what had happened. Good deed complete, she scarfed down a piece of cake and played idly with the unused craft materials lying next to the cutlery while I watched her in disbelief.
I was gutted. Over the next few days at school, I learned that my former best friend no longer wanted to speak to me. Because she had cut me off completely, I didn’t even find this out from her; instead, a mutual friend informed me that my ex-bestie had cast me aside because, in her mind, I was too clingy, too emotionally draining, too in need of her validation for whatever I did. It was the first time I had realized that people thought of me like this, and it stung. I was deeply embarrassed and spent the final month of the school year avoiding everyone outside of class, afraid they felt the same way.
The following year, I decided to start over and tried to make a new best friend, a well-liked girl in my class who seemed to welcome my sincerity. In return, she gave me the attention I craved. I felt grateful for her friendship, especially when everyone in class showed up at my next birthday party. But when we started junior high, she began to completely ignore me after befriending another group of popular girls. It was only then that I realized she had merely been tolerating my company.
The pattern followed me from elementary school into my twenties. I would find someone to call my best friend, shower her with my time and attention, and then, on multiple occasions, get her expensive gifts, like American Girl dolls or even a plane ticket to New York—doing my best, I thought, to prove my worth as a friend, only to later realize my affection was one-sided. Though no rejections were ever as public as my failed birthday party, the demise of these friendships always felt like death by a thousand little cuts, starting with a forced, stilted thank-you for my gifts followed by awkward pauses in conversation, an increased lag time in response to texts, and then, finally, absolute silence.
By adulthood, I could see the warning signs well in advance. Despite these failures, throughout my college years, I still ardently hoped to find social circles of people who shared my interests, particularly in writing; I romanticized about running literary salons in the city as writers had done in 1920s Paris and Harlem and renting apartments with creative types.
But this never happened, because I had never learned how to be casual. I wasn’t just in search of people I had something in common with; I was searching for best friends, the kind of people with whom I could share inside jokes and form lasting memories. Even in creative writing groups, where our common interest in writing should have been able to transcend other limitations, I never moved beyond the point of being more than acquaintances with most of the people around me.
By the time I was twenty-five, nothing in my life was going as I’d planned. I was living in a sort of purgatory, every day a variation on the same drab routine: leaving my parents’ house at 8:30 a.m., showing up around 9 to the nondescript office park where my workplace was located, and doing my best until 5 p.m. to develop zero-dollar marketing ideas for the shady little tech firm I worked at. I only had two friendly acquaintances there, the only other women in the entire company. While they were kind, we didn’t have much in common, and we never spent time together outside of work.
I felt the full weight of my loneliness on weekends, when I would spend hours at home switching back and forth between Tumblr and Facebook, scrolling through post after post of my high school and college acquaintances participating in one another’s weddings, hosting Friendsgivings, throwing surprise birthday parties, and planning group trips together. When I looked at my own camera roll, it was filled with pictures I had taken, but there were rarely any of me unless they were selfies or family photos—and almost none with friends.
I was sadder about my own life than jealous of the lives of these others on my Facebook feed. The truth of my aloneness was becoming unbearable.
The one exception to these patterns was online fandom. In 2005, I had signed up for a LiveJournal account after a Google search led me to a fan community for the cartoon Winx Club, a series I had recently fallen in love with. I was intrigued and decided to write an introductory post. To my pleasant surprise, the other members of the community began to introduce themselves to me in turn, and I was fascinated to find that most were my age or older. I quickly learned that online, it was cool to care about something you loved, and love it intensely. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone.
By 2011, fandom was largely shifting from LiveJournal to Tumblr, so I made the move as well. On Tumblr, although there were no private fan communities, I found an audience invested in the character and story analyses I often wrote, as well as the animated GIFs I liked to create on Photoshop. I would spend hours after work developing new content for my blog.
Though my success in engaging with people online offset some of the pain from the failure of my offline friendships, I still felt alone. Sharing a love for the same characters with other people didn’t necessarily mean we shared love for one another. And the persons I did connect with seemed to live thousands of miles away, anyway—in London, Toronto, Australia.
And then one evening after work in 2015, something changed, when I noticed fanart of characters I had never seen before. They appeared to be teenage superheroes—a blonde, green-eyed boy in an all-black catsuit, wearing a cheeky grin, next to a blue-eyed girl with dark blue pigtails in a red suit with black polka dots all over.
My interest was piqued. In a second piece of fanart, the boy and girl were in their civilian clothes. I was particularly intrigued by the boy; while his superhero self had a confident, cheeky grin, his civilian self seemed polite and shy. I decided to look up who they were.
My research told me that the show, which had debuted recently, was a French series called Miraculous Ladybug, and the two teenagers were Marinette Dupain-Cheng and Adrien Agreste—two Parisians who had the ability to turn into the superheroes Ladybug and Chat Noir, respectively. They protected the city from the evil Hawk Moth, who transformed vulnerable civilians into supervillains through the use of akuma, magical butterflies imbued with negative energy.
The next day at work, I decided to spend my lunch hour watching the first episode. I quickly fell in love with the flirty, teasing dynamic between Chat Noir and Ladybug and decided to watch the next few episodes. By the end of the third episode, I knew I was at the precipice of a deep and fervent obsession.
Miraculous Ladybug's premise, along with its charming character design and Parisian setting, formed the perfect storm for artists and writers to flock to its fandom.
What I loved the most about the series was that although they work together as a team, Ladybug and Chat Noir must keep their civilian identities secret from each other; neither knows that they are actually classmates in school. This means that Marinette, who has a big, all-consuming crush on sweet and polite Adrien, has no idea that he is the same person as her goofy teammate Chat Noir; while Adrien, who, in turn, is infatuated by the confident and vivacious Ladybug, has no idea that she is the same person as clumsy and awkward Marinette.
This premise, along with very charming character design and a Parisian setting, formed the perfect storm for artists and writers alike to flock to the fandom—and I was one of them.
Though I had been writing stories my whole life, fanfiction was never something I had actually engaged with because I thought, before now, that I just preferred to read and write original work. However, I couldn’t get over the dynamic between Adrien and Marinette, so I started reading other people’s stories. To my surprise, I found myself inspired by the hijinks of the characters and the sweet romantic plots in other people’s fanfiction, and my own words began to flow.
I began to post some of my stories on Tumblr and Archive of Our Own, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that people liked them, including several other fic writers, who I started to slowly befriend.
They dove into my DMs and I into theirs, and we would wax poetic about one another’s work for hours and exchange new ideas based on the new episodes that were coming out or alternate universes we wanted to put the characters in.
Writing Miraculous Ladybug fanfiction was unbelievably fun. There was no pressure to be serious or profound; the only restrictions were the limits of our own imaginations. Honestly, it brought me the most joy I’d felt in years.
One day, I saw an announcement on my Tumblr dashboard that applications were open for a small new group of Miraculous Ladybug fic writers to collaborate on group projects. Some of the members were popular writers in the fandom I recognized. With the hope of recreating the magic of the LiveJournal communities I had joined in my teens, I applied, and was ecstatic when I was accepted. The group was simply named Miraculous Ladybug Fanfiction, or MLF for short. I felt like I would finally be able to be part of a collaborative group of creative people.
But shortly after the first season ended, the show went on indefinite hiatus. Usually, when a show ends, a fandom community doesn’t die away immediately but, instead, disappears slowly until there is almost no one left, and I could sense the same thing happening to Miraculous Ladybug. Worried about what the hiatus might mean for MLF’s future, I decided to create a private group server on Discord in the hopes of recreating a private community setting for the other members that would make it easier for us to stay connected. With bated breath, I created a new post on our group blog with the invitation to the server and waited.
In the absence of new episodes, something special happened. We began to chat not just about the show, but about other things as well: other shows, our families, our professional ambitions, the minutiae of our lives. The shift was palpable; the server had begun to transform into something more like a frenetic group chat, and I loved it. Our connections were getting stronger. It reminded me of the close-knit friend circles I had watched from afar in high school and college.
One of the people on the server was Justine, who was also Asian American (in her case, Taiwanese American), the same age as me, and had also struggled to find close friends when she was younger. We shared endless private messages. Though our parents were from different parts of Asia and she had grown up in Southern California within a predominantly Asian American community, there were many things that we had both grown up with: strict parents, a fruitless desire to befriend the people around us who didn’t understand us, and a desire to travel far beyond where we grew up. It wasn’t always the easiest thing to find other Asians in our fandom communities who understood this specific kind of isolation, and so our bond felt special.
Gabie and Erin were two of the others who eventually became part of our core group. Though our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different—Gabie was a native New Yorker born and brought up in the city, while Erin was from Nebraska and putting herself through college while working multiple jobs with aspirations of becoming a physical therapist—I initially found myself drawn to them because of their manic combined energy in our chat rooms, a quick-witted, hilarious dynamic that to this day often reminds me of Abbott and Costello.
With the MLF group, what I saw was what I got. They never made me feel like I had to prove my worth as a friend or measure up to their humor. Not everything I said had to be clever; not everything I said had to be helpful. It was enough to just be present and to share their company. I found myself surrounded by funny, kind, and conscientious people who loved me for me. It was new and exciting to finally feel confident about having people in my corner.
A few months after founding the server, I decided I was finally going to leave my parents’ house for an apartment of my own in Chicago. Shortly after the move, though, I began to feel lonely. Being on my own wasn’t new for me, but I was completely unprepared for and unsettled by the total and utter isolation of being an independent adult living by myself in a big city.
Although many of my former high school and college classmates lived in Chicago, I was too disconnected from them to feel comfortable reaching out to them. And I wasn’t particularly close with my coworkers, which meant that, outside of work, I was always alone.
Instead, I found myself turning to my MLF friends in times of need. By this point, I was starting to feel close enough to the others to trust their opinions and often hopped on the server to ask their thoughts on furniture decisions, what neighborhood to explore next, what food to cook for dinner, fashion decisions—and got near-immediate responses. This soon became a section I dubbed “Priya’s decision-making crew.” Although they weren’t there with me in person, I felt better about being alone because I could always count on my MLF family to keep me company online.
Despite my near-constant presence on the server, it wasn’t until about a month and a half after I’d settled into the apartment that I had a critical revelation: my friends had started to become like family. It happened close to midnight one night, while I was sobbing on the phone to Erin while she patiently walked me through how to assemble the writing desk that I had purchased and had been struggling to put together for hours on my own.
My realization was reinforced a few weeks later when Justine told me she was coming to Chicago around my twenty-seventh birthday and wanted to know if I’d be interested in meeting up. I was nervous at first; I’d had a complex around my birthday ever since my failed party as a child, and though we had been talking for months, it was the first time I was going to meet Justine in person. But my fears were unfounded, because it was a perfect night—she and her husband took me out to dinner and then to Improvised Shakespeare at the iO Theater, where, to my glee, the actors, who took one prompt from the audience to form the theme of the night, chose mine—One Hundred Days of Midsummer—and performed an entire hour-long show right in front of us as we howled with laughter.
At the end of the night, Justine and I made plans to meet up in LA sometime soon so she could show me her favorite places, and after we said goodbye, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different the night had been from years past. For the first time, I truly had a best friend by my side who was happy I had made it to twenty-seven and wanted to be there for when I made it to twenty-eight.
A few months later, several of us planned a trip to New York City to celebrate another birthday: Gabie’s. In secret group DMs outside of the main server, we pooled our money together to commission a popular artist to create a comic version of one of her fics as a surprise present, and I stayed late at the office before traveling to the airport to print it out on beautiful, glossy 11″ × 17″ paper.
It was the exact kind of present that would have alienated my childhood friends, but this time, at the restaurant, I was surrounded by other people who cared just as much as I did, including Rey, whose father had driven her all the way from Virginia just to attend the birthday dinner, and Justine, Erin, and Claire, another MLF member who couldn’t be there in person, watching in on FaceTime from California, Nebraska, and Georgia.
As I handed Gabie our surprise gift, she cried. My heart swelled, and I thought to myself, This must be what real friendship feels like.
That was just the start. In the three years since Gabie’s celebration, I have formed more treasured memories with my MLF family than I have with people I have known for decades. Although I live thousands of miles away from my best friends, my camera roll has slowly filled up with the kinds of pictures I used to envy. The second half of my twenties has been filled with nights out in New York City; staying up all night binging the new season of another favorite show in Oakland; going to open mic nights and getting drunk at my apartment in Chicago; cosplaying in Los Angeles; spending holidays together. We’ve even gone on international trips to Tokyo and Taipei.
It feels unreal, in a world filled with so much unkindness, that a French children’s show led me to such an incredible group of friends.
My MLF family has been there for me at my low points, too. When my mother was in the hospital and I was home alone, Teal sat with me on Google Hangouts for hours, watching me silently as I prepared dinner. She didn’t need to say anything; her presence was comfort enough. When I had painful writer’s block, Jaanelle, a filmmaker, provided the tough love I needed to push through. And both Justine and Gabie have provided a therapeutic space to talk through so many of my problems.
No longer do I find the need to spend time on Facebook peeking into other peoples’ lives; my own life is fulfilling enough. Even in the middle of this pandemic, we’ve managed to become closer, with Zoom calls every other week.
Last year, several of the members jokingly asked me to change the name of the server from “mlfanfiction” to “mlfamfic” because even though we aren’t really engaged with Miraculous Ladybug anymore, we consider one another family at this point. And they’re right—we’ve met each other’s parents, siblings, spouses, significant others, and pets, and we know intimate details about one another. The younger members are like little sisters to me, and I constantly dispense life advice to them; even my parents have become invested, asking how they’re doing and telling me to be nicer when I tease.
It feels unreal, in a world filled with so much unkindness, that a French children’s show led me to such an incredible group of friends. Together, we have created an oasis of love and friendship, where it’s okay to be vulnerable, and where we deeply support each other’s dreams and ambitions.
Priyanka Bose is an Indian American culture writer, director, and photographer based in Chicago with a love of all things food, fashion, film, and fiction. A Fulbright Scholar born and raised in the Midwest, Priyanka's creative work focuses on culturally specific but universally relatable stories centered around friendship. Their work can also be found at AV Club, The Takeout, Popdust, and Medium. They are currently writing a collection of short stories. Find them on twitter @mspriyankabose or at their website, http://www.priyankabose.net.