Arts & Culture | Queer Life

This Cartoon Will Help You Rethink Your Definition of Intimacy

The show went a step further than other cartoons of the time: It showed young women intentionally building a life together.

Growing up and today, there was (and continues to be) a lot of media where happily-ever-afters for the main characters usually meant they ended up in monogamous (and heterosexual) relationships. The marker of happiness was the moment where they would leave their primary social groups—their family and friends—to walk off hand in hand into the proverbial sunset, separated from the rest of the world. As a person who grew up to realize they were on the aromantic-asexual spectrum, I felt removed from media like this. I knew then that I didn’t feel the same types of attraction in the way characters on-screen did. And I later dreaded the idea that one day everyone would split off from my life, siphoned into their own allosexual romantic bubbles.

Yet, in the midst of this wave of romance, I also grew up on mid-’90s-to-2000s female-led cartoons. From Sailor Moon to W.I.T.C.H. to Winx, animated shows that centered powerful female friend groups dominated my viewing. But nothing could touch Totally Spies! The show premiered in 2001 and focused on a trio of young women from Beverly Hills—Sam, Clover, and Alex—who lived double lives as mall-hopping high school students during the day and international agents for a spy organization known as WOOHP (World Organization of Human Protection) at night.

I loved this show for probably the same reason as the thousands of other fans (an even mix of boys, girls, and very possibly nonbinary kids, to the surprise of sexist networks who felt female-centered animated content was risky): because it was fun. Totally Spies! was like a mix between Charlie’s Angels and Kim Possible, combining high-stakes adventures with the daily dramas of being a teenage femme, including creativity through fashion, worrying over crushes, and stressing out over school, all with the epic friendship between the three main leads.

In retrospect, the nostalgic legacy of Totally Spies! carries a new meaning for me outside of its bright, funny, and energetic plotlines. When I first watched the series as a preteen, I was still in the stage in my life when I didn’t know queerness existed, much less that being anything other than straight was something I could be, so I had originally only regarded Totally Spies! as simple after-school entertainment. Yet, growing older, beginning to understand that I was aspec, and realizing the whole heterosexual/nuclear family formula might not necessarily apply to me led me to analyze the show through an entirely new lens. It was also one of the first examples I saw within my early pop-culture education of queerplatonic family and relationships.

A queerplatonic relationship (otherwise known as a QPR) is often defined as a close, committed relationship that is neither romantic nor necessarily sexual in nature. It’s a bond that goes beyond what most consider to be a standard friendship. For many aromantic and/or asexual folks such as myself, QPRs are considered to be the equivalent of a “significant other,” a person with whom one builds a level of intimacy that society often reserves for romantic partnerships.

Though Sam, Clover, and Alex are all presumably heteorsexual and “boy-crazy,” their relationship reevaluated through a more modern queer lens could be seen as a QPR. Within the show, the girls’ primary bond—the personal relationship that suggests the most immediate level of importance and commitment in their lives—is to each other.  As both best friends and fellow spies, the girls show a level of trust and communication with each other that is completely unparalleled by the other social or biological relationships in their lives.

During high-stakes missions, Sam’s, Clover’s, and Alex’s lives are in each other’s hands, so their ability to function and succeed as a team literally stems from their ride-or-die dynamic. As spies, they show an absolute conviction in each other’s abilities and dedication to keeping each other safe. And as students, they protect each other from the daily trials and tribulations of civilian life, be it bullies, like their classmate Mandy, or bad dates and toxic boyfriends (as seen in the likes of “Evil Boyfriend”). And though the characters in Sailor Moon, W.I.T.C.H., and Winx also did this to some extent, for the girls of Totally Spies!, their dedication goes a step further: They intentionally build a life together.

Throughout the show, which takes place within the timelines of both high school and college, the girls live together in the same home, and they split domestic labor and responsibility much like a family does. And while one might interpret this as just a roommates-of-convenience situation, episodes like “Futureshock,” where the girls travel to the future, finding their future thirty-something selves still living together in the same home, showcase how in most possible realities, Sam, Clover, and Alex intentionally choose to stay and be together. Aside from their professional and emotional dedication to each other, there is also a level of authenticity between the girls that indicates an additional level of intimacy. For instance, in the episode “Mommies Dearest,” the girls discuss their strained relationships with their mothers, Clover being unable to connect to her mother because of generational differences, Alex complaining about her mother’s fixation on her getting a boyfriend, and Sam being weary of her mother’s overprotectiveness.

And in their romantic relationships with boys or social dynamics with classmates, conflict often stems from the girls trying to put on a persona that would most appeal to others. Like in “Child’s Play,” Clover tries to act more “mature” for a boy by wearing stuffy clothes that do not match her actual style, or in “Boy Bands Will Be Boy Bands,” in which Alex considers a tattoo in order to be considered cool enough for her peers.

It’s the moments when they are with each other when they feel most comfortable in their own skins, neither needing to hide the details of their double lives as undercover agents nor feeling the need to put on inauthentic personas to be considered attractive or appealing. While other shows and movies showcased the cattiness of girl groups à la Mean Girls, making it seem like the norm for girls to peer pressure each other into doing uncomfortable things or treating each other like competition for boys, it was a relief, then and now, to have the primary friend group in Totally Spies! not play into those stereotypes. To watch Sam, Clover, and Alex simply enjoying each other’s company was to know I could be around other women (and other people in general) without that level of toxicity.

While I would not say I am currently in a queerplatonic relationship like Clover, Alex, and Sam’s, I have been able to be my most authentic self within my platonic relationships. With my platonic friendships, we can hang out and babble for hours on end about the most random topics like anime and books, just vibing in place. While experimenting with dating apps, I have had to juggle the expectations of finding a “match” that would accept the various parts of my identity, namely my asexuality, and being ghosted once I come out to them. With a good number of my blood family, I am extremely tight-lipped about my private and professional life, knowing they would be uncomfortable with the queer content within my writing or simply wouldn’t get the level of enthusiasm I have for fandom.

As such, the people I find myself feeling the most free with, the ones who see my bare face, both physically and emotionally, are often the people who I have no ties to romantically or biologically. With my platonic friends/bonds, I don’t feel the need to tone down my geeky interests or to hide the significance of the LGBTQIA+ community to me, and I have felt most vocally honest with them.

Totally Spies!

Perhaps as an aspec person, I’ve felt the need to prioritize these platonic bonds to a different extent than non-ace or non-aro folks do because I’ve had to. Since I experience little to no sexual or romantic attraction, I’ve been forced to confront and interrogate the cultural scripts of heteronormativity, allonormativity, and amatonormativity much more quickly than others. As such, I’ve often needed to find other sources for emotional affirmation that society and pop culture often reserve for romantic partnerships. As an aromantic-asexual character states in Alice Oseman’s exemplary aro-ace novel Loveless, “Give your friendships the magic you would give a romance. Because they’re just as important. Actually, for us, they’re way more important.”

And while not romantic in nature, I could easily argue the main characters of Totally Spies! share a connection that is as valid or even more important than any romantic relationship they have had or could have, since the majority of their boyfriends last no longer than a single episode, yet their friendship remains steady for several years and television seasons.

There is an ease in the absolute love Sam, Clover, and Alex have for each other. Clover and Alex encourage Sam’s academic pursuits, never suggesting she tone down her intelligence (as a female relative of mine once suggested, saying that it might scare away potential male partners). Clover and Sam adore Alex’s goofy, sporty persona and sweetly tease her about her interest in boy bands and toys while cheering for her in athletic competitions. Alex and Sam, though sometimes annoyed by Clover’s boy-craziness, always wish her the best in her wild romantic endeavors and are there to cradle her broken heart when they’re over.

Despite the popular narrative that true fulfillment can only be found in the arms of a romantic partner, in the incredibly girly and badass series Totally Spies!, the lead characters’ happiness isn’t found with boys, but with each other, in the home they make together, first as teenagers and later as the young women they become.

Hopefully, by taking more shows like Totally Spies! into consideration, more people and media can elevate relationships that exist beyond the nuclear family code. By recognizing that joy and adventure and family can be found in lives like Clover’s, Sam’s, and Alex’s, they can begin to affirm more lives like mine that exist beyond the standard allonormative, amatonormative narrative. And while Totally Spies! hasn’t aged perfectly since the first time I’ve watched it, it still puts a smile on my face to watch the beautiful bond between these characters, something that no boy or villain or laser lipstick can break.