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Boiling Isles Summer Camp for Queer Witches

Have you ever wished that on your way to regular old summer camp you’d stumbled across a magic door to a world where you could spend the summer learning magic and making friends as strange and nerdy as yourself? If so (or if not but it sounds fun to watch anyway), then Disney’s The Owl House is for you! Yup, I said Disney, possibly about as far away from the cultural gutter as it gets, but this is a show created by very cool, clearly queer-oriented folks who have been allowed to do a bunch of the things they wanted without too much Disnification, and it’s really good.

Luz Noceda’s mother is worried about how much time she spends reading the Good Witch Azura fantasy novel series and living in her imagination rather than learning what her mother sees as useful skills and making real-world friends. When Luz ends up in the principal’s office at school (again) for a book report that involves live snakes and rockets, her mother decides to send her away to Reality Check Summer Camp to learn to balance checkbooks and appreciate public radio. As Luz is waiting for the bus, a tiny owl steals her copy of Azura and she accidentally follows it through a magic door to a place in the Demon Realm called the Boiling Isles. The owl is the magical familiar of a rogue witch called Eda the Owl Lady, who lives with her adopted demon son/pet/sidekick King, an adorable little guy who looks a bit like a fox with a horned dog skull for a head. They live in The Owl House, which is actually itself a house demon called Hooty. Luz becomes Eda’s apprentice, makes friends with witch-kids Willow and Gus, and spends the summer learning how to do magic as a human instead of crunching numbers at camp boring. 

The show’s creator, Dana Terrace, has said that she was initially told that she couldn’t have “any kind of gay storyline among the main characters” but she fought for it and, wonderfully, she won. One of the things I love about the show is that it’s entirely about the characters as people, with queerness, gender, and racial diversity normalized in a way that centers the experience of those characters rather than pandering to the seemingly ubiquitous idea of a viewer who might perceive them as different and need that difference explicitly talked about in order to be able to identify with the story. They’ve also made sure that the voice actors’ identities match their characters, with Luz voiced by Sarah-Nicole Robles, Gus by Isaac Ryan Brown, and Eda’s non-binary school sweetheart Raine voiced by trans/non-binary actor Avi Roque.  

The most obvious queer storyline is Luz falling for a girl at magic school, but it runs much deeper than that and a bunch of the other characters read as pretty pansexual or gender diverse as well. Terrace has been clear that Luz is bisexual and the outfit she wears to Grom (the Boiling Isles’ predictably dangerous version of Prom) is classic queerness: a purple-cuffed tux jacket, pink tutu, purple leggings and big stompy boots. Her alternate outfits were a batman costume and an otter suit, which leaves me thinking that possibly her gender is actually otter? Eda herself always came across to me as an older queer punk, with her wild hair, ripped dresses with boots, and “whatever, don’t tell me what to do” attitude to authority and conformity, so her brown 70s Grom suit and the introduction of her non-binary ex in the second season just solidifies that. Also, I’m not sure what’s going on between Eda’s sister Lilith and Hooty the disturbing house demon, but it seems a lot like romantic friendship at least…  

There’s also the very queer-centric theme of chosen family, with King and Luz basically being Eda’s adopted kids. It’s clear that Luz’s mother loves her and is trying to do what she thinks is best for her daughter, but in addition to the nerd-conversion angle, sending her away to camp to change who she is has a pretty direct parallel to sending LGBTQIA2S+ kids to camps or programs to make them straight instead of accepting and supporting them for who they are. Luz agonizes over how to reply to her mother’s texts about how she’s doing at camp and is clearly ambivalent about whether she wants to go home, even though it’s clear she really loves and misses her mom. And it’s not like being in the Boiling Isles is an escape from the pressure to be “normal”. The main prison is the Conformatorium, where Warden Wrath and the imperial guards incarcerate citizens who don’t conform to the Emperor’s social norms. Naturally Eda has a price on her head and they’re always trying to catch her, but the other inmates are there for a variety of crimes, including Tiny Nose’s conspiracy theories and Katya’s fanfiction about food falling in love, which everyone seems disturbed by even though they support her right to ship whoever she wants.

On top of all those very cool foundations, it’s also just a really well-written and entertaining show. It’s creative and funny and strange, and much like Adventure Time it has content that speaks to both adults and kids in different ways. The storylines play with expectations and wrap up in satisfying ways without forcing resolutions or selling short the emotional complexity of the characters’ lives. There are also all kinds of bizarre and adorable background creatures and bit part characters, like the group of demon kids who play with King at the park or get read to by Amity at the library. My favorite is Warden Wrath’s son Braxas, who appears to be a kindergartner with a head that is mostly teeth and a super deep voice. It’s surprisingly disconcerting to reconcile that voice with the behavior of a little kid, and they’ve done it so well that it always simultaneously makes me laugh and reminds me to check my own assumptions.

The Owl House is in season two as of August 2021, but sadly it seems Disney is only planning to run a handful of longer “specials” as a season three and not renew it after that, so here’s hoping they change their mind and keep supporting the show. Either way, I’m looking forward to all of the fun and weirdness the creators are planning to pack into the time they have left.

~~~

alex MacFadyen thinks he might want to work in a demon daycare when he grows up. Also, he wishes his prom outfit had been half as cool as Luz’s.

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