VRV Blog

Why Adventure Time’s Lesbian Romance Matters

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the finale of Adventure Time.

The only fanfiction I ever wrote was about Marceline and Princess Bubblegum from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. Unlike a lot of my fellow quiet, nerdy friends, fanfiction was never really my thing. I liked television shows and movies, but reading and writing about characters I liked in different, often unhinged scenarios seemed a little odd.

But at some point, I felt the need to tell a story that I thought would never be told, at least in a mainstream children’s cartoon. I was young and queer—dealing with my gender identity and sexuality in sometimes unhealthy ways—and struggling to find anyone to confide in or see parts of myself in. So I wrote about Marceline and Princess Bubblegum from the now-recently concluded cartoon series Adventure Time, a brooding vampire and a ruler of a candy kingdom in the magical—yet dangerous—land of Ooo.

“Bubbline,” as the pairing’s come to be known, first caught the attention of “shippers” in episode ten of season three, “What Was Missing.” In this episode, Marceline sings to Princess Bubblegum and hints at a previous romantic relationship between them. My fiction, along with the fictions of others, took this idea and ran with it, making them explicitly queer, in love and getting a happy ending. It was terribly written and nonsensical, but it was a vehicle for feelings I couldn’t process any other way.

The episode was controversial among audiences, especially after a now defunct Cartoon Network recap series called “Mathematical!” implied the pair were lesbians. Olivia Olson, who plays Marceline, told fans that they did have a relationship in the past but it wasn’t allowed to be explicitly addressed because the show aired in places where homosexuality was illegal—she later retracted these claims on Twitter when the panel was posted to YouTube.

Even amidst the controversy, Bubbline’s popularity grew in fandom communities, inspiring a plethora of fanfiction and fanart. But their relationship didn’t exist solely in the depths of Tumblr—Bubbline was slowly and covertly coming into prominence on screen. In one episode, Princess Bubblegum wears a shirt Marceline gave her, later taking a huge huff of it just after getting out of bed. In another episode they hold hands and wear each others clothes. Most of this was the work of Rebecca Sugar, who wrote for the show from 2010 to 2015 and worked as a storyboard artist and revisionist from 2010 to 2013.

For a while, Bubbline’s implied relationship was all we needed—because that’s how queer people have learned to see themselves in media. We put so much emphasis on the little things—eye contact between two characters, holding hands, an off-handed comment—that we conflate subtext with text.

We’ve also been told that queer love is inherently immoral, or something that is tolerable but not appropriate for child audiences. It was understood, maybe subconsciously, that a popular show targeted at children couldn’t possibly have a canonically queer couple. So we dove into the depths of the internet, crafting our own fiction because these relationships would never exist in the media we loved. Maybe years from now, we thought, we’ll see versions of ourselves on television, but we resigned ourselves to the reality that things just weren’t there yet.

And then, they were.

After ten seasons and 283 episodes, Adventure Time aired its series finale on Monday, September 3 2018. The hour-long episode tied up a lot of loose ends—including Bubbline, who’s relationship was finally confirmed with a heartwarming kiss that I haven’t been able to stop playing on loop since it was frantically posted on Twitter.

Not only was Bubbline recognized and confirmed by its network, the characters got something resembling a happy ending. The episode as a whole is somewhat dark, dealing with death and endings in an astute and relevant way. But Marceline and Bubblegum make it. They don’t die, they don’t break things off, they don’t face any hostility. More than anything, the episode is about how people keep living even in the face of overwhelming terror. And that’s evident nowhere more strongly than in Bubbline’s ending—there’s hope for a future. They get to exist. There will still be love even when the world is ending.

It’s rare that queer couples in media get to have a happy ending, especially queer women. Historically, lesbian romance was legally required to depict homosexuality in an ultimately tragic or negative manner, lest it be branded as obscene. It wasn’t until Patricia Highsmith’s 1953 novel The Price of Salt—later adapted into the 2015 film Carol—that mainstream audiences were exposed to a lesbian story with a happy ending.

Sixty-five years later, the publishing world still marginalizes lesbian authors and stories. And those stories that do reach mainstream audiences are often salacious or voyeuristic—fetishised rather than humanized. In the case of children’s media, queer stories are often off the table entirely, making the rare examples of authentic representation almost feel too good to be true. But there is a wave of change occurring in the world of animation.

Adventure Time raised the standard in narrative and animation for cartoons and brought about a renaissance in children’s television. It also raised the standard of representation. Shows like Steven Universe, Gravity Falls and Danger & Eggs have realized that queer kids exist, and they deserve the same escapism and joy that cartoons are supposed to provide.

Even more so than for adults, it’s important that queer kids see themselves in the entertainment they consume, to know that who they are is wonderful. When that happens, queer youth won’t have to hunt for scraps of representation in media. And maybe it’ll happen sooner than we could have ever dreamed.