The process of experiencing sexual attraction is more than just a feeling. You start with a feeling, yes, but then there’s the matter of matching your feelings to the words based on cultural knowledge, cobbled together from a variety of (not entirely consistent) sources. This analysis will explore one such source, in the form of an episode in the children’s television show, Recess.
Recess was an animated show produced by Disney, which aired from 1997 to 2001. It centered on an ensemble of fourth graders, who spanned a variety of archetypes from the new kid to sporty kid to nerd to charismatic leader. I was a bit older than the characters, but in my recollection it was one of the best kids’ shows on public television, and it might still hold up today.
“That Stinking Feeling” was episode that aired in 1999, which centered on a crush experienced by Spinelli. I will summarize the plot, but the ten minute episode may be easily found online, and I do recommend watching it if you would like to form an independent opinion.
Within the ensemble, Spinelli plays the tomgirl archetype. She is tough, good at sports, and goes by her last name instead of her (more feminine) first name. In “That Stinking Feeling”, she is playing a game of football, and her role is to tackle the quarterback. However, when the opposing team calls Johnny “Baby Tooth” V in as quarterback, Spinelli flinches and allows her team to lose.
Gretchen (the nerd archetype) asks her smartphone what’s up, and Spinelli’s friends learn that Spinelli has a crush on Johnny V. Spinelli herself learns the same from talking to the school nurse, then her parents. It also gets out at school, and she gets branded as a “boy-liker”. Even her friends begin to treat her differently (with unwanted chivalry).
Spinelli gets confronted by the Ashleys, who say that they understand. The Ashleys are recurring characters, a clique of four gossipy girls all named Ashley, and in a past episode they once tried to induct Spinelli (first name Ashley) into their group. The Ashleys confess they are also boy-likers, and show off their wall of celebrity boys. This only serves to horrify Spinelli.
The final resolution comes from a surprising source: mean old Miss Finster. Miss Finster is usually an antagonistic force in Recess, but she occasionally gets humanized in moments like this one. She explains to Spinelli that it’s normal and soon all the kids will be feeling it. With new confidence, Spinelli is able to tackle Johnny V.
How to name a feeling
“That Stinking Feeling” teaches kids how to identify their feelings by depicting a character who goes through exactly that process. Spinelli starts out by experiencing something she can’t identify. As soon as the situation begins to be described to any adults, or even to the smartphone, they all immediately and independently identify it as a crush.
I know it’s because the story needs to be compressed into ten minutes, but it’s actually absurd how quickly and unanimously everyone identifies it as a crush. In real life this can be much messier.
Case in point, we know Spinelli had a crush because the episode says so repeatedly, but what if we wanted to decide whether it was sexual attraction? The episode variously calls it a “crush”, “infatuation”, being “smitten”, “liking boys”, and “love”, but never “sexual attraction”. To be honest, “sexual attraction” is a term I never heard very frequently in any context until I started reading ace resources. In the ace tradition, sexual attraction may be heralded by a crush, but is a distinct feeling. So not only do we have the problem of identifying a feeling as a crush (based on cultural narratives absorbed from media like Recess), there’s an extra layer of figuring out the correspondence between crushes and sexual attraction.
I’m not saying that a kids cartoon show needs to be faithful to real challenges of naming an emotion–but we can ask what kids might take away from such a story. The implication is that crushes are an objective and practically scientific quantity, easily and indisputably identified by knowledgable authorities. That is to say, the episode depicts crushes in an essentialist manner.
Everyone catches feelings
One thing I like about Recess, and this episode in particular, is that although it makes heavy use of archetypes, it repeatedly upends expectations. The show decided to make Spinelli the subject of the crush, because in a way it goes against her character, creating a new wrinkle that the audience (i.e. kids) may not have expected. As Miss Finster puts it, “Women of power like us, we’re not allowed to have emotions.” The fact that Spinelli has a crush, and even Miss Finster has had crushes, reinforces the message that everyone can and will have crushes.
I really like this message, but for one minor issue: not everyone does have crushes. My purpose isn’t to criticize the show’s choices, but to explore the cultural narratives that we may have received as kids, and how that might have contributed to our (mis)understandings of the world. For someone who doesn’t get a crush, this story offers only a few limited narratives to fit into. First, you might be having a crush and you just don’t know it yet because you didn’t have an authority to help you identify it as such. Second, you might be one of the other naive kids who doesn’t know what’s coming.
Furthermore, the show implies that not getting crushes is a bad thing. Miss Finster says, “It’s better to feel something than nothing at all.”
What is a crush like?
The show also gives a few specifics in terms of how to identify a crush. Visually, it’s depicted as the sun behind Johnny’s head, appearing as a halo. Spinelli describes it as a woozy stomach, like someone punched her. Miss Finster says the feeling will make you want to “stand on the rooftop and yell to the heavens” or “crawl into a hole and pull off your skin”.
Something I find interesting is that crushes are depicted as mostly unpleasant. Miss Finster speaks wistfully about it, and the Ashleys gush about their framed dreamboats, but Spinelli seems to hate it consistently throughout the episode. Johnny V barely makes an appearance in the story, and it’s like it has hardly anything to do with him. In a way, the crush feels rather ace–Spinelli feels something, but those feelings don’t cause desire for anything, and don’t lead anywhere except the nurse’s office.
It’s an age appropriate message, but also appropriate for adults, including ace adults. A feeling is one thing, but it’s another to follow through towards that feeling’s supposed end goal. What if our feelings don’t have the same end goal as we were taught to expect? The episode hints at that possibility, practically normalizing it.
It was enjoyable to look back at a show that I watched as a kid, and unpack some of the things I might have learned from it. I’d love to hear similar stories from aces of different ages.
Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate it and found it helpful!
Neat! I’d never heard of Recess before, but it was interesting to watch the episode and read your thoughts on it.
I guess the question, “What did I learn from this text as a child” is something I’ve brought to at least a few of my movie reviews, most obviously my Casablanca review, my Philadelphia Story review, and my writings about Star Wars. I don’t know if I’ve ever specifically asked (either out loud or to myself) what texts shaped my understanding of sexual attraction, though. That’s something I’ll have to think about.