The Owl House is a story about stories—the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we can’t help being told. Stories can be affirming and inspiring; they fuel our fantasies and the dreams we aspire to. Other times, their impact is not as encouraging. We tend to turn to stories for models of behavior to emulate in the world. We live with the lessons we learn from the stories we’re told—stories about heroism and about romance and stories that moralize about the difference between good and bad, normal and weird, admirable and deviant.
While narratives about living up to the lessons we learn from stories are not uncommon in the world of cartoons, with Adventure Time as a prime example, it’s been rare until this point to see a series set its primary focus on the way adventure stories impact women and girls specifically. This is an unfortunate cultural blindspot, as there’s a lot to uncover here; girls grow up ingesting highly prescriptive media, from moralistic princess movies to soapy after-school specials, and are still expected to make space in their hearts for the same sexist books and movies marketed to their brothers where the roles for girls are very rigid. And culturally, girls experience more pressure to perform model behavior than boys. Stories carry a lot of weight for girls as they’re learning to define themselves, and they live with the psychological impact of this well into womanhood. So it’s this blind spot that The Owl House sets out to correct with gusto as it masterfully explores the relationship between women and stories from every angle—the narratives we take strength from, the heroes we can’t measure up to, and the trauma of meeting resistance when stories told us it was all supposed to be so easy.
The Owl House charts the impact of stories primarily through the eyes of three very different women and girls: Luz, Eda and Amity. Through these women, the series examines what it’s like to be a woman who doesn’t conform to expectations of appropriate womanhood and the wear and tear of that experience over time. Fittingly, the series is also deeply invested in disability, queerness, and trauma, all vectors that make model femininity difficult or impossible. The series depicts rebellious women as brave and admirable. But their bravery doesn’t always win them a warm welcome from the rest of the world. Women who don’t conform are often penalized, and as The Owl House goes on to show, this can lead to a damaged relationship with identity that requires a lot of healing.
The series is anchored by Luz, a 14-year-old Dominican-American girl from a world a lot like our own. She is an enthusiastic and outgoing nerd, obsessed with fantasy books and prone to bringing live snakes to school to use in her book reports. This doesn’t endear her to the school administrators or the other kids, so in an effort to spare her creative daughter the pain of a girlhood full of chastisement, Luz’s mom enrolls her in Reality Check Summer Camp, where she hopes Luz will learn how to be a normal, uncomplicated girl.
But Luz never makes it to summer camp. While she’s waiting for the bus, an owl steals her favorite book. Naturally, she chases after it, and as she’s doing so, she lives out one of her favorite fantasy tropes—stumbling through a portal to a secret magical world. If Luz was looking for a place to be herself without judgment, her first impression is that she must have hit the jackpot—surely this world can’t have any of the rules of her own home, where life is governed by the pressure to be “normal.” Here, owls talk and little half-wolf-half-skeleton-looking demon babies claim to be kings of the demon realm. And there is also Eda—a grumpy, aging witch and a local legend, purported to be a danger to the community who needs to be put in the “conformatorium.”
As Luz hides out in this land called the Boiling Isles, she becomes Eda’s apprentice as well as her friend. Eda is proudly unconventional and sees the same trait in Luz, so she pledges to teach Luz to become a witch. But that’s not the only thing Luz learns. As she gets to know Eda and her world, Luz also learns the hard lesson that standards of appropriate behavior exist in this world too. Though she had always dreamed of the adventures she’d have in a fantasy world—becoming a strong and noble warrior, being heralded for her heroism—the reality is more mature than that and harder to swallow. Universal acclaim is hard to come by as a woman. And no one has learned that lesson more painfully than Eda.
Eda’s cynicism makes her an interesting contrast to Luz, who is idealistic and sincere. But the two share more than just Eda’s house. Both struggle with limitations reminiscent of illness and disability. As a human in a land of non-human witches, Luz lacks the innate magical insides that the witches of the Boiling Isles are born with. In one of the series’ first truly stunning moments, we see her develop an adaptation entirely on her own that allows her to practice magic anyway. The way Luz does magic with the help of her accommodation isn’t quite the same as what her friends are doing, and it will always take her a bit longer to do a spell than it takes Eda, but her accommodation allows her to be her own kind of witch. As for Eda, the outlook is a bit grimmer. Eda has a condition that she’s treating with medicine, and it’s getting worse. Her relationship to her limitation, and her repressed grief over it, make up the meat of her arc in the first season—possibly for the entire show.
The series’ third significant character is Amity, another groundbreaking character in her own right. Unlike Eda and Luz, Amity is desperate to model traditional, acceptable femininity. Far from turning away from those expectations, she’s still clinging to the impossible ideals Luz and Eda have already let go of. And it’s causing her a lot of pain. Brilliant, poised, and a bit of a brat, Amity has a cold exterior that masks a traumatized emotional state. She is angry and cracking under the pressure. She is also a lesbian, which compounds her terror at the thought of failing to successfully perform perfect girlhood. Amity is trying hard to make everyone happy by being the right kind of girl, and she’s hitting a wall. So it is wonderful, and long overdue, that a character like this has license to proceed with her arc in just the right way—through a healthy and affirming textual romance with another girl that will show her that perfect femininity isn’t everything and life is better when you choose to be yourself.
These three characters are all revelations, pushing the boundaries of the stories we expect to see from a first-year cartoon. And the show is just a joy to watch! It’s loaded with clever puns, weird and inspired magic and monsters, beautiful animation, and (befitting Dana Terrace’s modus operandi) sneaky easter eggs foreshadowing mysteries ahead. And the series has such insightful things to say. I think my favorite is this: Throughout the season, the show cleverly and not unsentimentally shows us how Eda has come to regard the world with cynicism and distrust due to the rejection she’s faced over the years. But we also see that Luz gives her a reason to want to face the difficult world again, if only to give this wonderful girl the opportunity to set out on her own and make up her own mind. The relationship these two share, which beautifully subverts what we expect to see from a mother/daughter dynamic, is key to one of the series’ most powerful themes, exploring the universality of female rebellion and passing the torch to the next generation.
In this way, perhaps art imitates life. Premiering in 2020, The Owl House follows a small but impactful wave of kids’ cartoons that have showcased romantic relationships between women. On this show, too, queer girls have the floor to tell their stories. But The Owl House enters at a time when some of the groundwork for these stories has already been laid, and as such, it takes a different path from its predecessors. If the recent successes of LGBT stories in kids’ cartoons have shown us the achievements of the first trailblazers, the Edas who ran into heavy resistance, perhaps The Owl House as a work of art is itself a bit of a Luz—young and ambitious with big dreams, following in the footsteps of foremothers who paved the way, and refusing to be deterred.