Since last year’s Locked Tomb readings got me nostalgic and retrospective, it was only a matter of time before I retreated back to earliest media of my post-cult life, the stuff that stands tall in my mind as some of my first lessons in how to be normal. So I picked the thing with a bunch of PTSD and existential horror.
Let’s talk about the Rachel/Tobias ship.
Spoiler Warning: If you’re ever planning on reading the Animorphs story, this article is going to spoil some events that happen in the last half of it. And since this is about Animorphs I guess Content Warning for war death trauma body integrity horror uh mind control uh cannibalism uh what’s the term for beating someone to death with one of your own severed limbs, that.
Animorphs is a lot.
There’s not a lot of romantic material in Animorphs, but it’s there. It’s almost expertly defined in negative space – the way that actual teenagers consider and tease at the idea of boyfriend-girlfriend-joyfriend stuff without saying it, without any of it being explicit. Like nobody sits down and makes a list of reasons to want to date someone, it’s often just about emotional reactions to momentary stimuli, things that imprint on the brain and are being tested out bit by bit. It’s hard to grapple with for me to get in the right mind space, but remembering the Animorphs characters are, like, fourteen and not Anime-Fourteen but fourteen fourteen is pretty big in explaining how and why they react to things.
In that space, though, there’s the sorta-maybe-hey-thinking-about-it-do-they-kiss romance of Rachel and Tobias. Rachel is a girl repeatedly described as being hot, by her cousin, a tall, blonde girl who also is hiding the instincts of a violent warrior, a girl thrown into a war and commanded to be an adult, and she actually takes to it well. Like, in a different framing device, Rachel is the antagonist of a teen serial killer story. Tobias, by contrast, is what you might these days consider something of a droopy sadboy – floppy hair, skinny, no friends, unappreciated, bounced between abusive carers that aren’t properly parents, and then at the end of the very first story he turns into a hawk, never* to turn back again.
Oh and he’s also secretly an alien prince, but don’t worry, nobody ever tells him that.
It’s not even like it’s a complicated ship, in a lot of ways. As a loser of a boy, it was really just the shape of the most standard fantasy possible: What if there was the hottest girl in the world, who for reasons beyond both your control, had reason to hang out with you, become emotionally invested in you, and then from there, ha ha, you got ’em! You’re basically married at that point as long as no circumstances change the status quo where you get to hang around her regularly!
And then, thanks to you trying too hard and being too awesome, you have to leave your old life behind, embracing a new life, a new reality where none of your responsibilities persisted, your bad family were gone, and you have a reason to be socially connected with four extremely cool people who were probably not really your friends to start with. Oh and one of them is really hot and can kill everyone who bothers you. I mean beats up everyone. I mean she can protect you with her big, strong arms that are also fuzzy because she is a bear, and when she’s not a bear she’s basically Genius Barbie.
From her perspective, she can pick who she likes but instead of a boy who has Conventional Interests and connects to her life, she gets a boyfriend who is a secret. Also, he’s paradoxically, dangerous and very safe; they’re not sexually compatible in terms of their bodies, it’s very hard to argue that Tobias is interested in her because of her body and how their bodies relate. As a romantic partner, Tobias has to be interested in her for herself. At the same time, he’s a goddamn hawk, and hawks are really cool and badass and scary, and she can have him cruising around on her shoulder like she’s a pirate.
I obviously liked this ship as a kid because both of the halves were hot. It wasn’t just that Rachel was gorgeous but also that Tobias looked really good for kissing, and that meant they’d both have a fun time kissing, right? Obviously? This is a very straight way to consider ships, especially ships where I both wanted to be and kiss Tobias. Because again, he was hot. Right?
The canon of Animorphs actually deep-sixes the ship, early and late. There’s a middle period where the ship can happen, but there’s an after and a before, and the before is ‘when Tobias and Rachel barely know each other.’ They do eventually get a chance to do more conventional ship stuff – like holding hands and kissing – but that’s See, and I know you might not remember this: Rachel dies. Her last book is her relating her story, in her dying moments, to a god-figure, and there we get one of the enduring quotes of the series:
“You were brave, you were strong, you were good. You mattered.”
And before that quote, Rachel, reflecting on that moment, says that Tobias would not have let her get into the position where she was dying. He wouldn’t, because he loved her. And that’s some nice ship material but it would be nicer if it wasn’t happening as a character is dying.
Now you might think, hang on, this is a het ship. That’s not what I normally talk about around here! And you might be surprised, but consider this. This is a woman, and the lover who she cannot touch, who she cannot embrace, because there is a wrongness to it. The body of that lover does not properly align with their identity. The girl is positioned forever stand at a love that expresses itself through mostly, not expressing itself.
An hawk and a girl, is that not, itself, yuri?
Okay, I know it’s not. Personally, I have very little patience for ‘ah, two unrelated things is yuri’ jokes because it’s a wheelie everyone pops but also because, like, yeah, maybe it’s great to capture all the metaphorical ways we’ve suppressed women’s relatoinships but also maybe you could have them like hold hands and say they’re interested in one another. Like, that’s an option. Imagine if more yuri felt they could do that, even. What a world.
But anyway, thing is, Tobias, as a character, is a figure Important To The 90s Trans community, along with other such icons as Bugs Bunny and Ranma Saotome. There’s a fairly common thread through Tobias’ narrated books where he reflects on a determined tragedy (who he has been told he has to be) and the freedom of change (as being able to freely choose an identity and presentation through morphing). Applegate has been pretty clear that whatever vision of the characters’ sexuality and gender relationships work for you are effectively canon – they’re characters shared through the experience of reading and all that.
I’m not saying every nonbinary or trans kid from the 90s will respond to ‘Thermals’ and ‘Cinnabunzzzzz’ but a bunch will and it’s a trend worth noting.
Oh and because I’m sharing this to Reddit I feel like I should explain the joke in the title because Redditors love to jump to conclusions: In this case, ‘bird’ is being used colloquially to refer to a girl, and a falcon is a term used for hawks that have been trained.