virginia gardner plays a rainbow-skinned lesbian in marvel’s "runaways"
The new Hulu show features mutant teens fighting supervillains and school bullies.
Photography Stanislaw Boniecki
Queer superheroes appear frequently in modern comics, but not often on screen. Which is especially surprising considering how much of the conventional superhero narrative involves self-exploration, social alienation, and personal liberation — feelings many queer adolescents can relate to. So Karolina Dean, the queer alien with rainbow skin and hair starring in Marvel’s new Hulu series Runaways, is a welcome arrival.
“A big part of Karolina’s journey is figuring out who she is,” emerging actress Virginia Gardner says about her religious, sexually repressed character. Karolina is the first major series role for the 22-year-old Californian actress, who has also acted in the drama Goat with Nick Jonas and appeared on Glee. And Virginia's character is not alone in her journey of self-discovery. The six misfit teens in Runaways all experience major identity crises. They learn who they are and what their powers are over the course of the show’s first season. Oh, and that all of their parents are supervillians. NBD.
Most superhero projects kick off with a big cinematic bang and never slow down. But Runaways feels more Degrassi than Avengers at times. It allows time for the standard laundry list of teenage problems: struggling in school, one-way crushes, and annoying parents. But the characters’ supernatural dilemmas and adolescence (which is its own otherworldly experience) routinely converge. For example, Molly (whose biggest desire in the opening episode is to ace her dance team audition) thinks her burgeoning super-strength is just really bad menstrual cramps. It’s during moments like this that Runaways becomes a powerful exploration of feeling confused by our own bodies. Which we’ve all experienced before.
“The original Runaways comics were written in 2001, and we’re doing the modern version of them,” Virginia tells me. The group is quintessentially Generation Z. And, refreshingly, that isn’t illustrated by having the characters on their smartphones all the time. Gert, a Wiccan, is a social justice warrior and never misses an opportunity to discuss the ills of the patriarchy. The show also touches on topics like sexual assault and cyberbullying.
“This is a really great year for the show to be happening,” Virginia says, referring to today’s advocacy-oriented youth. “Our cast is really diverse and a lot of the issues we touch on — like kids questioning authority and fighting for what they stand for — I think we need more than ever. I hope it empowers young kids.”
Playing Karolina was empowering for Virginia herself. She calls the role an “actor’s dream” and enjoyed doing her own stunts, working with an animatronic dinosaur, and transforming into a magical rainbow goddess. “I loved it,” she squeals with glee. “I got to wear hair that fell down to my belly!”
Ahead of its arrival on Hulu this week, Runaways already had a strong fanbase within the LGBT community. Which makes sense since Karolina’s powers essentially turn her into a walking pride flag. “There’s not just one type of lesbian character, and it’s about time for media to broaden them,” After Ellen wrote about the show. Fans are happy Karolina is not yet another “tough” queer female hero (see: Zena). “Karolina is gentle, polite, and she doesn’t need a weapon to be empowering,” AfterEllen says, praising Virginia's portrayal.
While we don’t get to see Karolina explore a same-sex relationship this season, the future looks bright for the kaleidoscopic character. In the original comic, Karolina develops a crush on Nico (the group's goth sorceress) and eventually makes a move.
“My favorite thing was working with a different director every week and it was cool to stick with a character and really see how they develop,” Virginia says. “When you’re doing a series, you don’t know where it’s going to be at the end of the season. You’re going on the journey too.” So it looks like a lot of growing is set to take place. Which is exactly what the cast is doing too.
When I talk to Virginia, she is preparing for an appearance at Comic Con with her castmates and still getting used to the outpouring of praise from fans. “We’re all learning together,” she says. Which, mortal or mutant, is what we’re all doing.
You can stream Runaways on Hulu now.