The Magic School Bus’ Ms. Frizzle Is A Queer Legacy

In 1994 nothing — not even a chilled Capri-Sun — was cooler than The Magic School Bus. The animated series followed Ms. Frizzle and her merry band of students as they went on field trips to exotic locales like the Arctic and strange places like Herp Island, where they all turned into reptiles. Of all the characters on The Magic School Bus, no one could compare to the charismatic, colorful Valerie Felicity Frizzle, also known as “The Friz,” voiced by the incomparable Lily Tomlin. She became our favorite teacher, all light-up earrings and wisdom, and much like the actor playing her, she was never short on jokes.

It’s been a long-disputed among amateur (read: internet) critics (read: the general public) opinion that Ms. Frizzle is a lesbian. Once you head down that search-engine-wormhole, though, there’s no coming back: I never needed to see the words “The Friz,” “Mary Poppins,” and “porn” in the same sentence, and yet, the internet exists, and thusly so does that fan fic.

You may be asking yourself what exactly makes Ms. Frizzle’s sexuality interesting, and there’s no clear answer. Some stray comments and seemingly-satirical articles suggest that the show championed witchcraft, which, in the 1990s, was not the compliment that it is today. An interesting notion to consider, as witches historically rode their broom as a means of absorbing a potent herbal concoction through the mucous membranes of the vagina. The herbs used were hallucinogenic, so while the witches of yore galloped — I mean, masturbated with broomsticks — through their homes or the woods, they might have felt the transcendental powers of the drugs in a way that felt similar to flying. Perhaps, even, hallucinations that could transport them to a herpetological island, where they shape-shifted into the native creatures. Witches have long been rumored to be lesbians, and vice versa, (and socialist feminists) at least if Pat Robertson had anything to say about it.

So, maybe the far-flung connection is there. I’ve heard worse theories.

While Ms. Frizzle’s sexual and romantic leanings aren’t revealed in the series, the woman who played her, Lily Tomlin, has left her own orientation no mystery. In 2013, her orientation was publicly confirmed when it was announced that at age 73, she would marry her long-time partner, writer Jane Wagner (77 at the time) the same year. For decades, Tomlin has battled the expectations placed upon women by the media and public alike, famously making Johnny Carson’s audience uncomfortable by stating that she didn’t want to have children in 1975 — the same year Time magazine tried to bribe her into coming out. In their attempt to be the first to reveal a much-rumored part of her, they dangled a juicy carrot in front of her face: her face, actually, on the cover of the magazine.

“I never did not come out,” she told the Washington Post, “I wanted to be acknowledged for my work. I didn’t want to be that gay person who does comedy.”

She didn’t bite.

If casually telling a talk show host you didn’t plan on getting pregnant was a scandal at that time, it’s hard to imagine a rainbow-laden, happily-ever-after coming out story would have followed. No person is defined entirely by their sexuality, but someone living in the spotlight does not only belong solely to themselves; a celebrity is a force beyond the boundaries of their body and mind. They’re a public entity, a brand. They are, in part, a character. Coming out is a deeply personal process for many, though, and not something anyone — famous or otherwise — owes to anyone, including the media, or their fans. In addition to living her life in the limelight, Tomlin was concerned, as so many are, about the reaction her mother would have had.

“My mother would have died. Literally. If she’d lived to see me come out,” she said in 2015, “Bless her heart, she was Southern, basically fundamentalist, but she was very witty and sweet and kind and she adored Jane. She died ten years ago. She was 91. So that was always kind of a dilemma for me.”

There aren’t enough carrots in the world to convince someone to come out if they simply aren’t prepared to do so. It makes sense, on many levels, that Tomlin waited until so recently to officially invite the world to see her true colors.

It just so happened to be the same era that fellow actor and comedian Kate McKinnon did.

McKinnon’s coming out story could not be more different from Tomlin’s. After considering her “physiological reaction” to watching The X-Files, she realized that it wasn’t David Duchovny’s stony gaze that was so broomstick-ridingly exciting.

“It was Gillian Anderson who still is the queen of my heart. So I knew then. I told some of my friends, eventually I found my mother. She found me crying and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said ‘I think I’m gay’’… and she said, ‘Fine. Love it. Whatever you want to be.'”

Before becoming the first out Saturday Night Live cast member in 2012, McKinnon was featured on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show. Like Tomlin, she’s familiar with breaking down boundaries: in 2016, she played a gender-swapped scientist named Jillian Holtzmann, the brains behind the Ghostbusters’ inventions, and the unofficial queer heartthrob of the year. Much to the surprise of absolutely no one, a lot of sexist dudes were very unhappy about the casting of women in the rebooted cult classic. The world continued turning. And now, in the year of our holy mother Beyonce, 2017, Kate McKinnon has been announced as the new Ms. Frizzle in Netflix’s reboot of the original series, making the character a queer legacy.

It’s official, folks: Ms. Frizzle is here, she’s queer, and she’s ready to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.


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23 Comments

  1. 0

    I was all good and excited and thrilled to read this article until I stumbled onto that section about that fanfic. In that moment I could literally hear my childhood crash, burn and DIE. *shudders* The internet is such a double edged sword.

  2. 0

    Yeeessssss!
    Pretty sure Ms. Frizzle is to blame for tricking me into becoming a science teacher. How did I end up devoting all my waking hours to science, special ed, and public education??? The Friz must be involved.

    (The gay stuff is anybody’s guess though. Prob also Frizzle’s fault. First it was Ms. Frizzle, then it was Dana Scully…you get the drift…)

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