Feature image from CBS
In the summer of 2010, I was 13 and The Nanny had been off the air about ten years, existing mostly through reruns on various cable channels, like Nick at Nite or Hallmark. It came into my life after a round of mindless channel-surfing, my discerning teen self settling on this wacky-looking sitcom from the ’90s. It was hard to miss — after all, Hallmark showed the same episode three times a day with the next episode premiering at midnight. When all six seasons had been shown, the whole series would start all over again. I know this because I spent that entire summer watching each episode of The Nanny at least twice every day, with the ever-frosty C.C. Babcock easily and quickly becoming my favorite character.
I shipped her and her sparring partner Niles before I even knew what the word “shipping” meant. Eventually, I stumbled upon The Really Unofficial Nanny Homepage, the show’s oldest and most extensive fansite, which also played host to a sprawling archive of fan fiction. The first piece of fic I’d ever read wasn’t even a story about Niles and C.C. — instead, it was a badly written smut piece about Fran and Maxwell. I was 13! There were no warnings, as far as I could tell. Even if there were, I’m not sure I would’ve understood what they meant.
2010 also marked the great fandom migration from LiveJournal to Tumblr, and even though I didn’t come from LJ, I arrived on the microblogging platform at about the same time everyone else did. In those early days of Tumblr, I reached the tail end of “tumblarity,” an algorithm that measured how popular you were on the site each day, photosets didn’t exist and GIFs had a 500 kb limit. My blog was called pepperlane, after a grad school nickname of Lauren Lane, the actress who played C.C. Babcock. On my iTunes library, I curated playlists filled with songs that reminded me of C.C. and her dynamic with Niles, like “Out of My League” by Stephen Speaks or “She’s Always A Woman” by Billy Joel. I made GIFs from low quality YouTube uploads of the episodes split into four barely watchable parts. By this point, there was no doubt about it: The Nanny was my first fandom, Niles and C.C. were my first OTP and that was all I thought of for an entire year.
C.C. — and by extension, Lauren Lane — was always at the center of my Nanny experience. Reading fic, I reveled in authors’ vivid descriptions of her, from the way her hair was always perfectly coiffed atop her head to the way her blue eyes always glimmered mischievously whenever she got Niles to shut up after a particularly great one-liner. Watching the show, I spent a little too much time looking at her stockinged thighs and the occasional cleavage, mentally chastising myself whenever I did. In the episode “Green Card,” when she stood at the kitchen counter while a Frenchman peppered soft, light kisses on her arm, I had the vaguest feeling of wanting to be in the Frenchman’s place. Whenever she and Niles kissed, whether in fic or on the show, I wondered briefly, for moments at a time — never verbalizing it, never letting the words leave my brain — what it must feel like to kiss her.
That same year, I started my sophomore year in high school. I had the same set of classmates, mostly the same teachers, Geometry instead of Algebra, Biology instead of Natural Science. As far as I could tell, it was just like freshman year — only this time I had a new favorite show to obsess over and a new English teacher to do much of the same. She had a name from the Bible, she was tall and beautiful, and the sound of her heels on the floor, coupled with the room quieting to a hush almost immediately, is a moment I have yet to forget, even a decade later. She was smart and quick and reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite put my fingers on. I spent the entirety of that school year in exquisite agony over her.
I wrote her letters and brought her cheesecake and coffee, a food pairing she told the class she loved. I kept a photo of her in my wallet, in the same way I did so with all my favorite actresses. “I know it’s creepy,” I wrote in a blog, and as if trying to convince myself that it was fine, I added: “But if it helps, it’s because she’s on the same level as Helen (McCrory) or Tash (Richardson) or Lauren (Lane).” That’s who it was; that’s who she reminded me of. In another blog entry, I listed down their similarities, from the way they pursed their lips to the way their hands looked. It made no sense, yet to my young mind, made all the sense in the world. “They are both beautiful (did I really have to state this?),” that list ended. Of course, I was too much — far too much, and when she left at the end of the year, she wrote me a letter. “You are a smart girl,” she said, “albeit an emotional one.” It was the first time I learned the word albeit, a word I would come to hate.
As she left, my Nanny phase came to an end, too. I had moved on to new things and obsessions. I became part of new fandoms and loved new ships and new favorite characters. In 2011, it was Harry Potter and Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy. Soon enough, Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor and River Song. In 2012, I binge-watched all of Desperate Housewives and promptly spiraled over Tom and Lynette, leading me to watch everything Felicity Huffman had ever been in. I deemed each of these ships an OTP, just like I did with Niles and C.C. I made playlists and read fic, devoted a large part of my headspace to them and wondered again, for brief moments at a time, what it must feel like to be in the place of the man.
Those moments wouldn’t last very long, though. I made sure they didn’t. I called myself things like “creepy,” “weird,” “perverted,” even as I looked at men the same way I looked at women. But here’s the thing: I didn’t look at men the same way I looked at women — at C.C., or Narcissa, or River, or Lynette, or the actresses who played them. I thought men to be handsome or dashing, but I didn’t think of their hands, how soft they must be to the touch; their hair, how my fingers would feel running through them; their voice, warm and throaty and comforting. I didn’t think of their collarbones or skin or shoulders or eyelashes or lips or the way their noses would crinkle whenever they laughed.
The last F/M couple I shipped were Will and Alicia from The Good Wife. It was 2013, I was a freshman in college, and again in love with yet another English teacher, my first semester literature professor. Her first name, again, was biblical; her last name Spanish for “perfect.” Like clockwork, I began to come undone, just as I did as a sophomore in high school. But this was different — this felt like nothing I had ever felt. At first, it felt like a severe case of wanting to be the teacher’s pet, but it soon became clear it was more than that: I got up in the morning and put on lipstick for her, dressed a whole lot nicer on days when we would have class and burned a Neil Gaiman-penned episode of Doctor Who onto a CD for her because I knew she loved him. She always felt cold and warm at the same time, kind of like Alicia Florrick. I would never be so sure of what her disposition would be each day I’d see her; she was quiet, no-nonsense and brilliant, just like Alicia. I thought of Will Gardner and his longing, his ache, his pining. I understood him. I understood what he was afraid of and what he wanted.
I couldn’t say the same for myself. I kept telling myself it was nothing but a spiral — nothing different from my English teacher in high school, or Lauren Lane, or all the actresses I had come to love. But it was different. There was no way it wasn’t. After my semester with her, I began keeping a Word document addressed to her. It contained simple things, like how much I missed her, how much I wanted to be back in her class, how beautiful I thought she still was whenever I saw her on campus. It sat amongst fan fiction and that previous semester’s school requirements, left untitled. I wrote in it regularly: daily at first, when the ache was still fresh, then sporadically, as I thought less and less of her — something I didn’t think was possible back then.
I never told my friends just how much I had ached over her in fear that they would brush it away. I didn’t want them to brush it away. I wanted them to tell me what I had long suspected — that the fixation I had nurtured for my literature professor, this woman twice my age was, in fact, love — the kind that spilled through the seams and exploded in the messiest of ways, because I didn’t know how to hold it. I didn’t know what love felt like, and especially not love for a woman, so the feelings slipped out of my grasp.
That was all I knew then: how to spiral, how to give in to my feelings completely and absolutely and without regard for anyone else — not even myself. When I finally put a name to what I’d been feeling for years, heartache, things began to make sense. It came in writing, as many things always do for me. Somewhere in that Word document that I had been keeping, I used the word heartache for the very first time, and with it came clarity and understanding; with it came a revelation. Not only was heartache what set my attraction to women and my attraction to men apart, it’s what defines my attraction to women — something I’ve never gone through life without.
It started quietly at first. “I like ladies,” I’d tell myself, and by stating that truth I felt my confidence grow. It would turn into, “I am attracted to women.” I took all these tiny steps until I could finally say the word gay, which, when I did, felt like a release. It felt like freedom. When I finally came to terms with my sexuality, everything made sense. Everything fell into place. I could see things for what they were: This is a crush, not a girl crush. This is a crush, not admiration. This is a crush, not aspiration. These are, and have always been, real, valid feelings — feelings for women that I’ve been experiencing my whole life.
For 18 years, I never once thought that I could be anything but straight. I publicly proclaimed my crushes on actors and fawned over fictional men, even as I printed out photos of my favorite actresses and decorated my high school diaries and journals with them. I “fell in love” with any random boy who I thought looked decent enough, even as I spent a majority of my sophomore year in high school agonizing over how beautiful my English teacher was. I tried to catch the attention of older men, even as I did the same with a woman more than twice my age — only harder and more spirited. For 18 years, I never once thought that I could be anything but straight, but when I finally did, I had no one but my straight OTPs to thank.
I think about them now, these fictional couples of my formative years; made-up relationships I had once loved so deeply with my entire being. There’s still a lot of fondness attached to them, but what has withstood the test of time aren’t the ships. It’s not the fic or the fanvids or the playlists. It’s my ability to surrender myself to the love of and for women, their physicality, their presence. It’s the realization that my journey to self-discovery and self-understanding stemmed from these fictional characters and their fictional love that, to me, were very much real.
When I came out in 2017, I was in my senior year of college and The Nanny had been off the air about 18 years, now existing comfortably on the internet after experiencing a renaissance and renewed fervor, thanks to nineties nostalgia and Instagram accounts like What Fran Wore. Today, I’ve settled more comfortably into my sexuality, able to proudly say that I am a lesbian and that I, most of all, no longer have the need to project myself onto the male half of straight fictional ships. I still ship Niles and C.C., and the other previous F/M ships of my heart, of course, but if you asked me who my OTP is today and forever, I’d tell you without skipping a beat that it’s Gelphie.