This is the Sunday edition of Paging Dr. Lesbian. Plus, this week’s dispatch from the lesbian internet. If you like this type of thing, subscribe!
As anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time online knows, the act of “stanning” comes with the territory. (The concept of “stanning,” if you didn’t know, is a portmanteau of the words “fan” and “stalker,” and first entered the lexicon after the release of the Eminem song “Stan.” The darker undertones of stalking aside, it essentially just means someone who is a huge fan). Among the sapphic portions of the internet, this propensity for standom is no different. What is interesting about this type of stanning, however, is that the particulars of these fandoms (or even that they exist at all) often go unnoticed by the rest of the internet.
Some of the objects of these fans’ affections are also beloved by the rest of the world – Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock are both very famous actors, for example, as is bisexual icon Angelina Jolie – but others fly more under the radar. For this week’s issue, I wanted to dig into one of these lesser-known lesbian icons – an Irish actress by the name of Katie McGrath. I wanted to look at McGrath today because of this interesting dichotomy of her stardom – if you’ve spent any time on lesbian-Tumblr over the last, say, 8 years, you’ve probably seen countless gifs of her face, but if you haven’t, you may have never even heard of her. (Please comment and let me know which is the case for you!)
It’s difficult to get a full handle on what makes McGrath so beloved by sapphics, but I’ll endeavor to try. McGrath initially gained recognition for her role on the BBC series Merlin, which ran from 2008 to 2012. She then starred in an episode of the Channel 4 anthology series Dates where she goes on a date with Gemma Chan. In 2013 she starred in Dracula, where, as far as I can tell, she played a gay vampire. She then went on to star in the horror anthology Slasher in 2016, and an Australian series called Secret Bridesmaids' Business, where she plays a bossy business bisexual, in 2019. The show that has garnered her the most sapphic acclaim as of late is undoubtedly The CW series Supergirl, which she joined as a cast member in 2016. (She also appeared in 2015’s Jurrasic World as Bryce Dallas Howard’s assistant who promptly gets eaten by a dinosaur. A hard day for Katie McGrath stans).
Apart from the content of her IMDB page, not much is actually known about McGrath, which only makes her all the more alluring to her fans. One of the facts (or non-facts, as it were) that is most cherished by fans is that her birthday remains a mystery. Some sites list it as January, others October, and Wikipedia doesn’t even list a birth year. This cryptic energy is compounded by the fact that she also doesn’t have any public social media accounts. (Speaking of Irish cryptids – McGrath actually starred in a Hozier video, just like sapphic favorites Saoirse Ronan and Anya Taylor-Joy).
This unconnectedness, in fact, constitutes a large part of her appeal. Some stars are famous in part because of their social media presence (see: the chaotic online antics of Sarah Paulson), while others are adored because of how blissfully unaware they seem to be about their own fandoms (see: Cate Blanchett, who once said she has a total of three fans). As such, when photos of her do appear – on the social media of friends or castmates – fans are giddy with excitement. This also means that her fandom is filled with a particular brand of longing brought about by this lack of off-screen content. For fans of “offline” celebrities, this hardship seems to be one that in fact brings them together, rather than tears them apart. (Distance makes the heart grow fonder, as it were).
While this lack of personal content from her can lead to intense speculation from fans about her personal life, this is not really any different than celebrities with social media whose every interaction online is analyzed for its potential meanings. (One of the more delightful manifestations of this intensity is a project called “The Katie McGrath Book Club,” which is dedicated to cataloging all the books McGrath has been seen with). And, on McGrath’s part, she at least remains blissfully unaware of any discussions that do occur about her online.
Just so I don’t overlook what may be an obvious point, I must also mention the fact that her undeniable beauty plays a part in the sapphic fandom surrounding her. (Her strong jawline, for example, is the source of much discussion). And, as I highlighted above, part of her appeal is that so much about her is unknown, so the glimpses we do get of her are all the more cherished. Fans love to catalog her most adorable or charming moments, gushing over how unpretentious she is and how she never seems to take herself too seriously. And the lucky fans who have gotten to interact with her have reported back that she is warm and funny.
What is interesting about stars like McGrath is it is unclear whether or not she is aware of the extent of her fandom (and how it is primarily of the sapphic bent). In the last few years, there seems to be an increasing desire among both fans and journalists to let celebrities in on the online discourse about them – see, for example, Buzzfeed’s series where celebs read “thirst tweets” about them. There was also a hilarious trend a couple of years ago where people on red carpets would ask various female celebrities (particularly ones with a significant queer fanbase) to yell “gay rights” for the camera. (Olivia Colman cheerfully declaring “gay rights!” plays in my head on a constant loop). I bring this up because it seems celebrities are becoming more aware (or at least being told) of their queer fandoms, with the responses from the aforementioned women being downright delightful. McGrath, for her part, seems at least somewhat aware of her sapphic following because of her proven awareness of the fandom surrounding her character on Supergirl has (more on this later).
The appeal of Mcgrath among sapphic fans is thus twofold – first, she has played a significant number of canonically sapphic characters (by my count, 3, but correct me if I’m wrong). But then there is the notion that even if she is not playing a canonically queer character, she brings a palpable sapphic energy to each role (see: Supergirl). To give you an example of her considerable pull, Merlin, which initially aired in 2008, saw a renewal in popularity in 2016 that, as some fans have noted, must have been at least in part due to new Katie McGrath converts going back and reviewing her previous work. (Some fans on Tumblr have been known to call this phenomenon “The Great Gay Migration” – when sapphic fans are disappointed by one show and collectively turn to another instead. 2016 in particular was rife with such disappointment).
The show that has undoubtedly attracted McGrath’s largest following is the CW series Supergirl, in which she plays Lena Luthor, sister to Superman’s iconic nemesis Lex Luthor. Lena is the CEO of her family’s company, L-Corp, and becomes a very close “friend” of Supergirl (aka Kara Danvers). I put “friend” in parentheses here for reasons you might be able to guess – fans of the couple (nicknamed “SuperCorp”) see their relationship as a romantic rather than a platonic one. I myself stopped watching the show after a different lesbian controversy, but even with one eye closed, I understand their appeal. At one point in the series, Supergirl actually carries Lena, bridal style, while hovering above the city. In another episode, Lena fills Kara’s office with flowers and calls Kara “her hero.” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no heterosexual explanation for this). As the kids say, I don’t even go here but sometimes I find myself getting incensed that they are not actually together on the show.
Again, not to overlook a characteristic that is perhaps obvious, but Lena’s style and good looks are irrefutably a part of her appeal. The Supergirl creators have tapped into one of the most tried-and-true ways to make your character beloved by sapphics – put her in a lot of suits. In general, Lena has a very buttoned-up style which is rich with business dyke implications. See also: The L Word’s Bette Porter, as well as McGrath’s character in Secret Bridesmaids' Business. (I could go on about women in suits further, but I will stop here to preserve my rapidly unraveling train of thought).
As is par for the course for lesbian TV, Supergirl has had its fair share of controversies, one of which has actually had the effect of bolstering McGrath’s standing among fans. During an interview at San Diego Comic-Con in 2017, cast member Jeremy Jordan started singing an improvised song about the show, referencing SuperCorp by repeatedly exclaiming “They’re not gonna get together, they’re only friends,” while castmates, notably Melissa Benoist (Supergirl herself) laughed and cheered along. Understandably, many fans were upset by this blatant and unnecessarily harsh dismissal of a relationship they care deeply about. Near the end of the same interview, however, McGrath actually defended SuperCorp fans, noting that in the end the show belongs to the fans and it is up to them to interpret it as they like. Unsurprisingly, this reaction (which stands apart from the actions of the rest of the cast that day) endeared her even further to fans who felt seen and even protected by her words. Shows of support like this by actors are hugely important to queer viewers (similar support was shown towards the “Cartinelli” fandom, which I’ve written about previously) and often have the effect of further cementing said actor’s revered status among their fans.
While Supergirl may have significantly increased McGrath’s popularity, her underground fandom has been going strong even before the show was ever on the air. Unlike other actresses that sapphics consider lesbian icons – Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Rachel Weisz, to name a few – McGrath is not particularly well known among the general public. Her roles have been primarily on television, and apart from two exceptions – Merlin and Supergirl – many of the shows she has been on were not particularly popular and were definitely not viewed much outside their countries of origin apart from by Katie McGrath fans. (Internet-savvy fans have long devised strategies for getting around manufactured digital viewing borders).
That many sapphic denizens of the internet can tell you her filmography (and have probably seen a clip of her going on a date with Gemma Chan) without even being a “part” of her fandom speaks to her very niche type of ubiquity. Indeed, one of the reasons I thought it would be interesting to write this article is because I would not necessarily consider myself a fan of McGrath, but I am nonetheless very aware of her presence. (I in fact have never seen an episode of Merlin, or Dracula, or Dates, but I knew she was on those shows without even having to look them up. For some reason I have seen an episode of Secret Bridesmaids' Business, perhaps because the spirit of a Katie Mcgrath stan possessed my body briefly).
All of this is to say that McGrath’s position within sapphic pop culture fandom exemplifies the function of what I’ve previously called the queer canon, which is made up of aspects of pop culture that are beloved by queer fans for their explicit or implicit queer sensibilities. (It is important to note that this canon is not always wholly universal, however – the lesbian icons that I’ve mentioned above are all white, and it would behoove us all to consider how whiteness often makes a false claim to such universality). That McGrath’s fandom is primarily contained within the sapphic community – a fact that is not widely known outside such circles – is all the more interesting. Just as you might ask someone if they watch The L Word or listen to Hayley Kiyoko to find out if they’re gay, a more covert question might be – do you stan Katie McGrath? If the answer is no, then maybe you just haven’t become acquainted with her jawline yet.
Welcome to this week’s dispatch from the lesbian internet.
First, a racist sham called The Golden Globes happened last Sunday. I did not watch the event myself, but have gotten the full rundown of the sapphic moments that occurred. First, The Crown’s Emma Corin (who, if you have forgotten, is apparently dating Christine and The Queens) won Best Actress in a category that had sapphics ablaze and also included Olivia Colman, Jodie Comer, and Sarah Paulson. Rosamund Pike won for playing an evil lesbian in I Care A Lot and wore this dress. (Speaking of the above discussion of Katie McGrath, Variety asked if Pike was aware of her status as a lesbian icon and she said “I am honored and delighted by it.”)
Gillian Anderson and her dog were there, and so was Cynthia Nixon. Chloe Zhao won best director for Nomadland (only the second woman to ever do so, the first being Barbara Streisand for Yentl), and Andra Day won for playing bisexual icon Billie Holiday in her bad movie. Sarah Paulson wore a Prada dress with a matching custom Prada cast for her broken arm (Holland Taylor was somewhere lurking in the background). Jodie Foster accepted her Golden Globe in fancy pajamas with her wife and dog by her side. (Her wife, Alexandra Hedison, used to date Ellen, by the way). This is particularly moving being that Foster only publicly came out at the 2013 Golden Globes (despite being gay since, you know, forever) and has previously been very private about her personal life. Sapphics stay winning!
Unfortunately, another Taylor Swift controversy has occurred that I feel the need to speak about. Last week Netflix released a new series called Ginny and Georgia, which as far as I can tell is about a teenage girl and her young mother. One line in the series included a joke about Taylor Swift and how many men she dates, which led to Swift taking to Twitter to publicly call out the joke, specifically noting her previous relationship with Netflix for her documentary Miss Americana. The content of the joke aside, the power dynamics of a celebrity with a huge following like Swift calling someone out (and whether intentionally or unintentionally, sicking their followers on said person) is troubling. While Netflix is a huge media corporation and will not be hurt by this, the show’s writers and cast do not have this same protection. As the Twitter user below notes, the implications of this are suspect.
In other news, I finally watched the newest lesbian period piece, The World To Come. I will not say much here because I hate a spoiler, but I will say this: I fully understand and am on board with y’all’s obsession with Vanessa Kirby. I see you, I am you, and I’m sorry I ever doubted you.
Lastly, alt-rock icon (and former paramour of both Cara Delevigne and Carrie Brownstein) St. Vincent released a new song and video on Thursday. The song, called “Pay Your Way in Pain,” is off her upcoming album Daddy’s Home, which comes out May 14th. To quote a friend of mine who shall remain anonymous, “literally choke me daddy.”
That’s all for this week, folks! Stay tuned for next week’s adventure. I will leave you with this powerful image of Alexandra Hedison, Ellen, and Gillian Anderson. Bye!
I remembered seeing Morgana in the past when Katie turned up in Supergirl and I feel headlong into the Supercorp fandom- I read SC fic weekly even though I’m nearly four seasons behind on the show itself. The gifs abound and I’ve added shows to my watchlist just for Miss McGrath. I personally consider her a spiritual successor to Jaime Murray in the sense you described her in this article- a big name in a facet of sapphic internet fandom who’s virtually unknown outside of it, who’s played several canonically queer characters and tends to queer (intentionally or not) the others. Same goes for the intentional defense of queer fans, though Jaime’s far more online and aware than Katie. I really enjoyed this article and also appreciated you pointing out the supposed ubiquity of white favs as something worth noting and questioning. Thanks for writing!
Until reading your article today, I honestly thought Katie McGrath was a much more famous/prolific actor than she apparently is. I've been on Tumblr since 2011ish (not proud), though much, much less since 2016ish, and had seen lots of gifs and content of her on my dashboard despite never watching anything she was in myself. She's so beautiful and people seemed to like her so much, so I thought she was more well-known! In 2021 I discovered that if you find Katie McGrath and 1,000,000 other female actors beautiful but only 10 male actors beautiful, you might be bisexual as opposed to straight. I found your article because I stumbled upon some (great) SuperCorp fanfiction yesterday and googled Katie McGrath to reestablish a mental image of her jawline, and was curious about her filmography of gay-coded characters.