It’s not always easy to find good LGBTQ+ representation in the media, especially when it comes to queer female characters. Sure, they exist, but the reality is they’re few and far between, often relegated to playing supporting roles within other characters’ stories. Sometimes their sexuality is treated as nothing but a joke, merely serving as a punchline for comic relief. Worst of all, there’s the notorious “bury your gays” trope in which LGBTQ+ characters are unceremoniously killed off, denied the chance to live a happy life – or any life, for that matter – for seemingly no other reason than shock value. As a queer woman myself, it can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening seeing tired tropes like these play out time and time again, or not even seeing that aspect of my identity reflected at all. That said, some of the best queer representation I’ve seen in the media as of late (or ever, really) has come in the form of a lesbian half-alien and bisexual witch – both as individual characters and within the romantic relationship they share. I’m talking about none other than Deanoru, aka Karolina Dean and Nico Minoru, from a little show called Marvel’s Runaways.
If you’re a fan of superhero television shows at all, especially Marvel ones, then there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of Marvel’s Runaways. Based on the comic book series of the same name, Marvel’s Runaways (or Runaways, for short) is about a group of teens who go on the run together after discovering that their parents are actually supervillains who are part of a shady organization called PRIDE. When I first heard about the show I was intrigued by the concept, since it sounded exciting and I already happened to love several shows and films that were part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Imagine my excitement then when while looking for more information about the show since I was unfamiliar with the source material, I discovered that one of the main characters, Karolina, was canonly gay in the comics and would likely also have her sexuality explored in the show as well. Oh yeah, and she happened to be a rainbow-glowing superhero. Suddenly a show I was already interested in became must-see television for me, as I had high hopes for Runaways. Specifically, I hoped that it would deliver the onscreen representation I longed for that had been absent up until this point: an openly queer superhero in the MCU. What I didn’t expect, however, was how much I would feel seen when Runaways did just that.
There’s many characters in film and television that I’ve felt connected to for one reason or another, recognizing something of myself in them. Seeing Karolina Dean onscreen was an entirely new experience for me though as I was struck by the extent that I could see myself in her. Here was a tall femme lesbian trying to figure out who she was at around the same age I began that journey myself, who was idealistic and kind and spiritual. While I wasn’t brought up in a cult-like religious institute like her Church of Gibborim, and didn’t one day start inexplicably glowing, I felt drawn to Karolina all the same because of the similarities we did share. For the first time, someone like me was allowed to exist in a world like this one and be at the forefront of the story. Karolina being the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first lesbian superhero is truly groundbreaking, giving people like myself the chance to see ourselves positively reflected and represented within a universe that while we may have loved, we had no place in before. What makes Runaways even more incredible is that Karolina isn’t the show’s only queer superhero. There’s also Nico Minoru, an Asian witch with a penchant for Gothic clothes and a pretty badass magic staff. She’s bold, brash, and a formidable leader – making her an incredible character in her own right – who’s also bisexual and romantically involved with Karolina.
While Deanoru (a portmanteau of their surnames, Dean and Minoru) isn’t the sole focus of Runaways, it’s undeniable that Karolina and Nico’s relationship is a significant part of the show. In the first season of Runaways we see Karolina begin to embrace her newfound abilities, and in turn, her true self… including her feelings for Nico.
“But now that I know I’m, like, a total freak, maybe I’m free,” Karolina says wistfully to Nico at one point in episode 6 (“Metamorphosis”) while they’re getting ready for a fancy gala event together in Karolina’s room. “To be who I really am, and to be honest about who I want to be with.” The fact Karolina sees her powers as something that liberate her is empowering, especially when viewed through the construct of her queerness. Nico tells her that she shouldn’t ever feel afraid or ashamed of what she can do (having the ability to glow), which can be also be read as a positive affirmation of Karolina’s queer identity. There is no doubt that Nico’s reassurance and willingness to accept Karolina as she truly is contributes to Karolina pursuing her desire to act on her feelings.
In the penultimate episode of season 1 (“Doomsday”) the two share a kiss in a hallway, a beautiful moment initiated by Karolina and set to the soundtrack of Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes”. Nico kisses her back – the first time we’ve received any indication that she herself is queer – as she and Karolina are lost in the moment.
“I’ve just wanted to do that for a really long time,” Karolina admits. And we’ve been wanting to see this for a really long time – the first onscreen relationship between two women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a moment that has an immense gravity to it for both the romantic future of Deanoru and the show’s audience, especially female-identifying LGBTQ+ viewers such as myself. With Deanoru established as a couple by the end of the season, my hopes were higher than ever for Runaways when it came time for season 2. Once again, I was far from disappointed, as the second season more than delivered the kind of representation I craved through these two characters and their relationship.
It’s worth mentioning that one of my favourite things about Runaways is its casual approach to queerness. Both Karolina and Nico’s story arcs are about coming into their own as opposed to coming out, and at no point is their sexuality seen as being anything other than another part of who they are. After all, in a universe where there’s a pet dinosaur and evil parents and aliens, there’s far more important things to be concerned with than what gender someone happens to love. That’s not to say Karolina and Nico’s queerness is non-existent within the world of Runaways though – far from it. It constantly presents itself, manifesting in the glances and touches shared between them and informing their interactions with others. We even see it evident in Karolina’s wardrobe, which includes lots of rainbows and a sweater in the colours of the lesbian flag. (Props to the costume department for that!) This casual queerness is where season 2 of Runaways really thrives when it comes to Deanoru, treating them like any other couple while also allowing them to be much more than love interests to one another. Karolina and Nico are both integral characters within the show’s main storyline who are even more of a force when paired together, which is true when it comes to both their powers and their blossoming relationship.
The beginning of season 2 sees Deanoru moving into a place called the Hostel along with the other Runaways, an abandoned underground mansion that serves as their new hideout base. Karolina and Nico end up deciding to share a room, as do the show’s other main romantic pairing, Gert and Chase. This is just one of many instances where Runaways demonstrates its commitment to showing Deanoru’s relationship in a way that is normalized, allowing them the development and screen time often reserved for heterosexual couples. We get to see them fall in love with and battle alongside one another and talk and fight and protect and run to each other’s side, and, at the end of the day, come out stronger than ever. They’re a true power couple in every sense of the word – and not just because they both happen to have superpowers.
One of the most beautiful Deanoru scenes occurs in episode 5 of season 2 (“Rock Bottom”), when Karolina and Nico are discussing a situation regarding another one of the Runaways, Molly, and how she worries she might be scary. Nico picks up on the fact that Karolina is familiar with this kind of thought process and says to her reassuringly, “You’re not scary. Not to me. Not ever.” She then goes on to deliver a beautiful speech to Karolina about how much she admires the light inside of her. “That warmth, that openness, that’s everything that I like about you. That’s what makes you who you are.”
In response, Karolina kisses Nico while letting herself glow, a truly vulnerable moment as she embraces everything she is all at once for the first time. “Is that okay?” she asks, wanting to make sure that Nico doesn’t mind being intimate with her like this. “It’s more than okay,” Nico replies with a smile, and she kisses Karolina back. The sense of pure love and safety they feel in one another’s presence is more evident here than ever, and it’s a remarkable scene to behold because of how uninhibitedly queer it is.
Where Karolina’s own journey is about her discovering who she truly is by embracing the light, Nico’s is about doing so through embracing the dark. The last half of season 2 of Runaways is fraught with tension and high-stakes action, causing relationships between the characters (and couples) to be tested to the extreme, and Deanoru is no exception. With Karolina keeping an important secret from Nico that she doesn’t reveal to her for quite some time and Nico making an unexpectedly drastic choice that has direct bearing on Karolina, the two of them hit a major bump in the road when it comes to their relationship. In spite of it all though, eventually we do see them work through things – and by that, I mean we actually get to see the conversations that set their relationship back on track instead of only hearing about the aftermath. Once Deanoru is sailing fairly smoothly again, all things considered, we get treated to more moments that reinforce how well suited they are for one another.
One such moment occurs in episode 12 of season 2 (“Earth Angel”), when Nico admits to Karolina after a rescue mission how she was scared of what she could have done by using her magical staff since she’d already hurt people with her powers before.
“Have you thought that maybe your darkness is you?” Karolina asks her thoughtfully. “Your power, like my light is for me?”
She goes on to say how at first she was afraid of embracing her own powers and discovering she was different, but her true power came from embracing the duality that exists within her.
“Maybe you’re finding your own power too,” she suggests to Nico. It’s a nice parallel to Nico talking about Karolina’s light, showing how the two of them complement and contrast one another entirely. Nico is the yin to Karolina’s yang, the moon to her sun. As individuals they are polar opposites, yet together they make perfect sense, literally balancing each other out with their powers.
“No matter where we go, what the distance is between us, I will always come back to you, okay?” Karolina tells Nico in the season 2 finale (“Split Up”), her eyes shining with love and hopefulness. Her words feel like a promise not only to Nico but to us, providing reassurance that regardless of what happens to them next, Deanoru will ultimately manage to prevail and find their way back to one another just as they’re meant to. There’s a quote from the very beginning of season 2 that stands out in my mind because of how I see it in relation to Deanoru and their importance to representation. It comes from a scene where Karolina and Nico are talking and Karolina reassures her that they’re not their parents – no, they’re better than them.
“We can fix the world that they broke,” Karolina says, kissing Nico afterwards. While Deanoru alone might not be able to fix the world of heteronormative storytelling we’ve become so accustomed to, they provide a beacon of hope that we’ll get to see more stories like theirs. Just like how Karolina herself is the light in the world of Runaways, Deanoru has become a bright light within the often bleak landscape of representation when it comes to queer women in the media – showing us that not only do our stories matter, but we have the power to be seen as heroes too. All we need to do is choose to embrace it.