I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was nine years old and was eating Goldfish crackers while watching The Lion King with my sister. Timon and Pumba had just explained their carefree lifestyle to Simba via a delightfully catchy song with lyrics I could sing along to. It was, by all accounts, an average Saturday. Then, after Timon and Pumba “Hakuna Matata’d” their way off the screen, Nala, the now-grown-up female friend of Simba, entered the scene, hoping to find some delicious food for her starving family. She and Simba hadn’t seen each other since they were kids but eventually recognized one another. After reconnecting, they were both down to clown. They frolicked around the jungle. They tumbled and wrestled. Then, Nala gave Simba a lick that seemed intimate, along with what is arguably the most longing look in the history of cinema.
Could I feel the love? I could. I was surprised by the feeling, but it was undeniable.
What made the moment shocking wasn’t the lion’s stare, but that I’d seen the scene so many times before. Lion King was my animated, subtler Citizen Kane. It had everything a kid could want in a movie. Fantastic songs. Revenge. Nihilistic hyenas. But I’d never really concentrated on the romantic subplot. Like most boys, I thought romance was, at best, an unwanted distraction. I greatly preferred Timon and Pumba’s wacky antics.
But kids grow up and learn to see both the world and animated animals differently. Nala’s eyes called to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but this lioness’s seductive gaze had set me on a long, uncomfortable, and incredibly confusing journey towards sexual awakening.
Regardless of circumstances, a child’s first time feeling anything even closely resembling sexuality is pretty much guaranteed to be an experience fueled mostly by fear, confusion, and isolation. And those three emotions are only amplified when the object of your affection is a cartoon lion. Did she look sexy? Of course. She was a very attractive lion, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I discovered lust in the context of attraction to an animal and that was terrifying. I wondered if I was alone. I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
Had I known a psychologist, I would have asked. Instead, I bottled it up and waited for my twenties. And it turns out I was never alone.
“Children having feelings toward a cartoon character is perfectly normal,” Dr. Kathryn Seifert, a psychologist who has studied and written extensively about child development and sexuality, explained to me when I called to ask her about my childhood lion attraction. “Children liking or having a crush on an imaginary character or a teacher or anyone is perfectly normal.”
This was a relief to hear, but why would a kid have these sort of reactions to a cartoon character? Seifert explained: “Children are not looking for a partner, they are trying to understand relationships … They are curious and learning about relationships and what they mean. It does not mean the same thing for a child to have a crush on someone and an adult falling in love with another person and having adult sexual feelings toward that person.”
Developing sexual feelings and a desire to understand relationships is a perfectly normal part of growing up. These feelings and desires can manifest themselves in a wide variety of forms, including, Dr. Seifert assured me, a seductive lioness.
So, my Nala crush was nothing to be ashamed of. And that’s a good thing, because to this day, I am still flustered by how sexy I found her. It was a real relief to me when Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne came out as a Nala lover. Hollywood, as ever, is leading the charge on sexual honesty.
Kids watch cartoons. They watch lovely Daisy Duck and foxy Robin Hood. These cartoons eventually and, almost inevitably, make them feel weird. That’s a bit sad — all that unnecessary stress. It’s especially sad because it’s avoidable. Kids don’t have to walk around worried that there is something wrong with them. As Dr. Seifert explains, starting healthy, open conversations with your kid about sex can help them avoid both an incorrect self-diagnosis and dangerous behavior.
“The best way to talk to children about sexuality is to answer their questions simply and at an appropriate developmental level,” says Seifert. “Don’t assume that early experimentation is abnormal unless it causes problems.”
Everyone discovers sexuality in their own way. Some kids develop crushes on the boy or girl next door. Others fall for the animated lion. And, if your kid falls in the latter category, know that there’s nothing wrong with that. I should know; there’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t light candles before watching Planet Earth. I don’t have complicated feelings about the Royals mascot. Nala and I barely even keep in touch.