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Our first crushes may have been fictional, but the feelings were very real

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Love is in the air, fictional and otherwise

parks and recreation NBC

Valentine’s Day is the one day a year when you’re supposed to tell the special person in your life that you love them. Then never again. I think that’s how it works.

But before dating, relationships, marriages and everything in between, a crucial moment in the earliest period of self-development is the first crush. It could happen as early as six or as late as, well, whenever you develop it, but it’s almost a ubiquitous experience. When you’re younger, the first crushes you tend to develop center on a cartoon, video game, movie or standard TV character that catches your eye.

The characters don’t have to be human, either. When you’re younger, your first crush is just a character that you admire and like watching. It could have been Sandy Cheeks from Spongebob Squarepants, Crash Bandicoot from Crash Bandicoot or Simba from The Lion King. You may not understand why you like that character more than the others, but you’re inevitably drawn to them.

star wars
Who didn’t have a crush on Han Solo?
Lucasfilm

Later, maybe in your teenage years, those cartoon characters turn into real actors. Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars or Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in The Matrix are just a few examples. Video game characters are popular choices, too — Cloud or Tidus from the Final Fantasy series, for example, are still popular crushes that fans of the franchise are open about. Because video game characters are people we control and interact with, it makes sense that we’d develop strong feelings for the people we’re spending hours with every night or week.

Considering today is all about love and celebrating all things romantic, senior reporter Allegra Frank and entertainment reporter Julia Alexander decided to talk about their first — and current — video game, movies and TV crushes.

Crush, Crush, Crush

Julia: Allegra, this is one of my favorite topics. I’m someone who develops crushes on everyone and then forgets about most of them 20 minutes later, but I have a vivid memory of my first crush. It was Simba from The Lion King, and I thought we were going to be together forever when my parents got me a stuffed animal. He never left my side, and it wasn’t until the wise age of eight that I realized humans and lions probably shouldn’t date.

I was devastated, but luckily, my parents would refuse to watch anything on television that aired before 1994, and I quickly developed a crush on Alan Alda’s Hawkeye from M*A*S*H*. It didn’t make a lot of sense; after all, I was about 10 and he was ... 36. Still, that didn’t do anything to deter me from tuning in nightly, lying on the carpet in front of my parents’ television set, and sighing every time he came on screen. He was my Elvis, albeit way less cool. It’s a crush, I should point out, I still have to this day whenever I watch reruns of my favorite episodes.

These early crushes stick out so vividly in my mind, and it’s one hell of a ride to revisit them. Do you remember who your first crush was?

Allegra: Julia, I’m not going to judge you for your Hawkeye crush, although I will say Alan Alda reminds me a bit too much of my dad. Still, I totally relate to that image: staring up intently at a beloved fictional character, eyes glazing over as you enter into a fantasy world with them.

My crushes were often of the cartoon variety, although don’t worry, Simba is all yours. As a lifelong anime nerd, I had things for the cast of Sailor Moon, Digimon and Pokémon, among other series. I didn’t discriminate when it came to gender or species: Charmander was just as compelling as an imaginary date as Sailor Venus was.

digimon
Digimon tamer Tai’s hair was ridiculous, but it’s why we loved him.
Toei Animation

My first real, serious crush, though, was on Taichi “Tai” Kamiya, the de facto hero of the first season of Digimon. Can you blame me? He was so cool and charming, and his hair was gravity-defying in the most rad way ... but mostly, I found him inspiring. I liked that he was the most powerful of the crew, the most adept Digimon tamer. I liked that he was so brave, and I liked that he had the most screen time. It was easy to fall for him because, well, the show seemed to want me to.

I had an early obsession with main characters, so much so that any boy who was by default in charge of the crew was my favorite. I guess I was attracted to that level of power, something I still suffer from today. (As in, I crave being the one in charge now-a-days.) I think my early crush on Tai ended up influencing who I grew up to be, in that sense. Sure, he was cute, but my affection for him was maybe more aspirational than romantic. Can you relate to that at all? Or were all of your early crushes purely based on who you wanted to kiss all up on?

Julia: Not at all! In fact, most of my crushes were on people I just wanted to hang out with for more than 10 minutes. Here’s the thing: I don’t like most people. I’m not easy to get along with and, well, I’m annoyed by tiny things. When I was younger and I developed a crush on someone, it usually meant that I found them intriguing enough to want to spend time with. I wanted to learn about them, I wanted to listen to their stories and above all else, I was hopelessly and irrevocably fascinated by them.

I know what you’re thinking: “Did I just quote Twilight?” Yes, yes I did. Ironically enough, I never really got on the Twilight hype train, but I think it’s fascinating to watch millions of people develop crushes on the same person. I always had really weird crushes. At one point, I developed a very serious crush on Elliot Stabler — played by Christopher Meloni — in Law and Order: SVU. I also had a very strong crush on the Prince from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I remember spending hours sitting with my GameCube controller and watching him swing from bar to bar or take out a horde of enemies, wishing I could meet him.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized the difference between having a crush on someone and wanting to be with them. A crush, especially when looking at figures in pop culture, is a fantasy. They can’t ever really let you down because you’re never going to hang out with them. They are the romanticized, ideal version of an unreal person and because of that fantasy, we allow ourselves to imagine what life would be like with them. It would be grand, fulfilling and there would never be a dull moment, but that’s what crushes promise: an unattainable reality you can get lost in.

I look at the crushes I have today and it’s for similar reasons. I’m currently crushing hard on Jughead from Riverdale, but I know it’s because he’s the romanticized, human version of an Elliott Smith song. He’s the quintessential sad boy, and that dreamy, artistic persona is a quality I’m attracted to. It’s also unrealistic.

My question for you, Allegra, is if you have any crushes that you think — had they lived in your world or you in theirs — you’d want to be with? I know you’re a big fan of Ben Wyatt on Parks and Recreation. Would you date Ben or is he an unrealistic crush, too?

Allegra: I would 100 percent date Ben Wyatt in real life, Julia. But I think I agree with you that there is a major difference between a serious crush and a not-so-serious one. My crushes on fictional characters typically fall into the latter, which is, frankly, preferable. I absolutely hate having feelings for anyone, real or fake, but it especially sucks when those people you have feelings for don’t even exist.

parks and recreation
Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) proposes to Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in one of Parks and Recreation’s most crush-worthy scenes.
NBC Universal

That’s how I feel about Ben, and that’s how I felt about Tai as a kid. Conversely, my feelings for, like, the super-cute cat Firestar from the Warriors series of books, Jim from The Office and the majority of the cast of Animal Crossing are not based in any form of reality. They’re just ... feelings. Admittedly very weird feelings.

Crushes have always felt like a lonely, shameful experience for me. Maybe this dichotomy is part of why. They’re random and bizarre and come out of nowhere — but talking to you about this, Julia, makes me feel a little less weird about having them. Even if most of them are on cartoon animals.

Julia: That’s the fun thing about crushes — they can be weird. In fact, they should be weird. The weirder the better. I definitely had a crush on some strange characters growing up — including some wrestlers who will remain nameless. But I’ve also had crushes on characters who are known for their handsomeness, like Nathan Drake in the Uncharted franchise.

The best thing about crushes is that you don’t have to explain them. They just exist. They don’t make sense. They’re not real. They exist for you. Crushes work because they change constantly and that keeps it exciting. Crushes are temporary but they’re all encompassing and full of passion, which we could all use from time to time.

The term crush can be seen as juvenile and silly, but that’s ridiculous. We all develop crushes and it’s that feeling of having butterflies flutter around your stomach that we chase time and time again. It’s not silly to have a crush, but it is fun, and we should all be so lucky to have one.