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In Defense of Shelby Goodkind: From Beauty Queen to Buzzcut Lesbian

When I first started watching The Wilds, I was ready to hate Shelby Goodkind. That might seem like an extreme response to a fictional character, but hear me out. When the girls board the plane in episode one, Shelby welcomes them as though this private jet is her personal property. With her icebreakers and authoritative way of speaking, Shelby (Mia Healey) is quick to take command in a team of supposed equals.

She steamrollers a group comprised mainly of Black, Indigenous, and Asian girls into her vision of how things should be. This is because Shelby has confidence that comes with being white, blonde, skinny, and well-off. And that confidence tips into entitlement more than once.

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Shelby reminded me too much of the girls who made my teenage years a misery for me to find her even a little sympathetic. Because she’s always cheerful in the face of adversity, it’s easy to assume that Shelby has led the kind of charmed life where things always work out for the best. Even when the group find themselves stranded on an island with almost no food or water, Shelby stays determined to put the ‘fun’ in Christian fundamentalism. But – as her story unfolded – I began to wonder if there wasn’t more to Shelby Goodkind.

Why, when she lived in a luxurious house complete with hot tub, was Shelby the happiest about being marooned? How come she only gave in to fear and panic when there was a real chance of rescue? There were definite red flags about Shelby’s home situation. And even before they were fully explored, I couldn’t help but find her kindness touching. Shelby’s friendship with Martha, her hard work around camp, the way she looked after anybody who got sick – all these details made me question my Shelby hate.

Don’t get me wrong. It took a solid eight episodes of The Wilds before I warmed to Shelby. I spent 75% of the first season hoping that, if any of the cast were to be killed off, the writers would start with little Miss Texas. Given that she’s an ordained Youth Minister, I wasn’t even a little surprised when Shelby went full “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Her squeamishness when Toni (Erana James) joked about the similarities between eating mussels and eating out was a tense moment for the Unsinkable Eight and audience both.

But Shelby is a closeted lesbian. And flashback scenes make it easy to understand why. Her father runs conversion therapy workshops from their family home. When he’s not busy praying the gay away, her father polices everything from Shelby’s body to her religious belief. Pastor Dave Goodkind is attempting to shape his daughter not in the Lord’s image, but his own. No deviation is tolerated. When she kisses her best friend Becca, Shelby’s picture-perfect life is revealed to be a nightmare. Unable to live with the fallout of their kiss, Becca dies by suicide. And Shelby is shipped off to the Dawn of Eve.

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Why Shelby’s dad thought sending his daughter on an all-female retreat was going to bring her back into the heterosexual fold just might be the biggest mystery of The Wilds. Pastor Dave’s logic is even sketchier than that of Gretchen Klein, the cult-like program’s founder – and that’s saying something. But I’m willing to overlook this plot hole the size of Shelby’s native Texas. Because without it we wouldn’t have one of the finest lesbian character arcs yet to be produced by Amazon.

For the first time in her life Shelby has the freedom to think for herself; to speak and act as she pleases. Being among a group of young women with a broad spectrum of life experiences, she begins to question her father’s conservative ideals. Shelby makes the most of this newfound liberty, exploring her sexuality with Toni – an out and proud lesbian. Though I could never have predicted Shelby ending up with an Indigenous girlfriend, they’re the most compelling couple on The Wilds. (Mind you, the bar is pretty low given that their main competition is a creepy man in his thirties who dates high-school girls.)

Yes, ‘homophobes are really gay’ storylines can be problematic. They paint people who weaponise prejudice against lesbians and gays as sympathetic figures. But that’s not what happened on The Wilds. Instead, they told a moving story about a young woman who lets go of her internalised homophobia to find self-acceptance. And a girlfriend, which is cool. But the self-acceptance is the important part.

Shelby shaves off her long blonde hair, the symbol of white femininity prized by her controlling dad and pageant judges alike. As well as looking completely badass, it’s a clear sign that Shelby is refusing to conform to the expectations of her father, faith, or conservative community. She is living life on her own terms now. And that sends a strong message. Shelby’s transformation from blonde Beauty Queen to buzzcut lesbian is powerful to behold. It was this change that made me stan Shelby Goodkind. After all, it takes immense courage for a young lesbian to stand up to homophobia.

The Wilds Season 1 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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