Talking about…

That One Straight Girlfriends Article

I've seen multiple people sharing this article by now, and so I feel pretty comfortable talking about it and giving my takes (warning, there's quite a few):

How Our Cultural Obsession With Platonic 'Girlfriends' Sidelines Queer Women by Sadie Graham |

We're familiar with the trope of straight women whose intimacy transcends bestfriendship. But we don't hear about what happens when the Other Woman wants something more than pseudo‐romance.

And, before I begin, full disclosure: As a trans girl, straight women exploiting me for emotional support is not a problem I often directly face, and so after reading the article the first thing I did was send it to a close (nonbinary but cis‐passing and frequently femme‐leaning) friend and ask for their thoughts. Their response seemed to boil down to yea this is annoying but i think the crisis has been overblown, which, if I want to be honest, I think is at least in‐part a function of them being a young twentysomething and not thirty‐plus, lol. (I have no idea how old the author is FTR.)

But, while I did think the article made some very good points, I agreed that they were a bit obscured by the author's seeming bitterness at straight girls leading her on. So what I wanted to do was take some time and speak a little more (and a little more personally) on some things that I think the article touched on but perhaps were easy to miss, if you weren't like me and couldn't see the unstated threads of experience tying them together.

I want to start with this quote:

The unimaginability of sexual or romantic desire between women that gives intimacy its alibi works in tandem with that other thing: the way in which we all grow up knowing not just that women can be used, but how to use them. We internalize both. We learn—we all learn—that we can lean on women in ways that we can’t lean on men, and, at the same time, that that leaning, the bodily closeness of it, is elevated, more pure, more innocent for its lack of want. We’re all complicit, and we’re all suffering.

If I was writing this article, I would have started with this paragraph. It's buried nearly three‐quarters of the way down, in the opening paragraph of the fourth section out of just‐as‐many, but it's clearly the lede. As it is, if you skimmed your way through without paying that close of attention, you might have missed that the fact that this piece is largely not just a complaint about straight women using words incorrectly, but about their complacency in a patriarchial system that exploits women as labourers while restricting their ability to build intimate relationships with anything other than a man.

This is an incredibly important and valid critique, but the article falters by leaving the suggestion open that simply adding want back into the equation might solve all of our problems. Which, I can wholeheartedly say from my time in Mastodon's polytransbian circles, is definitely not true. The exploitation of women as caregivers by other women isn't solved by letting them have romantic relationships with each other any more than the exploitation of women as caregivers by men is solved by their romantic relationships. The restriction on romance is about who gets to hold the power (men), not about what the power is doing (exploitation).

And this is probably the article's biggest flaw: It acknowledges that women use each other, it hints at whyMaybe it’s not about straightness. Maybe it’s just about men—but it misses the solution—that yes, we turn to each other because the alternatives are turning to men and turning to TERFs, but that even so, we need to think critically about where we source our labour, how much we wind up taking from each other, and what the terms of the that taking is. Not just for men, or women, or straight people, but everyone.

It's not mutual interdependency unless you recognize the vulnerability in other people, not just yourself, and for all this talk of Other Women, other lesbians (ie, those who are not the author or someone the author is dating) are conspicuously absent—or reduced solely to their role as relationship‐partners.

And yes, this is me coming off of a (at least a!) months‐long relationship which was exactly about being leaned on and used without much in the way of acknowledgment of my needs or wants. Being actual girlfriends with someone and using that term in the real way doesn't free you of that, unfortunately. In fact, sometimes on Masto it feels like we're all doing the straight girlfriends thing—but because we're queer then that means we must actually be dating by it, even though we don't do romance well and suck at intimacy and anyone in an actual relationship would probably just look at us and shake their heads and go oh, honey…

(AN: There are a rare few actually stable and healthy lesbian relationships taking place on Mastodon and if you're a part of that crowd, hopefully you all know that I'm not talking about you. ― Gô)

The author has something to say about this, too, although she phrases it as a condemnation of straight women…

…getting from a woman what their man doesn’t provide them—without ever having to question whether they owe that other woman a conversation about what they each want and need to get out of it, thereby undercutting the easy assumptions proffered by heteronormativity.

We are all getting from women what men don't provide us—and getting from enbies; I mean, of course we are—and being a lesbian or adding sex into the relationship doesn't somehow fundamentally change that dynamic or its easy assumptions. We all need to be having these conversations, not just straight women—and maybe the author thinks that well, if you're in a romantic relationship, that's just a given, or (and, amazingly in my opinion, she seems to believe this too) that if being in a romantic relationship is even an option, that means that people will somehow be mature and responsible about expressing their needs and wants to each other by default—but Incredibly Not So in my experience. (Although, good on her if she hasn't had the awful life experiences which lead to the shattering of those illusions.)

The consequence of these omissions—and, to be clear, that's all they are, things which were not said, which is why I'm taking the time to say them now—is that it becomes muddled trying to figure out what the critique of straight women actually is trying to say. Is it just that straight women are bad at communicating their needs and wants and expectations? They might be, but lesbians aren't exempt from that either. Is it that, due to patriarchy and heteronormativity, this lack of clarity is much harder on lesbians, who are already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to expressing desire, than it is to straight women, whose position is much more secure? This is also certainly true.

But there's another big result of all this, with much graver concequences, and the author touches on it here, hidden as the opener to an anecdote about her coworkers:

This stays with me after I read the article. It runs laps in my mind. The idea of calling someone your “work wife;" of that being the office in-joke, a professional and personal shorthand for productive closeness. A public performance of intimacy. I’m a visibly queer woman. If I started to call a coworker my “work wife,” at best, I’d be fielding some questions. At worst, I’d be opening myself up for harassment—or maybe even facing an accusation of harassment myself.

Although the article mostly frames its argument as being about how straight women refer to their Beyond BFF partners, the major crime of girlfriend terminology isn't just that it's ambiguous—it's that it leaves us (lesbians) with nothing to call ours.

As a lesbian trans woman, I have a number of exes who I am close to in ways that only someone who has spent the long hours over weeks and months offering the support of a partner can be. At the same time, our relationships are very clearly and extremely explicitly not romantic ones anymore. Where is the word for that? What is the word for the person who guided you through the lowest points of your worst depression, who knows you in ways that you honestly don't know yourself, because you can't remember, who was your partner and your lover and who has come through on the other side as just friends? (There is no straighter concept than that of just friends, and I take it back—the article's greatest flaw is the fact that it even begins to frame things in that light.) I obviously can't call an ex my girlfriend. I obviously can't call an ex my wife. It's questionable whether I can even call an ex my partner.

When straight women use that sort of terminology—when they frame close, supportive, intimate platonic relationships as though they were romantic ones—except not, obviously, because they're straight, of course—it's not just that the poor lesbians can't tell if it's a flirt or a game. It's that we are actively being denied those same sorts of platonic relationships ourselves, because we can't refer to them with that language, we don't have a language for them; lesbians can be either pals or lovers but there is no conception of anything between, or outside, of that incredibly straight, incredibly boring and limiting and exploitative and awful, dichotomy. (Which is not to say that we don't make those relationships anyway. There's a whole movement of radical platonic intimacy and kinship within lesbian and queer circles. None of it is legible in the slightest to our straight friends, or the mainstream.)

This is the rhetorical structure surrounding Other Women—it is not just that their desire is negated and erased by virtue of it not involving a man, but also that all of the myriad forms of solidarity and kinship and compassion that a queer woman might partake in get inevitably reduced to, as Broadly puts it in the article's subheading, want[ing] something more than pseudo-romance. Our girlfriends have to be real girlfriends. Our wives have to be real wives. And meanwhile straight women continue to network and build these close partnerships and power structures that we will never ever be allowed to take part of.

And fuck that, honestly! The author has a girlfriend; she talks about her in the piece; she gives no impression that she is actually looking for someone new to start fucking or going on dates with. So why is that the frame we are reading this in? Why is the erasure of queer lives and friendships and solidarity being packaged as what happens when lesbians want Something More?

We all know why, and it's because this is what straight women are actually afraid of; this is why they don't let lesbians into their exclusive clubs of girlishness in the first place. That fear of not being able to neatly categorize who is your friend and who is your lover; that imagined threat of predation, cast onto lesbian women to distract from the very real predation being carried out by men; that feeling of power that comes from policing the sexualities of those you call friends, of withholding things from them because they swing that way, and yet having no problem taking when the tables are turned, and you're the one who needs their support and their labour. The article is real and heartfelt, but it's set up like a strawman, a validation; See? the straight woman says to her friends, if you let lesbians get close, they'll inevitably want more, when no, we just want you to talk it out, we just want you to examine your damn assumptions and stop treating us in this way.

Am I reading too much into the 28 words which appear at the top of the page?

Anyway, this is all relevant because it all ties into the key questions underpinning the piece: What am I supposed to call my lover, what am I supposed to call my friend, what am I supposed to call that queer homosociality, those networks of love and care and support that don't involve a man, be they sexual or romantic or just the close bond of a kindred spirit—when any word I might choose can always be willfully misinterpreted into whatever concept is most advantageous for mainstream heteronormativity? Straight women use ambiguous terms because they control the means by which those terms get turned into knowledge—and have a tendency, knowingly or unknowingly, to turn them to queer women's disadvantage every time. And this is about gatekeeping, this is about who gets access to that highly privileged spot of—and this is unstated in the piece, but let me just state that in my experience, this is a problem that shows its worst face with respect to white femininity, that femininity of control, and power, granted by and wielded to protect that ever‐present establishment of white man.

I think all of this is in the piece, but I think it's buried, and whether that is because its editor purposely obscured it or simply failed to work with the author to draw it out is anyone's guess. But that's why I wanted to take the time to write it out now. Because I think these are valid critiques, I think they are important, and it doesn't sit well with me leaving them in a place where they might just get written off as more lesbian angst.

Let me know your thoughts!

As always, I'm available if you want to talk things out ❤.