Illustration by Elnora Turner.

How Our Cultural Obsession With Platonic 'Girlfriends' Sidelines Queer Women

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.

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Aug 6 2018, 9:12pm

Illustration by Elnora Turner.

On the highway out of Sacramento, sitting shotgun and shivering just slightly, I begin reading an article titled “Beyond BFF” aloud to Lexy. Written by Kayleen Schaefer and published in The New York Times, it explores the personal and social utility for women of having a “person”—another woman held at a place of intimacy beyond best-friendhood, somehow more mature, somehow closer, somehow more. It’s chilly out for late February, colder than it had been the week before I flew in. Lexy laughs and nudges the heat up higher. “Straight women,” she says.

There’s a way in which women’s homosociality—think ‘homoeroticism’ without the eroticism—gets uplifted as a peak: the peak of progressive feminism, the peak of healthy relationships, the peak of platonic intimacy. It has a charge in our collective imagination, too—producing a kind of frisson from being almost unacceptable, almost over the line. The internet is rife with articles on platonic dates, platonic nudes, and platonic flings between women. These are regularly passed around my circle of queer women with equal parts disbelief, resignation, and humor. What the articles describe is both unfamiliar and too familiar to us—a toothless version of the way that straight women behave sometimes towards queer women. How they flirt to see if they can, to see what it feels like, without stakes or repercussions—for them, at least.

If you’re a queer girl, you know what I’m talking about. It spins your head around, makes you see things that aren’t there—or that are, but that you’re not supposed to acknowledge. After it happens to you, it sets a precedent, wrapping caution tape around every encounter with another woman. With Lexy, when we were getting to know each other, I read every romantic overture as platonic friendliness. I tiptoed around her, a little too used to crime scenes.

“Beyond BFF” isn’t about sex, it’s about intimacy. It clearly wasn’t written to titillate, as these articles often are. It was written in an attempt to capture how women find something in each other that mutually sustains them. Schaefer is the author of Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship, a book about “the power and glory of female friendships.” In “Beyond BFF,” she writes that childhood best-friendship outgrows itself into some new, adult animal:

Then come crushes and puberty, sex, maybe love, and still sometimes marriage. With each milestone, the label can begin to seem like a cute school-age relic. If a best friend is someone whose hair you braided and whom you told about your first kiss, can she also be the woman who keeps the spare keys to your first studio apartment, lets you cry in her arms after a boss threatens to fire you or listens when you tell her, and only her, of a sexual encounter that left you with a bad feeling?

When I read this aloud, I pause, laugh awkwardly, and point out that this clearly wasn’t written for us. My childhood best friend was my first crush. My high school best friend was my worst and longest-lasting crush, all twisted up in the slow-burning and horrible knowledge of what those feelings meant about me. Crushes and puberty, sex, maybe love, maybe marriage—the essay charts it so neatly alongside, but insistently separate from, that friendship. And the question—can the girl “also be” that matured, future thing—assumes this same separation. The intimacies between women, moreover, are relegated to places of retreat. In times of crisis, women escape to their best-friendships for respite and support. But that aspect of escape assumes that the friend is separate from the day-to-day—a temporary shelter rather than a true home.

I read out loud the section further down about having “a person.”

“Where are these women’s boyfriends?” Lexy asks. “What are they doing in all this?”

I think about the provisional utility of a spare key.

We wind closer to Santa Cruz. I’ve never seen hills that unfold like this, like the earth shrugged and settled upon its haunches, idle, content to be as it is. It’s my first time in California since I was a kid; my second time seeing her after we confessed our feelings; my third time with her since we met on holiday the summer before. After a while, I reach across the console and take her hand.

On my first day in Sacramento, we watch the Olympics with her brother—specifically, ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. I’ve been a fan since the 2010 Olympics in my hometown of Vancouver. The past week since the team event has heralded a rush of articles taking up the apparent intimacy between them. Effectively, they ask: Are they dating? Are they in a relationship? What are they to each other? Who are they to us?

Virtue falls into Moir’s arms on the ice. I clutch Lexy’s knee. The internet gets them trending on Twitter.

We are in a cultural moment starving for intimacy. We want to know what it looks like, what it means. We want to know how to be in it, with it, with another person. Think pieces wonder about the alienation caused by dating and hook-up apps like Tinder; more and more powerful and not-so-powerful men get named as abusers. The internet wonders if Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are fucking, and people get paid to write about it. The two are heralded for their connection, their chemistry, their charge, their romance. They are functionally co-workers.

Meanwhile, co-workers Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, who co-founded online commerce site Of A Kind, are publishing a book together in 2019: Work Wife. They are described in “Beyond BFF” in terms of their devotion to one another. Schaefer quotes Cerulo: “We’re friends who started a company and spend an inordinate amount of time together, and the nature of our relationship is really hard to put into words quickly. Referring to each other as ‘work wife’ gets at the blend of the professional and the personal—and the commitment.”

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.

Women calling each other “work wives” seems, on the surface, to be about making a mockery out of that relationship, reclaiming themselves and their place in the office, proclaiming the power of women working together. But does it? For who? For which women?

I say “if,” but don’t quite need to. It hits me a few days later. The previous winter, I was working an administrative job in an office. One day, approaching the end of the week and finishing off a large snarl of data entry errors, closing out of my email correspondence with the system specialist, I remarked unthinkingly, “I swear to God, Patricia saves my life every single day—I would marry her in a heartbeat.”

I meant this like I would marry a really good cup of coffee, or a chair with better back support than the one I was in, or any other abstractly non-anthropomorphic object that made my life easier. I meant it with the desperate hyperbole of a beleaguered sitcom character, but the laugh track never came. Instead, I was met with a deafening silence in our corner of the office, and I turned around to stares. I went hot and red and thought, Oh God, oh fuck, they think—

“Did you say you would marry her?” one of my coworkers asked. I went redder, and stumblingly explained that I was kidding and I’d never even met her; I thought hysterically about H.R., and the cost of school, and that time I had to report a male colleague who commented while I was filing about how they’d “already got me on my knees.” Nothing had ever come of that, that I knew of, so maybe nothing would happen here, either?

The term “work wife” rolls off the tongue. There’s a sly wink-and-nudge to it, like you’re stealing something back from the boys. Men have work wives for two reasons, as I understand it: as a replacement for some closeness they aren’t able to create at home, and/or as an excuse to share, shift, or delegate labor while still getting some amount of credit for it. Women calling each other “work wives” seems, on the surface, to be about making a mockery out of that relationship, reclaiming themselves and their place in the office, proclaiming the power of women working together. But does it? For who? For which women?

Cerulo and Mazur call each other “work wives” and sell a book about it. Virtue and Moir call each other “business partners” and spin into an embrace on the ice. For them, it seems easy. With straightness securely in place, anything is plausible, anything can make sense and seem true. Rather than contorting around tape, they’re fluid—their narratives unfold effortlessly, smoothing over definitions, contradictions, and cracks in the telling.

It takes me a month to say “my girlfriend” to anyone, even Lexy, even though we’ve been functionally and emotionally involved for many months already. Her father accidentally calls me her “friend” the first time I meet him, fresh off the plane near midnight, sitting in the living room of her family home. We watch the Olympics in that living room the next day, and when my favorite team wins gold, she’s so relieved that she covers me in kisses.

Sometimes these closer-than-words, hard-to-explain friendships between women can only be described as “emotional affairs.” The joke among my friends about these kinds of articles has always been, “If it walks like a dyke and it talks like a dyke…,” followed by the question: “Do they even realize?” It’s a joke, but I think there’s a grain of truth in the question. Not in the sense of, “Do they realize this is kind of queer,” because the coy way these things are written about, like each word bears an unvoiced huff of laughter, suggests a hyperawareness about the implied gayness of it all. They do realize, and that’s what gives it that sweet thrill of nearness: near forbidden, nearly true, like the tickle of electricity between your skin and someone else’s when you’re a breath away from touching. The more salient question is whether straight women realize that this near-queerness is a function of the rigidity and insufficiency of straightness. Do they ever ask themselves, What am I not getting from my boyfriend/partner/husband that I’m, instead, seeking out in this woman?

This is not just about “Beyond BFF.” In 2015, Broadly published a piece by Monica Heisey titled “The Five Stages of Every Friendship Fling;” in 2016, The New York Times published one by Rebecca Traister titled “What Women Find in Friends That They May Not Get From Love.” In 2015, Kim Brooks wrote “I’m Having a Friendship Affair” for The Cut. Maria Yagodo wrote “The Satisfying Joy of Sending Platonic Nudes to Your Friends” for Broadly near the end of 2017. These authors describe how they found fulfillment in other women, but the spectral figure of The Boyfriend or The Husband lurks at the margins of each piece. While he may be decentered, heterosexuality is not: it is, in fact, what is at stake.

Brooks’ piece is subtitled: “A look at the intensely obsessive, deeply meaningful, occasionally undermining, marriage-threatening, slightly pathological platonic intimacy that can happen between women .” She acknowledges that her unhappiness and loneliness were factors in the events described, and she even briefly considers and then dismisses the possibility that this friendship had developed a sexual or romantic component. But the piece revolves around heterosexuality. From her childhood best friend with whom she planned how their lives “might change when [they] found boyfriends, went to college, got married, had kids,” to this newfound, pathological, marriage-threatening affair, her intimacy with other girls and women is framed around men.

The idea that this is what it means to become platonically close with another woman conveniently explains away potential slips into romance.

There are a lot of these takes on the internet. In them, it’s always assumed that both women are getting out of the relationship what they want. And perhaps they are, if for both of them that’s the ability to uphold their straight relationship by, ironically, 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. But I haven’t seen any exploring the other possibility: that the friend who gets drawn into the execution of another woman’s heterosexual unhappiness and homosocial desire actually wants more, whether in terms of intimacy or simply acknowledgement. We’ve heard a lot about what it is to be a woman who is unsatisfied in herself and her relationships and turns to another woman for those needs; we haven’t heard the stories of the Other Women. Those stories might reframe these affairs away from the question of loneliness, unhappiness, malaise, and need, and towards a question of labor, consumption, and use. It might help us recognize how when straightness is the assumed default, gestures of queer intimacy get muddled, blurred, and erased amidst all that platonic friendships have been stretched to encompass.

We’re told that this closeness is the ideal of early best friendship—as Schaefer writes, the ideas of intimacy, devotion, and commitment surrounding these flings “are a nod to the codes of childhood: two little girls speaking in a language only they can understand.” It’s normal. It’s just what friendship is. A classmate in high school once called across the room as my best friend and I bickered: “You two sound married!” I spent the next year frantically telling myself that’s just what friendship feels like—like wanting intimacy, wanting closeness, wanting more. At 18, it wasn’t “married,” because this time, the other woman was set to be married already. It was connection, telepathy, soulmates, and we sat on her couch and talked all night and I thought this is the best thing in my life. We texted all day, every day, and I thought I will never find anything like this again. We held hands through a concert and I told myself this is just friends even if it didn’t feel like it, and she went home to her fiancé, and I went home to my uncleaned room and my part-time job and my unanswered texts from my mom.

The idea that this is what it means to become platonically close with another woman conveniently explains away potential slips into romance. It moves queerness out of reach even as it brings intimacy into reach. I can’t say how this feels between straight women. As a queer woman, it’s damaging. Not to be undesired—that’s a fact of life for anyone—but to be pulled into a closeness that can’t exist on its own. One that only exists in denial, or only in conversation with hetero romanticism. To have your relationship be defined constantly by how it is similar to or different from an on-going or theoretical relationship with a man. To be asked for things most people give to a partner, and to bear the expectation that you won’t ask why she can’t get what she wants or needs from the men who are supposed to be in her life, not just living in tandem with it.

Maybe it’s not about straightness. Maybe it’s just about men, and expectations, and the ways that women can hurt each other when their relationships revolve around a third point in space, something assigned greater mass and gravity.

This is not a joke: when Lexy offered to fly out to Toronto for my birthday last year, on American Thanksgiving, I thought maybe this is just friends, and then, maybe she has a spending problem?

This is not a joke: the first time we have sex, it’s to the erotic tones of Sal Governale crying about his wife’s emotional affair on The Howard Stern Show, cranked loud on the TV for privacy.

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.

But some of us do want, too.

I come across the podcast mentioned in Schaefer’s article one day; it’s the real deal: internet-known and feminist-stamped and everything. I text it—Call Your Girlfriend dot com—to Lexy from the wrong side of the continent. A recent episode catches my eye: Episode 129, guest-starring comedian Cameron Esposito, known among other things for her television show Take My Wife. The episode begins with the hosts, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, reflecting on their choice of name from all the way back in 2014. The description puts it this way: “Amina and Ann get real about the heteronormative (and oldtimey?) use of 'girlfriend' in the title of this podcast.” It didn’t come up in the pre-recorded conversation with Esposito, but they spend the first few minutes on it. Sow refers to this as “our secret, biggest annoyance at ourselves” because at the time of the naming, the implications didn’t occur to them: “Every way that you’re supposed to be thoughtful about something, we were not thoughtful about it at all.” The conversation is good and sincere and complex all at once, emphasizing the unexamined heteronormativity, but also the difficulty of not knowing: “If there was some huge outcry about like, Oh my God, this is super offensive and you’re harming somebody actively, then, of course, change the name of the show. … I wonder,” Sow says, “if, like, more people are offended by it than say anything to us because they just assume that our politics are good, you know?”

In the grand scheme of things, straight women using the word “girlfriend” is a pretty minor slight. I think. This is the caution tape all over again: Writing this, I find that I’m constantly checking myself, worried my response is out of proportion, like how I worry always that my feelings are out of proportion. During one of a dozen anxious exchanges, Lexy texts me: “Their reactions in that episode complicate things, but it still boils down to the fact that they are straight women using intimacy for their brand in a time where the term ‘girlfriend’ can give a queer person, maybe even a kid, hope as they search for content… is it really cool for straight people to still be using it in that way it’s fucking 2018.”

For queer women, it’s all caution tape. The lines are policed and we are meant to abide.

The problem is societal, the sum total of cultural knowledge poured into our brains from day one, and it can’t be reduced to the individual in any context. When the podcast Call Your Girlfriend promotes one of its sponsors with "PROMO CODE: GIRLFRIEND," the problem isn’t the hosts, it’s the pattern. The same pattern that makes it make sense for the authors of a book titled Work Wife to begin their website bio by explaining that they met “when a mutual frenemy introduced them, suggesting they should be friends because they both, at some point during their college careers, dated (Division III) basketball players.” The same pattern that wants you to salivate a little at the thought of women sending each other nudes, secure in the knowledge that there is a line and it hasn’t been crossed.

For queer women, it’s all caution tape. The lines are policed and we are meant to abide.

But we don’t. Living is unabiding. The lines are made up and the tape doesn’t matter. Sometimes I still find the crime-scene rubble of growing up a queer girl in places I didn’t expect it. And sometimes I feel too vulnerable, too closed off, too real, and too much like somebody else, like a performance of a whole person that I think I’m supposed to be instead of the barely-a-person that I am, all at once. But at the same time, there’s a stability in knowing and naming what you have—knowing and naming it, like, for real. The ambiguity and the tease and the mess and the maybes are somebody else’s problem.

It’s almost an identity crisis, is what it is—the straight-girl girlfriends, the work-bestie work wives. In academia, where I currently live, it’s the same with “partners.” Everyone has a partner. The coy almost-queerness of it: We’re straight but not like that; too serious, too aware, or too intellectual for the juvenile boyfriend/girlfriend terminology. In the whirlwind first weeks of my program, everyone I was introduced to talked about their “partner,” and it was a guessing game every time whether they meant a long-term, serious relationship with another queer person or a long-term, serious relationship with another straight person, but one who wears flannel and cares about justice and reciprocity and shit. These are good, brilliant, connected people—but the uniformity of it, how it integrates so smoothly into the language, like part of a shared shorthand, marks it beyond the individual usage. There’s a sense that the term can distance and disavow straightness, that it can mark one as out of alignment with the world’s heterosexual structure—maybe, if it tries hard enough.

But at some point, it’s like: Can we have anything? These omnipresent patterns feel more and more like either a manifestation of or a response to some frantic anxiety. Everything needs to be clouded and uncertain, so that straightness, above all, can be solid and certain. This is a fiction applied over the unruly parts of us like a Band-Aid. To be a woman who loves other women is to be wholly unruly, in that sense. And since the coherence of straightness as default and matter-of-fact can only exist if queerness is not allowed the same stability, queer women must be obscured.

I don’t know what the solution is for all of us. For Lexy and I, it starts here: with the satisfaction and comfort of knowing ourselves and our words.

“How about wife?” Lexy asks at one point. It’s barely a month until my graduate symposium, and it looks like she’ll be flying in.

“I’ll pretend you didn’t just say that.” I sigh down the phone. “They’ll just think I mean ‘business partner’.”

“With that haircut? No. Lover?”

“I’m hanging up on you.”

I don’t.