Why We Need to Stop Worshiping the Elusive Heteroflexible Femme

[caption id="attachment_8331" align="aligncenter" width="300"]...or are you? …or are you?[/caption]

Written by Erin Tatum.

Queer inclusion has become downright trendy lately. Even Disney has jumped on the bandwagon. However, as we all know, just because a minority makes an appearance in the media doesn’t mean the mainstream won’t continue to compulsively shape their narratives. One thing show-runners can’t seem to get enough of is sad lesbians (and I say lesbians because according to most representation, bisexuality clearly doesn’t exist!). Those women with their angst and their impulsiveness and their multiplied sex drive! Tragedy is almost always imminent, whether in the form of death or infidelity.

In the event that these go-to methodologies of misery are rightfully perceived by the powers-that-be as cheap and melodramatic, they’ll opt for the next best thing–an unrequited crush on a straight girl!

Our beloved lesbian (usually endowed with enough snark, swagger, or sheer adorableness to easily claim her place as estrogen brigade bait among the queer fandom) will pine her little heart away, hoping that the object of her desire will see the rainbow-tinted light. She may also spend a lot of time wallowing in self-loathing for loving someone who could never love her back.

Crushes on straight girls are a pretty common occurrence among queer women, and I’m sure it’s comforting to be able to relate to what the characters are going through. However, sexually incompatible crushes between women are used to codify some pretty unfortunate biases around gender, orientation and sexual expression that are frankly hella problematic.

I couldn’t think of a better segue to discuss Betty and Kate from Bomb Girls.

[caption id="attachment_8327" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Kate (left) and Betty (right). Kate (left) and Betty (right).[/caption]

Bomb Girls is set in early 1940s Canada, about a group of women who work in a munitions factory during the war. Its storylines are almost exclusively focused on feminist issues and female empowerment, so of course it had to be canceled. But I digress. One of the central B-plots of the series involves the relationship between Kate Andrews (Charlotte Hegele), a wide-eyed runaway who fled the clutches of her abusive pastor father, and Betty McRae (Ali Liebert), a deeply closeted lesbian who also works in the factory. The two quickly become close friends, and Betty even helps Kate protect her false identity. Naturally, Kate’s strict religious upbringing makes her very naïve, giving her a fixed worldview of how things are supposed to operate in society. Betty feels incredibly protective of her. Can you see where this is going? Unable to hold back her growing feelings any longer, Betty impulsively tries to kiss Kate, much to the latter’s shock and disgust. Kate is so rattled that she contacts her father to take her back home and tearfully leaves the factory in spite of Betty’s desperate last-minute declaration of love.

[caption id="attachment_8326" align="aligncenter" width="275"]Betty and Kate share a seemingly platonic moment in bed together at the end of season 2. Betty and Kate share a seemingly platonic moment in bed together at the end of season 2.[/caption]

The second season renders them even more ambiguous, if that’s possible. Betty rescues Kate and they become friends again, with Kate doing her best to pretend nothing ever happened. Betty briefly dates her other coworker, Ivan (Michael Seater), in an effort to deflect growing suspicions around her sexuality and as a means of denying it to herself. Although she quickly drops the ruse and actually manages to find a girlfriend, Theresa (on the DL), it’s clear that Betty still harbors unresolved feelings for Kate. Making matters more complicated, Kate begins dating Ivan soon after Betty dumps him. It also doesn’t take Kate long to connect the dots between Betty and Teresa, but it remains deliberately unclear whether or not her apparent discomfort with Teresa stems from homophobia, friendship possessiveness, romantic possessiveness, or some combination of the three. Needless to say, it’s all confusing and resolves nothing. When Betty’s crush does creep indirectly into the conversation, Kate either dodges the topic or something will conveniently interrupt them. The season two finale kept them firmly within the same innocent cat and mouse territory that they’d been in since the beginning.

[caption id="attachment_8330" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Betty gets up close and personal with Kate. Betty gets up close and personal with Kate.[/caption]

While many viewers expressed frustration with Kate for leading Betty on, this follows the same whiny friend-zoning logic that we see all the time in any portrayal of heterosexual friendships. Kate doesn’t “owe” Betty anything for being treated kindly, and Betty’s actions post-kiss make it clear that she she loves Kate independently of romantic ulterior motives. On the flipside, I still find Kate to be a pretty shitty person, not because she might not reciprocate Betty’s feelings, but because she continues to knowingly deny Betty formal closure. Betty remains totally helpless, and the outcome of the whole scenario hinges on Kate’s every whim. I know you can try to pass it off on the fact that it’s a period piece and homosexuality was a criminal offense, but why is Betty’s lack of control so romanticized? Just kidding, we all know the answer to that. Kate’s a pretty femme straight girl, and Betty will always be socially perceived as a grotesque deviant, no matter how many friends she has! Hell, Betty herself validates the gay inferiority complex by repeatedly putting someone on a pedestal who she knows full well has zero implications of returning the same level of emotional investment, whether romantic or otherwise. But it’s okay, because we can always hope against hope that Kate will turn out to be queer, right?

And that’s the problem. We can’t keep worshiping straight femme agency as central to our validation. If they choose women, it’s some impossible Herculean feat that solves all of the lesbian’s problems forever. If they don’t, you’re still expected to trail after them like a lost puppy at their every beck and call because they’re clearly superior to you, and you’re just perennially unlovable. Why is that noble or sympathetic in any way? Neither outcome reflects a coherent grasp of self-worth or healthy relationships. Don’t let women who aren’t even in our community dictate the way you view yourself.

[caption id="attachment_8328" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Delphine (left) and Cosima (right). Delphine (left) and Cosima (right).[/caption]

Another radically different example can be pulled from Orphan Black. The relationship between everyone’s favorite dreadlocked scientist Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and sexy French biologist Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) quickly became a fan favorite. Orphan Black handles the subject of sexual fluidity very well, which is one of the many reasons that you should be watching it, if you aren’t already. Following an awkward failed first move, Cosima apologizes for assuming Delphine was gay. Delphine says that while she’s never considered bisexuality, she can’t deny her attraction to Cosima. Refreshingly, none of the angst in their relationship is caused by gay panic. However, all of that is tarnished when it’s revealed that Delphine has betrayed her by orchestrating their relationship as a pretext for spying on her (trying to avoid too many spoilers). This drags the authenticity of her queerness into question because it raises the real possibility that she was faking her feelings for Cosima. The storyline may not villainize straight/fluid/questioning women explicitly, but you can’t deny that Delphine’s moral duplicity serves as a fairly obvious metaphor for cautionary tales against the untrustworthy bisexual or the illusory, unattainable straight girl. Faced with the reality of Cosima’s discovery and understandable outrage, Delphine insists her feelings for her are genuine and begs forgiveness. Cosima is heartbroken, but unmoved.

By the end, after seeing Delphine’s remorse, the audience is arguably compelled to feel more sympathy towards her than Cosima herself. As usual, it’s supposed to be incredibly romantic, playing on common themes of finding love with the wrong person and love conquering all. I like them together and think there’s still potential, but I’m not digging the free pass and endless showers of adulation Delphine receives from the fandom. She fucked up massively and that shouldn’t be forgiven in the span of an episode because of some tears and melodrama. Who’s to say she isn’t still lying? What if she isn’t even queer? Who am I kidding? They’ll end up together next season with minimal reconciliation because they’re obviously ~meant to be~!

[caption id="attachment_8329" align="aligncenter" width="299"]Delphine tries to explain herself to Cosima. Delphine tries to explain herself to Cosima.[/caption]

I don’t mean to pour on the cynicism, but we can’t let our cravings for sentimentality obscure our perspective. Love stories formed on the premise of sexual incompatibility should not be idealized. The only message that it sends to queer women is that it’s noble to martyr your own happiness by wishing for the improbable. Not only does it build up your unrealistic expectations, but it’s also kind of uncomfortable for your crush if you persistently carry a torch for them based on the off-chance that you could turn them one day. Sure, feelings oftentimes can’t be helped and it can be cathartic to see characters sharing your experiences onscreen, but treating potentially heteroflexible straight girls as the Holy Grail of love objects doesn’t exactly set yourself up for the most positive of queer futures. You don’t need their validation, and for the media to suggest otherwise is counterintuitive because straight girls have absolutely no bearing on our sexuality. If they want us, cool. If they don’t want us, that shouldn’t inherently make us pathetic.

You might not flip her, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a confident, kickass queer woman.

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Erin Tatum is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where she majored in film and minored in LGBT studies. She is incredibly interested in social justice, media representation, intersectional feminism, and queer theory. British television and Netflix consume way too much of her time. She is particularly fascinated by the portrayal of sexuality and ability in television.