As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Because so many of these issues are serious, it is all too easy to forget the ones that are merely irritating. But today is different. Today I am going to discuss a small matter that has been building up inside me and grating on my lesbian nerve endings for over ten years. It started in the olden days (before Twitter), when photos of Ellen Degeneres and Portia De Rossi first began appearing in magazines. It is a matter that has recently experienced an immense resurgence because of Kristen Stewart, who is often photographed out and about with a woman. The irritation is caused by the specific way that magazines choose to describe the phenomenon of two women frequently seen out together, in a way that indicates a possible romantic relationship. It is, in particular, the use of the phrase ‘gal pals’
Even just typing ‘gal pals’ sends a shiver of irritation up my spine. Not because I think that two women who spend time together should be labelled ‘lesbians!’ or ‘bisexuals!’ by a magazine. That is not their job, nor is it anyone’s. But there is something unsettling about the fact that the same industry that will publish a photo of an actress who has just eaten a big burrito and shout ‘pregnant!’, will then say that Kristen Stewart and the woman she is holding hands with, cosying up to, or getting matching tattoos with, is just her ‘close friend’ – even going so far as to describe her as a ‘live in gal pal’. It’s as if my grandmother, who still calls the radio ‘the wireless’, has been put in charge of the gossip columns.
If Kristen Stewart were pictured simply walking in the vicinity of a man, the magazines would label them as being in a relationship, or eloping, or having had fifteen secret children together. They would then use the speculation to create attention-grabbing headlines. And it’s hard not to be cynical about this. It’s hard to believe they refuse to label the relationship between Kristen Stewart and Alicia Cargile as a romantic one out of the goodness of their paparazzi-photo-buying, rumour-mongering hearts. Remember, these are the very same people who crucified Stewart for allegedly sleeping with a married man. Besides this, the same ambiguity doesn’t apply to men. No two men spotted looking extremely close in photographs are ever described as ‘boy pals’. So why is everyone tripping all over themselves to imply that the two women are in a romantic relationship without ever actually saying it? Why publish photos of them holding hands and living together and hugging and maybe even kissing, and then call them ‘good friends’?
That is the part that makes me uncomfortable. Is it because relationships between two women aren’t seen as real or important? Is it because women only exist in the magazine world in the context of a heterosexual relationship? Or could it be because stories about Stewart and ex-beau Robert Pattinson still sell copies and generate clicks, and establishing that she is in a committed lesbian relationship would dry up that particular well?
Whatever the reason, the language used is often very different to that used to describe male/female couples. It’s out of place in 2015, when euphemisms and hints shouldn’t be necessary. To use phrases like ‘live in gal pal’ to allude to something they will just not explicitly state feels even more salacious and ridiculous than simply saying what they are implying outright. In the end, however, the gossip reporting around Kristen Stewart and her rumoured girlfriend somehow accidentally ends up being more tasteful than it is in a lot of other cases. See everyone – ‘rumoured girlfriend’. That wasn’t so hard, was it? There are plenty of other terms that can describe what you think is happening in the lives of people you are documenting from afar without unethically labelling anyone’s sexuality, or conversely, denying their relationships. I do not want this to reach a stage where I read ‘…here is a photo of Kristen Stewart walking up the aisle to exchange rings with her very best gal pal Alicia Cargile.’ Seeing the phrase ‘gal pal’ used in various forms is sometimes startlingly amusing, but mostly it is just irritating. I will hereby listen to no more gal pal rationale; it’s bad for my morale.