Ruby Rose in OITNB
If you're reading this it means you're alive, so I'm going to go ahead and assume that you've heard of the term 'girl crush'. Typically speaking, it's used when self identified straight girls develop inklings of erotic desire for women. "Ooh!" you might have heard them declare. "Are you talking about Ilana Glazer? I've got SUCH a girl crush on her!"
The latest object of adoration for the straight lady world is Ruby Rose, an Australian model, DJ and professional line-reader on Netflix's Orange Is The New Black. Rose plays inmate Stella on the latest season of OITNB, and to say she's caused a splash is the understatement of the year. Let's just say she's very big on Tumblr right now, and a lot of straight girls are having confused feelings in their down-theres.
But as women left, right and centre are declaring they're 'going gay' for Ruby, some queer women and lesbians are getting increasingly frustrated with what they see as a diminishing of identity and a convenient side stepping of the realities facing the lives of LGBTQI people. For those who exist outside of that bubble of normativity, having their identities treated as a fashion statement or an adventure is understandably irritating. Or, as my friend Michelle puts it, "I wonder if saying you'd 'go gay' for someone implies that you won't "stay gay" for them?"
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose) in OITNB. Photo: Supplied
Perhaps it is more productive to think of the issue as fluid itself while being mindful of sensitivity towards the more political strains of it. Performer and lesbian activist Maeve Tib says, "I am all for sexual fluidity, and if straight women want to have crushes on Ruby Rose then more power to them. But people should be mindful of expressing those feelings in a way that doesn't diminish same sex desire or the reality of queer lives."
Rose herself has responded to claims of appropriation a little differently, by arguing that such trends are paving the way for more acceptance of gender and sexual fluidity. She told the Huffington Post, "My sense is definitely more lighthearted and neutral on it. I feel like we have gone so far in the direction of being more all-encompassing and being more supportive of one another." Rose goes on to suggest that the sentiments have been offered in jest or playfulness, and that they shouldn't be taken so literally. My friend Melanie, a self identified queer woman, agrees, telling me, "I could not care less if people want to say they have girl crushes or whatever. There are so many actual issues facing LGBT people right now."
This is where things can get tricky. Part of the problem is that those queer lives are defined by as much diversity as any other form of humanity, and they are subjected to as much intersectionality of oppression as other parts of the community.
For example, I am a cisgendered woman who eschews sexual preference labels but who has had significant, intimate relationships with both men and women. But while I am equally sexually and emotionally attracted to both of these genders, I currently have all the privileges of heterosexuality because I live with a man in a domestic partnership. In terms of impact on queer lives, I don't feel entitled to have an opinion on whether or not terms like 'girl crush' are harmful, precisely because it feels like having the privileges of heterosexual presentation means I get to step in and out of queer identity as I choose. Does that mean I'm not entitled to identify as something other than heterosexual? I'd argue not.
And then there's the issue of language definition. When I use the term 'girl crush', I'm channelling a distinctly Mallory Towers vibe of a schoolgirl crushing on a sophisticated and/or older woman whose attention and friendship I covet. In the past, such acts of platonic desire between women were referred to as 'smashes' or 'spoons', and it was considered part and parcel of the expression of romantic friendship - kind of like how Anne Shirley was devoted to Diana Barry, declaring her a 'bosom friend' and 'kindndred spirit'. As someone who IS sexually attracted to women, I find it useful to be able to distinguish between desiring someone sexually and the kind of platonic desire where I desperately want them to find me as exciting as I do them. I feel like these are beautiful terms that have a place in the lexicon of female love for each other, even when they've nothing to do with sex at all.
Finally, sexual fluidity is not as simple as understanding from birth where your attractions lie. Not everyone has the experience of having properly felt the complexities of their desires from a young age. For some people, it takes meeting a particular person to unlock their capacity for greater sexual fluidity and expression. For others, using terms like 'girl crush' isn't down to being dismissive of queer women and lesbians. It's about being afraid of what coming out about sexual fluidity might mean for themselves and their social circles. Coming out is hard for everybody - that doesn't change just because the news is a surprise to the person coming out as well.
Part of this can be negated by existing in open communities. I play roller derby, and it's not uncommon for women who've never had an inkling of same sex desire to suddenly discover attractions they weren't expecting. I'd argue that part of this is made possible by the acceptance and diversity of the roller derby community, which embraces sexual and gender fluidity in a way that many mainstream sectors of society just don't. It's not that roller derby 'creates' lesbians - it's that the community allows for exploration to happen in a non-judgmental manner. So if it's plausible for a woman to live 28 years before recognising queerness in herself, why is it so strange that a character on a TV show should have the power to either awaken those feelings or allow for the possibility of them - and why should we deny them that?
Ultimately, I fall down on the side of thinking any embrace of sexual fluidity is a good thing even if the journey towards political awareness on the matter takes some time. Some of those 'straight' girls declaring their feelings for Rose may not turn out to be quite so straight after all. Perhaps all they needed to recognise their true feelings for Poussey was a little nudge in the right direction.