Illustration by Agathe Dananaï
‘Gal Pals’ – the word straight people use when they don’t want to acknowledge the lesbian relationships exist.
There’s nothing that says “happy pride month!” more than a right-wing, mainstream publication circulating content that denies basic existence outside heterosexuality. Don’t you just feel so included?
It might not seem like much, but the term ‘gal pal’ has been weaponised by mass media outlets to sell a tolerable – yet unrealistic – idea of intimate, platonic female friendship that strays into the realms of public affection. Of course, this completely exists in its own right. We’ve all met those girls that are a little too touchy-feely, the ones that love a friendly drunken snog on the dancefloor. But ‘gal pals’ is now a loaded target sitting on the backs of those that clearly belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. This time, it’s fallen on the shoulders of Rita Ora and Tessa Thompson. Dismissed as a publicity stunt by some, we cannot overlook the lack of validation that comes with attaching this label to someone confirmed as non-heterosexual.
Being taken seriously and normalised within a wider social setting is something queer women not only deserve but are pleading for on a daily basis. When will we stop being brushed under the carpet, or stop being seen as a sexual fetish massaging the male ego?
(Still, at least a superficial rainbow hasn’t half-heartedly replaced the Daily Mail’s doomsday lockdown clock).
Let’s look at the term ‘gal pals’ itself. It’s loaded, with layers of stereotyping, dismissive ignorance and gentile submissiveness packed onto each other. Once upon a time, ‘gal pal’ meant nothing more than platonic female friendship, probably best found sipping a mimosa and cackling loudly enough for other tables to exchange passing stares. It’s since developed a sub-culture that aligns with already uneasy feelings of displaying queer intimacy and affection. ‘Gal pal’ is used as a way to compartmentalise what is still subtly deemed as unacceptably sinful by those unwilling to move with the times. Almost as if Section 28 was still alive and well, functioning in the hands of the generation mostly likely not to question its problematic fallout. Its usage often shows those that are closeted or trepidatious that they won’t be believed, that their expression isn’t held to the same level of respect as their straight counterparts.
Lesbians and bisexual/queer women already have a mammoth brick wall blocking their authentic portrayal in the mainstream media as it is. In journalism, it’s an ongoing battle of fighting pretence and misinformation. Like anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis-male, a stereotype is waiting to be slapped on like an unshakable label the minute a marginalised representative rears their head. It can be lazy and insensitive, an easy way to brand someone as recognisable without going to the extra trouble of providing further education. It only takes a quick peruse of any Twitter feed to reveal yet another woman calling out a media outlet, debunking fake news through quote tweets and impassioned replies.
The theme carries on into fictional narratives. Even in 2021, ‘gal pals’ have found a way to exist in our films, TV shows and podcasts, mostly under the guide of an umbrella of narrative tropes. Let’s call them the ‘four horsemen of the lesbian love apocalypse’. There’s the lack of relatability in the period drama, the overall unlikeliness of the age gap relationship. But the ‘gal pal’ really shines through when intimacy in itself is denied. We’ve all seen it – either our sapphic heroine dies, or a man interferes and spoils everything. Why is it so difficult for girls to get their romantic happy ever after? Queer woman are undeniably more apparent in what we consume. Despite this, we’re a long while away from shirking off the ‘gal pal’ ghost altogether.
One reason the ‘gal pal’ may be a stick in the mud is the reality of femme privilege. Under a misogynistic societal lens, there’s a level of safety that comes with being a feminine looking woman – exactly who we’d assume our fictional ‘gal pal’ example to be. This social hierarchy extends into the LGBTQIA+ community, with white, femme queer women the least likely to receive internal prejudice, able to pass by on the fetish of male desire. It’s these seemingly acceptable standards that make it easy to box away a straight presenting ‘gal pal’, that give the pass for undervaluing those that fit, and chastising those that don’t.
Perhaps there is a weird level of safety that comes with being a gal with a pal too. There’s no need to notice us, make lewd comments or vomit out slurs – we’re just gal pals! As much as it sets the tone for what seems socially tolerable, it’s possible this packaging is also a safety blanket for those following their own path of self-discovery to hide behind. If the term wasn’t so pointedly used as a comment to belittle first and foremost, we could easily use it to our advantage. Unfortunately, the determination to weaponise what could be a positive tool of empowerment is the age-old plight none of us are surprised to hear again.
Change – if any – will come when we actually start to accept sexuality, lust and love for what it is. For being a community that others love to overtly sexualise, it’s almost a surprise that this demure, platonic angle is so highly favoured. We can throw as many pride parades doused with glitter and Ariana Grande as we want, but it’s not going to change the fact that many will actively work to oppose us. For our own sanity, it’s certainly time to claim back what it means to be a ‘gal pal’, instilling its status as empowering for those that need it. At the same time, we mustn’t give up the fight of calling it out when we see it being used so pointedly against the pure, joyous connections we all want. In the meantime, let’s keep our fingers crossed that more straight allies will come to our defence and leave ‘gal pals’ behind to age as badly as Sex & the City.