Towards the end of Mae Martin’s new Netflix’s comedy series Feel Good, Mae stands on stage delivering her comedy act, and tells the audience: “My girlfriend is straight.” Standing in the audience, George, Mae’s girlfriend, recoils. Mae repeats herself: “I have a straight girlfriend.”
Apparently, so did I.
Let’s go back in time. I didn’t know that I was queer until I got to college, but all of the early signs of my queerness were there: I listened to Brandi Carlile. I watched the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, pre-Megan Rapinoe. I read and got turned on by books about queer teen love, and yet it wasn’t until I was legally an adult that I considered I didn’t want to be Brandi Carlile, I wanted to be with Brandi Carlile.
A few years after coming out, I found myself in a relationship with a straight woman, not exactly pulled back into the closet, not fully living my relationship out in the world, either. Queer women who have dated straight women will know what I mean by this, as it’s an otherwise difficult kind of relationship to articulate. In tackling the mystical queer-straight coupling, Feel Good reflected back to me all of the things I didn’t know I was feeling or had been trying to say.
In the six-part comedy, Mae plays a character not so far from her real life persona, a Canadian comedian pursuing a career in England. And in the prototypical lesbian sequence of relationship, Mae and George move quickly. In the first episode Mae moves into George’s apartment; in the second, George thinks about telling Mae she loves her; in the fourth, Mae introduces George to her parents. But there are problems: In the first episode, we learn that Mae hasn’t told George about her addiction; in the second, George lies to Mae about her perspective on commitment; in the third, George introduces Mae as a “friend” and Mae is made to hide in plain sight. One of the problems—and there are many—is that Mae believes that George is straight.
So when Mae tells the audience at the comedy club that George is straight—though by this point the two live together and George openly calls Mae her “girlfriend”—the statement really isn’t about George or her sexuality, but how she relates to Mae. We learn that the pains of their relationship were due not simply to their outgrowing of a shared metaphorical closet, but because they never talked about all of the ways that queerness doesn’t have to do with who you’re fucking, rather how you see the world; how you see yourself.
Many months after me and my ex started dating I asked her how she identified, and she rebuffed me saying that she “didn’t like labels.” To be fair, I’m sure that she was still learning her sexuality too, having never kissed or had sex with a woman before me. But I needed to know how she identified, it was important.
When wielded by others, labels can be weapons; labels are meant to cause harm and demean and tell us that we don’t belong. When you’re queer, using the label is a salve for all of the times we we’re forced to whisper it, asked to hide it, made to feel ashamed of it. “Well if you had to choose,” I asked my girlfriend, “what would you say?”
“If I had to choose,” she responded, “I’d say queer.” She’d shrug, like it didn’t matter, like she hadn’t thought about it. I’d say queer sounded more like a question than a statement, it sounded strange to me. I realized that it was the first time I’d heard her say the word out loud.
In the first half of the series, Mae and George fight over the ways that they want to be in the other’s world — Mae wants to meet George’s friends and family, and George wants to know more about Mae’s history of drug use and why she moved to the UK.
George wants to know who Mae is, but Mae wants to know what George is. Straight? Bi? Lesbian? Mae never actually asks her girlfriend, but I did ask mine.
This isn’t the first time that television has attempted the gay-straight relationship (or, Gay-Straight Alliance, anyone?). I think of Helena and Dylan (L Word) or Piper and Vos (Orange Is The New Black) or Kat and Adena (The Bold Type), all character duos that struggle in similar ways that Mae and George do to self-define while building a partnership.
In Feel Good, Mae is a comedian; her job is to present messes to an audience in a way that feels both resonant and laughable. She makes vulnerability funny, and the stage is where she’s most honest. Conversely, George, a femme middle school teacher with a masc name, has a job that’s predicated on boundaries and self-presentation. In their respective professional worlds, Mae and George are good at their jobs and for the most part, they understand what’s asked of them. They excel at standing in the front of a room and talking to others, it’s when they’re alone and face to face they learn the limitations of accepting at face value the fluidity of sexuality.
In Feel Good, it’s not that George didn’t seem to take her relationship with Mae seriously—I know the fear behind this kind of relationship: that it exists in a universe parallel to a heterosexual one. At a certain point in time, the ‘straight girl’—in this case, George—may decide to return to the universe she came from, confirming a difference between a Queer Relationship and a Real Relationship (a straight relationship).
George quite literally moves between these universes: At a party with her Obnoxious Straight Friends™ she would rather let them talk shit about Mae than come out, and only later, after she drunkenly crashes through a glass table, gets rushed to the emergency room and loaded with intravenous painkillers, does George claim Mae as hers. Even then, the very thing (drugs) that helps (induce) George to come out is what Mae can’t have.
When my ex girlfriend and I decided that we’d rather be in a long distance open relationship rather than not be in a relationship at all, she started to date a cis man. I thought that I might be the parallel universe; I was Mae, waiting in fear of being left, not because I wasn’t loved, but because I couldn’t offer something real. When we broke up, she stayed with him: Something real.
When we were together I feared that telling my ex that I felt like an experiment would insinuate that not only was she experimenting, but that somehow learning and expanding one’s sexuality was wrong, and it isn’t. I feared that asking if I was a phase was a clever way of asking if her experimenting was a phase, and that the reliance on normative, homophobic language would betray what I stood for and belie the kind of cultural force I believed queerness could be.
On stage, Mae says the fear about the straight girlfriend better than I could, “She’ll realize that what she really wants, and grew up wanting, is like, simplicity and some beefcake boy…because she’s culturally straight.”
What makes someone culturally straight? Having mostly Obnoxious Straight Friends™? Not wanting to be queer? Not thinking about one’s queerness? When my ex had to choose an identity in answering my question, I thought that queerness might be defined by thinking about one’s queerness. It seemed to me that she hadn’t, really. My queerness is one of my favourite things about myself, I look at the queer artists I admire, like Janelle Monáe or Eileen Myles or Kehlani and think those are my people. I watch straight romantic comedies and wonder how anyone can be happy doing everything gender prescriptions and heterosexuality demands of us. I’m not sure I’d ever ask, but I’m curious what my ex would say if I asked who her people are, if she can see herself in movies made for straight people.
At the beginning of Episode 5, we learn that Mae will be opening for a washed-up English comedian (think a hotter, slightly younger Louis C.K.) she hasn’t heard of him, and George shows her videos of his performances. He’s annoyingly cisgender, crassly heterosexual, and very, very masculine; all of the things that Mae is not. George says to Mae, “Can you tell him that I wanted to marry him, all the way through my adolescence and most of my early 20s?”
Mae sighs, thinking about, but not saying out loud, what all of us gay girls who have dated straight girls know too well: That while we are raised knowing that marriage isn’t for us (I was 20 when marriage equality became a thing in the U.S.), straight girls are raised to daydream about wedding venues and bridesmaids dresses. We watch Mae arrive at the understanding that George still sees her romantic eventualities leading her down the aisle to a man. Their queer relationship doesn’t exist in the world of eventualities in George’s mind; perhaps it’s something different all together, not not forever, not not in the closet.
The closet is an imperfect metaphor. Its slapdash construction insinuates that the threshold between living inside oneself (in the closet) to living in the world (out of the closet) is the announcement of queerness to others. In Feel Good, we see that coming out, especially for femme women, not only happens over and over again, but includes a kind of reorientation of life expectations.
In queer relationships, behavioural prescriptions fly out the window, not just because the roles don’t fit, but because for so long, the roles wouldn’t have us. Marriage and partnership look different for queer people, the possibilities of being a parent look different (especially if you’re not a rich queer person), finding ways not to feel on the outside of things looks different, because, well, we’re so often on the outside of things. And in Feel Good, even while in a relationship with a woman, a woman she loves, Mae is on the outside of it, contorting herself to fit a kind of archetypal role of being the more masculine one in the relationship.
Having a straight orientation to the world is just easier: Heterosexual cisgender men are an easy, direct route to marriage and children and the social acceptance that comes with doing what’s accepted. There’s security in heterosexuality, and learning one’s queerness requires mourning the loss of being seen by the world, trading one’s assumed sexuality in for the less pleasant fate of being looked at.
Later in the episode, when Mae performs her “My girlfriend is straight” monologue, we hear all of the things that Mae couldn’t say to George. Mae tells the audience how, while having sex, George said to Mae, “I want you to come inside me,” and Mae bemoans to the audience, “I physically can’t!” To Mae, it appears that George is still living in their relationship through the instruction of heteronormative sexual roles. They’re in the parallel universe.
“She says that I’m the only girl that she’s attracted to,” Mae continues. “If that’s true, she doesn’t love me for who I am, right? She loves me despite who I am.” Keeping her anger and insecurities from George wasn’t intentional, neither was Mae’s openness while performing; hiding, from oneself, from others, is a survival mechanism. And so, on stage, Mae still doesn’t say the most honest thing: What she’s really wondering, like I did in my relationship, is what if she doesn’t actually want me? What if I’m a phase?
Feel Good is really good at asking these kinds of questions, at wrestling with queerness itself. And more broadly, Feel Good asks: When does a straight girl become a queer girl? Does loving and having sex with a queer woman make a formerly straight woman not straight? If the answer is no, as it seems Mae believes, then queerness isn’t necessarily about who you’re fucking. It’s about much more than that, though I’m not exactly sure what that that is.
Queerness, if we feel open enough to engage with it, can teach us new ways to love, expand definitions of romanticism and help us move away from thinking that a person is designed for any one kind of being. Queerness forces you to think about who you are to yourself and proves that you can shape the way you think about your identities. My ex didn’t love me despite who I am, she loved me for who I am, and that’s queer enough for me.