Butches on the Big Screen
Today I spoke to a group of college students about butch identity. They asked great questions, and one particularly interested me: On one hand, there's a big stereotype that all lesbians look the same: we're all butch, all gravitate toward plaid flannel, and all hate men. But on the other hand, the few depictions of lesbians we do see in popular media tend to be stereotypically feminine-looking (e.g., "The L-Word").
It's an interesting little paradox. I suggested the following explanation:
People don't think of butch lesbians as "attractive," and the media only loves people who are considered "attractive." This is especially true for women. (Think about it: Jack Black and John C. Reilly get movie deals. Would the female equivalent of those guys score any leads in feature films?)
So maybe butch lesbians are underrepresented in the media in the same way that overweight people, people with acne, and physically disabled people are. Maybe the dearth of butch media depiction is just one more example of the "beauty bias" that Deborah Rhode and others have been writing about. What do you all think? Any other ideas for why this might be?
Oops! How did THIS picture get in here??
This also got me thinking about what we would want butch representation in the media to look like. It's tough to say, right? We want it to look like "us," but what what do "we" look like?
Personally, I would be most excited to see someone who looks like me represented in a romantic comedy. And I'd add the caveat (since it's my Hollywood fantasy) that I'd love my lesbo rom-com not to simply replicate het rom-coms--that is, I wouldn't want it to simply "remove man, insert butch." For one, this might trivialize the butch-femme dynamic. But moreover, it might trivialize queerness, making it seem like: See? Even "the Gays" fall into a tidy little package that you can read as gender normative!
As I see it, we have a very long way to go when it comes to media representation. Can you imagine a character on your favorite sitcom--"The Office" or "30 Rock" or whatever--where there is a lesbian character and being gay isn't the be-all and end-all of her entire character? I can't.
The only example I can think of off the top of my head is Dr. O'Hara in "Nurse Jackie." I think she's bisexual, but either way, her attraction to women is just one of many interesting things about her (including massive wealth, devastating good looks, killer fashion sense, and a sexy-as-hell accent).
Come to think of it, that's another thing I like about "Nurse Jackie." Jackie (right) appears to be totally straight, but is far less gender-conforming than her queer co-worker, Dr. O'Hara (left). And it's not presented as some "wackily ironic" thing; it's simply presented as is. I like that.
11/2/2011 07:39:55 am
Im butch dont get me wrong yes i have a manly side to me. But other then that im feminine. I have that feminine beauty in and out .
11/2/2011 08:15:24 am
Hi Amanda: what do you mean re: this post? Are you saying that gender presentation is irrelevant on screen because we all have a more masculine and a more feminine side?
11/2/2011 08:43:42 am
I love this about Nurse Jackie, as well. I think I just want to see some variety in gender presentation - I do want to see people who "look like me," but I also want to see people who are as interesting as me, as well, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Great post.
11/2/2011 08:54:44 am
Look for a movie called Butch Jamie. Your prayers may be answered - butch romcom!
I liked this blog. It is something I've talked about since I came out 13 yrs ago at the age of 42. I had been exposed, for years, to many homosexual men and women, but never gave much thought to identity. Afterall, I had just spent 42 years in a repressed lifestyle where I seemed to fail at being feminine. I had lived the life my mother envisioned, not me. My self-fulfilling prophesy began when I was 4 and told my mom what I was going to do when I became a boy. She laughed and said I would never be a boy, I would be a girl just like my older sister. I remember running to the mirror and sobbing, saying that I wanted to be a boy in this life!!! After that every turn of the road was an intense conditioning. I knew what my attractions were and how I wanted to appear, but it never dawned on me to act on them until after I came out. Once I started socializing in the gay world I realized something very true. We ALL have to identify with something. I ran into dykes, butches, femmes and the standard androgenous female who claimed they were none of those...they were just themselves. To them I say I disagree. Identity is very important to our inner works. I had an huge epiphany that I had always identified with my dad and my brothers. I looked at my mom and sister as being on the "other" side...lol. They were a force to be dealt with and I didn't have that in me. Instead I worked at the same hobbies men do, wore men's clothes, held doors open, ran to the rescue of any damsel in distress. As for how I would want that represented in the media is difficult to explain. I am not a typical butch. I am not overtly masculine, even though I am more comfortable in men's clothes and wear my hair like a man. I don't drive a truck, I don't watch sports, I don't spit in public, and I don't fight. Some would call me a "soft" butch. I dress professionally, talk with a calm demeanor, and drink red wine. This is how I'd like to see a butch woman. Someone in touch with their male identity without being a man. As I put it while chatting in gay.com rooms, "I consider myself butch, but I call it a 'Parlor' butch. While all the rest of you are out spitting in the wind and pissing on trees to mark your territory, I am sitting in the parlor with your women sipping red wine and having sweet talks."
2/25/2013 02:28:35 am
Beautiful. i love the "parlor butch" phrase! this is what *I* as a high femme likes best.
11/2/2011 01:06:12 pm
There's a good chapter in Judith Halberstam's FEMALE MASCULINITY on the subject of butches in cinema. I recommend watching indie flik BY HOOK OR BY CROOK. Halberstam also has a separate essay on transgendered folks in film.
11/2/2011 01:36:28 pm
I watched the first 20 min. of "Butch Jamie" and as much as I LOVE Michelle Ehlan, I thought the acting was... lacking. Maybe I should watch the rest of it, though. I remember being stoked when it came out. I'll check out "By Hook or By Crook."
11/3/2011 08:28:43 am
As a femme who gets weak in the knees for a butch, I completely agree. The spectrum of butch ladies is completely unrepresented and I would like a little eye candy while watching t.v.
11/4/2011 01:06:56 am
I dont think the people that make TV shows and movies have a clue about how to portray 'us' without scaring the 'normal' folk away from their shows and thus the advertisers - so you cant just have a butch woman on a show without her conforming in some way - I mean Shane on the L word was supposed to be the butch one - but she didnt represent what i could relate to as butch but she wasnt too 'scary', not too 'out of the ordinary'. Even in lesbian films you rarely see a decent butch portrayal - and yet I think there is a market for it out there - after all lesbian romantic and erotic fiction is full of butch characters - lets get some of them on the big screen so we can oggle/feel proud.
11/4/2011 04:39:00 am
I couldn't agree more, Anna! I thought Shane's portrayal as the "butch" was especially annoying given that the L-Word was a show geared largely toward lesbians(!). It made me think: what, do not even lesbians find butches attractive?! (I'm happy to say that this is not the case!)
11/5/2011 09:59:06 am
I don't get why the mainstream TV can't conceive of attractive butch women. It might just be that so much of the conventional wisdom, dealings and pressures in the business are from men who think women are only there to for the male gaze. But I think people are interested to see a woman in classy men's or men's-style clothing. On the rare occasions I've worn something like a men's suit, I get a lot of looks, even at my Southern cousin's wedding. (Also hi, it was nice to meet you.) I would think TV would like to show people that others notice, whether their gaze is positive or disapproving.
11/6/2011 02:20:43 am
BW - Ref Butch Jamie - yes it's a start but I still dont understand why we cant have more lesbian films with bucth women in then - I mean 'Better than Chocolate' almost has a butch character 'Kim' - but why cant we see a few more handsome butches on the big screen. As for Shane on the L word - I just dont get it - Im not saying she is unatttractive - but she wasnt butch and as you say - it was a show for lesbians..... (or was it...!).
The closest thing to a butch woman on television I've seen is Rachel Maddow. And she sure twirls my noodle. :) But how awesome would it be to see a butch femme couple on tv? Pair up Jenny Shimizu with Portia De Rossi and make my world spin. I just don't get why it's so 'normal' to have gay men in modern comedy (Modern Family, Will and Grace) but not 'real# lesbians. Although it seems from some of the responses on my most recent blog that perhaps the butch femme couples are so far on the outside of lesbian ID that many lesbians wouldn't feel that representative of them either?
11/7/2011 04:27:23 pm
The answer has to be that TV is for men. And butch women are repulsive to men. Right? I struggled with the Shane thing too, and with the aftermath of it (tons of straight women turning gay in hopes of dating the likes of her). The closest TV can come to butch, then, is a bad boi femme. Or a untouchable masculine caregiver, i.e. Roseanne, or Alice from the Brady Bunch, who makes men only a little bit uncomfortable, but it's ok because she's good with kids and we totally would not hit that.
11/7/2011 04:30:28 pm
Or you know, Ellen, because she's what's on, and she gives away all that great stuff, and I think it's just great that she came out, honey, she's so sweet and harmless, the kids are at school anyway, and we need to live and let live.
11/18/2011 03:23:17 pm
First of all, I love your blogs! I am not a butch lesbian (as a matter of fact, I am what society might call a lipstick lesbian or femme... but I prefer just lesbian. Plain and simple :D), but I do have the hots for the butch/soft butch types. *grin*
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