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.