Where are all the butch lesbians on TV and film?

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With the significant growth of lesbian and bisexual visibility on television within the last 10 years, it’s been interesting to note how writers create and develop queer women characters. Specifically, the bulk of these characters are conventionally pretty, feminine with long hair, soft features and girlfriends who carry a similar aesthetic. There are exceptions, of course, but the reality is that butch women still do not have a place on the small screen.

Currently, there are only a few characters on television that are both queer-identified and what I will refer to as butch, but serves as a catch-all term for anyone that is genderfluid in presentation, meaning androgynous, stud-identified or masculine of center. Currently, the only regular characters that could fall into this category exist on Netflix (Master of None, Orange is the New Black) and Amazon (Transparent). These streaming series are somehow the only ones capable of creating three-dimensional women characters who aren’t defined solely by their preference for menswear, short haircuts, and beautiful women. Denise, Big Boo and Tammy, respectively, are three completely different individuals that, on their respective shows, bring a specific energy to their ensembles.

Melora Hardin as Tammy (right) on “Transparent”trans-amazonvia Amazon

So why are they the only ones that exist? And what has taken Hollywood so long to provide us with these few?

Generally, butch women have been the ones cast as obvious lesbians up until now. Lea DeLaria‘s career is a perfect case study. She has played every butch stereotype in the book, including the predatory lesbian, which she’s done everywhere from Friends to The First Wives Club. This kind of role is par for the course for masculine of center actors like Julie Goldman, who has played parts such as Lesbian Mom, Bartender and Gwen the Bouncer, all variations on the same theme. 

Lea DeLaria as Big Boo in “Orange is the New Black”butch-lea-delaria

“I’ve played every butch stereotype there is except probably the one—oh, nope, I did prison,” she said, recalling her time spent on Faking It. “Usually, in a breakdown it says ‘androgynous, masculine, short-hair. Truck driver with masculine energy.’ Sometimes it does say ‘butch.’ On occasion, it says ‘butch lesbian,’ but they try and not use those two words, I find. I find they try and play around it.”

Noelle Messier has had similar experiences, playing roles like Russian Lesbian Hockey Player Workaholics and Basketball Player on The McCarthys.

“Sometimes they don’t say lesbian, but you know it’s understood,” Noelle said. “Butch cop, butch biker chick. That’s probably the word I see the most. I literally had, on 10 Things I Hate About You, I had ‘Butch Lesbian’ on my trailer. A lot of these characters don’t have names.”

What’s most unfortunate about these roles is that they make lesbians (specifically butch lesbians) the butt of the joke. Their entire raison d’etre is to be made fun of; not to add anything to the humanity of a scene.

Noelle Messier as Basketball Player on “The McCarthys”ezbian

“I’ve probably played six times, at least, the woman mistaken for a man bit,” Noelle said. “I’ve literally said ‘I am not a man. I am not a sir.'”

Noelle said she’s even considered saying something on set before when she felt like something she was part of was “borderline offensive.”

“There was a moment that I was like ‘What do I do about this? Do I just let this go?'” she said of one experience where a director was intent on her being misgendered on a primetime sitcom. “I mean obviously I’m getting paid to do this, and it’s a character, but the moment of feeling like I should say something—that this is not right.”

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