Making Over Ellen: Femming Up the Sorta-Butch

Ellen's first makeover, New York-styleEllen's Dallas makeoverEllen's last makeover, L.A.-style
Ellen's outfit in her first episode

When Ellen declared that she was going to bring glamour back to daytime on the first episode of her new talk show on September 8th, apparently some of her viewers took her at her word–and demanded that she get a makeover.

I’m guessing those viewers were not lesbians.

Barely a month after the talk show debuted, Ellen began receiving comments from viewers through her website, complaining that she was dressing too casually on her show. Although she often wears sweaters and comfortable slacks, she also often wears suits. The last time I checked, suits weren’t exactly casual. So the complaints could mean only one thing: viewers thought Ellen wasn’t dressing femininely enough.

When Ellen first mentioned these e-mails on the air, she seemed somewhat annoyed by them, stating that she was comfortable with the way she dressed and didn’t feel a need to change herself. Clearly her producers convinced her that it would be a good idea to humor the viewers who disagreed with her, because Ellen agreed–with obvious wariness–to a series of makeovers during the sweeps month of November. Viewers from New York City, Dallas, and LA were invited to choose new looks for Ellen based on their hometown style, and Ellen agreed to don those borrowed clothes for one show each week for three weeks.

Let’s just say I’m glad that sweeps month is over.

Television fans are opinionated people who have no hesitation telling a celebrity that they disapprove of her wardrobe, when they would probably hesitate to voice this opinion to the person sitting next to them on the bus. As a celebrity with a particularly famous backstory, Ellen is probably quite accustomed to strangers telling her what they think of her.

But the viewers’ demands that Ellen make herself over have two implications that are troubling for lesbians and bisexual women: first, they are patronizing; and second, they represent a subtle but stubborn form of homophobia.

We’ve all been the object of friendly advice, often dispensed with an encouraging smile and a pat on the head. (Cue teenage memories of shopping for clothes with your mother, who probably had different tastes than you did.) A generous reading of the makeover storyline would fall under the category of friendly advice. Unfortunately, this friendly advice assumes that women should wear feminine clothing, and that Ellen–now 45 years old–hasn’t yet figured this out. These assumptions are both ignorant and patronizing.

Given that Ellen has been in show business for over twenty years, it is unlikely that she doesn’t understand the complexities of costume and makeup–or at least the need for a good styling team. I seriously doubt that she is not aware of how to best present herself to the public: after all, it’s part of her job.

This leads me to believe that she chooses to not wear dresses and heels because she does not want to present that image to the public, not because she doesn’t know that she could wear them.

A century of feminist activism has brought us the right to vote, the right to get paid for our work (albeit not always fairly), and the right to wear pants. Just not all the time.

While women are no longer shunned for wearing pants, they are judged to be strange if they insist on never wearing skirts. Think about it. How many women do you know who refuse to ever wear a skirt? How many of them are straight?


What is even more troubling is that these demands for a feminine makeover represent a rejection of butch identity. In other words, homophobia. Now, since there are so few–wait, I mean, since there are no representations of butch lesbians on television (okay, outside of Rosie O’Donnell’s cameo on Will and Grace)–let’s take a moment to break this down.

What is a butch lesbian? And is Ellen one of them?

At the risk of over-simplifying, a butch lesbian is a woman who favors a masculine style in her clothing, hair, and physical presence. This doesn’t mean that she looks like a man or thinks she is a man; this is just one way that women stretch gender boundaries (for an excellent analysis of butch identity, check out “Female Masculinity” by Judith Halberstam). I would bet a lot of money that a butch lesbian will not generally wear a skirt. And she’s probably not going to slap on some lipstick and take a curling iron to her hair either.

Unfortunately, lesbians are often stereotyped as excessively–that is, unnaturally–manly, an image that doesn’t tend to bring money into the box office, or warm the hearts of soccer moms across America. This fear of unnatural masculinity in women is a subtle but still-present form of both sexism and homophobia.

Butches are rejected by mainstream society because they don’t fit into culturally-accepted feminine norms, thus disrupting the categories of male and female, and because they visually remind you that they are lesbians.

Maybe they’re just a little “too gay.”

The question remains: is Ellen butch? She clearly refuses to wear dresses, but then again she is forced to wear makeup because of her job. (On the other hand, she lives in LA, where even the butches wear lipstick.) At awards shows, she wears tuxedos or suits, which is unusual for women, especially since she actually wears shirts beneath the jackets and does not wear 3-inch heels.

Her demeanor is not terribly girlie, but then again her demeanor is not terribly “butch.” We certainly don’t see her swaggering around the set in a pair of beaten-in combat boots. The photos on her website taken by her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, show a low-key, un-makeupped tomboy in T-shirts and jeans.

It seems that Ellen has adopted a relatively gender-neutral public persona that is minimally offensive while circumventing the “femme” side of style. We have no idea of whether she is butch in private or not–and that’s not really the issue here.

The fact remains that Ellen is still probably the most butch lesbian on TV. And if the previews are accurate, she’ll keep that title even after The L Word debuts with its all-femme cast (um, just a little bit unrepresentative of lesbian culture, I might add). This is not unexpected, but it is sad.

If even low-key Ellen can’t dress the way she wants without her viewers trying to femme her up, will we ever see a butch lesbian–who is not the object of ridicule–on TV?

We have to give Ellen a lot of credit for pointing out repeatedly that she is comfortable with her style and that she has no intention of changing it after the makeover frenzy is over. Her three makeovers did indeed attempt to femme her up–adding stiletto heels, rhinestones, and glitter to her wardrobe–but Ellen resisted skirts and thongs (explaining in a humorous, unmistakably butch sidebar that she wears boxers).

On the day of Ellen’s third makeover–this one “LA style”–Ellen’s opening monologue was a meandering analysis of the reasons behind her viewers’ desire for her to change her image:

“I think what makes people feel comfortable–because they watch and they say “we love you, we love the show but we just want to fix your look up a little bit” … they hang out with people that look like them. Everybody wants people to look the same as them. It makes them comfortable….But I really feel like clothes reflect our personality; that’s what they’re supposed to do. I would like to think I could dress like this, I mean there are aspects of all the clothes that I’ve worn that I like. And this is great–it’s very funky.…I just feel like I would like to dress like this, but I always end up dressing conservatively. I don’t like to think of myself as conservative; I think I’m funky on the inside, but I always dress pretty conservative, ’cause to me, this would be like “hey, look at me and ask me about my outfit.” I mean it’s adorable, I like it, but it’s hard to change people.…You know, we’re the only ones that judge each other though…we look at other people’s clothes and we look ’em up and down and check ’em out… You never look in a park or a field and see birds and squirrels next to each other lookin’ each other up and down like that. Birds, they don’t have the attention span….”

Hidden among jokes and tangential comments that made her resistance to the makeovers appear completely non-threatening, Ellen’s message was essentially that we should stop judging her for her appearance.

Let’s hope that Ellen’sstraight viewers get the message, and this makeover madness can be put to rest.

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