Where are all the butch lesbians on TV and film?

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Carlease Burke, an out actress who is currently starring in NBC’s comedy Crowded, recalls the audition she went in on for her small role in Shameless as a lesbian trucker named Roberta “Bob.”

“What I remember the most is they were looking for a really large woman. And I didn’t think I was as large as they wanted,” Carlease said. “When I went to the audition, and I looked around the room, I thought, ‘There is no way in hell I’m gonna get this,’ because they were larger and much more hardcore butch women. I’m not saying they were butch, but they looked the part. And there’s no way I thought I was gonna get the role. I really didn’t think so.”

Carlease Burke (right) as Roberta Bob on “Shameless”roberta-bob

However, it appears that women of color are also often seen with a similarly limited lens.

“The funny thing is with my experience—whenever I get called in for anything butch, there’s always black women there—I don’t know whatever their sexuality is but I think they equate butch women and black women a lot of times together because black women are so strong,” Julie said. “For, like, police officers or security guards—I always go against black women. Always, and they usually always book it. [Casting agents are] thinking, ‘OK butch women and black women are the same in the diversity scope.’ Then you’re all there together like “What are we all doing here?” And then now we’re all competing for the same shitty part because there’s one security officer role and it’s gonna go black, or it’s gonna go gay. How are they gonna go?”

But when these are the only roles available to non-traditionally feminine actors, it can be frustrating on several levels. Both say they have been told to “soften their look,” which Julie uses as a bit in her stand-up. 

“You spend years going ‘Should I be more feminine? Should I try to have longer hair?’” Noelle said. “I’ve gone back and forth so many times in that because I can go kind of go both ways. The thing is my soul and my heart tend to be a little more masculine, a little more butch, for lack of a better term—androgynous or whatever it is. In some ways, it’s a challenge for me because I get those roles, and for a second, I kind of go, ‘This is kind of stereotypical and kind of offensive.’ But at the same time, this is an opportunity for me to embrace that side of myself.”

So why are these roles being written over and over again? And why are the larger lesbian roles going to feminine-presenting actresses who are, more often than not, heterosexual in real life? There are even times when scripts call for butch or androgynous lesbian characters and cast someone completely different (usually an actress with some star power). Julie Goldman says that she went out for the role of Maggie in Younger, the lesbian best friend to Sutton Foster on the TVLand series from Darren Star (Sex and the City).

“When they were casting that show, in the breakdown, it said, literally ‘butch, androgynous, artist living in a loft in Brooklyn type.’ I was like ‘Fuck yeah, great! OK,'” Julie said. “I go in—usually it’s like me and some girls who borrow flannel shirts from their fucking friend, and a couple of other lesbos that I know that we’re always doing the same thing, and Fortune Feimster’s there. So read for it, great, whatever. It said butch lesbian; that was the thing it was a butch lesbian part. Butch, butch, butch, butch, butch lesbian. Who did they cast? Debi Mazar. Debi Fucking Mazar. Is that butch lesbian to you? Where did that come from? That happens all the time. I definitely feel like I read for stuff that says ‘butch’ or ‘masculine’ or whatever and then it’s like ‘What?’ There’s a Debi Mazar type or whatever.”

Debi Mazar (left) as Maggie on “Younger”younger

I asked Darren Star about this at TCA this winter, where he explained how Debi came to the role. 

“I don’t remember it being described as androgynous, but she was definitely gay, and we looked at a lot of different actors for that role,” he said. “We were open just to picking like who was really going to come in and make that part their own and bring something of themselves to the role…I love Debbie, I’ve known her for years, and then she read for this and I kind of thought ‘Wow.’ I just loved all that earthiness she was bringing to it and the quality of down-to-earthness, and quite honestly it was sort of like divorced, in a way, from kind of thinking about like, you know, a ‘gay’ character.”

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