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Why Butch Representation Matters

Feature image courtesy of Sabrina’s Stash via Flickr

I’ve been wondering lately why I don’t see any butch women in the media. Lesbian representation is sparse to begin with, and the couples I see on TV usually don’t resonate with my experiences dating women.

When I was first coming to terms with my sexuality, I always used to say things like, “I’m a lesbian, but I’m not like other lesbians.” What I meant by “other” lesbians was butch lesbians, the ultimate bogeyman that people love to hate both in and out of the LGBT community. It’s like the lesbian version of the infamous “I’m not like other girls,” only born from both internalized misogyny and internalized lesbophobia. There’s this false idea that being butch is somehow a position of privilege, when in reality, it’s anything but.

Masculinity in women is never rewarded in society, despite what most mainstream LGBT websites have spewed about butch women for the last few years. They are often demonized, made out to seem predatory, or compared to men, which they are not. Butch women are even ostracized from their own community by language like “women and femmes” that attempts to be inclusive of variance in gender identity, but conflates femininity with womanhood while ignoring that people can identify partially with being a woman without performing femininity.

The words butch and femme have history in the lesbian community that is often erased. Straight people believe that butch simply means “masculine” and femme simply means “feminine,” but this is not the case. Butch and femme are words that lesbians use to describe their relationships and gender presentation in a world where traditional structures are not designed for women to be in relationships with other women.

I think that the reason I was so afraid of being like “other” lesbians when I first realized that I was a lesbian, was that I was afraid that if I expressed my gender in a masculine way, people at my high school or my family, would see me as ugly or undesirable – the way that I saw butch women bullied and disrespected both in and out of the LGBT community.

For some, even other lesbians struggling with internalized lesbophobia seem to think that butch women are represented in the media more than femme lesbians, but that’s simply false. In fact, I can’t name one single butch lesbian on a mainstream TV show right now. The lack of butch women on TV made me feel like I had to perform femininity in a way that was very much for the male gaze and not entirely authentic. I saw Santana and Britney from Glee, Alison and Emily from Pretty Little Liars, and Amy and Karma from Faking It – all femme lesbians in relationships with each other.

This is fine! Femme lesbians date each other all the time, but it shouldn’t be the only example of lesbian relationships on TV.

I want to see two butch women date in a popular TV show so that girls coming to terms with being a lesbian can see that you don’t have to look a certain way to be accepted as a lesbian. I want butch women to feel comfortable. Maybe then, people in our community would finally understand the way that butch women actually are instead of the way that they imagine them to be.





Caitlin is a senior at Drexel University in a dual degree BA/MA program in English and publishing. She is passionate about ending mental health stigma, fighting for LGBT rights and advocating for feminism.
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