“Maybe a Lighter Butch”: Negotiating Lesbian Masculinities Onscreen

By Sasha T. Goldberg

During Season Two of Grace and Frankie, Robert, who has only recently come out publically as gay, accompanies a gay male friend to the dog park (“The Goodbyes”). Unbeknownst to Robert, this particular park is also a site for gay male cruising.1 Noticing aloud, “there aren't many women around here,” Robert’s friend proclaims, “There's one!” though the “one” remains off screen. “Is that a woman?” Robert asks. “Her girlfriend is,” the friend answers. The viewer is thus able to witness a negotiation of the gaze between the seasoned gay man, accustomed to seeing masculine lesbians, and the gaze of a gay man not yet familiar with specificities of Butch.2 This dialogue assumes an audience who will get the so-called joke. Heteronormatively framed, this exchange assumes that the viewer is able to imagine the masculine lesbian—and, therefore, able to collude in dismissing her as a woman.

Historically coded as a specific expression of lesbian gender, butch women have been pathologized, criminalized, and categorized/exiled as hypervisible “queer” subjects.3 In 1848, US laws made it illegal “for a ‘perverted person’ to appear in clothing intended for the opposite sex” (Berkowitz 2015, 82); by 1905 Swiss psychiatrist August Forel assigned the status of a dangerous seducer and a predatory nature to masculine women (2014, 106-7). Branded with the diagnosis of inversion, masculine women were accused of a gendered trespass by Krafft-Ebing, in which they possessed “the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom” (Krafft-Ebing, 334-35). Inversion was also produced as an indication of sexual deviancy, in which the deviant was guilty of same-sex attraction. Canonized as a self-hating woman, male imposter, man hater, and the cause of ruin for “normal” women, a female invert was therefore recognized as a criminal. Remarking specifically on the ways in which racism operates, Lisa Marie Cacho describes the assignations of such embodied criminality as a form of “social death”: “the scientific production of bodily difference as a signifier for legitimate discrimination” (2012, 69). The effects of such designations remain. On films and in television, butch lesbians are screened as having criminal natures.4

In 2017, television’s breakthrough butch, Lea DeLaria, plays Big Boo in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black (OITNB)—in jail. In my lesson plan I feature an interview in which DeLaria insists that OITNB needed to create a role for her—“her” being both Big Boo and DeLaria as a butch woman herself.5 When DeLaria notes the potential of a show about a woman’s prison not having a place for her, she is, of course, referring to performing the butch character, prototype, and stereotype as a crucial narrative/threat about women’s prison.6 In addition to highlighting the marginalization and erasure of female masculinities onscreen, particularly the “very Butch” variety, DeLaria’s implied question—if a butch woman can’t even be found in prison, where the hell can she be found?—also reveals a negotiated internalization of the trope of the butch criminal.7 While OITNB is undoubtedly a triumph for DeLaria, her off-screen fight for legibility as a butch woman of age, experience, and know-how converges with Big Boo’s backstory. Shown halfway through season three, Big Boo’s history is the only flashback in which justification for imprisonment is not revealed. Is she still being imprisoned for who she is, as opposed to what she has done?

Lesson Plan: Guiding Questions

1. Staying within the Butlerian framework of gender as a performative action that is both socialized and enacted, rather than an innate or given set of embodiments or behaviors, please list five ways in which gender can be expressed as a marker—an indication, a sign, a performance, or proof—of sexuality. What actions and/or other gender signifiers are on display that indicate (homo, hetero, pan, bi, so on and so forth) sexuality? (Depending upon student knowledge and fluency in gendered analysis, these five examples could be provided before or after showing the clips).

Clips used:

2. The Huffington Post interview reveals insights about gender, masculinities, and women seldom featured in mainstream media. The (then) fifty-five-year-old DeLaria asserts “The reality is, I am old enough,” wherein masculinity on a female body is not legible as a mainstream indicator of age and experience (DeLaria 2013). While DeLaria is in fact the same age as Constance Shulman (the woman cast as Yoga Jones), it is arguably easier to read age on Shulman’s body. A near-frail frame, blond hair, a high-pitched voice, deep worry lines, and a depiction of the compulsory fragility assigned to older women rarely requires translation. DeLaria, though, is a fat (see discussions on “fat don’t crack” re: worry lines), heavily tattooed, masculine woman. From clothing to affect, DeLaria’s gender expression is not what the dominant gaze imagines/screens for an aging lady. As witnessed in Big Boo’s back story, female masculinity can often be dismissed as childish, or costuming, within an uninformed or homophobic frame. At the same time, aging femininity on a female body is regarded as too old, too mature, and the point at which only roles as mothers or grandmothers may be performed. What are the links between these two experiences? What systems of power and regulation operate upon both masculine and feminine women alike? What are the enforced markers and expectations of female adulthood, and how do they shape the ways in which women “succeed” and “fail”?

Clips used:

3. An apt description of Lisa Marie Cacho’s concept of “social death” (2014) can be found in Lisa Plourde’s documentary, Gender Troubles: The Butches (2016).

Alison, one of the women featured in the film, states:

Sometimes I do feel like people seeing me as not fitting into the category of women. One strong impression that I have gotten along those lines is just trying to use public women’s restrooms. And probably like actually ninety percent of the time when I use public women’s restrooms, if other women are there at the time they give me weird looks, they do double takes, they look again at the restroom door to see if one of us is in the right place or not. They look at me as if I am wrong. Just like straight up wrong. Not that I am in the wrong place, but that I am wrong. At least that is the way I perceive it. Because if you always have people looking at you in a weird way, if they always squint their eyes and frown at you. I mean if you get that consistently, that does kind of make me feel like there is something wrong with me. Not that I actually think that there is, but it makes me feel like I am different from other women. That I don’t fit in with other women, in that I just should not be a part of this category of women.

What are the ways in which Otherness is placed upon Alison and other butch women? What are the ways in which this particular Othering is taught, performed, and enforced? What would the “opposite” experience look like, in which masculine women were not placed outside “this category of women” in mainstream society?

4. The category of transgender is often used as an umbrella term “encompassing transsexuals, drag queens, butches, hermaphrodites, cross-dressers, masculine women, effeminate men, sissies, tomboys, and anybody else willing to be interpolated by the term, who felt compelled to answer the call to mobilization” (Stryker 2006, 4).

In what ways might implementing trans as an umbrella identity serve butch women? In what ways might it minimize or erase lesbian specificity?

5. Decades of major cinematic releases have sold the idea of the American tomboy. With skinned knees and muddied clothes, these characters are framed as rebellious girls who like “boy” things. Hollywood’s (usually) adorable blond tomboys are pulled back from the margins of female masculinity, however, through progress narratives of “growing up” and “growing out of it” (Calamity Jane [1953], Bad News Bears [1976, 2015], Some Kind of Wonderful [1987], A League of Their Own [1992], and Million Dollar Baby [2004]). Hollywood insists that tomboys are lovable—and, crucially, still “real” women—despite their coded-as-boyish behaviors, appearances, and interests.8

What makes a tomboy? What are the stereotypes of a tomboy? Can adult women be tomboys? What makes the tomboy an acceptable figure—or not? Why are tomboys so common onscreen, and in literature? In what ways is a tomboy distinguished from a butch woman?

Clip used:

6. Richard Dyer offers, “What we should be attacking in stereotypes is the attempt of heterosexual society to define us for ourselves, in terms that inevitably fall short of the ‘ideal' of heterosexuality (that is, taken to be the norm of being human), and to pass this definition off as necessary and natural. Both these simply bolster heterosexual hegemony, and the task is to develop our own alternative and challenging images of ourselves” (1999, 300).

What do stereotypes teach us about certain groups or individuals? What stereotypes exist about a group, identity, or community with which you affiliate? What are the stereotypes you have learned about masculine women (name five)? What are the commonalities of these stereotypes? What do they teach—or warn—us about butch women?

Clip used:

Lesson Plan Films and Videos

Bad News Bears. 1976. Directed by Michael Ritchie. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures. 102 minutes.

Bad News Bears. 2005. Directed by Richard Linklater. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures. 113 minutes.

DeLaria, Lea. 2013. “‘Big Boo’ Talks ‘Orange Is the New Black.’” Interview by Alex Berg. YouTube video, 6:11. Posted by HuffPost Live, August 19.

Calamity Jane. 1953. Directed by David Butler. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers. 87 minutes.

Crazy.Stupid.Love. 2011. Jacob in Action Technique to Take a Girls Down.” 2012. YouTube video, 2:21. Posted by Shamb Hala, February 26.

Fun Home Performance Tony Awards 2015.” 2015. YouTube video, 3:59. Posted by Tony Awards, July 18.

Gender Troubles: The Butches. Directed by Lisa Plourde. Oakland, CA: A Catholic Schoolgirl Gone Bad Production, 2016.

Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender.” 2011. YouTube video, 3:00. Posted by Big Think, June 6.

A League of Their Own. 1992. Directed by Penny Marshall. Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures. 128 minutes.

Legally Blonde - The Bend and Snap.” 2008. YouTube video, 3:08. Posted by DegrassiGirl1, May 24.

“Lesbian Request Denied.” 2013. Orange Is the New Black, season 1, episode 3. Directed by Jodie Foster, aired July 11. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.

Million Dollar Baby. 2004. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers. 128 minutes.

OITNB Boo Backstory Patriarchal Bargaining 1.” 2016. YouTube video, 1:21. Posted by Rory Barron, April 30.

OITNB Boo Backstory Patriarchal Bargaining 2.” 2016. YouTube video, 1:42. Posted by Rory Barron, April 30.

OITNB Boo Backstory Patriarchal Bargaining 3.” 2016. YouTube video, 3:26, posted by Rory Barron, April 30.

Schumer, Amy. 2015. “Inside Amy Schumer – Last F**kable Day – Uncensored.” YouTube video, 4:57, posted by Comedy Central, April 22.

Works Cited, Suggested Readings, and Additional Resources

Abate, Michelle Ann. 2008. Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bechdel, Alison. 2006. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bendix, Trish. 2016. “Where Are All the Butch Lesbians on TV and Film?AfterEllen, April 26.

Berkowitz, Eric. 2015. The Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

Bound. 1996. Directed by the Wachowskis. Universal City, CA: Grammercy. 108 minutes.

Cacho, Lisa Marie. 2012. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: NYU Press.

Chauncey, George. 1994. Gay New York: Gender, Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.

Big Boo Wasn’t Originally Supposed To Be a Part of ‘Orange Is the New Black.’” 2013. Huffington Post, August 16.

Dyer, Richard. 1999. “Stereotyping.” In The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics, edited by Larry Gross and James T. Woods, 297-300. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ellis, Havelock. 1915. Studies in the Psychology of Sex Volume II: Sexual Inversion, 3rd. ed. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

Forel, August. 2014 [1908] The Sexual Question: A Scientific, Psychological, Hygienic, and Sociological Study. Seattle: CreateSpace.

Foxfire. 1996. Directed by Annette Heywood-Carter. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures. 102 minutes.

Fun Home (musical). 2013. Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron.

“The Goodbyes.” 2016. Grace and Frankie. Season 2, episode 9. Directed by Jason Ensler, aired May 6. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.

Halberstam, Jack. 1998. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Krafft-Ebing Richard von. 1965. Psychopathia Sexualis: The Classic Study of Deviant Sex. Trans. Franklin S. Klaf. New York: Arcade.

Kunzel, Regina. 2008. Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCroy, Winnie. 2013. “Doing Hard Time: Inside ‘Orange Is the New Black’ with Lea DeLaria.” Edge Media Network, July 25.

Mulvey, Laura. 2016. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism: An Introduction, edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, 803-16. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Set It Off. 1996. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Burbank: New Line Cinema, 1996.

Some Kind of Wonderful. 1987. Directed by Howard Dutch. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures. 85 minutes.

Squires, Catherine R. 2014. The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York: New York University Press.

Stryker, Susan. 2006. “(De)subjugated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. New York: Routledge.

Urquhart, Evan. 2014. “Why Are There no Butch Lesbians on Television?Outward blog on Slate.com, April 17.



1 For extended context of the pleasures and necessities of gay male cruising in parks, see George Chauncey’s “Cruising the City’s Parks” in Gay New York (180-93, 1994).

2 The use of capitalization here is my own, intended to be a visual signifier distinguishing butch as a descriptor—of, say, Jo in Facts of Life––from Butch as a self-claimed identity by, for instance, a woman who is out as a lesbian. For more on the gaze, see Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (2016).

3 Here I am referring to the pre-identitarian usage of the word queer and referencing the definitional use of queer as “worthless, counterfeit, questionable, suspicious” (Merriam-Webster, s.v., “queer [adj.],” accessed May 2017.

4 The 1990s cast this formula particularly well in the triumvirate of Foxfire (1996), Bound (1996), and Set It Off (1996), in which butch anti-heroines form gangs, are heroin addicts, are straight out of prison, and rob banks—respectively.

5 Interviewer Alex Berg looks at Lea DeLaria and says, “You don’t just play any lesbian, you play a very butch lesbian” (DeLaria 2013). Of course it’s not just that DeLaria plays a very butch lesbian; she is a very butch lesbian.

6 For more on Butch stereotypes in film, see Jack Halberstam’s summation of American tomboys in Female Masculinity (1998, chapter 6).

7 For more on LGBT persons in prison, see Regina Kunzel’s Criminal Intimacy (2008).

8 For more on tomboys, see Michele Ann Abate’s Tomboys (2008).

9 In this episode of Orange Is the New Black, counselor Sam Healy claims that he would separate out “the butch ones” from the general public.

Sasha T. Goldberg is a doctoral candidate and associate instructor in Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research centers butch women and female masculinities as embodiments of gender variance within girlhood and womanhood. In particular, Goldberg examines and refuses the ways in which butch lesbians are actively coded as historic, non-modern subjects in a post-trans world. She also holds an MA in Judaism from The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Prior to the pursuit of a PhD, Goldberg was a long-term director of LGBT and Jewish organizations, a community organizer for and with butch women, and an enthusiastic reader of nonacademic literature. Her work and inquiries stand upon traditions of solidarity, analysis, and persistence.