The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts May 13, 2005

Showtime shows ban “butch”
Does The L-Word love lesbians?

Lesbians are not usually a focal point of popular culture unless they appeal to the male gaze. The L-Word, a series on Showtime, shocked audiences by focusing on a group of queer women living in Los Angeles. While the women in the show are definitely queer, they are feminine enough to pass as straight.

The lesbians on The L-Word are accepted into popular discourse because they are feminine, thus posing no threat to heteronormativity or the gender binary. The L-Word asserts that a “femme” lesbian woman is more desirable than a “butch” lesbian. The show begs the question: Why does our culture fear women with masculine attributes?

The characters on The L-Word are all relatively wealthy, mostly white women. The cast includes two bisexual women, one straight woman and seven lesbians. The only lesbian who appears less feminine than the others is Shane, a dyke who used to “turn tricks” on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Shane’s greasy black hair and twig-thin body make her appear to be an androgynous woman compared to the other “femme” girls. Besides being less feminine than the other women, Shane is also the most sexually active. It does not seem coincidental to me that the more masculine woman is also the show’s “player.” Positioning Shane as an aggressive character suggests masculinity. Indeed, would a more feminine woman ever occupy this position? Pop culture says no — only a “butch” lesbian could be a “player.”

While Shane’s character is the most aggressive, sexual, and least “lady-like,” she is still more feminine than a real “butch” lesbian. In the first season, one of the only appearances of a real “butch” lesbian occurs when Shane and her comrades are busy cruising at a lesbian resort. Alice, the “femme” bisexual played by Leisha Hailey of The Murmurs and the film All Over Me, spots a real “butch” lesbian by the pool. She looks over to her friends and confirms the “butch” woman’s presence by exclaiming, “Now there’s a hundred footer!” The other girls look back at Alice inquisitively, prompting her to explain that the “butch” dyke is a hundred footer because “you can tell she’s gay from a hundred feet away.” Alice’s statement demonstrates that being visibly gay is not a good thing. Indeed, Alice turns around and smirks at her friends as if to re-assert that she is pleased to be “femme” and not “butch.”

The L-Word seems to say to its viewers that if they are too “butch” looking, they need to get “femmed” out in order to look good! This assumption is challenged in the same episode when the “butch” lesbian artist Catherine Opie is seen alongside some of her work that discusses performing masculinities. She is not pointed out as a “hundred footer” by the “femmes,” but is instead only addressed as “Catherine Opie,” a distinguished artist. In this instance, it seems as though Catherine’s artist status detracts from her “butchness.” Since the media usually portrays artists as glamorous and fabulous, artists’ “butchness” can be overlooked.

As any viewer of The L-Word and popular culture in general can see, it is always acceptable to present images of feminine women. “Butch” women are a threat to the heteronormative gender binary, threaten male masculinity and ask women to question their feminity. For this reason, “butch” lesbians can only be portrayed negatively on television unless their “butchness” is overshadowed by something more glamorous, such as an artistic identity. The L-Word plays into popular notions that women must fit into the gender binary by appearing feminine regardless of sexual orientation.


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