GLAAD 2012 Network Responsibility Index: Why Do Queer Women On Television All Look The Same?

GLAAD has released its 2012 Network Responsibility Index, which is a fancier way of saying that GLAAD posted its Gay TV Report Card. Every summer, GLAAD rates cable and broadcast networks based on the amount of hours they feature LGBT-inclusive programming, as well as the network’s gender and racial diversity.

The results are revealing and not particularly positive. Representations of gay men far outnumber those of gay women, and queer people of color are eclipsed by am overwhelming amount of white characters. Not a single network was graded as “Excellent” and too many received “Failing” as their final rating. Networks that carried strong LGBTQ programming were also host to shows that featured homophobia or offensive humor. For every narrative that the queer community embraced, ten storylines ignored, negated or flat out insulted us.

Me too, Whit. Me too.

Showtime took the top slot with a “Good” rating due to 46% of its original programming featuring positive LGBT representations. Credit goes to Ilene Chaiken’s stumbling into her agent’s office on bath salts with “I swear this is a good idea hear me out” venture into reality television, The Real L Word. ABC Family was the only network where lesbian representation was higher than gay males: a whopping 45 to 7 hours. Special thanks to Emily and all the ladies who have locked lips with Emily (but mostly Paige for being the very best of the lady lip lockers). Extra points to Emily for being a queer lady of color.

CBS received a “Failing” despite the fact that Kalinda can get it, and get it hard. So did the History Channel and TBS. TLC, the same network that made the Palin family reality stars and has been accused of leaning in a conservative direction, received an “Adequate.” They can address their thank you cards to Glitzy, Honey Boo Boo’s “pageant gay pig”.

It’s important to note that GLAAD’s ratings reflect representation in the barest terms. Glee is a diversity gold mine as far as the ratings system is concerned, but the fact that it’s also riddled with tokenism and problematic portrayals does not have an effect on the final score. Even on shows where queerness makes an appearance, those portrayals need to be questioned. It’s not enough to have  a gay character, to show a clip of two women kissing, or to have storylines that feature homosexuality. Yes, it’s a big deal that I can watch a teen drama where my favorite couple is the same sexuality as me (teen dramas are typically the most welcome genres to introducing LGBTQ characters and narratives). But it’s not enough, and it’s not something I have to settle for. There are crucial questions to be asked, and asked relentlessly: where are the queer people of color? Where are all the queers who are not gay men?

When we see queer women in media, what are we seeing? The lesbian couples that arguably receive the most attention on current network television are Brittany and Santana, Callie and Arizona, and Paige and Emily. Besides their sweet lady kisses, where are the indicators of queerness? Why is it that they’re all undeniably femme, conventionally attractive and able-bodied? This is the question that I come back to again and again: why do queer women on television all look the same?

Femme representation in the media is incredibly important — and strangely ironic given the issues surrounding femme invisibility within the queer community. By no means am I arguing against the necessity of femmes or femme presentation in the media. But I’m concerned by the fact that a female-bodied person presenting in a masculine or atypical way is absent from the queer media presence. Seriously, where the hell are all the butches?

The media has its own reasons for staying away from butch representation, and maybe they’re legitimate ones. Maybe they’re afraid to tap into representations that could be construed as stereotypes. Maybe they’re afraid that showing a female-bodied person who is not conventionally attractive, whose body and expression is not still desirable to a heterosexual male and thus the mainstream audience, is too risky for ratings. Maybe a legacy of lesbians only appearing in stereotypical roles makes networks want to showcase queer women as being “normal,” and that definition of normal means making them look like traditionally feminine women. Maybe we are in a “post-queer society” where it doesn’t matter what queers look like, and we don’t need to show butch lesbians to represent queerness. Too bad that’s bullshit.

Being a masculine-presenting female body — or any kind of body that isn’t within the norm — that isn’t conventionally attractive or widely represented means you’ve already struggling to love yourself.  I own the fact that I’ve had to fight for my appearance to be accepted by my family and my surroundings. I know a lot of butches who do the same thing, and we’re lucky that there are beautiful people in this world who love our bodies and love the parts of us that society deems undesirable. Excuse me while I shed some precious butch tears.

I wish that I didn’t have to look at society around me to love myself, but damn it all if it doesn’t help. I think about the queers out there in places where there isn’t a strong queer community. I think about the queer kids who skip school so they won’t get their nose broken for wearing boys’ clothes. Society already tells us we are ugly, we are undesirable, we are freaks. Maybe it would help, even a little, if there were butches on those shows. If these butches were normal people, maybe even cool people. If they became more than just stereotypes or things to be feared — real characters with real narratives that viewers empathized with. If Paige’s gradual descent into soft butchdom continues on the righteous path.

A butch can dream.

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Full-time writer, part-time lover, freelancing in fancy cheese and cider.

Kate has written 130 articles for us.


  1. It’s funny that you’re essentially asking “Why do lesbian characters always look like all the other women on television?” when gay guys often ask the opposite: “Why can’t gay characters ever look like all the other men on television?”

    Or, to look at it another way, we’re both asking the same thing: “Why are gay and lesbian characters always so femme?”

    But I think what we both want is diversity. I’m sure if all the gay guys on television were indistinguishable from the straight guys until they kissed each other, we’d be wondering why the gay guys had to conform to gender stereotypes, too.

    • “Why are gay and lesbian characters always so femme?”
      Interesting perspective… I never thought of it that way…

    • Sorry but its not the same thing. There are or have been gay males on television who haven’t been femme. So many more shows have featured all kinds of gay men but that can’t be said for gay women, at all. We barely get representation in the first place and I can’t even recall ever seeing butch gay women on television, portrayed as a real character.

      I can give you a list of non-femme gay men on tv. I’m sick of gay men still complaining.

      • I think you have a valid point in that yes, there is more diversity of gay male representations, and we never see butch women. BUT I think it’s obvious that the representation of gay men can still use work, and they are still a marginalized identity, so it’s not really fair to say they’re “still complaining”.

        • Well, obviously, they’re still marginalized. If you’re gay, you’re marginalized. But what I don’t think is fair is that gay males get way more sympathy than gay females. Gay or not, they’re still men. Women are not always represented fairly on television, but gay women are just completely ignored. Not just on tv either, too. I don’t mean to play the Oppression Olympics but I just have a hard time 100% sympathizing with a group that already has more than what other groups have, and still wants to complain instead of recognizing those other groups.

          • Do gay men really get more sympathy than gay women? That’s hard to quantify, especially because it seems we have different issues of representation. Queer female characters are arguably too sexually fluid while sexually fluid queer male characters are marginalized. Neither group is offered balance.
            For every lesbian sex scene featured to satisfy the hetero male gaze, there’s a gay male character essentially treated as an accessory whose sole purpose is to give sassy advice (Lafayette anyone?) or gossip about men with straight ladies (SATC). None of us who are cisgendered can claim less visibility or demonization than trans or intersex characters.

          • And for every semi-legitimate lesbian character on television, there are 5 gay males that have had positive representation. Lafayette from True Blood? Not the best example, in my opinion. His character actually has a role in the series that goes beyond “sassy gay friend”. He’s had storylines and displays emotions more than just sassiness. He’s pretty involved in the action of the story and isn’t completely femme. Having one seemingly stereotypical trait doesn’t mean he’s a stereotypical character. Gay men definitely are more sympathized with, considering they have support from other gay men and straight women. Lesbians only have lesbians, essentially. Everyone else is looking out for themselves.

            But I do agree with your last statement.

          • I think you’re being a bit overly simplistic in terms of who “supports” each group. A lot of straight women who seem to support gay men do it for the same fetishistic reasons that a lot of straight men supposedly “support” lesbians. It’s just that the female gaze isn’t as pervasive in media because the powers-that-be don’t care as much about women. But as I wrote in my article about Otakon, there are plenty of straight female viewers who say things like “Omg I’m so pro-gay, guys kissing/yaoi is so hawt!” And this is bleeding over into more mainstream fandoms that have gay male characters (e.g. a lot of the Kurt/Blaine fans in the Glee fandom).

          • Granted, True Blood is terribly written, but Lafayette ended the season cooking and making margaritas for his white waitress coworkers, after earlier serving as a Whoopi-Goldberg-from-Ghost type medium. That isn’t because he’s femme, it’s because of the way he’s written in connection to the straight (and white) characters. I have few complaints about his gender presentation, as in the first season they did a good job demonstrating he was both femme and a force to be reckoned with who worked on a road crew where he didn’t take any shit. The same can’t be said for Steve Newlin, who was turned into a twinky caricature both perverted and pathetic in his attempts to court Jason Stackhouse (don’t tell me you’d react happily to Anita Bryant turning out to be a lesbian and then stalking Sookie). Not to mention the fact that they pulled a Tara Maclay Lafayette’s only boyfriend, whom we barely got to see him ever kissing/fucking. He has been around since the beginning of the series yet we’ve seen more sex scenes granted to Alcide, who showed up in season 3 and has nothing to do with anything, Tara was given more scenes kissing/fucking her New Orleans girlfriend than Lafayette ever got with Jesus despite Jesus getting way more screentime. The show takes pains to highlight that vampires are queer and Eric talks about having sex with men, but we only see him do it when he kills Talbot. All his other sex scenes, even the meaningless one at Fangtasia, are with women. Meanwhile Pam, the Queen, and Nan Flanagan are shown fucking/sucking women, giving the impression that vampires’ alleged sexual fluidity really only applies to women.

            As for sympathy, again that’s hard to quantify because it depends on context. I won’t deny that I think misogyny is a real problem in gay male communities (which only serves to further isolate queer women) but I don’t think that necessarily means they have an easier time among heterosexuals.

      • so, are you sorry that you’re not sorry? I’ve never really understood this word as a social noise in otherwise legitimate views… :/

  2. Yeah, just all of this, cannot agree more. Shedding some of those precious butch tears with you real quick.

  3. Let’s not forget trans* people are basically not allowed on TV at all (Has there ever been a single trans man on scripted network television?) and on the rare occasions a trans woman does make an appearance it’s almost always played by a cis actor and as a subject of mockery.

    Take Ryan Murphy: a transgender person appears in a grand total of TWO episodes of Glee, compared with seasons worth of transphobia on Nip/Tuck (not to mention that his use of the t-word in an episode of Glee and his removing of the only reference to transgendered[sic] people from Glee’s “Born This Way” episode).

    Bisexuals (which outnumber gays by A LOT in real life) are almost never depicted either. (This is especially true of bi men.)

    As far as why lesbians are almost always conventionally attractive femmes (and by the way FORGET about see a trans lesbian on TV anytime soon), I’ve got two words for you: male gaze.

      • Degrassi isn’t a US program, it’s from one of those other North American countries. While I give them big points for including the character, I’d be a lot more impressed if they had an actual trans or transmasculine performer doing the role and not someone who they keep emphasizing in PR releases “is really a normal pretty young actress). ;)

        But I agree that tv in the US (I won’t speak for other countries) makes real gender diversity invisible and when the closest you come to a butch lesbian on tv is Ellen (sooooooft butch), then you know the corporate tv structure is seriously ‘effed up. No thanks to Ilene Chaiken.

        • Ellen is an interesting case. After she came out, she was jobless for several years because studios had decided her persona was wrong for TV. One Warner Brothers producer recognized her comedic gift, despite her persona, and convinced other executives to sign for her talk show. She’s exceptionally talented, and her success is not proof that TV is ‘ready’ for even a butch as soft as her.

    • As much as I agree with this comment, there is in fact one trans man: Cole from the Fosters. But not a single trans man who wasn’t able bodied, straight, and white. And for trans women, nothing

      now that’s just fucking sad

  4. Most straight high school kids look nothing like the late 20’s ‘kids’ from glee and the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy straight/gay or bi in no way resemble real working doctors. It’s scripted TV it’s not supposed to look like real life.

    • Uh, I think everyone knows that television isn’t always an accurate portrayal of real life but we’re not talking about plot or the mechanics of real life, we’re talkibg about characters. Characters are supposed to resemble real people. We’re viewing it as more than just actors on television.

    • You’re right. It’s television. It’s essentially a fantasy. BUT it’s also television, which means that representation and visibility is EVERYTHING. The way that characters appear is just as important as their actions, and the very fact that they appear at all is essential. When a demographic does not appear, it’s an issue.

    • This reminds me of arguments people had about the L Word having a super skinny, femme, white cast. The producers pointed out that it was their job to hire actors, not people who represented an accurate cross section of the queer lady community. But really, it was a weak argument. There were virtually NO butches on that show except for Shane. That’s just not acceptable. Butches are a significant part of the queer lady scene. The critiques of Girls featuring an NYC practically devoid of POC reminded me a lot of The L Word having no butches. Neither scenario is realistic or acceptable.

    • TV may not be “real life” but it shapes people’s ideas about the sort of lives it attempts to portray. For example, studies have shown that watching a TV show with a gay character has a similar effect to someone’s attitudes about gay people as actually knowing a gay person in real life.

      The “but it’s just fiction!” is a cop-out. There’s a long history of using fiction to influence people’s ideas about the real world. The Glee writers have made it clear that they intend their show to help promote diversity, particularly on the queer front. And since that show is often “the voice” of LGBT acceptance outside of our community, it needs to be called-out that they aren’t very good at representing LGBT people who aren’t femmey white gay men (or hell, any POC regardless of sexual orientation, it’s not like they’ve done much to develop Mercedes, Tina or Mike either beyond racial stereotypes).

  5. I would be happy if the butches didn’t get killed… Butch ladies just aren’t allowed happy endings

  6. thank you for this. the last two paragraphs are so precious to me. they sum up what I always struggle to put into words for my femme presenting girlfriend and two femme presenting best friends. the three closest people to me in the world have a different load to bear, which I respect deeply. however, they never understand what it is like to be US.
    thank you.
    I love all of your articles.

  7. This whole article is right and important and there should definitely be more butches on tv. We all need to see ourselves represented, and from what I’ve experienced it is much harder to be queer & butch in society at large than queer & femme. No question.

    But can we just discuss this bit that you wrote: “By no means am I arguing against the necessity of femmes or femme presentation in the media. I see you, goddesses. I see you and I worship you.” This reads weirdly to me. Femme queers aren’t actually some other, different, mythical class of being – and the fact that queer society often treats us as an ‘other’ is both the problem & the point of discussion about femme invisibility. I am not a goddess, I am just a queer woman who would love to be taken seriously as one. That’s all.

    • That was totally my poor word choice. I usually refer to femmes as goddesses, and maybe that should be amended if it makes you “other.” Femmes have a different cross to bear, and it was my way of saying that I respect the hell out of you for everything you go through and do. The femmes in my life have to deal with very different struggles that make me realize how misogynistic and awful our society is, and whose strength is often double mine. I call femmes goddesses because you’re all fucking incredible, and I tend to turn into this lowly blushing butch teenager around you. You are godlike to me. You put up with shit I can’t comprehend. By no means was I trying to disrespect or “other” you, and I often examine the fact that as someone who is attracted to feminine bodies, I am capable of participating in an objectifying gaze, and what does that mean, what do i have the right to do, how do I approach this in a way that is respectful and okay and doesn’t participate me in a shitty system, etc. If there’s a better way to do this, please let me know. Seriously, I will go in and change that wording if it’s triggering, I’m already itching to do so.

      • Yes, that wording is troublesome. All “Femmes” are not goddesses. They’re not all [anything]. God I love [insert “other”group] they are all so [insert adjective] is quickly recognized as problematic. I totally agree with your post.

        I’m not sure why you needed to add a disclaimer. Would you say:

        I want to see more Black people. Not that I dislike the Hispanic representation on TV like Callie and Santana, Hispanic people are cool I worship them!

        Or :I’d like to see some more size differences. Not that the “average sized” people aren’t great like Jane from Drop Dead Diva, I love them they’re all awesome. I see you average sized women- I know fashion industry and television erases you in real life but I see you- and love you. I just want to see more diversity of sizes.

        There are so many issues to unpack with those few sentences I can’t even begin! The point is your whole article is amazing! It is so true. Not sure why those femme-goddess sentences need to be in there. Maybe this “othering/worshiping femme identified people” it something you could thoughtfully work out in another piece. But I feel like these unexamined lines are just dropped in an otherwise deep felt and amazing piece.

        • You’re totally right, and I sincerely apologize. I will definitely not use this wording anymore, and I feel really awful that I put anyone in that kind of a box/system when that’s the opposite of what I’d like to do, and the opposite of what the article is trying to do. I’m a part of the problem I’m reaching out to solve. I’m so sorry! I will try to remove them so I’m not triggering anyone – I know that kind of situation can be troublesome and again, I’m super sorry. This was a shitty oversight on my part, definitely won’t make that mistake again. :(

          • Kate, I’ve read lots of your other stuff and your love of femmes has made me feel a lot better about being one, for serious, so you are definitely helping solve the problem. That’s why I reacted to & brought up that bit, because it didn’t seem like your intention and I thought it was worth pointing out. Fania has said most of what I would otherwise have said — like any other group of people, we are not all [anything], and even when the [anything] is positive it’s still pretty othering. I think we’re good here. :)

          • im kinda confused and sad about this lil back n forth, especially its outcome. sounds like a case of a butch voice being quieted by another queer who does not share the same opinion. one being trumped by the other. i don’t read ‘goddesses’ as something specific. goddess, like woman, is yours to interpret and yours to live out. i guess goddess is an burdened word for some but i think this was just being used to express a more masculine presenting understanding of attraction to someone that does seem different in some recognizable ways. different in style or tastes. I don’t agree that we should all act like there are no differences.

          • however at the same time i do agree the piece flows better without those lines that contain suggestion to delve into deeper matters. i agree the disclaimer is unnecessary

          • Given that I addressed only the two lines in the article that pertained specifically to me as a femme, while supporting everything else in it, I’m not sure how that constitutes ‘quieting’ Kate’s voice. My objection wasn’t about an opinion, but the use of language othering femme queers. Who is allowed to discuss appropriate terms and language to use about a group if not members of the group themselves?

          • On reflection however, an article about the absence of butch representation probably wasn’t the best place to do it, so there’s that.

          • “Who is allowed to discuss appropriate terms and language to use about a group if not members of the group themselves?”
            so true, dialogue is very good
            [offering hand to shake]

        • I think the statements about respecting the need for femme representation is a subtle acknowledgement that right now most queer characters, especially females, are there for token diversity. The majority of shows that have gay/bi characters seem to only have one couple at any given time and the characters seem to rarely have any lgbt friends. While this is something that definitely needs to change, it seems like a show would probably get rid of a femme character in order to add in a butch one because otherwise there might be 3 non-straight girls.

  8. I was nodding vigorously and wondering where all the butches on tv are…and then I realized that I was watching Rachel Maddow at that very moment. That’s all the TV I need.

  9. When it comes to TV representation, I’d be very happy if I never again saw another “lesbian gets with a guy” plot. Never ever. I’m so sick of that crap.

  10. I feel like no matter what’s on TV, someone will be pissed off about it. I can just imagine a butch woman is portrayed on TV, and people are bound to get angry about the butch-femme dynamic stereotype that might happen, or the lack of androgynous representation, or the use of “extremes” gender presentation: why only butch and femme, not soft butch, “chapstick lesbian”, etc. There are so many different kinds of people in this world, and TV is never going to represent everyone. You can say the same thing about the token fat kid- why is fat never beautiful, why is the fat kid never the popular one, etc.

    I’m not saying to stop fighting, but I guess I’m just upset that this is an endless battle that is, literally, endless. No matter what television or movies or even Autostraddle represent, there’s always going to be someone left out.

    • Sure, it’s never going to be perfect and not everyone will always be represented. But it’s still good to widen the range of representation and push to see more representation so as to include as many types of people as possible.

  11. I think about this ALL the time. The only time I’ve seen a “butch” on t.v. was in an episode of King of Queens where Spencer was mistaken for one. : |

    I mean fuck, really?

    • Ironically, the only real butch on “The L Word” was a joke… the construction woman who came to Bette’s house (in the last season?) who ended up being straight. Har har

      • I totally wrote a paper on butch invisibility in The L Word and this character was totally the crux.

        /my beautiful liberal arts education days

        • I have surprisingly never seen an episode of The L Word, but ugh. That’s enough to make a person clench their fists.

          : ‘ c

  12. Can anyone conjure up some butch television characters that didn’t lose their minds, die quickly, or get brutalized? I’m serious, I am trying here and failing.

    Anyone think The Absent Butch might have something to do with Hollywood’s pandering to the male gaze?

    • oh it’s absolutely the male gaze, and all the powers that be that determine what is “DESIRABLE” and “ATTRACTIVE” and “WORTHY OF APPEARING AND BEING SEEN” and everyone else who has put a little chip on my shoulder in the shape of “YOU ARE NOT ATTRACTIVE YOU ARE AN UNDESIRABLE UGLY HUMAN BEING WHO LOOKS LIKE AN UGLY DUDE”

  13. abc family has fairly fantastic queer representation in their shows. greek had the most beautiful lesbian relationship for a full ten seconds before they sort of fucked it up. huge, the show i can NEVER LET GO BECAUSE IT WAS SO FUCKING WONDERFUL AND SUBVERSIVE AND UNDERAPPRECIATED had an asexual person as well as a person whose gender identity was totally ambiguous on purpose. (plus, let’s talk about tons of representation of non-normative bodies. SO MANY FAT PEOPLE AND POC!) okay plug for huge over

    here’s my theory as to why both queer women and queer men (since after all there are so few people of other genders on television i can’t even think of an example) are always so femme, and it is tied up in femme invisibility as well: the eternal, neverending devaluing of fem(me)ininity. we’re still at a point in tv where adding a queer person to the mix is a pretty huge risk, and how riskier still would it be to add someone the audience might understand as threatening? the truth is, i think that even still, mainstream audiences, ahem what i really mean are cis heterosexual white men because that’s pretty much all the television powers that be care about, simply don’t trust or appreciate femininity as a valid identity (except maybe every once in a blue moon), and so using it as a mask for queer characters somehow makes them easier to swallow. like, okay! queers aren’t so bad, they’re just like regular ladies. regular ladies, whatever!!! (which sucks because as a femme being a femme lady is MAD EMPOWERING for me. i don’t want to be seen as a lady straight white dudes think is “safe”.) i’m not saying that femme characters can’t be powerful and awesome, i’m saying that most of the time, hollywood and its gross patriarchal audiences don’t think of them that way. and it’s like, if they added a butch character or a character who presented male in any way, suddenly they’d have to be taken more seriously. and no one wants to take queer kids seriously amirite??

    • ok but we’re looking for butches specifically. I don’t think you realize this. And I think it’s so straight women can fetishize gay men, basically fantasizing about them as cute little lapdogs or accessories, while femme women are represented to pander both to straight men’s gaze and sexualization of woman/woman relationships by giving them a woman who is considered attractive by their standards, and to show an “acceptable” queer women. not, you know, a fat ugly man-hating butch (and I say this sarcastically, as a fat misandrist butch lesbian myself).

  14. i know where all the butches are! if u look really hard at the background of a gay club, where the straight main characters have gone to have fun, u will see one butch walking around!

  15. I remember watching the Kima Greggs character on the Wire and being upset– how stereotypical it seemed to me, and how it reinforced the idea that all lesbians are masculine, have deep voices, and work as police officers. I think that was around the time that I was sorting through my own sexual orientation, and I’m definitely not butch and was totally in denial about being gay since I believed the stereotypes. So at the time I was frustrated to see a character perpetuating those stereotypes, but looking back now I’m much more appreciative of her character, especially that she was a QWOC which is even rarer on TV. With so much femme representation on TV these days, I think it’s easier for girls who don’t hew to traditional lesbians stereotypes to accept their sexuality, though as it was pointed out above, I think it’s absolutely the hetero male notions of female appearance that drive this, rather than any effort to fight femme invisibility.

    • Cops are a big turnoff for me but I remember loving her gender and also Omar’s, I really thought they did a great job with their few queer characters.

      • I agree that the show did a great job with Omar’s character, though at the time I think that added to my frustration– the gay man broke stereotypes, while the gay woman reinforced them.

        • But think about what you’re saying for one second. Kima being masculine and aggressive is disappointing and frustrating because she reinforces a stereotype? That’s where we have a problem. If we think of female masculinity as a stereotype, and a negative presence, then we’re doing the same thing as thinking of femmes as invisible unseen unicorns. There are masculine-presenting queer people out there, just like there are queer people who express across the gender spectrum. Just because masculine-presenting queers are synonymous with negative stereotypes about lesbians that have been created and enforced by a heteronormative patriarchy, doesn’t mean we shut them down, too. We have to acknowledge that all gender presentations are legitimate and need to be acknowledged and embraced.

          • Oh totally– nowadays I’m much more interested in seeing the real life diversity of queer women presented on TV. My point was that before I came out (to myself), I had completely accepted the stereotype that lesbians were necessarily masculine and the underlying message that that was undesirable. Just to make clear, I no longer think that!

            For a straight audience, I’m not sure what the answer is. Would more butch representation on TV alter society’s expectations for female gender roles, gender presentation? I don’t know. For me what did it was actually making queer friends who broke gender norms, rather than anything I saw on TV. But either way I’m definitely sympathetic to the idea that everyone deserves to see themselves represented on TV and media at large.

  16. To be honest the thing that bugs me most is how some lesbians respond to this femmewashing. When talking about a queer lady character on TV they’ll go on about how grateful they are that she’s not some stereotypical butch. To hear this reaction from one of us is so infuriating. I guess only your kind of lesbian deserves representation and respect huh?

    • See my comment above, Raef. I used to feel that way when I was closeted and now my perspective has changed. I haven’t encountered many out femmes who resented seeing a butch on TV. I mean, I suppose there are some, but my experience hasn’t been that there are many femmes who have that viewpoint.

  17. I had a conversation once with a friend of mine once about the lack of androgynous women in the media. My friend is actually heterosexual, but she is also totally androgynous. Not particularly masculine looking, not particularly feminine looking, just androgynous. We could think of exactly one androgynous girl on TV, and it was from an animated show. (Smellerbee from Avatar: The Last Airbender, a minor character who was mistaken for a boy once in-show.) So even more than diversity in queer ladies, where is the diversity in ALL women?

  18. I have honestly never related to a GLBTQ character on TV until Skins pre-femmewashing Frankie. It was always nice to see Willow/Tara or Naomily or to a certain extent Shane (who is super hot but I can’t relate to her because I’m not a lady magnet), but when I saw Frankie enduring the hell that is the school locker room in the way I did when I was 15 it touched me in a way I can’t describe. Seeing her cope with people trying to make her gender into something it wasn’t touched me too. We weren’t identical; I’m not so thin, she didn’t do body hair and I don’t do boys, but it was the closest I’ve ever come to identifying with a character and I was disappointed when they abandoned her original gender.
    It is so sad to me that that experience of identification is limited to such a narrow portion of the population. Most of TV’s queer women characters are femmes, but they’re also a narrow sliver of that demographic too. Most are white and normatively thin. I can’t think of a single one who has any kind of disability except Jody from the L Word. I would love to see queer women who are androgynous or who even (gasp!) have body hair but it won’t be really satisfying if we still end up with a crop of queer women who embody a wider variety of gender identities but are still overwhelmingly thin, white, able bodied and so on.


      I will be perfectly honest: I was such a hardcore Mini/Frankie, Frankie/any kind of queerness that I stopped watching after that went to shit in a handbasket.

      • YES. I never even tried to watch the last season, what with that whole, “Mini’s knocked up by ALO of all people, Franky’s a brat who wears dresses all the time.” I feel like whoever wrote/directed the final season didn’t watch the prior season at all BECAUSE NOTHING MADE SENSE.

      • (Just to extend that analogy) it was almost as if the writers got to a point where the writers stuck Franky in the “too hard basket” (do American’s even use that expression?) and went back to the status quo, which really disappointed me because it’s not like they had shied away from difficult/polarizing subject matter in the past. Sigh.

    • Yeah I just refuse to watch Series 6 because I’d prefer to pretend it didn’t happen.

      They ruined Franky (and I wasn’t a huge Franky fan because I felt like her personality was too perfect, but then they went way too far in the opposite direction and got rid of the thing I REALLY liked about her, her butchness, and with the usual offensive shit about her non-femininity being because she “wasn’t comfortable with herself”), killed off my favorite character, made Mini straight and had her knocked up by Alo (I mean, c’mon, Skins already had a really good teen pregnancy storyline in Series 2, they didn’t need to do another one)….. yeah WTF were they thinking?

      • “non-femininity being because she ‘wasn’t comfortable with herself'”

        Although this is/was actually true for me (because getting DD-Boobs at the age of 11 was a tough thing as it led to a lot of age inappropriate, violating comments/behaviour from older guys and adult men) and I would like to see a well written story line on that subject, but I really hated how they handled Franky. They just changed her from what it seemed like a moment to another, whith no actual development, with no beleaveble explanation at all. Just take it or leave it.

        THAT SHIT DOES NOT HAPPEN OVER NIGHT! It doesn´t work like that. It took mee years to go from a butch-ish (“ish” because I didn´t know the term back then, but I dressed up in male clothing from head to toe, acted tough and all that) identity to a slightly more feminine one and then again 5 more years to a full femme identity. And I know from some ladys who are butch, that they expirienced a simmilar process – just in the opposite direction then me. It also took them years of development, understanding and change to accept and embrace their masculinity.

        So yeah, if you want to tell a story about shifting identity, tell it in a proper way! If you can´t, LEAVE FRANKY THE F*CK ALONE!

  19. While I do agree with the majority of this article, can I just say how much I LOVE that finally (finally!!!) one half of all of the ‘top three’ lesbian couples of TV at the moment are queer women of colour? That is fucking amazing! Granted, we still need a lot more progress- especially butches of colour – but I’m so happy to finally see queer characters who look like me. Now all I need is to figure out how to get my hair to look as flawless as Shay Mitchell’s.

    • I was thinking of that as I was listing the top couples, and it made me smile. I was like, well, at least we’ve got that going for us. And that is certainly a big deal, and nothing to scoff at.

    • Yes, and….they’re still one half. It’s still brown girl + white girl. Where are the woman of color + woman of color romances? I mean, I’m stoked that there are queer women of color on television at all, but I’m pretty sure the closest we’ve ever gotten to seeing a couple made up of two WOC was Bette and Candace on The L Word, and that was pretty much the biggest cheating clusterfuck ever. (Hot, obvs, but an emotional disaster, as is pretty par for the course for any part of that show that involved Bette.)

      • That’s one of the reasons I was so sad to see Bianca Lawson (Maya on PLL) die off. The fact that their relationship was portrayed at all was pretty great, and PLL in general has done pretty well – the actors who play Shay Mitchell’s parents are actually both of east/southeast asian descent – I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t whitewash her family.

        • Yes and Maya is still portrayed as Em’s great love (eventhough that makes no sense in context). I was so happy to see a relationship with two women of color. But the character was so annoying it ruined it. I kept stubbornly holding on to loving them even after I pretty much straight up hated the character. Pretending I didn’t start paying attention more everytime Paige was on screen.

    • Yes, but can you please, please watch your language as those couples are actually not all “lesbian” ones. I hate to play the non-monosexual-police but I just get sick and tired to see my identity being erased not only in the media but also by people at what is supposed to feel like a safe place.

      If you are bi/pan/fluid/felxible/ambi/omni/wahtever you still want your sexuallity to be respected as valid, you know ;) And eventhough I love my girfriend dearly and deeply, she does not make me a lesbian and she does not make me part of a “lesbain couple”.

      Thank you.

  20. Aside from all of the legitimate femme invisibility/male gaze issues I would really like to see some butches on tv just for my viewing pleasure. Do your co workers ever talk about their tv crushes? I’m always like uh, yeah, she is pretty, but where all the hot andro and masculine-of-center ladies???

  21. The trans character Adam on Degrassi was originally planned to be a young butch lesbian named Zoe. So maybe after current token lesbo Fiona graduates, the show will give butch lesbianism another shot.

  22. This was amazing because it goes into the nuance of femininity in a heteromornative sense and the very real femme-invisiblity that goes on in queer/LBGT communities. I realize it is a very, very fine line. I felt both feelings of “where do I belong?” where being a qwoc I did not stand up to the euro-centric definition of beauty and felt even more invisible being a qwoc because femme poc of are just “straight”.

    I find myself approximating myself to characters to whatever trait I like be it superficial or otherwise. I feel like parts and I crave to be a whole. I’m not asking for media to represent who I am but I just want diversity. I always felt the last battle with this is not even sexual orientation but gender, gender is the biggest thing we as a society have to examine. Yet, I know the wonderful people of AS know that :)

  23. I want more butch ladies on my tv because I want to be able to imagine myself dating them. I don’t get as hot for most of the femme women on tv.

    I mean, Rachel Maddow is super fucking hot, but there really need to be more women who look like her in the media so that I have a few other names to bring up when people ask me my type ;)

  24. I would like to say that I strongly agree on there needing to be more butch representation in media because oh wow, that would really, really increase my chances of wanting to watch that show. :)

    • And can they make the butch ladys also sweat a lot, please? That would be awesome and just … UNF!


  25. I’m kinda pumped for the day they make a TV show about Autostraddle/Riese’s life/etc; for then, then, my friends, we will have beautiful queers of all shapes and colors and gender presentations in one program. And we will recap it. And it will be glorious.

  26. “Femme representation in the media is incredibly important — and strangely ironic given the issues surrounding femme invisibility within the queer community.”

    This. I feel like being overrepresented in the media actually adds fuel to the fire within the queer community, because we just get shit on even more for being the most visible in media, when we are the most invisible in reality. Yay, femme life. Yay.

  27. Okay, so can someone please explain what the actual difference is between femme and butch? Is it just gender expression of feminity and masculinity? Cos I don’t feel like I fit into either of your two groups :/
    I never wear make-up, except nail varnish, and wear jeans/shorts and t-shirts all the time, mostly uni-sex shirts, because ‘female’ ones are too tight fitting, but because I have long hair and a fairly curvy body, all of my hetero friends (who mostly happen to be cis white guys and who I’m not out to for various reasons) assume I’m straight or w/e, so is that femme still? I don’t know, gender expression as a whole just sometimes confuses me.

    But yeah, representation in the media of all different kinds of queer is super important! :)

    • It’s pretty much that, yes – but it’s more of a spectrum than anything else. You don’t have to identify as either butch or femme to be queer.

      It’s all about how you identify. If you want to call yourself femme, call yourself femme! If you don’t, don’t! As we are fond of saying here, you do you. :)

    • Eh, the butch/femme binary is a super oversimplication. I typically do not ascribe to it and typically stay the fuck away from it because binaries are usually limiting, but as someone who is masculine-presenting all the time and would never be mistaken for anything but a masculine-presenting person, I am basically “butch.” And interestingly enough, the lesbians portrayed on television are feminine-presenting, and thus could be considered “femmes.” So coincidentally, the subjects of this article fit within this binary, and this ended up employing “butch” and “femme.”

      The fact of the matter is that Dina is totally right. It’s a spectrum. Everyone present in completely different ways, and you don’t have to be one of the other. You don’t even need to express you gender the same way every day. You are totally perfect however you are, whether you choose to label yourself or not.

  28. Maybe I’m just bad-tempered today but using “femme” to mean simply “a feminine sort of lady queer” is beginning to piss me off. Femme is an identity, not a description of anyone in a skirt.

    Not A Femme, Wears Skirts

  29. kate, thank you so much for writing this – i totally agree with your sentiment and how you presented it. although am i a self-identified femme, and i sort of look conventionally attractive, i am partnered with a butch person, and (although i appreciate your words about how tough femmes are) i see her struggle to love herself and be herself every single exhausting fucking day. wouldn’t it be great if there could be some cultural support or recognition (or ANYTHING) of masculine-presenting female-bodied people as PEOPLE, like, fully functioning, beautiful, wonderful complex people? yeah, you know what i mean.

  30. “indicators of queerness?” Last time I checked there were NONE.
    You don’t have to look butch to be a lesbian.
    You can look like ANYONE.
    I find this piece to be badly written and not inclusive.

    • ‘Indicator of Queerness’ is weird to me as well. Look at Dexter’s sister Deb, I mean she looks and acts very butch but she is straight.. Emily in PLL looks and acts very feminine but she is a lesbian.

    • Omg I’m sorry but this never ending pursuit of inclusivity is driving me insane. Yes everyone needs to be represented, but the article needs to be written and be readable. Do you have any idea how long it would be if every two seconds she had to have a big explanation about ‘spectrums’ and ‘fluidity’. Just because you don’t fit into x or y category or some example doesn’t fit it, does not mean those categories are irrelevant or stereotypical and don’t need to be discussed.

    • yes, but those of us who do look/act butch have next to no representation in media. femmes already have people. who’s being non-inclusive?

    • Butch lesbian: *writes about butchphobia in the media*
      Non-butch: ok but what about queer women who aren’t butches huh why isn’t this about ME

  31. I think part of the problem here is that we’re barely at the point where there are ‘incidentally’ gay characters on television (by that I mean characters whose orientation comes up with the same frequency as straight characters, rather than being the sole reason for their presence on the show). Characters that present in a way that is typically interpreted as gay (for example, butch women) often seem to be included on shows as some sort of punch line, as a stereotype or as part of a Teachable Moment- type plot line. By and large I think this relates to the fact that a lot of people are still very uncomfortable with gay people being portrayed as normal or relatable so it’s probably a lot easier to get gay characters who are less obvious/are conventionally attractive on to a show. Personally I think it might do the general populous some good to see that butch women (and other poorly represented groups) can be funny/dramatic/tender/idiotic/honorable/complex/pragmatic/et cetera just like everyone else.

  32. The original mission of television before becoming the advertisor’s tool was to be a window to our world.
    So it should represent a fair ratio of everything available in USA (as we talk abt USA here). When I watch Pretty Little Liars, I feel good cause out of 4 main characters, we have 3 straight girls, 1 lesbian, that seems about right to me, ratio wise. If someone was writing a show we the same ratio of diversity we have in US, it will include more lesbian and gay make and maybe a transgender.
    I am not shocked not seeing trans more because they are not so many in the world ( my analyze is purely about television representing the world as it is). I was born in France not USA and I have met only 3 female trans and 1 male trans in my life (we who I have had a real type of relationship not just meeting in a trans show club or a friend of a friend of a friend). Enough of a relationship to make me want to see at least 1 or 2 main trans character in a show developed out of a stereotype. And I have seen it.
    Now, I am happy about the representation ratio on tv of all those minorities but I couldn’t agree more with Kate that there is work to do on how they are represented, in the real world, I have met way more lesbian butch than femme so the representation on tv is clearly wrong.

    • Sorry about my English, I just woke up so it’s even worse than usual.
      Basically I am happy with the amount of LGBT but not how they are been portrayed.
      By the way, I just realized.. Where are the Bi on tv?!

  33. Television in 90% for men.
    If a character is a tough girl borderline butch like Dexter’s sister Deb or Starbuck, the scriptwriters will make sure she is straight, cause men like tough girls and can dream of her if she is both butch and lesbian, they won’t like her.
    On the other hand if she is a lesbian then she HAS to be feminine cause again butch AND lesbian is not attractive for men.
    So it’s either butch looking straight girl or feminine lesbians.
    Even the Real L Word is clearly writing for men’s audience so what to expect in general audience tv shows? :(
    The only show that could have it right was Desperate Housewives, clearly a show for women and they got one lesbian who left the show to have her affair offscreen and came back last season, straight again saying that was an experience only. That shocked me a lot.

  34. Television has been drab and flavorless for a while. I dont even bother tuning in because I already know what to expect. We as a community have come along way to being accepted by mainstream media. BUT, we have a long way to go still. Women of color are missing that element of themselves on tv. Butches are missing that element of themselves. Is America afraid? Unprepared? Simply too judgemental to accept the realities around? I think if more risks were taken on behalf of casting directors and writers to include more of these needed faces on tv, we would be amazed at how easy it is to make the transition.

    • Tv is now handled by advertisers so basically they work by segment and ‘white straight male is still the biggest segment there. I work in advertising and sadly enough gay and color people are marginal segments that will be used for a certain purpose only. When today in our real world, the associations are doing all they can to have gays and color people being seen as normal people and their sexuality being just a detail and having nothing to do with their personality, tv and advertisers are keeping them in segment and writing script about them being gay or being of colors. It’s getting way better for color people tho, many characters are just written then played by a black or white or Asian without stereotype. No more black tough guy, Asian geek, religious Arabic, lady killer white guy.
      Way to go for gay characters before their sexuality being in the background and other personality aspects of a ‘neutral’ character being more important than who they have sex with. Gay character are still written to showcase gayness but it’s getting better as advertising is still working with stereotypes but the segmentation is being wilder, color men and white men are soon to be just one category called ‘men’. Slowly..

  35. “Why is it that they’re all undeniably femme, conventionally attractive and able-bodied? This is the question that I come back to again and again: why do queer women on television all look the same?”

    Because we live in a culture that demands that even lesbians cater to the male gaze.

  36. Can’t take credit for this idea, but it’s worth noting that it’s not just a queer women’s problem – every woman on TV is conventionally “femme” and feminine when that is only a certain segment of the population of all women. This issue is more of a Woman-representation issue rather than a Queer-representation issue.

    (Echoing other sentiments, #BOTP, we need to dismantle it and make TV for *us*, not for white cis het dudes).

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