Butch Lesbians (and why they’re not) on TV
Basically, if we try to think of all the current or recent lesbian characters to grace television, mainly looking at American television, we see that despite the awesome overall increase in visibility of lesbians, it has been a trend that has been almost entirely devoid of butch women.
Think of the current, most prominent fictional lesbian characters on TV right now: Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, Santana on Glee, Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars, Fiona on Degrassi, Lauren on Lost Girl, etc. Look in the past at some other well-known lesbian characters: Willow and Tara from Buffy, Spencer from South of Nowhere, almost every lesbian on The L Word that isn’t Tasha or Shane. These are characters that would not be classified as butch. Maybe they have moments of being tough or handy, but they ain’t butch.
Contrast this with the large spectrum of the kind of gay men you see on TV, from the outwardly flamboyant (Cam on Modern Family, Kurt on Glee, Dean Pelton on Community etc.) to straight-up dudes (John Cooper on Southland, Kurofsky on Glee, Max on Happy Endings, etc.) and complete series themselves that show diversity in gay male characters from the main cast to the one-time characters (Nurse Jackie, True Blood, Spartacus series).
So what’s up TV, why do we see much more gender expression diversity in gay men than in gay women?
Well first of all, this is just a trend in TV in general in which male characters are more likely to show diversity in presentation, thought, and action anyway, since most writers, producers, directors, and creators of television shows are men. So of course, that’s a big reason why you see gay male characters in general, and a good portion of why there’s more variation amongst them.
But if we also think of it as a reflection of the way we view gender expression in the media, it’s because the presentation of gay female masculinity on television is actually a threat to straight male masculinity and prowess. Once the field opens up to more players, even if those players don’t necessarily want the same women, then it’s competition, and therefore a threat.
Hypothetically speaking of course, having a greater amount of butch lesbian characters - ranging from Shane from The L Word to Snoop from The Wire - would mean that they could become heart throbs for female characters and audiences, even the straight ones. Butches definitely bring a different kind of energy to the room that even the most hetero-seeming of women cannot deny and straight men cannot mimic.
And what butchness also does is that it threatens the male gaze, because it does not seek to appeal to heterosexual cis men’s ideal of women in any way. Flamboyant gay/bi male characters are generally two-dimensional and function as friends for only the straight female characters and are not generally a threat, masculine gay/bi male characters give “dignity” to being gay and therefore more okay, and feminine gay/bi female characters can still fit into the straight male fantasy of what a lesbian is, and because they are generally conventionally pretty enough to fit the straight male gaze.
But butch women do not fit into the conventions of the male gaze or support the male gaze at all. Butch women can serve no purpose in the straight male gaze than to obstruct it, refute it and invert it, which does not bode well to the fragile male ego in which everything a woman does or is must appeal to them in some way.
And so that’s a huge reason why you see not only many lesbian characters, but also relationships on TV in which both women are femmes - Callie and Arizona, Santana and Brittany, Emily and all of her girlfriends, etc. It’s safer to present women in love if they are both feminine because it’s gay, but not “too gay.” It’s just gay enough so that you know it’s a lesbian couple, but not too gay in that there is not a clear deviation of gender performance that doesn’t seek to entertain the straight male gaze at all.
And with all of that, even with the emergence of more lesbian characters every season, it’s probably going to be a while before we see a modern butch character to burst on the television screen and change things up.