This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Some names in this piece have been changed.
In 2017, two friends created a blog on Tumblr called passingbutchcharacteroftheday to which they asked followers to submit their favorite “passing butch” characters. Entries included everyone from Draco Malfoy to the prince from Beauty and the Beast (nonbeast version). Passingbutchcharacteroftheday gained upward of 1,000 followers in just one year and received hundreds of submissions. “It was really more than we could deal with,” says Hailey, 23, one of the co-founders of the blog, which is now defunct, due in part to its unexpected unwieldiness. Its followers sought passingbutchcharacteroftheday out because, in a desert of butch representation on screen, lesbian fans often turn to the most unlikely characters for the pleasure of identification: straight men.
“When you see lesbians in the media, which is already rare enough, it’s usually feminine lesbians who don’t look anything like me,” explains Sydney, 21. “So sometimes it’s comforting to imagine that male characters are actually butches like me and that their girlfriends are bi women or lesbians.” The first male character she remembers thinking of as butch was Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister, whose masculine love interest Brienne made Sydney feel “like he’s a butch attracted to another butch.”
Though Sydney admits “a lot of other lesbians would be mad at me for saying that,” since Jaime is a villain, butch representation is one case where the wisdom “beggars can’t be choosers” rings especially true. “Lesbians have always done this,” Hailey says. “We’ve always struggled to see even glimpses of our experience on screen. That’s what the Bechdel test is about, after all. This isn’t any different, except that some of us can’t see ourselves in female characters when every female character is feminine.”
Masculinity is what puts the “passing” in “passing butch character.” Since so few women in media look like butches, who often pass as men, it can be fun for lesbian fans to pretend that male characters are actually just really, really stealth. The same ethos lies behind blogs like transcharacteroftheday and lesbiancharacteroftheday, which rely on the supposition that characters are secretly marginalized—they’re just passing so well that their marginalized identities never become a part of their narratives. That might sound far-fetched—if you’re lucky enough to be able to relate to most characters sans mental gymnastics. But such ease is certainly not the reality for butch lesbian fans in a world that seems to understand less and less what butches even are.
In the 1992 thriller Basic Instinct, problematic bisexual Catherine (Sharon Stone) has a bloodthirsty girlfriend named Roxy (Leilani Sarelle). Roxy, a sleek and stylish blonde, loves murder, cocaine, and hoop earrings—she is also, according to TV Tropes, a butch lesbian. Some funny knucklehead put Roxy down as an example on the fan-sourced site’s “Butch Lesbian” page, writing: “Catherine’s girlfriend Roxy, despite being long-haired, epitomizes this with her unpleasant and menacing demeanor.”
Never mind how insulting it is that there is a “Butch Lesbian” page on TV Tropes at all (the implication being that butch lesbianism is a reductive stereotype rather than a rich identity deserving of representation). The TV Tropes take on butch lesbians perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with the way outsiders view butchness. Other so-called butch characters are justified as such because one “likes to relax by going to a shooting range,” one “is tough-as-nails and violent,” and (my personal favorite) one’s “preferred methods of problem solving [include] ‘hitting things’ and ‘blowing things up.’ ” Those three characters are ER’s Maggie Doyle, Supergirl’s Alex Danvers, and Doctor Who’s Ace, respectively, all three of whom are apparently butch lesbians despite their feminine dress and, in Ace’s case, attraction to men.
While butch and femme culture have evolved in the past few decades, butch style is still decidedly masculine, nixing all of the fictional women above. Without such pseudo-examples, we’re left with a startlingly small list of fictional butches: Big Boo from Orange Is the New Black, Robin Scherbatsky’s much-mocked doppleganger in How I Met Your Mother, this one butch I saw for 10 seconds in an episode of 13 Reasons Why. You get it. They’re few and far between. This leaves a media void for modern butches who might want to see themselves reflected on screen. Hence the co-option of fictional straight men.
Relating to straight male characters isn’t always just an aesthetic concern for butch fans, either. “I feel like male characters are just written as people,” notes Toni, a 23-year-old butch lesbian. “I’ve always related to certain male characters … because female characters just aren’t written the same way—especially the very rare masculine female characters.” It follows that an antihero like Jaime Lannister or a tender-hearted warrior like Hailey’s favorite “passing butch” character, How to Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup (her first post to the blog!), might appeal.
This projection also serves a romantic purpose in a media landscape devoid of butch/femme relationships. It’s important for imagined passing butch characters to be attracted to women if they’re going to stand in for lesbians. “I tend to view most male characters I relate to [as passing butches],” notes Brooke, 20, “unless said male character is gay, because then I relate to him through his gayness.” This creates a version of gay ’shipping, or imagining two otherwise straight characters as being in a gay relationship, that just requires a bit of gender bending.
For instance, lesbian and bi female fans of The Office started thinking of John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert as a lesbian before passingbutchcharacteroftheday even came to be, a phenomenon that gained such traction it spawned its own Tumblr-wide tag. Love for Jim carried over into Hailey’s blog, of course: “Jim Halpert got submitted over and over again, because we’ve all been there,” she says. “We’ve all had that painful friendship with a straight woman who we loved but who was with a man.”
Though most fans view “passing butch” characters as a bit of comforting fun, the practice has its detractors. Before Hailey shut it down, passingbutchcharacteroftheday received some “nasty” anonymous messages criticizing the blog for “equating butch lesbians to men.” “We also got told we needed to ‘examine our genders’ if we were relating to male characters,” Hailey recalls.
The idea that butch lesbians are actually men because they relate to male characters is, to put it lightly, insulting. “I am not hurting anyone by relating to characters the way I do, and do not ‘stop’ myself from liking female characters. It is just a numbers game at this point,” Brooke asserts. And though the projection can be fun, it also carries some depressing implications. As Brooke says, “The truly unfeminist/anti-lesbian part of all of this is the lack of relatable butch lesbians in media.”
Until the inevitable butch lesbian–Jim Halpert day of reckoning (in my mind, her name is Jen and she’s played by Rhea Butcher), some male characters will just have to do. If, like Hailey’s anonymous critics, you’re feeling particularly bothered by the idea of butch lesbians enjoying things, Sydney has some apt advice for you: “Go bother directors, not butches who are just trying to imagine that they’re represented on screen.”
Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.