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what does it mean to be butch in 2018?

With comedian Hannah Gadsby's 'Nanette' being heralded by many as a watershed moment for the industry, let’s hear it for the women who have taken the bold step of poaching the best bits of masculinity for themselves.

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Jul 30 2018, 3:03pm

Still from Nanette

“If you hate men so much why do you try so fucking hard to look like one?” Comedian Hannah Gadsby grunts in her impression of a straight bloke mocking her. She pauses, grins, and in her own Tasmanian drawl, says: “Cause you need a good role model right now, fellas.”

Nanette, her Netflix comedy-polemic on the myriad ways in which art can be sexism’s largest amplifier, is being heralded by many as a watershed moment for the industry. It’s also been decreed by certain people, not entirely unlike those Gadsby aims for in her upward jabs, as little more than a hyped-up TED Talk. Truly, it’s not the acerbic/filthy comedy of Sarah Silverman, Whitney Cummings or Tiffany Haddish. But it deserves its place in our hearts and minds and so too does Gadsby. Because right now, it’s not only straight men who need good role models: we all need a butch icon.


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To rescue us from the toxic masculinity that forms our gloomy geopolitical backdrop, we tend to seek out the men who do manliness differently. We worship the England team and Gareth Southgate’s cuddly camaraderie until the football comes home. We coo when New Jack on Love Island talks candidly about the time he, heartbroken, cried over a can of soup. We sob when the Queer Eye guys upgrade bad dressers into serial emoters. But for all of these celebrations of brave new men venturing into apparently new sensitive lands, let’s hear it for the women who, destined to toil forever on these weepy plains, have taken the bolder step of poaching the best bits of masculinity for themselves.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "butch" as: “Having an appearance or other qualities of a type traditionally seen as masculine”. And looks-wise, Gadsby certainly fits one rendition of butchness. In Nanette she has short-cropped hair, thick-framed glasses, a tux-style blue-black blazer and jeans. She’s fresh-faced, but still formal.

Yet the rules around contemporary butchness are as elastic as the waistband on a Superdry tracksuit. A butch can be flamboyant, like Cate Blanchett’s Lou in Ocean’s 8, a Harley-riding velvet-suit-clad update of The L Word’s Shane McCutcheon. A butch can even wear dresses and dangly earrings -- as Orange Is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale actor Samira Wiley tends to at red carpet events -- and still retain her butch swagger.

Butchness can also be relative: Cynthia Nixon, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for New York State, appears less butch when she’s next to her butch wife Christine Marinoni, but more butch when compared to most of the US’s women politicians. I say “most” because, well, Hillary Clinton is a butch icon, and some even argue that the anti-same-sex-marriage Angela Merkel is butch, because such is the lot of straight women trying to fit into the macho world of politics.

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"Gadsby, just like all butch women, selectively borrows from traditional masculinity, while protecting the people from the more toxic elements of masculinity. She’s assertive without aggression, protective without paternalism."

While we’re on politics, though the UK’s political system is as misogynistic as the next, butches pop up everywhere. Some wilt: Angela Eagle, the first Corbyn critic with the cojones to run against him in a bid for leadership, failed after trying to harness the feminine imagery of hot pink in her campaign material. Others flourish, like Ruth Davidson, a grinning multi-contradiction: jolly, butch, Conservative and Scottish, she’s undoing the notion that butches perform the role of the man in the relationship, by carrying her and her wife’s first child.

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Mhairi Black, the Baby of the House, has a strident delivery that belies her years. She also confounds expectations, with her slicked-back low-slung ponytail. Because, even though all the aforementioned butches have short hair, is a cropped ‘do the ultimate decider of a butch? Certainly, Heloise Letissier of Christine and the Queens, who consistently wears masculine tailoring, looks far more butch with her hair shorter. As does Kristen Stewart, the sometime-Chanel model who, arguably, only properly convinced straight people of her attraction to women when she got a buzzcut. Conversely, is Ruby Rose, who wears lip gloss and is one weave away from being Love Island material, only butch because of her short back ’n’ sides? Is that enough? Could Eliot Sumner, whose signature look comprises a smoulder, tailored suits and monochrome streetwear really be any butcher? Plus, the short hair criterion excludes butch black women like Young M.A. and Lena Waithe, who have dreadlocks or braids dangling past their shoulders. As I told myself when I went through the torment of growing my hair out from a crew-cut, if butchness is about doing masculinity better than men, there’s some Samsonite power in growing a thick lustrous mane that many men, with all their follicle-depleting testosterone, cannot manage.

If the butch look isn’t quite defined, the “qualities of a type traditionally seen as masculine” are more certain. Let’s take the butches of entertainment and comedy, Gadsby’s peers and maybe your ideal dinner party line-up: Tig Notaro, Sue Perkins, Claire Balding, Rachel Maddow, Ellen DeGeneres and Sandi Toksvig. They’re all over 40, all butches, all ascribed a gentle wisdom that their straight/femme cohort of women aren’t. What sets them apart from their straight male equivalents -- Zack Galifianakis, Giles Coren, Gary Lineker, Trevor Noah, Ryan Seacrest and Stephen Fry -- though, is that audiences, especially female ones, expect and receive kindness from them. This butch chivalry leaves straight men snookered -- incidentally, the stereotypical butch’s favoured bar-game -- because if dependability and attraction to women are meant to be preserves of masculinity, how come we can always rely on butches to be nicer to women than any guy ever could be?

Gadsby doesn’t only speak to lesbians, butches, or “gender non-normal” people out there, but every woman or non-straight-white-cis-male out there.

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Gadsby, just like all butch women, selectively borrows from traditional masculinity, while protecting the people from the more toxic elements of masculinity. She’s assertive without aggression, protective without paternalism. In Nanette, after demanding: “Straight, white men. Pull your socks up”, then joking: “how humiliating, fashion advice from a lesbian!”, Gadsby promises to stop self-deprecating because “that isn’t humility, it’s humiliation” for her community. That empathy, felt throughout a comedy act in defence of the women and minorities who have traditionally formed the punchlines of the genre, is enough to cement her status as a butch icon.

Women like Gadsby might seem like they’re everywhere in popular culture and our halls of power, now I’ve listed them, but it’s because they still stand out -- even the white middle-class ones -- and the price they pay for standing out is, so often, punishment. There are countless examples of these aggressions. Balding being called a “dyke on a bike” by the late AA Gill; Sandi Toksvig getting death threats after coming out publicly; Angela Eagle being referred to as “the lesser of two Eagles” (her straight sister, Maria Eagle, is also an MP); Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria having to shout down a homophobic preacher on the subway. Younger butches get it too: Radio 1’s Ashley “Dotty” Charles wrote in 2018 that the world has “at times seemed intent on undermining and eroding my deviations from ‘the norm’”. So many butch icons rise above the negative misogyny and homophobia thrown at them, and we must commend them for that.

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While I, a lesbian, can comfortably sit here in my cargo pants decreeing who is butch or not, the femininity it evades is regularly defined by oppressors, who decide its ever-mutating but consistently strict parameters. When recalling how badly she’s fallen foul of the rules, Gadsby doesn’t only speak to lesbians, butches, or “gender non-normal” people out there, but every woman or non-straight-white-cis-male out there. When detailing the assault she survived aged 17, Gadsby explains: “That was not homophobia pure and simple. That was gendered. If I had been feminine, that would have not happened. I’m incorrectly female. I am incorrect. And that is punishable.”

While that specific incident’s intense lesbophobia must not be negated, this principle of punishment is truly relatable: can any woman truly say she hasn’t been denigrated, in some small and seemingly justifiable way, for failing to fit within the narrow confines that patriarchy built for us to live and die within? To have the strength to escape femininity on the daily, to wake up and not think about, or unthink, all of the ways in which femininity must be performed and adhered to -- while still considering the needs of those who do still conform -- is why butches must be treasured. And given worthy role models to show them the path forward. Butches prop-up lesbian dating scenes, from our biggest cities to our smallest provincial gay bars. They’re the lynchpin of families, the object of femme fantasies, the reliable, handsome women who simply don’t feel like femininity works for them. And Hannah Gadsby, well, right now, she’s our butch queen.

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