On a balmy spring night at the Stonewall Bar, Ellie Conant sizes up the competition with a quick glance, rolls up her shirtsleeves, bellies up to the pool table, and plunks down four quarters. In the dim light, Conant’s iridescent yellow eye shadow perfectly matches her short, spiky hair. A group of younger lesbians give her the side-eye, then whisper animatedly about the glamorous butch’s distinct look. A thin woman approaches Conant with a smirk. Conant confidently snatches up a pool cue and thrusts it into her opponent’s hand. “You break,” she says, as she racks the balls.
When she’s not hustling pool games, Conant promotes ribald lesbian parties like “Snapshot” and “Muff Muff Give.” “I’m a butch who tries to put fabulosity into the game,” she tells me earnestly. “When I walk down the street, people see an Asian butch with boy clothes and short hair. So I wear the eyeliner and eye shadow. I break it out. I look good.”
Not that she’s “feminine.” No, Conant considers herself butch. But as Josie Smith-Malave of Top Chef fame, also playing pool that night at the Stonewall, put it, “Today’s butch is fashion-conscious: We get the mani/pedi, the waxing. We spend the day at the spa, as opposed to donning work boots and flannel shirts—and hating men.”
After years of America getting its lesbian images via the model-perfect waifs of Showtime’s The L Word, the lipstick lesbian has given way to a new butch, who differs markedly from her mullet-coiffed, man-hating predecessor. When k.d. lang graced the cover of Vanity Fair receiving a shave from Cindy Crawford in 1993, it epitomized the butch-femme dichotomy in lesbian culture—or, at least, the larger world’s perception of it. Today, butch icons, like Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres, are considered sex symbols by their Sapphic sisters—and by not a few men.
Here at the Stonewall and other local oases of butch culture, New Yorkers are happy to see their own kind return to the limelight. For decades, popular culture portrayed butches as unfashionable, mannish, and leather-clad sadists, like the one played by Mercedes McCambridge in Touch of Evil, who, when Janet Leigh is about to get gang-banged, growls, “I just wanna watch.” Dyke comedian Kate Clinton remembers her dad calling her older butch cousin’s Brylcreem’d hair “the hard look.”
Pre–gay lib lesbians divided themselves into butches and femmes as a survival strategy, as a way to define themselves and their relationships. After Stonewall in 1969—at the same time that gay men rejected effete stereotypes for the macho “clone” look—lesbian feminists rejected butch in favor of androgyne.
The butch aesthetic made a brief comeback in the ’80s and early ’90s, when lesbian activists donned Dickies and Doc Martens and took to the streets to protest. These butches were heavily influenced by earlier feminists’ ideals to espouse lesbian separatism. Unconcerned with appearing glamorous, they saw the battle for women’s rights as a polarity that relied upon men as the enemy.
Attorney Yetta Kurland personifies today’s kinder, gentler butch. Recently, outside the iconic West Village lesbian bar the Cubby Hole, Kurland, suited up in a custom-tailored dress shirt and silk tie, received a steady stream of supporters for her underdog battle against entrenched femme lesbian and City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn for her Council seat.
Kurland recalled how, during the second wave of feminism, being butch was considered politically incorrect, a demeaning nod to male/female roles.
The new butch is not only not afraid to be pretty, but she’s equally comfortable with men and straight women. “The younger generation is more hip to diversity among the genders and perhaps even within their own sexuality,” says comedian Julie Goldman, the token butch on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show. “I think the butch identity for the 50-plus crowd has way more constrictions. The younger the butch, the less captive she is to confining labels or roles.”
So why should butch expression need to continue? Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to crystallize the issue, when she stirred the sexual melting pot with the on-air query: “Why would a woman want to be with a woman who looks like a man?”
Feminist critics argue that butches dress and act “masculine” not to be men, but to express a different way of being a woman. “Being butch doesn’t mean you want to be a man,” says Goldman. “You’re a woman—you’re just a butch woman. I also think butch indicates a playfulness with gender, and that’s just fucking cool.”
Top Chef‘s Smith-Malave playfully describes herself as a “futch,” a fem butch: “I’m a woman, and I’m allowed the fluidity of expressing myself that way, of embracing the female side of me.”
If there’s a new butch poster girl, it’s got to be MSNBC anchor, Maddow. A bona fide butch sex symbol, desired by lesbians, straight women, and men, Maddow describes herself as “a big lesbian who looks like a man. I’m not Anchorbabe, and I’m never going to be. My goal is to do the physical appearance stuff in such a way that it is not comment-worthy.”
Her impact has been far-reaching. “Butches exude a perfect mix of male and female,” Goldman says. “Because they’re kind of boyish, they can be desired by straight women in a safe way. Guys feel like they can hang out with them, and lesbians love that they’re lesbians.”
Hal Rubenstein, the fashion director of In Style magazine, sees these women as “well-dressed, with makeup, great haircuts, tailored clothes. People are realizing this is about rethinking how lesbians are adopting fashion, about finding a new take,” he adds. “There is a certain kind of androgynous sensuality that both Maddow and DeGeneres possess that men and women, gay and straight, find very appealing.”
Their personal style has certainly influenced lesbians. “I think the prevalence of chest colds among lesbians this year has been because everyone has been doing the Rachel Maddow plus two: a low-cut jacket with two fingers of chemise,” Clinton jokes. “Rachel is so clear, so funny, but also, she is herself, and that is what’s really sexy to people. What we’re doing with butch and femme is playing around with stereotypes. She’s dead serious, but there’s a real sense of play in what she does.”
Some, however, view this not so much as a new butch sensibility as pandering to the mainstream. Daphne Merkin, in a Times piece appropriately titled “Butch Fatale,” accused Maddow of allowing herself to be glammed up, thus becoming “culturally neutered.” But others believe Maddow’s style is resonating equally with straight women. Responding to Judy Berman’s assertion in Salon.com that viewers are only responding to Maddow’s “intelligence, charm, and, above all, authenticity,” one self-described straight guy countered that he found Maddow “attractive and very sexy.” His wife “also has the hots for Maddow”—a sentiment echoed in hundreds of other comments. The widespread appeal of the new butch may lie in the fact that in playing with the idea of gender, butches are laying the groundwork for other women to explore their own sexuality and gender expression in a socially acceptable manner.
Maddow may even be opening a window for straight men to explore their own homoerotic desires. “Maddow is beautiful, has short hair and wears boy clothes, and has a raw sexuality,” Conant says. “Guys see Rachel Maddow as a smart dude who has a vagina and eyeliner.”
The combination of intellect, wit, and boyishness is also what has made Ellen DeGeneres so accessible to Middle America. Her easygoing, every-woman attitude endears her to the stay-at-home moms in her talk show audience. But when pictured beside her ultra-feminine wife, Portia de Rossi, it’s obvious who wears the pants in the family. Her “mannish” look not only didn’t prevent her from being tapped as the new face of Cover Girl, it was part of the reason she was chosen as the latest in a line that includes legendary supermodels like Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley.
Building on this positive self-image, so different from that old-time butch who cross-dressed for survival, allows lesbians unapologetically to express their inner butchness. “Sometimes, people mistake me for a man,” Smith-Malave says. “If being strong, aggressive, and fierce is being butch, then call me butch. The truth of the matter is that I just consider myself a strong woman.”
“We’re seeing all these smart women who come out as butch and have got it together,” Conant says. “Nobody quite like Rachel Maddow has ever been on TV. But it’s not like, all of a sudden, there are butches. These power lesbians are all over the place—only now, we’re in the spotlight.”