Meditations… on pop’s butch icons
Historically erased by the mainstream, queer female masculinity is now being celebrated online and in music. It’s about time, says Gina Tonic.
Between Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson being papped with a sex bench and Kristen Stewart spotted making out with Stella Maxwell on a yacht, pop culture is currently experiencing a wave of pronounced lesbian visibility. Finally, the press have stopped calling lesbian relationships by the public friendly (read: homophobic) term “gal pals” and we have more than one standalone lesbian celebrity to refer to in pop culture. Perhaps most excitingly of all is the new generation of visibly queer female artists gatecrashing Spotify playlists and dancefloors.
From Young M.A’s stud aesthetic, right through to the fluid androgyny of Chris – aka Christine and the Queens – via the louche androgyny of King Princess, we’re seeing something of a butch renaissance. Note that here I am using the term butch when referring to a masculine-presenting woman or non-binary queer person. In particular, those in the public eye who have spoken about their purposeful masculine presentation. Clarity is needed: despite the mainstream’s semi-fluency in gay slang – your mum probably knows the difference between bottoms and bears and what it means to spill the T – queer female code and culture still eludes many. But, depressingly, this heightened visibility for our masculine of centre stars has come with a pushback, at least in some quarters – something familiar to many gender-nonconforming queer or lesbian women.
"As Judith Butler – and over 100 items on Etsy – would have it, gender is a construct. And that’s threatening"
A recent viral tweet came from account @HoodStarzMusic trying simultaneously to desexualise lesbian rapper Young M.A while degrading female rappers who are sexual in their music. They comment, “Young MA is the ONLY Female Rapper Not Using Her Body To Sell RECORDS.” Quickly, the tweet was picked up by Twitter’s queer community and user @PillowPrincesse went on to get more likes and RTs than the original tweet with a simple clapback: “Young MA is most def using sex appeal. It’s just not for you…”
Similarly, when boasting shorter hair and a second album titled Chris, Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens found herself facing headlines like “Is Christine and the Queens a girl” – thanks PinkNews – and assumptions she was transitioning. When asked if she was a man now, Letissier told iNews, “I’m just working on a different version of femininity.” It seems as the world opens up to representing different gender presentations, the age-old battle cry of ‘are you a guy or a girl’ remains.
Doesn’t it sound familiar? Queerness has a long history in the pop charts. From the 70s onwards, male rock stars subverted convention by donning feminine clothing, shocking audiences into paying attention. But this league of glamorous men – David Bowie, Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry – always kept their sexuality aloof enough to shag women and make bank from their mix of masculine bodies and femme fashion. Conversely, when women have done the opposite, it hasn’t been quite so celebrated. Of course, the presence of a woman presenting as masculine is destabilising: being butch – especially publicly so – directly disrupts a hierarchy built to reward masculinity by proving that anyone can be masculine. As Judith Butler – and over 100 items on Etsy – would have it, gender is a construct. And that’s threatening.
In years past, you’d be hard pushed to see any butchness at all, let alone find celebration in it. There were exceptions, of course: k.d. lang, who is having her own renaissance in 2019, covered Vanity Fair with supermodel Cindy Crawford in 1993. Tracy Chapman, who paved the way for representing black lesbian relationships in her music, used her lyrics to speak out against the specific blend of misogyny and homophobia that only affects queer women. While standalone representation is better than none at all, it feels truly revolutionary that 2019 is gifting us a wealth of gender non-conformists.
After all, this kind of specific representation, both in the 90s and the present, has always felt like a rebellion against a music industry focused on celebrating women through the male gaze. Now, there are more rebellions than ever: online, particularly on Instagram, the butch community is thriving. Fat butches, black butches, disabled butches – all are representing themselves in a manner that is created by and for a specific queer gaze. What’s more, with the normalisation of different queer aesthetics on social media, more women have felt comfortable coming out and being true to their butchness IRL. A positive not just for the futches of the celebrity world who sip champagne on yachts in Gucci bikinis, but the butches found on Canal Street, working in CEX or tagging #stud on their Instagrams.