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Rizzoli and Isles - What's Wrong with Checking the Butch Box?

Rizzoli and Isles - What's Wrong with Checking the Butch Box?

Recently, I wrote a recap for SheWired on the “I Kissed a Girl” episode of Angie Harmon’s "Rizzoli & Isles." Following that review, I received very intriguing comments and insights into the butch portrayal displayed on the controversial 60-minute drama. Butch women often get a bad reputation in the media and, as part of the media circus, I felt the need to offer a follow-up piece to discuss and confront those concerns.

Recently, I wrote a recap for SheWired on the “I Kissed a Girl” episode of Angie Harmon’s Rizzoli & Isles. Following that review, I received very intriguing comments and insights into the butch portrayal displayed on the controversial 60-minute drama. Butch women often get a bad reputation in the media and, as part of the media circus, I felt the need to offer a follow-up piece to discuss and confront those concerns.

Jenni Olson is notably one of the world’s leading experts on LGBT cinema history. The decked-out entrepreneur was one of the co-founders of PlanetOut.com, PopcornQ and the Queer Brunch at Sundance (the Sundance Film Festival’s largest queer party). In addition, Olson has written pieces for The Advocate, Curve Magazine, Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE.com, PlanetOut.com and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Writer, Producer, Filmmaker, and a proud butch lesbian (she scored #74 of the TopHotButches.com list of the “Top 100 Butches of 2009”), Olson took some time to chat with me about her view on the butch woman in television, film and media. Specifically, she wanted to discuss Rizzoli & Isles and what she thought could’ve been accomplished more responsibly.

“Interestingly, the tone of the show's dialogue seems to reflect a perspective I've heard expressed in the mainstream Los Angeles lesbian community (especially in relation to The L Word — that butchness is somehow a bad thing — presumably this is in reaction to the historically "negative" media depiction of all lesbians as masculine and "dykey")? I don't really know, but it always strikes me as containing an element of internalized homophobia and discomfort with any kind of female masculinity (and p.s. I know there is also a fantastic queer community in L.A. which really embraces gender diversity).”

Olson continued, passionately “Speaking as a butch lesbian who has been doing LGBT media activism for 25 years now, it feels important to come forward and remind everyone that the current generation — the current LGBT rights movement — stands on the shoulders of the butch dykes, nelly queens and transfolk who have had no choice but to stand up and lead the fight for LGBT rights. We have always been the ones on the front lines, because we are so unmistakably identifiable as queer — and we're therefore the first to come under attack for simply being true to who we are.”

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Lucky Dog Leather owner and gay rights activist Lucia Gerbino has been referred to as a tomboy-type her entire life. Unfortunately, the butch/tomboy references directed her way were (more often than not) posed in a negative connotation. Even with the success of her artistic A-List celebrity leather clothing and accessory line, she, until recently, grappled with finding her butch pride and owning it.

Photo: Beck Starr

“I have been a tomboy my whole life and I have been shamed for it constantly. Sometime the shaming was obvious and sometimes it is this subtle way society has of imposing these hetero-normative standards like those in the dialog from this week’s episode of Rizzoli & Isles.” Gerbino added, “I enjoyed the show and my guess is that they were trying to be respectful and appropriate with their language, they just didn’t realize what they were saying. This sort of thing is subtle and if it does not hit home for you, you may not even notice. I bet all of the little tomboy baby dykes with a crush on Rizzoli picked up on the implication the you should certainly NOT want to check that Butch box. Being butch means so many different things and is so different everyone. It is not shameful. If it is a true expression of who you are, then more power to you and you have every right to be proud of every butch little cell in your being.”

Gerbino went on to say, “It has taken me well into adulthood to discard this “Butch Shame” and replace it with confidence and pride in my tomboy ways. We don’t have to put down those among us on the edges, pushing the boundaries. It’s the people on the edges that make this world so much more interesting and beautiful and, more importantly maybe, give those in the middle the wiggle room they enjoy. So, lay off the butches, bitches!”

Wherever you stand on “labeling” and the  media’s depiction of a certain section of our community as a whole, we all owe it to one another to stand up for what is right, fair and accurate and do our best to show the rest of the world who we really are and what we truly stand for an believe in. We are the only ones who can do that and we have a responsibility to take it on. Somewhere out there, there is a 13 year old reading this piece and feeling less alone and more understood. Responsibility is not something that can be taken lightly or it would be called irresponsibility. Without preaching too much, I wholeheartedly believe that we have the tools and resources needed to push forward in the media and become permanent EQUAL members of society whether we are considered butch, femme, sporty, chapstick, lipstick, or any other number of other “classifications” for which there may or may not be a box to check on a form.

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Sarah Toce