I love female superheroes, I love female heroes with tragic backstories and redemption arcs. Basically, I love female heroes. They’re great because they don’t conform to traditional female character roles of being quiet damsels in distress, and they show women as complex characters with stories and goals. However, while they break the mold of traditional female character narratives, these characters still overwhelmingly conform to heteronormative societal standards of beauty, gender presentation and sexuality.
So, while we should celebrate all awesome female characters, we should also be mindful of the heteronormative ideas that these characters reinforce and what type of character could challenge them even further. To put it bluntly, I want to see butch queer (super)heroines, but they‘re near impossible to find.
One immediate problem that arises when discussing female characters in general, but especially in terms of things like their gender presentation and clothing choices, is that a character by herself doesn’t really decide anything. She doesn’t have any autonomy. She was created by someone who controls her whole being. Unfortunately, that someone is most often a straight man, which, unless he‘s mindful of heteronormativity and the male gaze, influences the way he perceives the female character. As such, I think, it‘s quite telling that most of the female characters we see, even if they defy traditional narrative tropes, are still almost universally (hyper)feminine and they are pretty much always heterosexual. This makes them more appealing to the male gaze and they’re more likely to be less threatening to straight men and heteronormative society.
Another issue is quite simply that the standard white thin heterosexual beauty doesn’t represent a lot of girls and women, as Luce wrote a while back. The image of a thin, traditionally beautiful, powerful heroine also serves to enforce the idea that you can do anything as long as you still conform to heteronormative standards of beauty, gender, and sexuality. Additionally, it sets up unrealistic standards for girls and women, requiring them to be both great at something they do as well as appear (effortlessly) beautiful and appealing to men.
There is also the problem of the queer-coded villains. It is perhaps a trope that’s more often applied to male characters who are made more feminine, thus seeming like stereotypical feminine gay men. Such queer-coding of evil characters, of course, serves to vilify LGBTQ+ people, but in addition, feminine men are probably not a straight man’s power fantasy. They are seen as “not real men” and as such, these characters are easily vilified. However, it doesn’t work the other way around for female characters—in other words, female villains aren’t often made more masculine. In fact, more often than not we see the evil seductress trope when a hypersexualized, hyperfeminine female villain uses her sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. She sometimes uses her sexuality on women too, contributing to the evil bisexual trope. Obviously, a hypersexualized female character is more appealing to the male gaze, but she is a villain, so we are conditioned to hate her—for taking control of her sexuality and using it however she wants as opposed to “saving herself for the man she loves”.
Therefore, a butch queer heroine would not only represent a group of people who are almost unseen on TV, but giving her a narrative setting her up as the hero we’re meant to root for would also help challenge heteronormative standards, as well as a lot of negative tropes concerning LGBTQ+ people.
Sadly, such non-conforming female characters are very rare. From the vast amount of TV that I consume, I was able to find only one such protagonist—Korra from The Legend of Korra. I remember loving her the first time I saw her because she was this boisterous tomboy who loved demonstrating her bending abilities. This is a cartoon aimed at children, of course, but even so it is so refreshing to see a heroine who isn’t dressed in tight pants, heels and a low-cut top. And to top this gorgeous picture off, by the end of the show it becomes apparent that Korra is also bisexual. Unfortunately, a female character who isn’t conventionally feminine/attractive might not be very appealing to a male creator/viewer, who is usually okay with a character being queer as long as she is stereotypically attractive so her attraction to women is “hot” and can be fetishized. Such a feminist butch queer heroine who rejects the “I’m not like other girls” tagline is very threatening to heteronormative male-dominated society, since she would prioritize herself and other women instead of living for just her male love interest’s attention. So, regrettably, it’s not surprising that men, who dominate the TV/film industry, are unlikely to create characters that hit all the anti-heteronormative points.
Lowering my requirements and looking for any butch female characters, queer or otherwise, I was able to find two more—Brienne of Tarth (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones) and Toph (Avatar: the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra). Both of them defy both traditional gender presentation and gender roles. Brienne and Toph are heterosexual, but I think such characters are also important to challenge the notion that one’s gender presentation must be related to one’s sexuality.
I find Brienne’s characterization especially fascinating because, despite her strength and skill, she still isn’t accepted among knights and warriors because of her gender and is deeply traumatized because of her unfeminine (“ugly”) features, leading her to become awkward and unsure of herself. In contrast, other female warriors described in the series seem to be quite comfortable with their roles as lady fighters, but then, they are not described as manly or ugly, which just goes to reflect the message that, as a woman, you can get away with defying traditional gender roles as long as you fit the appearance standards of femininity. In this regard, Brienne’s story may appear to be catering to the male gaze, showing men and women that ugliness destroys you and lowers your worth even if you’re extremely good at something and all you deserve is pity. This is exacerbated by the fact she does fall in love with men and thus is seeking their approval both as a knight and as a woman. If Brienne were queer, it would counteract this issue a bit, since at least she could be thinking about ladies when it came to love and queer women are often looking for different qualities in a partner than straight men are. However, Brienne’s story is not over yet, so here’s hoping that, in the end, she’ll be able to stop caring what men think of her, achieve her goals and serve as an example that you don’t have to be beautiful to win.
Toph is an interesting character as well. Despite being heterosexual (as far as we know), she doesn’t really care what men (or anyone) thinks of her and she doesn’t care about relationships. In fact, she goes on to have two children with two different men whom we never meet, which something pretty much unheard of on TV (especially children’s). She is shown not to have been a good mother. She also always does what she wants. And she isn’t vilified for any of it. Toph could probably not break the heteronormative standards any more if she were queer.
I believe that anything that challenges traditional ideas about gender, sexuality, and beauty should be included in the fiction and media that we consume. However, we have to be mindful and critical of characters who break some of these tropes, but may be reinforcing other tropes, such as traditionally feminine heterosexual female characters who are given narratives usually seen in male characters. We need to expand this diversity further and include characters who don’t conform to feminine heteronormative standards to represent this group of people, as well as to show that you can be good at something, be accepted, and succeed without having to fit into a traditional mold. Characters such as Korra, Toph, and Brienne are a start, but we need more.
So, tell us, do you know any other gender-non-conforming queer female (super)heroes? Share in the comments!
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This takes me back to how Smallville’s most memorable non-straight character was villified and she literally turned into a man a couple of times. She wasn’t really a butch villain, but she fit that awful trope and Smallville didn’t have any LGBT stuff to counter it, not really. A throwaway line by one of Jimmy’s random coworkers at the Daily Planet about having a boyfriend is not the same as a whole plot that spans two episodes within two different seasons about a villain who’s a woman in love with Lana… 😛 http://smallville.wikia.com/wiki/Tina_Greer
When you said Butch Heroines, my first thought was “Sin” (Cindy) on Arrow. I don’t believe her sexual orientation is ever specified, and she’s not a superhero, but she is a strong, likable female character who presents in a pretty butch way – we’d never see her wearing a dress, and her haircut is short, etc. http://arrow.wikia.com/wiki/Sin
A good one to maybe think about Jasmine Garza on the recently canceled (well, given a 6-episode ending season) Canadian show, Continuum. The actress who played her, Luvia Petersen, is out as a lesbian, recently married a woman, and has a bitch hairstyle and in the show, a less feminine clothing style, despite yes, being a thin, white, attractive woman. http://luviapetersen.com/tag/jasmine-garza/ On the show she starts out as a villain, one of the terrorists, but as early on as the pilot it’s kind of clear that the villains are kind of fighting for a good cause. The bad guys and the good guys aren’t drawn in black and white, it’s more complicated than that. She’s a little too violent and scary and vilified for my taste as what a butch hero should be, but by the end of the show we all are rooting for her, and think she’s pretty close to a good guy, deserves to live, is fighting for a good cause, etc. It’s also clear on the show that she’s queer. I think she’s supposed to be bisexual. I don’t remember her showing any interest in men, though. She… seems to have a thing for Kiera but she taunts the lead protagonist with the sexual attraction toward her in a kind of creepy, vilified way. She calls Kiera a prude for not enjoying seeing her bare naked, or at least acting awkward around the fact that Garza strips down in front of her to prove she has no weapons. (Kiera is a cop, both characters are from the year 2077.) She is hitting on a straight woman in a way that feels wrong, off, she knows it’s not going to be enjoyed and she’s doing it anyway. She’s more of a butch queer female villain, BUT one of the most memorable things about the show is that by the end of season 3, and sort of at the beginning of it too, the protagonist Kiera starts working with the terrorists, realizing they are fighting for good. Where we root for the villains, and know they aren’t really terrorists. They’re fighting against a dystopia. They have likable moments. Garza is a strong female character who is capable and fascinating to root for.
Oh, yeah, I love Sin! Too bad her arc was rather short and small. I don’t think we know what her sexuality is but I was totally shipping her with Sara XD
Also, very interesting thoughts on Garza – I don’t watch Continuum, but it sounds like a fascinating, if problematic, portrayal of a queer woman.
Yes, I think it’s problematic for sure. The show is pretty heteronormative over all. And AH I meant *butch hairstyle, not “bitch”!! Stupid typos!! But yes, your assessment of her being fascinating is certainly correct.
Another example I like a lot is Kerry Weaver on ER. She was one of the earliest mainstream prime time TV lesbians, her lesbian storyline starting at the end of the year 2000, and lasted through her last episodes (January 2007 and then a cameo in the series finale in 2009). She is butch. Attractive, white, but yes, in my opinion, butch — and the character was disabled, too.
(Here’s a good interview about the actress who played her, Laura Innes, being able-bodied but cast in the role of the disabled character: http://www.abilitymagazine.com/Laura_Innes.html )
Before leaving the show, Laura Innes “just told them, ‘I don’t want to be sick or die.’ [She] didn’t want to send this message that this woman who had this history of disability and is gay — now we’re going to kill her off. [She] said, ‘Let her have a happy end.’: And so the writers gave that to her!”
(Quote was from this interview: http://www.tvguide.com/news/laura-innes-reveals-39358/ — she also brings up Lipstick Lesbians, I’m not sure if she considers her girlfriends on the show those, or her herself, based on the quote. Maybe you can tell me.)
Even before her character realizes she’s a lesbian, she’s butch (this is roughly 5 seasons of the show). She’s not a main protagonist as ER is an ensemble show with no “lead”, not really. But she’s a lovable character, a talented doctor, good at being chief of Emergency Medicine and being a leader in the field. She dates women who look less butch, although the one she chooses to have a child with and considers her life partner is a firefighter and therefore acts possibly more butch than she did.
I really think she was a very likable character. Not a villain in any way. She was one of the heroes on ER. One of the amazing Emergency Room doctors.
OMG OK First of all, I LOVE LOVE LOVE ER. And secondly, I LOVE Weaver. I don’t know if I’d call her butch, really, but she is quite tomboyish and, with the short hair and quite masculine in her manners and behavior. And I especially love that she figured out she was gay later in life. I just love her, she’s a great character and nice representation, for both LGBT and people with disability (although, admittedly, they fixed her disability later on, so that’s always a tricky issue, but if I remember correctly we knew from the start that her disability was something that could be made better with an operation, she just didn’t want to have it before, which is OK in my opinion).
Yeah, you’re right. She’s only borderline butch, but compared to maybe every other canonical lesbian I know except for idk, Melanie on Queer as Folk, Weaver seemed like the only acknowledgement of that kind of gender presentation anywhere to be found lol.
When I first saw the title, I naturally thought ‘well, what about Korra?’ Looks like you were ahead of me there.
As for other heroines, you have to dig pretty deep to get to ‘Butch -and- Queer.’ The only one that comes to mind is Grace Choi, an obscure Outsiders character who may not exist in current DC continuity. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Choi)
Of course, comics being what they are, it’s entirely possible for Grace to be drawn like a suicide girl rather than a wall-breaking brick.
If you take the explicitly queer requirement out, it opens up a few (though not too many) other characters. Amanda Waller comes to mind (even if DC has been portraying her as your standard thin supermodel for the last few years, which is terrible).
Yeah, I don’t read many comics but my problem with most of them is how they draw their female characters, I just don’t like it.
Nyx from Kameron Hurley’s God’s War is a bisexual mercenary. She’s more of an anti-heroine than a straight up heroine though – she does way too many morally ambitious things.
There’s Teo in Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, a lesbian Craftswoman (in verse magic user). She’s a supporting character and not the protagonist, however.
Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer has a lesbian protagonist, but I don’t really remember much about where Eliana relates to traditional femininity.
There’s also the “Sweet Polly Oliver” trope – i.e. a girl or woman who disguises herself as a man to join the army. A lot of these sorts of characters tend to be more tomboyish for obvious reasons. Winter from A Thousand Names by Django Wexler is probably the only queer Sweet Polly Oliver I’ve encountered. Otherwise, there’s also Polly from Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett, who doesn’t have any sort of love interest, and Deryn Sharpe from Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, who is heterosexual.
For other (presumably) heterosexual women…. Maybe Oshiro Mariko from Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein? Lozen from Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac?
It’s interesting that the examples you came up with (and most of the ones I could think of) are all from media written by male authors. Does it reflect the predominance of male created media? Do female creators feel some sort of pressure to create traditionally feminine characters? I’ve got no idea what this means, but I noticed the same thing when I tried to come up with a list of adult SFF heroines without love interests.
Interesting questions. But yes, I think that the main reason why we find more characters in any category created by men is because men dominate the industry. I’ve never thought about whether female creators would feel pressure to create traditionally feminine characters, but I think that may be true as well because they have to sell their ideas to people in charge/people with money and those people are also mostly men. So, the women have to make it appealing to the men as well and so probably have to compromise in some areas to push through other ideas. That is why it’s so important that we have more women in all areas so that we can have women who finance and produce new TV shows and movies.
Interesting. You might be interested in reading the comic I’m working on. The main character is Tomboyish and asexual (she is heteroromantic, though). She also has two scars on her face that are the result of her shapeshifting powers. I’m also hoping to explore Protestant theology and various social issues such as racism, legalism, and what makes us human. Would you like me to let you know when it’s done? 😀
Totally feel your frustration about Felicity. The only not sexy-nerd girl I’ve seen is Amy Farrah Fowler of Big Bang Theory, who would’ve been a cool ace character but then the show decided that she was repressed and made her a stereotype.
The only character I can think of right now is Trubel from Grimm. Both the character and the actress have gotten hate for the depiction of the character, and her butchness is often brought up. That just makes me sad because yeah, the show isn’t great on the character development front, but it’s nice to see someone with her look and her rough mannerisms. No indication of whether she’s queer or not though.
The Big Bang Theory is all around NOT good at representation. It’s a shame too because I’m a fan of Mayim Bialik and I think it’s amazing to see a woman like her on the screen (especially since she’s an actual scientist), but TBBT just doesn’t deserve her.
I don’t watch Grimm but yes, even if character development isn’t great, sometimes it’s just plain nice to see someone who looks more like you. And that’s another problem with a lot of female characters – they get hate more often, and different characters get hate for, like, opposing reasons. Like, for instance, if she’s a bubbly girly girl (Kara Danvers from Supergirl), she gets hated for it, but if she’s grieving, angry, and struggling with addiction, she also gets hated for it (Laurel Lance in Arrow).
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“However, it doesn’t work the other way around for female characters—in other words, female villains aren’t often made more masculine. In fact, more often than not we see the evil seductress trope when a hypersexualized, hyperfeminine female villain uses her sexuality as a tool to get what she wants.”
This is exactly why I hated Grayza’s representation in Farscape (if anyone remembers Farscape) although I couldn’t articulate it at the time. Magic boob sweat. Come ON.
My first thought was Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Not queer I don’t think, but butch. I remember being impressed at her casting, especially given the waifs they cast in other leading roles for the show.
I watched Deadpool at the weekend and if Negasonic Teenage Warhead isn’t a queer, butch, superhero then I don’t know what is! The character isn’t confirmed queer in the script, but that is the image she’s projecting.
Angel Dust is another butch woman in Deadpool, played by Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter who is racking up quite record in Hollywood action films.
On a personal note I’m a straight, white, male, but I actually found both of those characters more appealing than Vanessa, Deadpool’s girlfriend, who, while alternatively dressed, is more conventionally feminine in this film. I preferred the way she looked in Firefly, more curvy.
A couple of the new Ghostbusters look potentially promising if you’re looking for butch heros. A bit early to call it at the moment.
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