In this op-ed Emma Madden asserts that butch lesbian imagery has been used by cis men in popular culture to portray a specific kind of masculinity.
In January 2010, activist and talent manager Dan Owens started a blog on Tumblr which would unwittingly change the way lesbians were seen in the public eye. Named ‘Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber,’ the blog was filled with submissions from swishy-haired, cap-wearing, lip-biting dykes.
“Academic papers have been written about the blog because it gave people a chance to see lesbians as cute, rather than scary,” Owens tells Teen Vogue over email. Justin Bieber became a lesbian icon as others caught onto Bieber’s sapphic charms. K.d. lang, the ultimate dykon (dyke icon) embraced Justin’s newly minted lesbian status, and Kate McKinnon furthered that honor when she impersonated him on SNL and truly revealed his full butch potential a few years later.
Today, with a good dose of camp humor, young lesbians and queer women are embracing a swath of cis men as their dykons. While it might seem counterintuitive for lesbians to iconicize or centralize men in any way, to have cis male icons the way that gay men have Judy Garland, Cher, and Ashley O is a phenomenon that’s been increasingly mainstreamed ever since Owens launched the Tumblr blog. Soon after, The Toast’s Daniel M. Lavery began a series arguing that the likes of Johnny Bravo, Nick Jonas, and The O.C,’s Seth Cohen were also lesbian icons.
Over the past decade, a new dykon hierarchy has emerged with roots in the mid 20th century. The Irish singer Hozier has profited generously from a section of his fandom who believe that he’s been possessed by a “lesbian witch.” Then there’s Thor — apparently the Marvel universe’s dykiest export (“Thor is an honorary lesbian icon but none of us dykelings can explain why,” one fan tweeted), although admittedly that was before Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie became Marvel Studios’ first canonically queer character.
Higher up on the rungs of cis male dykedom lies Timothée Chalamet — the ultimate heartthrob for anyone who finds themselves attracted to men — but a haircut to those who don’t. Right at the very top lives Harry Styles. Just as Justin was inducted as a lesbian icon a few years prior, Harry has been anointed by the likes of Tegan and Sara, and has usurped Justin’s position as dyke doyen ever since.
On reflection, Owens feels irked by the impact his blog has had. “We're just desperate to be seen as how we feel inside and mainstream media doesn't give us sh*t to go off of so we settle with cis men,” he says. “It's a vicious cycle — the second we get a bit in the spotlight, a cis man wearing a lace shirt takes that away from us.” While the lesbian community run the risk of idolizing cis men over actual lesbians, we’re beginning to reckon with the idea that cis men are taking inspiration from us.
In truth, Justin’s look, Timothée’s look, Harry’s look all preceded f these men. It would have been more accurate for Owens to have called his blog “Justin Bieber Looks Like Lesbians” rather than the other way round. According to queer activist and scholar Marie Cartier, butch women had been sporting the hulking high-tops, baseball caps, and flicky hair in gay and lesbian bars since World War II, when they were given economic freedom, and the space to create a new kind of masculinity — a very long time before the Canadian singer sported it.
By no means are the Timothée Chalamets of today the first cis men to be considered lesbian icons. As Teresa Ortega argued when she proclaimed Johnny Cash a lesbian icon, lesbians tend to identify with a “troubled and suffering masculinity.” At times, that masculinity has been outlandish — as is the case with Bruce Willis — whose persistent, Action Man-fuelled machismo exposes itself as a spectacle of masculinity in the same vein as a drag king. Other times, that masculinity has coincided with femininity (we love Harry, for instance, because he embraces both femininity and feminism).
Perhaps we hail these men as lesbian icons either because, as lesbians, we want women to adore us the same way they adore men, or simply because it’s a way of inserting ourselves into a culture that worships men.
But here’s an alternative theory: What if we instinctively iconicize cis men whose maleness is routed in lesbian masculinity? In other words, what if these men took tips from lesbians on how to present themselves to the world, rather than the other way round? It appears we can sniff out the ones who do without even realizing it.
It’s an idea that was quoted on one of the walls at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year in a series that attempted to chart the evolution of gender and sexuality in Hollywood movies. “A traditional stereotype of butch women is that they are acting like men — I think the opposite is the case. It is the New Man, which emerged after the Second World War, who acts like a woman — a butch woman,” it reads. The quotation was taken from an essay by scholar and queer activist Marie Cartier, in which she argues that James Dean (arguably the first dykon) borrowed tropes from the butch women he’d been hanging around with, and in effect created a new masculinity. “The male iconic imagery of James Dean was actually butch imagery that at the time was undercover,” Cartier tells Teen Vogue. “Lesbians picked up on it, not knowing that they were picking up on themselves.”
She argues that Dean created a New Man who could have feelings and cry — something otherwise unthinkable in the 1950s. “There was no way for him to funnel that type of masculinity unless he had imitated butch women, but they would have had no idea at the time that he was actually imitating them,” Cartier says. “So they were iconicizing someone who was actually portraying themselves back through the silver screen.”
When we proclaim that Thor, or Harry, or Timothée, or whoever is a lesbian “but none of us dykelings can explain why,” what we’re instinctively doing is recognizing ourselves. The relationship is distinct from the kind that gay men have with their female gay icons, since Judy Garland, Cher, and Madonna tend to emulate what men have traditionally been denied — glamour, melodrama, and excessive emotion. On the inverse, male lesbian icons tend to represent who their worshippers already are.
As Cartier explains: “Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet have been as influenced by the butch women who have come before them, as any lesbian would be influenced by them today.”
So, in essence, the Timothée haircut isn’t Timothée’s; those Harry shirts aren’t Harry’s; that’s not really, erm, Thor’s sexual prowess. It belongs to every lesbian reading this. It’s ours.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue