It’s All About the Hair: Butch Identity and Drag on “The L Word”

Note: to read an alternate opinion on butch representation on The L Word, read “Too Much Otherness: Femininity on The L Word.”

When The L Word first premiered in January 2004, there were no butch characters on the drama — all of the women looked femme and could easily pass for straight women. Although many viewers pointed out, and rightly so, that many lesbians don’t look butch, it is important to include butch women on The L Word for several reasons.

First, the show is a drama about a group of lesbians, and no matter how femme West Hollywood is, butchness has been and always will be an important aspect of lesbian life and culture; to ignore that is to deny reality. Second, The L Word provides a wonderful opportunity to counter the negative stereotypes of female masculinity that abound in our society. It is important to challenge gender norms in order to break down the discrimination that women who are not traditionally feminine often encounter.

Third, it’s really important to have hair diversity on the show. I love long hair — after all, my hair is long — but some girls just look cute with short hair. Even worse, a few of the characters had really bad hair, possibly compounding the stereotype that lesbians have no fashion sense.

As the season progressed, however, The L Word made significant strides toward including butch women in the cast. The character of Shane has a masculine physicality that has become recognizably butch over the course of season one, and the character of Ivan the drag king has gone further than any of the other characters to grapple with the slippery notion of gender. These are great steps toward including different kinds of lesbians on The L Word and the producers should be applauded for going so far so soon.

But these positive developments do not come without problems, most of which comes down to the hair.

Let’s first consider the character of Shane McCutcheon, the professional hairdresser. (Is this a subtextual message? you might ask. Well, it just might be.) Shane, played by the oh-so-seductive Katherine Moennig, has become a woman that we all love to want. She is kind, forthright, sexy as hell, and walks with that butch-y saunter that declares she is self-confident and ready to take you home.

Shane does not fit the traditional appearance of a butch lesbian. She does not have a butch haircut, although in the tradition of the mullet, she does have a bizarre haircut. Despite a few scenes in the episode “Losing It” in which some gay men mistake her for a boy, Shane does not look remotely like a man–she clearly resembles a woman. She does wear some kick-ass steel-toe boots, but her shapely jeans and clinging shirts also reveal her to be, well, her.

There is nothing wrong with a woman who walks like a butch but is recognizably female. Most butch women do look like women. More importantly, they remind us that women do not all have 36-28-36 proportions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the character of Shane having longish hair, either — although the fact that her hair generally looks like a rat’s nest is really unfortunate. However, it is problematic when the one main character on the show who is set up as “butch” is denied one of the most important signifiers a butch woman has in American culture today: her butch haircut (other signifiers include but are not limited to: her chain wallet, boxers, and a motorcycle). That suggests that there is some fear of allowing those markers of female masculinity on-screen.

The problem with butch representation on The L Word isn’t only about the hair, but hair is an important indicator of where The L Word falls short in its acceptance of butch women. It is ironic that Shane, the one major “butch” character, is a hairdresser, because she should understand more than any of the other characters how important hair is. Anyone who has had a good or bad haircut knows what a difference a haircut can make, and for many self-identified butch lesbians, the moment they cut off their long hair is a significant marker in their lives.

But on The L Word, this marker doesn’t seem to exist. In fact, the only lesbian character on the show who does have short hair is Shane’s one-night-stand-turned-stalker Lacey (Tammy Lynn Michaels), who only appeared in a few episodes (and was kind of in-between butch and femme, anyway).

The semi-butch character Candace (Ion Overman) also has long hair, but the butch-hair-phobiais most obvious in the character of Ivan Aycock, who is first introduced to us as a drag king lip synching to “Savoir Faire.” Clad in a natty dark suit and an unreal black pompadour, Ivan Aycock (as portrayed by Kelly Lynch) swings a mean microphone in a very suggestive manner and elicits giggles and screams from the audience—which suddenly looks very straight in comparison to his on-stage persona.

But wait, you might say — Ivan does have butch hair! Well, sort-of. As it turns out, Ivan’s hair is one of the most complex issues to crop up on The L Word so far.

Before undertaking an analysis of the chameleon-like nature of Ivan’s pompadour, let’s take a moment to think about drag kings. The fact that the producers of The L Word included drag king performances on the show is a sign that they are committed to representing diversity in the lesbian community in addition to messing with viewers’ notions of gender. It’s really exciting that a character like Ivan has been introduced on The L Word, but it is also a complex and potentially confusing development.

As Judith “Jack” Halberstam points out in The Drag King Book:

“Because many lesbians are heavily invested in the butch role, any definition of the Drag King is complicated. One needs to sort carefully through the relations between being butch and being a Drag King; wearing masculine clothing and dressing up like a man; performing a Drag King act and performing butchness.” (page 36)

Any attempt to sort through what makes Ivan a drag king versus what makes Ivan a butch lesbian is immediately complicated by his/her romantic interest in Kit (Pam Grier), Bette’s straight half-sister. In the episode “Locked Up,” Kit introduces Ivan to Bette by saying “I want you to meet Ivan. He gave me a ride over here.” When Bette questions Kit’s pronoun usage, Ivan interjects, “Hey, no worries. I’m happy either way.” What this suggests is that Ivan is comfortable with being a “he” or a “she”; in other words, Ivan is not concerned about putting him/herself in a gender box, and s/he may even identify somewhere along a transgendered spectrum.

In the last episode of season one, Bette again challenges Kit who uses the pronoun “he” to refer to Ivan:

BETTE: She’s madly in love with you, you know.
KIT: No, he’s not, we’re friends. He helps me out with stuff.
BETTE: That’s because she is in love with you and she wants to be your husband.
KIT: No, it’s not like that.
BETTE: Kit, believe me. You may not be able to read the signals, but they’re there. I saw the way she looks at you. She is fully courting you, old school, and you’re letting her.
KIT: Is that so?
BETTE: Yeah, it is.
KIT: Well thank you for the lessons in the ritual mating habits of indigenous lesbians. Maybe next week we’ll do butch and femme role-playing.

This dialogue between Kit and Bette shows that both of them are only able to see Ivan in terms of one gender. Bette wants to categorize Ivan as a “she” and views Ivan’s attentions toward Kit as “old school” butch courting methods. Kit is much more comfortable viewing Ivan as a “he,” and she dismisses “butch and femme” as merely “role-playing.” (Hopefully at some point someone on the show will come out and say that “butch and femme” is not only about role-playing.)

What both Kit and Bette agree on is Ivan’s masculinity. Bette sees Ivan as butch; Kit sees Ivan as, well, a man. Since everyone seems to agree that Ivan is masculine, why then can’t s/he have a butch haircut? Instead we get a strange blonde pompadour-topped-mullet. Whoever decided to give Ivan that haircut needs to be shot.

Giving Ivan long blonde hair is an obvious marker of femininity, and it makes Ivan look so different from his drag persona that the first time Kit sees him/her out of drag she doesn’t recognize him/her. Because Ivan looks so different out of drag, it suggests that s/he does not take the drag persona off-stage, that Ivan is a “man” only when s/he is on stage.

But later in the episode, Ivan, dressed in drag, lip synchs to the song “I’m Your Man” for Kit, who is perched nervously on the hood of a car in the parking garage beneath the CAC. Ivan lip synchs:

If you want a lover 
I’ll do anything you ask me to 
And if you want another kind of love 
I’ll wear a mask for you

This is disturbing because Ivan’s private drag show for Kit comes shortly after Kit told him that “if you were a man, you would be the perfect man.” It appears that Ivan has decided to show Kit that s/he can be a man for her—but being a man requires that s/he be someone s/he is not. There is certainly room for playful drag in the context of an actual relationship, but using drag to seduce someone — especially someone like Kit, who has been straight all her life — is a bit cringe-worthy.

It’s not that a situation like this is unlikely in real life. Real life is full of complications and it is possible that a fifty-year-old straight woman would fall for a drag king with a pompadour-mullet. But I do wish that the producers of The L Word had thought through the messy implications of this storyline a bit more.

It would have been so much simpler — and less cringe-worthy — if Ivan had simply looked more butch off-stage. That’s right, if s/he had a butch haircut as opposed to the pompadour-mullet, the whole private drag show for Kit would be less cringe worthy, because it would erase the need for Ivan to “wear a mask” for Kit, which is the most problematic aspect of their developing relationship. Instead we have this long blonde-haired woman pretending to be a man so that a life-long straight woman will fall for her. This not only falls into the stereotype that lesbians recruit straight women, it also diminishes the issue of transgenderism, which the producers have been flirting with ever since Ivan said she didn’t mind being called a “he.”

Female masculinity is frightening to most people because it does displace men from the center of the conversation, where we are all accustomed to having them. The L Word has tried very hard throughout the first season to avoid alienating male viewers. One of the ways it has done this is to avoid having women on the show who look masculine, because then male viewers would not be able to look at them as feminine sexual objects.

It’s easy for us as viewers to excuse the exclusion of butches on The L Word because the show is set in West Hollywood, or because the show has only been on the air for one season and it needs to find an audience, or because we should be grateful we have any show about lesbians at all. But if we are committed to fighting discrimination and stereotypes about women in general — not only lesbians — it is not enough to have a show full of slender, beautiful, femmy women who just happen to be lesbians. We really need to have a few butch haircuts too.