"Yeah, Maybe A Lighter Butch": Outlaw Gender and Female Masculinity in Orange Is The New Black

Curator's Note

In the interview titled, "Big Boo Wasn't Originally Supposed To Be A Part Of 'Orange Is The New Black,'" interviewer Alex Berg looks at Lea Delaria and says, "You don't just play any Lesbian, you play a very Butch Lesbian." Of course it's not just that Delaria plays a very Butch Lesbian; she is a very Butch Lesbian, and notes--first with anger ("Fuck it, fuck America, fuck it") and then with triumphant joy--that OITNB needed to, and did, create a role for her. Berg quips, "And Big Boo was born!" but Big Boo wasn't just born. As character, prototype, or even stereotype, Big Boos are not new--and that creating a Butch character was an afterthought, particularly in a prison setting, serves to highlight the ongoing marginilization and erasure of female masculinities, and particularly of the "Very Butch" variety of womanhood.

The interview, by centering Delaria as a Butch subject, reveals insights about gender, masculinities, and women seldom seen in mainstream media: "The reality is I am old enough," the Fifty-Five year old Delaria asserts, wherein aging masculinity on a female body is regarded as not old enough, not mature enough, and not an end-point, whereas aging femininity on on a female body is regarded as too old, too mature, and the end-point at which only roles as mothers or grandmothers may be performed. Interestingly, in solidarity with First Wives Clubs everywhere, Big Boo, when replaced by a younger, slimmer, long-haired, and less-Butch model, responds to "Oh face it, Butchie, you lose, I win" with a first-wife warning of her own: She tells the new playmate that her ex only "likes new shiny things." Moments later, Delaria also uses the word "shiny" to describe what young (heterosexual) men want when watching "lesbians"/lesbians.

While it is clear that Big Boo and Delaria both come out ahead as winners with OITNB, the outlaw nature of Butch--Boo, imprisoned onscreen, and Delaria, fighting to be seen as a valid subject offscreen--is called into question. What is allowed to be represented, celebrated, and viewed as 'real' in America still rests upon restriction, rather than expansion; the gaze upon the "Very Butch" Big Boo and Delaria serve as a crucial, refreshingly shocking, and much needed exception. Subjects hailed as exceptional, however, often serve to reinforce the notion of outsider, solitary existences--and perhaps not just coincedence, then, that disputing this myth begins from within prison walls. 


Great post, Sasha. Odd indeed that while the Butch is such a stalwart stereotype of prison narratives – as Vernon Shetley’s post tomorrow will attest – she was an afterthought of the OITNB creators. Especially since, apart from prison narratives and the occasional LGBT indie film (Go Fish, Pariah) in which non-Butch performers more often than not play Butch, the “Very Butch” Lesbian is virtually absent from any screen not displaying dyke porn. And so she has become the dominant signifier of authenticity – more than clothes, hair, nails, sex acts, or anything else – in representations of queer women and lesbianism. Her exceptionalism in this respect isn’t such an honor, of course, given that she’s relegated to tokenistic rarity in popular culture. That OITNB has a full-time, full-on Butch played by a full-time, full-on Butch, and that her character is not merely tough but also complex, loveable, funny, hot, and cool, makes it – and Big Boo, and DeLaria – pioneers as well as outlaws.

The story about Delaria deciding to abandon the US over her disappointment at TV casting practices echoes a key episode in the life of Bruce Lee. An oft-told story (true in broad outlines, though the details are more complicated) is that Lee, losing out on the part of the wandering Shaolin monk Caine in the Kung Fu TV series to a non-Asian (David Carradine in “yellowface”), left American in disgust, returning to Hong Kong to star in the series of films that would make him a martial-arts legend. While Asian representation in the media has increased since the days of Kung Fu, it still seems that Asian characters are likely to be women (Lucy Liu on Elementary, Sandra Oh on Gray’s Anatomy) or emasculated caricatures like Han on 2 Broke Girls. Masculinity, it seems, is a precious substance, too precious to allow butches or Asians to share in it.

Delaria's f- America! "What's a women's prison without a butch dyke?"--a dare and demand that was met is so great. Another example of how OITNB takes full advantage of the conventions of the women's prison genre and makes the setting where bad, crazy and butch are ordinary, because those are the expectations of prison, a way to introduce characters and performers that are underrepresented else where in TV. Maria, as you've pointed out in how the series plays with temporality, the way in which OITNB's narrative structure includes a parallel pre-prison life we get to see both sides and as a result a much bigger picture and better characterization. But come to think of it, we haven't even gotten Big Boo's back story yet, have we? Season 2 can't get here soon enough...

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.