Despite representing the first letter in the LGBT acronym, lesbians have a difficult time procuring representation in film. In GLAAD’s most recent annual report of LGBT representation in film, only one percent of all films released in 2018 contained some form of lesbian representation – the highest reported since GLAAD started their yearly round-up. However, next to none of these films featured a lesbian character in a role even remotely consequential to the plot, much less a leading role. Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 feature Lyle is a rare exception;. not only does it surpass the reported average of three minutes of screentime for a lesbian character, the explicitly lesbian couple at the heart of the film shows affection in a manner not meant for the male gaze, plus the story doesn’t explicitly revolve around the lead characters’ sexualities. All in all, this appears to be a model representation of non-exploitative sapphic love. However, every rose has its thorns and Lyle’s happens to be the use of common but harmful trope: the evil butch.
Butch is an umbrella term for a more gender non-conforming lesbian, typically associated with having more “masculine” characteristics: they’re less apt to wear skirts and makeup, some grow out body hair, some have shorter “masculine” haircuts, some use pronouns other than she/her, and they’ve gained the reputation of being more callous, rough, and victims of toxic masculinity. This negative reception of butches stems from their choice to not conform to typical standards of femininity compared to the more palatable femme counterpart – a choice frowned upon heavily in Western society which prioritizes adhering to the heteropatrarchia gender binary. Butches fall at an intersection of societal ire both because they reject traditional concepts of femininity and because, as lesbians, they are detached from men for romantic, sexual, or even platonic needs. Representation for gender non-conforming lesbians in film is low to begin with. The most infamous butches coming to mind are Emma (Léa Seydoux) in Blue is the Warmest Color, Graham (Clea DuVall) in But I’m a Cheerleader and Stacie (Ellen Page) in Freeheld. These characters’ personalities manifest in a callous attitude towards their more feminine counterparts like mocking their appearance or their lack of experience, a tendency towards promiscuity or – in the case of Blue is the Warmest Color – engaging in grooming behavior by forcing their partners into situations they’ve explicitly stated they’re uncomfortable with. Subconsciously, this creates a tie to toxic masculinity as emotional constipation or as manipulative tendencies despite butches not being affected by toxic masculinity because they’re not men.
Lyle’s central characters are a stereotypical butch/femme pairing consisting of record-producer June (Ingrid Jungermann) and her wife Leah (Gaby Hoffman) as they try to navigate life after the death of their firstborn. The film has been described as a sapphic twist on Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, with Leah paralleling Mia Farrow’s Rosemary and June as John Cassavetes’ Guy. The plots are, indeed, very similar: a growing family moves into a new apartment with eccentric neighbors when sinister events cause a rift in the marriage. Leah, the femme in the pairing, is glad to stay at home and take care of their toddler, Lyle, and she’s always seen in either a dress or other stereotypically feminine clothes much like Rosemary. On the other hand, June has hair that wouldn’t be out of place on a boy in an indie band, wears stereotypically masculine clothes, and is financially in control – much like Cassavetes. To Lyle’s credit, both characters are well-developed – more so than the Woodhouses – with agency and a purpose outside of being some taboo plot addition or the token diversity. Both are common tropes in films with little to no input from actual lesbians; Thorndike’s own experience as a queer woman impacted her choice to manipulate the Rosemary’s Baby story to work for a modern lesbian couple. Thorndike gives both women a character arc: Leah is feistier than Rosemary and prepared to fight tooth and nail for her and her baby to survive. June retains the same quiet maliciousness as Guy and yet seems to care about her wife deeply and even shows remorse for the situation she placed their family in.
However, Thorndike’s choice to make June a ferociously ambitious career woman while Leah is a soft, sympathetic character plays into the “evil butch” trope hard and heavy. June slowly becomes more emotionally abusive as the film continues: she gaslights Leah into thinking she’s grieving improperly after the tragic death of their firstborn, she makes repeated statements that their in utero child isn’t a boy and makes that Leah’s fault, and she repeatedly leaves Leah completely isolated despite acknowledging her declining mental health. While this does make the final sequence where Leah drowns her wife in a large pool for home birth even sweeter, having an otherwise strong gender non-conforming lead be so stereotypical is painful to watch. Outside of the clear red herring that is their building manager (Rebecca Street), June is the only character that acts maliciously towards Leah during the hour-long runtime. Showing the only gender non-conforming character as an abusive, callous person – in addition with the obvious choice of having her be the foil to Guy Woodhouse – equates butch lesbians with toxic masculinity which is an incorrect assumption. June and Guy both place their goals (fame and notoriety) above the health and safety of their families; even in the end sequence where June begins to feel remorse for Leah she still continues to defend her past actions as if her wife wasn’t visibly emotionally damaged partially from June’s behavior. If the roles were reversed and June was the Rosemary of the duo, it would completely subverts the societal view of the butch/femme pairing with the “husband” surrogate in the domestic role and the “wife” in the provider role. Making the femme the provider breaks the idea non-lesbians sometimes get that the butch/femme dynamic is merely mirroring a straight couple. Along with this, having the gender non-conforming character act as a protagonist would act against decades of history where the gender non-conforming character – whether they’re a more feminine man, a more masculine woman, or a trans character – is seen as evil. Having the butch lesbian as the protagonist removes the element of gender non-conformity being a source of horror.
While Thorndike’s choice to twist Rosemary’s Baby to fit a more modern narrative does provide marginally better representation than more well-known lesbian centered narratives, June’s blatant abusive behavior in contrast to Leah’s sympathetic portrayal feeds into the constant negative rhetoric centering gender non-conforming lesbians. Routinely placing gender non-conforming characters unconsciously creates an association that breaking the gender binary is a bad thing. Containing the butch/femme stereotype to patriarchal views of partnership and marriage ends up making this otherwise progressive take on apartment horror a bit disappointing. Representation in media has the power to be uplifting, but when the best representation available is still regressive, is it really worth touting the label of representation?
Header image courtesy of Breaking Glass Productions