Beyond the Swagger: The Serious Play of Lesbian Expression

The appearance and gender expressions of sexual-minority women, and lesbians in particular, has been of academic interest for a considerable time (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Esterberg, 1996; Hutson, 2012; Huxley, Clarke, & Halliwell, 2013). Are there noticeable differences between heterosexual and homosexual female expression? And if so, what are the explanations and functions for deviant expressions among lesbians? By analyzing an inter-disciplinary collection of studies on lesbian gender expressions, I hope to begin to draw some patterns and new insight into what makes a lesbian “look like” a lesbian, and why she may (or may not) adopt such an expression.

For at least the last two hundred years, womanhood and heterosexuality have been sociologically intertwined. Heterosexuality, defined as a woman’s (presumably exclusive) sexual interest in men, was seen to be perhaps the only reliable characteristic of gender in a Victorian culture strained by rapidly expanding roles for women. To be a “good” woman, in other words, required partnership with a man and, ultimately, children and family (Seidman, 2015). Although the roles for women have continued to expand and grow, the expectation for women to partner with men is arguably just as strong as it was then. Career Women are constantly asked if they can “have it all”, with the unspoken “all” always being a husband and children. Due to these deeply heteronormative aspects of female socialization, women who do not have a significant sexual relationship with a man are not seen as fully actualized women within society. Lesbians then, whose identities as adult women have no necessary relationship with men, become socially seen as a “third sex” (Esterberg, 1996; Seidman, 2015). Even the language used to describe lesbians reflects this (notice the absence of “women” in lesbians, compared to “gay men”). This observation is reflected both in academic literature and formal interviews with non-academic lesbians (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Esterberg, 1996; Huxley et al., 2013).

So lesbian expression, at its core, could be seen as a rejection of heterosexual femininity and expectations, even among lesbians who identify as feminine (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Esterberg, 1996; Huxley et al., 2013). A frequently cited observation of this effect is the reduction of “thinness expectation” among lesbians compared to heterosexual women; commonly believed to be linked to a reduced concern for what is considered conventionally attractive for women, and instead establishing their own lesbian standards of beauty (Hudson, 2010). It was this rejection of conventional expectations and norms most frequently mentioned by lesbians as a core difference between lesbians and heterosexual women in interviews with non-academic lesbians (Clarke & Spence, 2013).

Many lesbians speak of a permeable membrane, of sorts, dividing heterosexual women and lesbians (Clarke & Spence, 2013). This can be in regards to behaviors, expressions, interests, and many other facets of being a woman: straight women can have short hair, lesbians can enjoy knitting, and anyone can wear makeup, for example. And yet, lesbians expressed a significant difference in their ability to completely disregard the desires of men, compared to heterosexual women who may still need to navigate relationships between their personal expression and male desire (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Esterberg, 1996). Of course, this does not mean lesbians are exempt from influence in regard to heterosexual expectations. Even the so-called classic lesbian expressions of “femme” and “butch” are frequently seen as deliberate and playful queering of traditional heterosexual gender roles. For this very reason, the boundaries between lesbian expressions and their heterosexual counterparts are not always obvious to observers or participants (Esterberg, 1996).

To muddle matters more, many forms of expression previously exclusive to lesbians have become adopted (or appropriated) by mainstream heterosexual culture (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Seidman, 2015). Some see this as a sign of growing social acceptance, and believe as inclusion of lesbians in society continues to grow, the cultural dilution of lesbian expression will continue with it. Others see lesbian expression shifting away from its older rejection of heterosexual expressions, and establishing itself in its own right instead (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Huxley et al., 2013). But most lesbians agreed some significant, although perhaps blurry, differences between heterosexual women and lesbians did still exist.

If expressive differences, however significant or insignificant, between heterosexual women and lesbians can be considered true, then what are the explanations for those differences? All matters of appearance and expression are capable of communicating identity, whether the person is aware or not, but lesbians seem to be uniquely conscious of the constructive nature of their expressions (Esterberg, 1996). Likely this is because lesbian’s socialization as women has already made them more aware of the social effects of appearance when compared to men, and their sexual-minority status makes them more aware of sexual-minority stereotypes than heterosexual women (Hudson, 2010). Many lesbians speak of consciously making an effort to alter their appearance to express their lesbian identity when they first come out, but also a desire to avoid resorting to stereotypes (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Hudson, 2010; Huxley et al., 2013). Although the mechanisms for this change differed for each lesbian; some cut their hair short, some adopted a more masculine wardrobe, some became more colorful and expressive; the intent to express a lesbian identity after coming out was the same.

Lesbian expression is a form of “serious play”, then; the participants are aware of the constructive nature of their expression, but also realize their expression can successfully, or unsuccessfully, broadcast a lesbian identity depending on the “audience” (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Esterberg, 1996). This level of awareness causes many lesbians to attempt to juggle several layers of expectations and their consequences: What straight society thinks lesbians look like, what other lesbians think lesbians look like, and what I think lesbian looks like on me (Hudson, 2010). Regardless of how a particular lesbian may attempt to express her identity (or not express it, or suppress it), most are aware of a “lesbian look” and their approximation to it as a mythical standard (Huxley et al., 2013).

Different types of lesbian expressions can have different functions and potential disadvantages, depending on the environment and audience. As mentioned before, classic lesbian expressions of “butch” and “femme” are queer plays on heterosexual male and female gender roles, respectively (Esterberg, 1996). However as the lesbian community changes, a shift toward lesbian expressions outside of the context of heterosexuality has begun to take hold as well (Clarke & Spence, 2013). Particularly as lesbians have long been stereotyped as exclusively butch, many express a hesitation to resort to stereotypes when communicating their identity, instead preferring terms like “boyish” and “androgynous” to describe their Lesbian Look (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Hudson, 2010; Huxley et al., 2013).

But awareness of stereotypes is not an exemption from it. Lesbians with “visible” expressions, such as butch or androgynous, have a stronger ability to be recognized as lesbian in all environments. With this visibility comes the risk of hostility from heterosexist critics, but also the benefit of increased recognition and status from other sexual-minority women (Huxley et al., 2013). Lesbians with “invisible” expressions, femme and feminine, have a difficult time being recognized as lesbians from heterosexuals and often other lesbians (Huxley et al., 2013). Many femme lesbians complain of butch lesbians “policing” feminine expressions within lesbian spaces, but also sexual harassment from heterosexual men (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Hudson, 2010). Visibility can be seen as a way to gain recognition as a lesbian, which can explain why so many lesbians mention a dramatic shift in their appearance upon coming out, even if they eventually adopt a different expression (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Hudson, 2010). With increased visibility comes increased risk from the heterosexual world, but also increased acceptance within the lesbian world. Compare this to expressions with low visibility, namely feminine expressions. Not only does low visibility increase the risk of identity erasure in the heterosexual world, but also rejection within the lesbian world (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Hudson, 2010).

Although many academic studies are limited in scope to white, cisgender, educated lesbians, the intersections of race, class, education, and other factors can shape what expression a lesbian feels most comfortable with. Masculine expression, for example, could be characterized as “butch”, “stud”, “boi”, “boyish”, “sporty”, or “androgynous”, depending on the intersecting identities for that particular lesbian. This illustrates the growing importance of lesbian expression to not only communicate a lesbian identity, but also other significant identities in conjunction with it (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Hudson, 2010).

Even if lesbian expression may have originated as a queering of heterosexual expressions, it has evolved beyond this relationship into something unique in its own right. Recognition of sexual deviancy among other deviants, as well as other important intersections of identity, seem to be the most important function of lesbian expression. While recognition of sexual deviancy among sexually normative people, particularly those who subscribe to compulsory heterosexuality, is potentially the greatest risk of lesbian expression. How each lesbian navigates the balance between these two factors most likely affects what ways she expresses herself, depending on her current environment and intended “audience”.


Clarke, V., & Spence, K. (2013). ‘I am who I am’? Navigating norms and the importance of authenticity in lesbian and bisexual women’s accounts of their appearance practices. Psychology & Sexuality Psychology and Sexuality, 4(1), 25-33. doi:10.1080/19419899.2013.748240

Esterberg, K. (1996). ’A certain swagger when I walk:’ Performing lesbian identity. In S. Seidman (Ed.), Queer Theory/Sociology (pp. 259-279). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Hutson, D. (2010). Standing OUT/Fitting IN: Identity, appearance, and authenticity in gay and lesbian communities. Symbolic Interaction, 33(4), 213-233. doi:10.1525/si.2010.33.2.213

Huxley, C., Clarke, V., & Halliwell, E. (2013). Resisting and conforming to the ‘lesbian look’: The importance of appearance norms for lesbian and bisexual women. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 24(3), 205-219. doi:10.1002/casp.2161

Seidman, Steven. 2015. The Social Construction of Sexuality. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 43-54.

Beyond the Swagger: The Serious Play of Lesbian Expression

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