You may know Lea DeLaria as the standout MoC lesbian who found fame as Big Boo in Orange is the New Black. She’s an important figurehead to emerge from the show, as masculine-leaning queer women in pop culture are few and far between, and visibility is vital in normalizing queerness. But last week, the actress made some off-color comments about dating women that made my stomach churn.
In a candid interview with Australia’s Sunday Life magazine, she joked about her appetite for younger women. “I think of myself as the lesbian Jack Nicholson, in that I am going to go out with a lot of young girls,” she explained. “Jack is my idol. When he was 60 he got two women in their 20s pregnant, so that’s my goal.”
In a time when our culture is finally reckoning with the passes we’ve given men in sexual misconduct, abuse, and general misogyny, it’s disappointing to see a woman choosing to emulate that. Women have long been silenced and stifled by patriarchal norms and systemic chauvinism, and just because DeLaria is female doesn’t mean we should excuse her behavior.
The 60-year old actress clearly idolizes Nicholson, a famed Lothario, as she repeated a similar joke about wanting to imitate his getting two women pregnant on Conan back in 2017. Additionally, she quipped, “[My doctor] told me I had diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol all at the same time, so basically all I can eat is pussy.”
It should go without saying, but these types of comments perpetuate misogyny in gruesome and outdated ways, as they objectify women and paint them as prizes, or conquests that must be won and collected, and that’s unacceptable.
But DeLaria is far from the first and only butch queer woman to use her sexuality and gender as an excuse to preserve misogyny.
In 2016, out lesbian rapper Young M.A. came under fire for her chauvinistic lyrics, referring to women as “hoes” in an attempt to bond with her heterosexual male peers. “That’s the bro code,” she quips. With her hit single “Ooouuu,” the 26-year old rapper emerged as a celebrated trailblazer, because similar to DeLaria, masculine-presenting, out queer women of color in hip-hop are rarities. And while the visibility she brought to hip-hop was noteworthy, we still must hold queer women accountable for toxic behavior.
Samantha Master of The Root wrote, “Young M.A., in some ways, has used the cultural space largely created by black women to promote the re-enactment of elements of toxic masculinity,” asking, “Is visibility alone ever really radical?”
The question in itself sparks a complicated and much-needed conversation on toxic masculinity, and the ways in which it bleeds into queer culture, especially amongst MoC women who idolize masculinity even its downfalls. As LGBTQ people, we must ask ourselves: does true feminist equality mean being able to mimic bad behavior that, historically, only men have been allowed to participate in? Or do we need to do better? I think we need to do better and it’s not a blurry line, either.
As a feminist, I do wholeheartedly believe that equality means being able to flood male-dominated spaces and flip norms that have been typically gendered as such. However, I will never support the further marginalization or oppression of any community that has already been irrevocably damaged by harmful patriarchal systems. For those reasons, I see what public-facing butch women like Lea DeLaria and Young M.A. want to do, versus what they’re actually accomplishing. There are ways to alleviate heteronormative sexism while maintaining brash declarations of sexuality, and some artists are paving that way.
Out lesbian singer Hayley Kiyoko has expressed that she grew up wanting to mimic the men in boy bands like *NSYNC, so she made a career out of chasing girls in videos, dancing with a group of male backup dancers, and speaking openly about having sex with women things that only her male counterparts have been afforded the opportunity to do in the past. The of-the-moment rapper Cardi B has flipped the narrative in her genre, too. While Cardi has been guilty of perpetuating misogyny in hip-hop, using monikers like “hoes” and “bitches,” it’s important to also consider intention. For artists like Kiyoko and Cardi, they’re often able to circumvent misogyny by embracing the female gaze without punching down.
The Bronx native often raps about money, sex, power, and men in the same way that male rappers do, and expresses herself just as brazenly, with lyrics like, “Pussy so good, I say my own name during sex,” or, “Pop that pussy while you work, pop that pussy up at church, pop that pussy on the pole, pop that pussy on the stove.” In context, her lyrics are about encouraging women to embrace their sexuality and power, using appellations like “hoes” to reclaim the word from men, whereas Young M.A. uses it to participate in heterosexist culture.
When Cardi raps about women, like on “I Do,” when she boldly reveals her craving for a threesome with Rihanna and Chrissy Teigen, she doesn’t objectify them (“I need Chrissy Teigen / Know a bad bitch when I see one / Tell Rih-Rih I need a threesome”). Instead, there is power in her lyrics, just as there is power in banding together with other women, rather than treating them as less-than.
Cardi B and Hayley Kiyoko are two examples of women in entertainment who use their status to embolden women and LGBTQ people, rather than further oppress them. It’s extremely unhelpful and regressive for a person like Lea DeLaria, who could be a shining beacon for MoC women in pop culture, to use language that’s detrimental to feminist and pro-LGBTQ causes. And while I understand the urge to seek equality by participating in male behavioral patterns that we’ve become accustomed to and indignantly want to overturn, we must weed out those behaviors that are toxic, and nourish and encourage those that are positive.