Interview: Lesbian filmmaker tackles gender stereotypes

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Tracy E. Gilchrist

A self-identified butch and a celluloid triple threat, Butch Jamie writer, director and star Michelle Ehlen plays with and challenges gender stereotypes.

It’s small wonder that a woman who named her production company Ballet Diesel Films, would play with butch identity but Ehlen’s wryly funny work intellectually stimulates while inducing raucous laughter.

At its premiere earlier this summer Ehlen and her filmic alter ego Butch Jamie had Los Angeles’ Outfest audiences rollicking, earning Ehlen the Outfest Jury Award for Outstanding Actress.

More than just another tale of a struggling Hollywood actress, Butch Jamie skewers the narrow Hollywood ideal of what a bankable actress should be.

“I do identify as a butch but it’s always been kind of a joke,” Ehlen says, explaining that she tends to appear more butch than she acts.

While Butch Jamie, Ehlen’s hilarious first feature film about a butch-identified actress who’s forced to don sideburns, a soul patch and a carefully placed tube sock for a role, reflects Ehlen’s wider experience, she says that the film is not autobiographical.

Born and raised in Orange County and not too far from the ground zero of glam lesbians in West Hollywood, Ehlen earned her B.A. from Smith College.

The original Seven Sister school, in Northampton, Massachusetts is renowned for its diverse lesbian student body.

“Coming back to California from Smith was like culture shock,” Ehlen says, elaborating that being butch at Smith just fit in with part of the college’s fabric but back in Hollywood, lesbian chic tends to be the norm.

Following college where Ehlen plunged into theatre acting and video and film production, Ehlen relocated to the heart of the film business and attended the Los Angeles Film School.

Audiences at festivals across the land, including at the Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Philadelphia International Film Festival have fallen for Butch Jamie’s spot-on acting, directing and humour.

Ehlen’s also got a few praiseworthy short films under her big butch belt buckle – and exploring gender identity in fresh ways is at the core of Ehlen’s oeuvre.

In Ballet Diesel, which will be made available on Iron Rod Films, Ehlen’s lead character gets her girly on behind closed doors.

With a log line that reads, “A butch lesbian with closeted girly habits is outed by her girlfriend with the help of a hidden camera,” Ballet Diesel cuts to the core of gender perceptions and accepted norms within the lesbian community.

Another of Ehlen’s shorts, Half-Laughing, probes a mother’s homophobia when her daughter shows up to a funeral sporting a tell-tale buzz cut.

Like her shorts before it, Butch Jamie serves up an inside joke about gender perception when Jamie, who dons femme drag for auditions, drops the act, auditions as her butch self, and lands the role of a man in a film.

Ehlen says she had some trepidation about Butch Jamie’s content rubbing folks the wrong way but based on her Jury Award for Best Actress at Outfest, it’s clear she hit a nerve – or at least a funny bone.

“I had some worries that it might be offensive. I make fun of the butch stereotype,” Ehlen says.

But her fears have been continually assuaged by audience responses.

“I think a lot of what’s in Butch Jamie rings true for people,” Ehlen says.

“People are recognising parts of themselves in it.”

An adept writer, director, actor, producer and all-around gopher for her own company, Ehlen’s biggest challenge to garnering recognition for her work derived from her own decision to cast herself opposite a scene-stealing but do-nothing cat in Butch Jamie.

A riotous plot twist that also pricks the surface of the stereotype of feline-obsessed lesbians, an out-of-work Jamie bears witness to her roommate’s cat Roger’s wild success as an animal actor in Hollywood.

Indicative of Ehlen’s dry humour, the real rub is that the cat doesn’t have a single trick up his claw.

“It was cool that the cat worked,” Ehlen says.

While the film isn’t autobiographical, elements of it are certainly borne from Ehlen’s life, as was the cat.

“The whole cat thing was inspired by my girlfriend at the time’s relationship with her cat,” Ehlen explains.

For a woman who hit it out of the park with her first feature, Ehlen’s got a few projects in the pike, including Heterosexual Jill, based on Butch Jamie’s straight love interest.

“It’s not a traditional sequel but I like the style of humour in Jamie,” Ehlen says.

Jill, who fell in love with Jamie thinking that Jamie was a man, will confront her sexuality.

“It’s a romantic comedy,” she explains.

Ehlen continues her exploration of gender identity by diving into lesbian history with Pieces of our Past: Lesbian Culture in 1920s New York, which she is producing.

Based on resoundingly positive audience response to Butch Jamie, Ehlen is a voice to be reckoned with in the lesbian film community.

That is if she steers clear of playing opposite animals and child actors.

“Everyone seemed to like the cat the most,” Ehlen laughs.

For more on Butch Jamie, visit