THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT bugbrennan.com.
Much has been written on the butch/femme dynamic and whether it is incompatible with Women’s Liberation. Indeed, much has been written about “the Butch Identity” and “the Femme Identity,” including by Lesbians like Dirt and Bev Jo who are extremely gender (transgender) critical. Bev Jo suggests that the “Butch Identity” is the “true woman identity” because it does not cater to the Male Gaze, thus concluding that Butches are somehow more oppressed than Femmes (who, presumably, are Femme because they want to cater to the Male Gaze).
There is a lack of recognition, it seems, among these transgender-critical activists that Butch and Femme are also gender. And although you might arrive at a different conclusion about the relative harms or benefits of Butch and Femme as “beauty” or “cultural” practices by Women than the conclusion you would reach about a grown man deciding he’s a lady and trying to enter women-only space (I know I would), it seems somewhat dishonest to not acknowledge that Butch and Femme are both part of the Big Ball of Crap We Call Gender.There are at least two aspects to this debate one can explore. First, the actually personal. You are a Lesbian. You self-identity as Butch (or Femme). You find “the Other” to be sexually attractive and you seek to partner with them.
Have a great time.
I am happy for you.
I am not interested in parsing your desire in this post. That is, this aspect of the debate is not the subject of this post. You might want to do that, but your personal attractions are yours. Enjoy!
Secondly, and more importantly for this post, the Butch/Femme dynamic is a topic worth critical examination outside of your personal desires.
That is, radical feminists have the obligation to examine what these concepts of Butch and Femme mean and represent in our culture (just like we examine harmful beauty practices like wearing makeup, shaving, high heels, uncomfortable clothes, etc.).
Like, we need to critique images like this:
As Feminists, we need to ask questions constantly, here are some discussion topics:
How the world perceives and treats you, and what that says about our society and who it values.
How the Butch and Femme identities are two sides of the same Gender coin that limit the full potential of who a Woman can be.
How Butch and Femme are the same gender that we critique when we critique Transgender.
It’s not any different.
If you think it’s different, how? On what basis? Because you know what “the natural state of Woman” is?
Can you take me for a ride?
The ever-quotable Ariel Levy says something in Female Chauvinist Pigs that I like to quote, a lot, because it fits in with a lot of what we talk about when we talk about (Trans)Gender:
Americans gave up the idea-or tried to, or pretended to-that there are certain characteristics and qualities that are essentially black and essentially white a long time ago. At the very least we can say that it would be considered wildly offensive and thoroughly idiotic to articulate ideas like that now. Yet somehow we don’t think twice about wanting to be ‘like a man’ or unlike a ‘girly-girl.’ As if those ideas even mean anything. Like which man? Iggy Pop? Nathan Lane? Jesse Jackson? Jesse Helms? It is a staggeringly unsophisticated way to think about being a human being, but smart people do it all the time.
Butch and Femme are not “special” or immune from criticism because Lesbians do it. Indeed, one might argue that Butch/Femme paved the way for Transgender, with numerous formerly self-identified butches (Pat Califia, Leslie Feinberg) having moved on to the Trans identity.
And the “oppression” that “Butches” experience is not more worthy, more important or more oppressed than the oppression “Femmes” experience – it’s all rooted in misogyny, but instead of focusing on the Problem (i.e., Patriarchy, i.e., Men), some Women in some Lesbian communities decide to make the Femme the enemy of the Butch.
What garbage. What a zero-sum game.
This is identity politics.
Hey, Butches, did it ever occur to you that when you are discriminated against, it’s because you are “visibly lesbian” based on cultural stereotypes of what a “Woman” (i.e., heterosexual Woman) is supposed to look like? So it’s not actually Butch Oppression from which you suffer – it’s misogyny. Did it ever occur to you that gender non-conforming straight Women have similar issues? (Here’s a hint – they do).
And Butches, Femmes get massive harassment that we often don’t (I don’t identify as Butch, but I get “read as Butch” enough that I think I can include myself here, although I am sure some True Butch Gender believers will say “oh she’s not really Butch.” What the fuck ever.) Let’s look at street harassment, for example. I have “Femme” friends who get ass-grabbed, breast-grabbed, asked if they are “working.” This is rooted in, again, misogyny. It’s different than the kind of street harassment I get (I get called “dyke.”)
Is that their “Femme Privilege” for “catering to the Male gaze”?
Is that “their fault”?
Does it matter how we get street harassed? Is one more important than the other?
Do you realize that you sound like Trans activists?
Until we see each other as Women, all impacted as Women by the Big Ball of Crap We Call Gender (remember, gender? a tool, an intentional strategy to ensure Women know their role as breeder and whore?), you are engaging in meaningless exercises of who is Teh Most Oppressedests.
Butch as identity politics! Just like Transgender activists.
There is no “natural state” of Womanhood in Western culture. We are all fucked in the head by our culture. Every last one of us.
If we can understand that, and then turn our gaze to “the reason” for why we are all fucked in the head (HELLO GENDER. HELLO PATRIARCHY), maybe that it a place to start.
Oh, and try some compassion. Meet Women where they are at, not where you think they should be.