Alright, I’m Going There…What is Butch/Femme exactly?


Open thread here on the topic of butch/femme. What is it? How can you identify a real butch or a real femme? How can you identify a real example of any “type” of lesbian out there? I have seen a number of views presented, from purely essentialist to purely chosen/presentation based.

Yet I can’t seem to find a view that defends butch or femme in a way that DOESN’T rely on some level on culturally constructed gender stereotypes. 

I have a number of ideas on what butch/femme is but I don’t want to misunderstand or misquote anyone, so I want commenters to speak for themselves and I will share my thoughts in the comments. 

All views welcome! Discuss away. 

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8 comments

  1. purplesagefem · September 15

    I agree with what Dirt and Saye say about butch/femme in terms of that you’re born that way and it’s not about what you wear or what you do. I find that even people who identify as these labels find it hard to describe exactly what it is. I like to think of it as two complementary personalities that balance each other well in a relationship.
    It’s hard to describe butch and femme without making references to masculinity and femininity. Butch women are often mistaken for men or told that they’re imitating men but it’s not because they’re consciously imitating masculinity, it’s because their natural personalities are labelled as “masculine” by a society that makes everything into a sex stereotype. Butch women wouldn’t look right in “women’s” clothing, they would look like they were in drag, which is why you’ll never see one in a dress. But even if a butch wore women’s clothing, she’d still be a butch, because it’s her personality that makes her butch, not her outfit. I think for a butch woman her personality shines through no matter what, and so she is always visible as a lesbian. A femme on the other hand can basically blend in with other women, she doesn’t seem any different from other women and she’s not visible as a lesbian unless she tells people or is seen with her partner. That doesn’t mean a femme has to have a stereotypically feminine appearance with makeup and dresses and stuff, it just means that she looks like a woman—no one would tell her she’s in the wrong bathroom, even if she was wearing androgynous clothing.
    Dirt thinks I’m a “straightbian,” but my partner is a butch and she considers me a femme. My partner gets mistaken for a man all the time, although she has never actually tried to look like one, and she is very strong and protective and makes me feel safe. I have what could be called a “feminine” personality because I’m a sweet and caring type, although I’m not interested in performing femininity by wearing makeup and heels. Both of us are just being ourselves, we are not trying to imitate any roles.
    Back in the 1950s all lesbians in working-class communities were supposed to be either butch or femme, so I think there was probably some amount of “playing roles” then since not all lesbians fall naturally into one of those categories, and some of them would have had to fake it. But it’s hard for me to say because I wasn’t actually around in the 1950s, I only know what I’ve read.
    I generally consider myself a radical feminist, but this is one area where I disagree with the position of some radical feminists because they tend to consider butch/femme to be role playing that imitates heterosexuality, and I don’t think it is. In my experience, lesbians are not imitating heterosexuals at all, and the women who are imitating gender roles/heterosexuality are the “queer” type.

  2. FemaleAtlas · September 15

    Forgive my 5 am insomnia thoughts, perhaps I can explain better once I’m not the only seeing my reply haha.

    Butch/Femme have been around since before 1900 actually, but they saw their “golden era” if you will in the 1950’s in the US. The terms and who were involved in their formation and/or early adoption, were split mostly between the French, Canadians, UK, and US- but I am not a scholarly expert on the matter, so forgive me if my history isn’t 100% accurate. The terms are historically pretty much exclusively lesbians, perhaps occasionally with bi women who engaged frequently in the lesbian community adopting the terms. In present day, I feel very strongly only lesbians should use these two terms. I don’t see lesbians as being particularly identifiable in a crowd of women, we aren’t really a minority with an identifiable characteristic on our own in the majority of cases. With that said, my guess-gay-dar is about average for a gay person, which means better than a non-gay person’s fake-gay-dar.

    From what I understand the terms butch/femme were formed by the women involved mostly themselves, not placed upon us like so many other words have been. Historically butches were lower class, they were more likely to face work place descrimination in “better” careers for women, so if they did work they were usually into more manual lower class labor- mechanics, construction, manufacturing, etc. Femmes on the other hand tended to be secretaries, teachers, more traditional jobs that a straight woman who was gender conforming could get. Economically it made sense for butches/femmes to pair. We are also talking about a time (once we approach mid-century) where in a lot of places did not allow women to be unaccompanied by a man. There’s stories of lesbians having gay men as their chaperones to go to underground/hidden gay parties, bars, clubs- then the “couple” would split once in the building. We are talking about a time when many states in the US had anti-sodomy laws on the books, and police would raid our spaces- mostly bars, plus stonewall era we had the added benefit of our bars being owned by the mob in some places.

    I would say on a personal level as well, Butch/Femme are complementary personality types, traditionally recognized by different styles of presentation – which includes clothes, behavior, posture, scent, patterns of speech, make-up, hair. But to say that is all they are relegates them into the realm of the superficial, which isn’t quite right either. They aren’t pairs like heterosexuals are, maybe some butch/femme couples have modeled themselves after such especially in the past when there was no real representation in most places. Both being lesbians, there’s is more of a balance then could ever exist in even the healthiest of het relationships. Not to say they were all healthy relationships in the past, or even now, as unhealthy relationships unfortunately can exist pretty much anywhere.

    I’m probably one of the rare (or not so rare)… I don’t think butches have to be with femmes, nor femmes with butches. Maybe that takes away the point for some, I don’t know, for me it doesn’t. I’m not really here to dictate what the heck femmes do, since I don’t really interact with them that often. I’m happiest being a butch with another GNC/butch woman (some might consider me not butch for that, but that’s fine). I’m exhausted by femininity. I feel like it’s literally rotted my brain at this point having been exposed to it. And I don’t change who I am for the person I’m with, I would never expect my partner to do so either.

    I see most young femmes going by the basic rule, they are GNC in that they are females who love females, but they are gender conforming more towards femininity in public presentation. But, there’s not many hard category opposites between gender non-conforming and gender conforming, the majority of women who are not sex objects or stepford wives will fall somewhere between on the (non-sexuality) barometer. I’ve known femmes who grew their leg hair out for example, yet were big fans of more feminine attire. Being so, I think a large part of the “feminine” role in a male/female relationship is showcasing to the world that the feminine partner is submissive. I don’t see femmes that way. Femmes may do some aspects of femininity, but they don’t do that submissive crap as a rule.

    For me butch women are lesbians who do not perform femininity, and if they have the trappings of femininity left in them (socialized feminine), they set out to break those holds on who they really are, which is just natural women. I don’t think butch women go out of their way to “act like men” or “be masculine” as some might suggest. With that said, when you don’t relate to femininity and don’t try to embrace it, chances are pretty good you will have more interests that are stereotypically “male” (but shouldn’t be gendered at all).

    Some people might see my definition of butch as perhaps just GNC. I think butch is a type of GNC in looks and behavior, plus all aforementioned parts of outword presentation. I don’t see how a butch woman could be gender conforming in the current climate of dominant culture.

    Given that GNC is easier for some women to adopt and feels “less restricting” then butch, I tend not to assume a woman is butch unless she tells me… Not because it would be “offensive,” but because it generally gets dissapointing very very quickly for me. Especially since so many who were butch and GNC women/girls are transitioning now. Plus with detransitoners and reconciling women being around, there’s a lot more of us blurring the lines of GNC women who just exist as women, or pass as men but are just women, perhaps not even lesbians. I also think it’s possible for a woman who does not engage in femininity to not be butch, like there are straight women who don’t- but butch is a lesbian exclusive term.

    GNC isn’t an identity- it’s just a descriptor (I also think that despite it being popular to recognize individuals as such at this time, GNC was coined/came from the dreaded boogeywomen “terfs”- or at least was resurrected by “us” where it wasn’t super popular in contemporary circles). Butch isn’t really an identity either in the way modern identity politics calls identities… Most of the people who assert it is are ultimately fakers and very rarely actually lesbians at all anyway.

    Butch is also a descriptor, as is femme from the way I put it there. I’m not one of those very ~feminine spiritual~ women (no offense to those who are), but I do not see there being any innate “essence” to being a woman, being a lesbian, being butch, or femme. Where women and lesbian are each a class of people, butch and femme are subclasses within both those categories. These things- they are lived realities. You can’t become them, or evolve into them, or change into them over time. Your level of acceptance can, your level of how you reveal yourself can.

    On a personal note though, my description of butch is looser because I do not want to discount women who are not from US/etc culture from it. I think a butch woman can have had to conform to femininity when she was young, but I agree that it would never of felt right or natural. But femininity isn’t natural- just artificial, so that could be said for any woman. But what is considered feminine that is innate in humans as a possibility- like compassion, empathy, generosity, teaching, healing- these are things that I consider to often occur in high rates for femmes. Not that butches would lack these things, but that they would simply be more embraced by femmes readily, and recognized as not a part of artifical gender as a construct.

    Soft butch also is silly to me. Most women I have seen who ID as “soft butch” are basically like… They want to be butch without repercussions, so they do perform femininity. The only instance I might perform femininity ever again, is if I have to go before a judge- which for disability benefits I might, but that basically is a life or death situation for me if my housing situation were to change at some point.

    *Also there at one point used to be a 3rd term, supposedly. It described women who would switch from butch or femme depending on who they were with. The term has been lost, resurrected, changed, it’s pretty obscure now. I’m not sure we really have much proof it existed for sure. But I don’t see it out of the realm of possibility. I also don’t really want to see it come back to life. I’m fine with us having butch, femme, androgenous (which some might not even feel needs a category, or could be called middle-of-the-road GNC), and just lesbians.

  3. Saye Bennett · September 15

    Good (???) Morning! Been a rough week (and I’m still sick).

    I’m off shortly for another long day at work today, so I don’t have time to actually formulate a coherent reply at the moment, but I just wanted to stop by and say thanks for bringing up the topic since B/F is so frequently misunderstood and misrepresented.

    I can count on you to handle the difficult topics in a smart way. 🙂

    And thanks to purplesagefem for starting off the discussion too!

    Here’s the link to my post about it to give an overview of my thoughts:
    https://sayebennett.com/2016/04/09/deciphering-butchfemme/

    More later. 🙂

    • purplesagefem · September 15

      And that is a really good post!

    • grumpyoldnurse · September 16

      Bother. Sick at work is no fun. Feel better soon!

      • Saye Bennett · September 16

        Thanks so much! At least I am not contagious…but everyone around me is sick so now I’m just hoping I don’t catch what they have!

  4. Saye Bennett · September 19

    One thing I wanted to say is that Butch/Femme is NOT something we are “doing”.

    It seems a lot of people think it is some sort of “performance”, like if you cut your hair short and wear Doc Martens, then BOOM!~you’re Butch. Or if you grow your hair out and wear makeup, then BOOM!~you’re Femme. If this premise that you can “become” Butch or Femme were true, it would indeed be a “performance” (like most people seem to think)….but this premise is NOT true.

    One reason this false premise has persisted for so long is because many of the so-called “lesbian experts” have spouted that sort of nonsense; and as Dirt and I are systematically trying to reveal with the “Unstraightening Lesbian” series, those so-called “lesbian experts” are neither lesbian nor expert.

    So all of the theorizing and “herstory” and interviews and writing about B/F from all of these charlatans has resulted in mass delusion about what B/F is because the very people spreading the misinformation aren’t B/F (and probably have never even met one of us).

    We are naturally being who we are (just living our lives, not playacting) and we are attracted to who we are naturally attracted to. It’s really rather simple, as with many things in life (for instance, the definition of “lesbian” is actually very simple), and I am wary of anyone who tries to make B/F (or lesbian) complicated and confusing, as these alleged “experts” have been doing for decades now.

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