Butch and femme

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"Femme" redirects here. For other uses, see Femme (disambiguation).
Lesbian Butch/Femme Society march in New York City's Gay Pride Parade.

Butch and femme are terms used to describe individual gender identities in the lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and cross-dressing subcultures[1][2] to ascribe or acknowledge a masculine (butch) or feminine (femme) identity with its associated traits, behaviors, styles, self-perception and so on. The terms were founded in lesbian communities in the twentieth century, but can still be seen today in LGBT culture, specifically the lesbian sub-culture. This concept has been called a "way to organize sexual relationships and gender and sexual identity".[3] Butch-femme culture is not the sole form of a lesbian dyadic system, as there are many women in butch–butch and femme–femme relationships.[4]

Both the expression of individual lesbians of butch and femme identities and the relationship of the lesbian community in general to the notion of butch and femme as an organizing principle for sexual relating have varied over the course of the 20th century.[5] Some lesbian feminists have argued that butch–femme is simply a replication of heterosexual relations while other commentators argue that, while it resonates with heterosexual patterns of relating, butch–femme simultaneously challenges it.[6] Research in the 1990s in the United States showed that "95% of lesbians are familiar with butch/femme codes and can rate themselves or others in terms of those codes, and yet the same percentage feels that butch/femme was "unimportant in their lives"".[7]

Etymology and symbology[edit]

The word femme is taken from the French word for woman. The word butch, meaning "masculine", may have been coined by abbreviating the word butcher, as first noted in George Cassidy's nickname, Butch Cassidy.[8] However, the exact origin of the word is still unknown.

The butch web designer Daddy Rhon created a symbol of a black triangle intersecting a red circle to represent butch/femme sexuality, which was first used at the beginning of the 21st century on the website butch-femme.com and has started to be used elsewhere.[9]

Attributes[edit]

There is debate about to whom the terms butch and femme can apply, and particularly whether transgender individuals can be identified in this way. For example, Jack Halberstam argues that FTM transgender persons cannot be considered butch since it constitutes a conflation of maleness with butchness. He further argues that butch–femme is uniquely geared to work in lesbian relationships.[10] Stereotypes and definitions of butch and femme vary greatly, even within tight-knit LGBT communities. On the other hand, Jewelle Gomez suggests that butch and femme women in the earlier twentieth century were expressing their closeted transgender identity.[11]

Scholars such as Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler, Anne Fausto-Sterling suggest that butch and femme are not attempts to take up "traditional" gender roles. Instead, they argue that gender is socially and historically constructed, rather than essential, "natural", or biological. The femme lesbian historian Joan Nestle argues that femme and butch may be seen as distinct genders in and of themselves.[12]

Butch[edit]

"Butch" can be used as an adjective or a noun[13] to describe an individual's gender or gender performance. A masculine person of any gender can be described as butch, even though it is more common to use the term towards females with more masculine traits.[14] The term butch tends to denote a degree of masculinity displayed by a female individual beyond what would be considered typical of a tomboy. It is not uncommon for women with a butch appearance to face harassment or violence.[15] A butch woman could be compared to an effeminate man in the sense that both genders are historically linked to homosexual communities and stereotypes.[original research?] A 1990s survey of butches showed that 50% were primarily attracted to femmes, while 25% reported being usually attracted to other butches.[16]

"Butch Voices" biennial conferences "for masculine of center people" were held in 2009, 2011 and 2013, the last being supported by a fundraiser called Beauty and the BUTCH—"an evening of deliciously BUTCH revelry, thrilling show of tantalizing teases from queers of all genders, and choose-your-own play party adventures".[17]

Femme[edit]

Like the term "butch," femme can be used as an adjective or a noun.[13] Femmes are not "read" as lesbians or queer unless they are with a butch partner, because they conform to traditional standards of femininity. Because they do not express masculine qualities, femmes were particularly vexing to sexologists and psychoanalysts who wanted to argue that all lesbians wished to be men.[18] Traditionally, the femme in a butch-femme couple was expected to act as a stereotypical feminine woman and provide emotional support for her butch partner. In the first half of the twentieth century, when butch-femme gender roles were constrained to the underground bar scene, femmes were considered invisible without a butch partner - that is, they could pass as straight because of their gender conformity.[19] However, Joan Nestle asserts that femmes in a butch-femme couple make both the butch and the femme exceedingly visible. By daring to be publicly attracted to butch women, femmes reflected their own sexual difference and made the butch a known subject of desire.[20]

The separatist feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s forced butches and femmes underground, as radical lesbian feminists found lesbian gender roles to be a disappointing and oppressive replication of heterosexual lifestyle.[21] However, the 1980s saw a resurgence of butch and femme gender roles. In this new configuration of butch and femme, it was acceptable, even desirable, to have femme-femme sexual and romantic pairings. Femmes gained value as their own lesbian gender, making it possible to exist separately from butches. For example, Susie Bright, the founder of On Our Backs, the first lesbian sex periodical of its kind, identifies as femme.[22] Beyond depictions in pornography, the neo-butch and neo-femme aesthetic in day-to-day life helped add a sense of visual identity to lesbians who had abandoned these roles in the name of political correctness.[23]

In "Negotiating Dyke Femininity", lesbian scholar Wendy Somerson, explains that women in the lesbian community who are more feminine and don't fit into the "butch" stereotype can pass as straight. She believes the link between appearance and gender performance and one's sexuality should be disrupted. because the way someone looks shouldn't define their sexuality. In her article, Somerson also clearly talks about how within the lesbian community some are considered more masculine than others.[24]

Today, femmes may not only be cisgender lesbians, as the queer movement has allowed for more people to identify with the label femme. For example, gender nonconforming people and transgender women have claimed use of the term. Femmes still combat the invisibility their presentation creates and assert their sexuality through their femininity.[25] The dismissal of femmes as illegitimate or invisible also happens within the queer community itself, which creates the push for femmes to self-advocate as an empowered identity not inherently tied to butches.[26]

History[edit]

1903 depiction of women in "femme" and "butch" apparel

Prior to the middle of the 20th century in Western culture, homosexual societies were mostly underground or secret, making it difficult to determine how long butch and femme roles have been practiced by women.

Early 20th century[edit]

It is known that butch–femme dress codes date back at least to the beginning of the 20th century as photographs have survived of butch–femme couples in the decade of 1910–1920 in the United States; they were then called "transvestites".[27] However, according to the Routledge International Encyclopaedia of Women, although upper-class women like Radclyffe Hall and her lover Una Troubridge lived together in unions that resembled butch–femme relationships, "The term butch/femme would have been categorically inconsequential, however, and incomprehensible to these women."[28]

Mid-20th century[edit]

Butch and femme lesbian genders were only starting to become apparent in the 1940s, since it started to become common for bars to allow women to enter bars without men.[29] In the 1940s in the U.S., most butch women had to wear conventionally feminine dress in order to hold down jobs, donning their starched shirts and ties only on weekends to go to bars or parties as "Saturday night" butches. The 1950s saw the rise of a new generation of butches who refused to live double lives and wore butch attire full-time, or as close to full-time as possible. This usually limited them to a few jobs, such as factory work and cab driving, that had no dress codes for women.[30] Their increased visibility, combined with the anti-queer rhetoric of the McCarthy era, led to an increase in violent attacks on gay and bisexual women, while at the same time the increasingly strong and defiant bar culture became more willing to respond with force. Although femmes also fought back, it became primarily the role of butches to defend against attacks and hold the bars as queer women's space.[31] While in the '40s, the prevailing butch image was severe but gentle, it became increasingly tough and aggressive as violent confrontation became a fact of life.[32]

Although butch–femme wasn't the only organizing principle among lesbians in the mid-20th century, it was particularly prominent in the working-class lesbian bar culture of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, where butch–femme was the norm, while butch–butch and femme–femme relationships were taboo.[33] Those who switched roles were called ki-ki, a pejorative term, and they were often the butt of jokes.[34] In the 1950s, in an early piece of lesbian studies, the gay rights campaigning organisation ONE, Inc. assigned Stella Rush to study "the butch/femme phenomenon" in gay bars. Rush reported that women held strong opinions, that "role distinctions needed to be sharply drawn," and that not being one or the other earned strong disapproval from both groups.[35] It has been noted that, at least in part, kiki women were unwelcome where lesbians gathered because their apparent lack of understanding of the butch–femme dress code might indicate that they were policewomen.[36]

However, "inherent to butch–femme relationships was the presumption that the butch is the physically active partner and the leader in lovemaking....Yet unlike the dynamics of many heterosexual relationships, the butch's foremost objective was to give sexual pleasure to a femme. The essence of this emotional/sexual dynamic is captured by the ideal of the "stone butch," or untouchable butch....To be untouchable meant to gain pleasure from giving pleasure. Thus, although these women did draw on models in heterosexual society, they transformed those models into an authentically lesbian interaction."[37]

Antipathy toward female butches and male femmes has been interpreted by some commentators as transphobia,[38] although female butches and male femmes are not always transgender or identified with the transmovement. On the other hand, in We Are All Works in Progress by Leslie Feinberg she discusses how the Trans liberation movement has been raising questions about how people have and continue to be treated based on their sex and gender expressions/identity. The Trans liberation movement has and will continue to make discussions about the movement which will lead to a movement that is capable of fighting for justice.[39]

Other terms and identities[edit]

Some young people in queer communities eschew butch or femme classifications, believing that they are inadequate to describe an individual, or that labels are limiting in and of themselves. Other people within the queer community have tailored the common labels to be more descriptive, such as "soft stud," "hard butch," "gym queen," or "tomboy femme." Comedian Elvira Kurt contributed the term "fellagirly" as a description for queer females who are not strictly either femme or butch, but a combination. In the 1950s and 1960s the term chi-chi was used to mean the same thing.[citation needed]

Those who identify as butch and femme today often use the words to define their presentation and gender identity rather than strictly the role they play in a relationship, and that not all butches are attracted exclusively to femmes and not all femmes are exclusively attracted to butches, a departure from the historic norm. Besides the terms "butch" and "femme", there are a number of other terms used to describe the dress codes, the sexual behaviours and/or the gender identities of the sexual subcultures who use them. The meanings of these terms vary and can evolve over time.

Lesbian terms[edit]

Femmes aka "lipstick lesbians" are feminine lesbians. A woman who likes to receive and not give sexually is called a "pillow queen".[40] Conversely, a butch woman may be described as a "stone butch", "diesel dyke"[41] "bulldyke", "bull bitch" or "bulldagger"[42]:136 or simply just as a "dyke". The term boi is typically used by younger LGBT women. Defining the difference between a butch and a boi, one boi told a reporter: "that sense of play - that's a big difference from being a butch. To me, butch is like an adult...You're the man of the house."[43] There is also an emerging usage of the terms soft butch "stem" (stud-femme), "futch" (feminine butch)[44] or "chapstick lesbian" as terms for women who have characteristics of both butch and femme. Lesbians who are unisex and neither butch nor femme are called "androgynous" or "andros".[41] Another common term is "Stud". A stud is a dominant lesbian, usually butch. They tend to be influenced by urban and hip-hop cultures and are often, but not always, Afro-American.[45] In the New York City lesbian community a butch may identify herself as AG (aggressive) or as a stud.

In 2005, filmmaker Daniel Peddle chronicled the lives of AGs in his documentary The Aggressives, following six women who went to lengths like binding their breasts to pass as men. But Peddle says that today, very young lesbians of color in New York are creating a new, insular scene that's largely cut off from the rest of the gay and lesbian community. "A lot of it has to do with this kind of pressure to articulate and express your masculinity within the confines of the hip-hop paradigm..."[46]

The AG culture has also been represented on film by Black lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees' 2011 work, Pariah.[47]

Community[edit]

Butch and femme socialisation took place in the working-class gay bars of the 1940s and 1950s[42]:139 and bars continued to be a primary venue for interaction. In 1992, a "groundbreaking" anthology was published—The Persistent Desire: A Femme–Butch Reader, edited by femme Joan Nestle.[48]

Cultural Use and Reception[edit]

The term ‘femme’ is often used as part of the phrase, ‘femme fatale’. This describes an attractive and seductive woman who will cause a catastrophe for a man who becomes involved with her. In the 1940s, Hollywood films used ‘femme fatale’ as an indicator of wartime concerns regarding sex roles, sexuality and marriage. There was a significant change in the views of sexuality during this period. This was due to the millions of men who went overseas, and the millions of women who were pushed into the work force. During the postwar period, people expected society to go back to normal. However, this was not the case, which led to a range of problems, such as urban anonymity and sexual confusion. The movement of women into the workforce was not encouraged at the end of the war. This was briefly reversed by the Korean War (1950–54). These significant historical events reminded Americans that in order to avoid economic uncertainty, it was necessary for women to work outside of the home. Films, such as ‘All About Eve’ (1950), show negative representations of successful working women. However, it is the deadly ‘femme noir’ who directly take on the socio-psychic images. This is where “ambitious women evoke a certain paranoia that is readily apparent in the metaphorical plots of classic films noir, where they are made to appear beautiful but also treacherous, criminally depraved and castrating in their desires”.[49]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  13. ^ a b Bergman, S. Bear (2006). Butch is a noun. San Francisco: Suspect Thoughts Press. ISBN 0-9771582-5-X. 
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  44. ^ Belge, Kathy (2011). Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 10. ISBN 9780547687322. 
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  48. ^ Davis, Leonard J. (2013). The Disability Studies Reader. Routledge. p. 325. ISBN 0415630525. Retrieved Nov 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  49. ^ Boozer, J (1999). "The lethal femme fatale in the noir tradition". Journal of Film and Video, 20-35. 

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