Deciphering Butch/Femme

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I am a member of one of the most misunderstood categories in the history of humans: Butch/Femme (in case it’s not obvious, I am the Femme in this equation).

Lesbians in general are marginalized, misunderstood, and made invisible within general society; and, as Lesbians ourselves, this sad phenomenon is also true of Butch/Femme,  who also have the additional burden of being marginalized, misunderstood, and made invisible within the Lesbian community itself.

There are many inaccuracies and misconceptions about Butch/Femme…far too many to cover in a single post, so my aim with this post is to simply highlight the major misconceptions about Butch/Femme, and to give a brief general explanation of why these beliefs are faulty.

1).  Incorrect Assumption about Butch/Femme #1:

“Butch/Femme is ‘performance‘; a cartoonish mimicry of heterosexual relationships.”

Why this is Wrong and the Real Truth:

We are both Lesbians and women and are both attracted to women.  We have no desire whatsoever to mimic heterosexual relationships. Dirt is NOT “the man one” and I am NOT “the woman one” (and to imply that we are is both unbelievably ignorant and offensive).

We are not “performing” nor “playacting”: we are just who we are, period.  We couldn’t change ourselves, no matter who pressured us to ~ and, quite frankly, we wouldn’t want to change, even if we could.

There isn’t a power-imbalance dynamic in our relationship; we are equals and we both contribute to the relationship in every way. We don’t have rigid duties/roles/expectations, nor do we want them. We don’t relate to each other like Ward and June Cleaver.

2).  Incorrect Assumption about Butch/Femme #2:

“Anybody can be Butch/Femme simply by assuming different hairstyles, wearing different clothes/shoes, no makeup/makeup, etc.”

Why this is Wrong and the Real Truth:

This assumption is related to #1 because it incorrectly assumes that Butch/Femme is what you do, rather than who you are.

Slapping on a backwards ballcap and some jeans and a t-shirt does not make you Butch, just as dabbing on a little lipstick and wearing a bit of jewelry does not make you Femme.

The truth is that we are always Butch/Femme, regardless of what we are wearing.  Right now, I am wearing no makeup, athletic shorts, a (so-called) “men’s” t-shirt, and Asics, and yet (gasp!), I am still Femme.  Why?  Because that is who I am and how I was born.

3).  Incorrect Assumption about Butch/Femme #3:

“Butch/Femme is based upon roles performed within the relationship.”

Why this is Wrong and the Real Truth:

Again, this faulty assumption is related to numbers 1 and 2 above, because it is also basing the definition of Butch/Femme on actions rather than being.

Mowing the grass and washing the car doesn’t make someone Butch, and cooking dinner and decorating the house doesn’t make someone Femme.

Conversely, doing creative things such as crafts or cooking or decorating does not make a Butch “less Butch” and carrying the groceries in or changing a tire does not make a Femme “less Femme”.

The truth is that we are always Butch/Femme, regardless of what we are doing. I drive a truck, Dirt drives a car.  Dirt does the majority of the cooking and decorating for holidays/seasons, and I pay the bills and manage the money.  I would be willing to bet that many people who see us would be surprised by that information.

4).  Incorrect Assumption about Butch/Femme #4:

“Butch/Femme is determined by what you do in bed.”

Why this is Wrong and the Real Truth:

While I have no intention of discussing our sex life (sorry!), I do want to clarify that I have seen/heard many incorrect assumptions about Butch/Femme in relationship to sex.

For instance, I have seen people assume that Butch/Femme means you are into BDSM and/or that the Butch is always dominant/”top” and the Femme is always submissive/”bottom”.  People also assume that all Butches are “Stone Butch” and that is also not true.

While I cannot comment on the sex lives of all Butch/Femme couples (nor do I even care what other people do in bed!), I can unequivocally say that nobody should universally make these assumptions about Butch/Femme couples.

Also, role-playing or positioning in bed does not make anyone Butch or Femme.  (Just because you were on top last night does not mean you are Butch).

Do whatever floats your boat (well, I mean, of course, as long it is between consenting adults), but please don’t assume that whatever it is that you are doing in bed defaults you to Butch or Femme.

Relatedly, please don’t just assume that you know what we are doing in bed either, based on one of us being Butch and the other of us being Femme.

5).  Incorrect Assumption about Butch/Femme #5:

“Butch/Femme couples are the most visible Lesbians.”

Why this is Wrong and the Real Truth:

I have heard many Lesbians refer to themselves, or others, as Butch/Femme inaccurately.  For instance, I have frequently noticed that Lesbian couples will often say stuff like “I am the Butch one”/”She is the Femme one” or vice versa.

Usually their reasoning is based upon some variations of the misconceptions listed above, such as division of household duties; one fixes the toilet and the other does the laundry.  Sometimes the reasoning might be that Lesbo 1 (the alleged “Butch”) has shorter hair than Lesbo 2 (the alleged “Femme“).

These misconceptions only makes Butch/Femme Lesbians feel further isolated and misunderstood within our own (supposed) community, and these issues stem, at least in part, from the rarity of Butch/Femme Lesbians within the lesbian community.

Most people in the general public don’t even seem to recognize Dirt and me as Lesbians.  Most people who see us shopping in Target seem to assume we are a straight couple, even though, contrary to some peoples’ uninformed opinions, we are most certainly not “trying to pass” as straight.

It is frustrating for both of us to rarely be seen for who we are (and, in the case of Butches, to only rarely to be seen as what sex they are!).

Both of us have had many similar experiences in Lesbian-only bars.  Dirt has been called “Sir” in Lesbian bars and has been asked/ordered to leave Ladies’ Rooms on many occasions (which makes absolutely no sense because only women were allowed in  those places…well, at least that was true at that time…!?!?).

I, on the other hand, have had the repeated frustrating experience of being mistaken for a straight woman who must have somehow gotten lost and just happened to accidentally wander into the Lesbo bar.

It is bad enough for the general public to not recognize us, but it is 1000 times worse to not even be recognized/accepted/understood by who should be “our own people”, the Lesbian community.  Instead of being accepted and welcomed by the Lesbian community, we are constantly falsely accused of “trying to pass as straight”, of “role-playing”, and of “mimicking heterosexuals”.

Even some purported experts of the Lesbian community (most of whom are not Lesbian at all, but rather, are Straightbians) have put forth misleading, inflammatory, ridiculous, and just plain ignorant theories about Butch/Femme.

I seriously doubt that most of these self-proclaimed experts have ever even seen an actual Butch/Femme couple in their entire lives, much less had enough experience with us to offer an informed opinion.

Which leads me to my last point of the day, which directly ties in to #5:

Since most people have erroneous notions of what Butch/Femme couples are, because most have never actually seen or heard of any Butch/Femme couples in history, in person, on TV, or in movies, people frequently mischaracterize well-known fictional and non-fictional couples as Butch/Femme.

Just to be clear, I do not know of any famous true Butch/Femme couples in history, movies, or TV.  That’s right…ZERO.  Zip, nada, none.  I said it, and I mean it.

Please note that I am not saying this to hurt anyone’s feelings, nor to put anyone down in any way, because it’s not a hierarchy and it is not an insult to say that someone is not Butch. (I refer to Butch in this example because I have never known any Lesbian to care if they don’t get called Femme, but they do care passionately if it is pointed out that they are not Butch!).

I am also not saying we (meaning Butch/Femme) are better than they (meaning all other Lesbians) are, or vice versa.  I am simply stating that we are different, and that Butch/Femme couples have never…I repeat, NEVER…been included and/or accurately represented by alleged experts or in the media.

So here is a list of just a fraction of the couples (real and fictional) who I have personally heard people mistakenly refer to as Butch/Femme ~ but who just aren’t, no matter how you spin it:

1).  Xena and Gabrielle:  Now, anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE LOVE LOVE Xena, but let’s be honest, she’s just not Butch.  Hot? Yes!  Badass? Oh, yes!  Hero? Indeed!  Butch? Nope. Plus, you would never catch a real Butch in those clothes, because she would literally die first.

2).  Corky and Violet in Bound:  Bound was an entertaining movie with some hot scenes, and Gina Gershon as Corky had a certain undeniably sexy  je-ne-sais-quoi, but sorry, Lesbos, she isn’t Butch (and the Violet character is a Straightbian who uses a dyke to get out of a bad situation).

3).  Idgie Threadegood and Ruth Bennett in Fried Green Tomatoes: Being the Sweet Southern Belle (ha!) that I am, I just adore Fried Green Tomatoes, and have probably watched it 2,357,982 times and I still get misty-eyed just thinking about it.  But is Mary Stuart Masterson’s character Idgie Butch?  Um…no. Sorry.

4).  Nikki and Helen in Bad Girls: This is one of the most famous and beloved fictional TV lesbian duos of all time, and I watched their romance unfold with bated breath along with the rest of lesbian fandom. Are they a great Lesbian fictional couple?  Sure!  But are they Butch/Femme?  Nein.

5). Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were one of the best known Lesbian couples in history, and both of them were remarkable, talented, and inspirational.  But were they Butch/Femme?  No, not by a long shot.

Here are some clues to help decipher whether someone is Butch:

  • Has she flat-out refused to wear a dress since the approximate age of 3?
  • Has she usually/regularly been “Sir’ed” or “passed as male” from a very early age on up?
  • Are all of her closest peers/friends male (or were they when she was growing up)?
  • Has she been accepted by males as “one of their own” from an early age and up until the present?
  • Are her mannerisms/demeanor/language viewed as (so-called) “masculine/male” by others?
  • Is she like catnip to straight women? Do straight women change how they act around her and giggle like schoolgirls when she enters a room?

Answer Key:  If the woman in question is Butch, the answer to ALL of the above would be “Yes”. 

Today’s thoughts are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding the numerous ways that Butch/Femme Lesbians have been ignored, disrespected, maligned, and misunderstood.  Stay tuned for future posts on this subject, which is near and dear to my heart, mind, and soul…because, for me, this is not just some theoretical conversation ~ it is my life.

9 thoughts on “Deciphering Butch/Femme

  1. Thank you! It’s about time someone said it! I’ve been called the man in so many of my relationships and I definitely don’t identify as butch. I am just me! I will mend a fence or fix a car but I will still cook a five course meal and wear a dress. It seem that People want to put everyone in a box to make more sense of their own selves and find where they fit. But people don’t always fit in a box or a category. Appreciated your piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your comment & I totally agree that people try to put everybody into rigid boxes because it feels more comfortable to them to do so, but we all are individuals who defy rigid stereotypes. I appreciate your feedback!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting points. My girlfriend and I are currently going through your list and discussing movies and we’ve been wondering about your opinion concerning a few things:
    – What is it that makes Corky not butch (not saying that she is, just curious about your reasoning)?
    – Have you watched “If these walls could talk 2” and if so, I assume that you also do not consider Chloe Sevigny’s character to be butch or Michelle William’s character to be femme, correct?
    – Do you have a similar list for what it means to be femme?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi JD, thanks for reading and for your questions! I am on my way out to work very soon, but wanted to try to answer quickly.

      1). The character of Corky wouldn’t be Butch because of the reasons in that checklist near the end of my post. Corky was tough and strong, and I think many times those characteristics are automatically equated with being Butch. But a woman can be tough and strong and be Butch OR tough and strong and NOT be Butch. (By the same token, Butches don’t have to be tough). In other words, a woman doesn’t have to be Butch to be a badass.

      2). I did see “If These Walls Could Talk 2” when it first came out, and yes, my answer would be the same for the same reasons. I think another misconception is that if a woman cuts her hair short and wears “Butch clothes”, then she IS Butch, but Butch isn’t a role anyone could just assume. It is not about what someone wears or how she cuts her hair (or any other affectation), it is about who she actually IS.

      3). Similarly, Femmes are NOT defined by what we wear, how we cut our hair, tasks we do, etc. Femmes are not as distinguishable as Butches at first sight.

      (The “Straightbian” posts that I link to in this post at my spouse/partner’s blog delve into some of the problems created by the fact the Femmes are NOT distinguishable by sight alone and therefore, straight women, for various reasons, can sometimes fool Lesbians into thinking they are Femme).

      Anyway, the definition of Femme is relatively simple: A “feminine”-presenting Lesbian whose romantic/sexual orientation is to Butches. (I hate to use stereotypical terms like “feminine”, but for ease of communication it helps to describe).

      Side Note: Typically, “High Femmes” (women who are always over-the-top dressed up and won’t got to Walmart without full makeup and stilettos) are NOT Femme Lesbians, they are typically “Straightbians” who are playacting.

      Again, Femme, like Butch, is not about playacting roles, it is who we actually are. I more typically wear pants than dresses, for instance, although I will wear a dress sometimes.

      Well, I have to run to go to work, but hope I explained answers to your questions. Thanks again for reading, and let me know if you have any more questions.

      Liked by 2 people

    • LOL! Good one! I assume you’re joking, but you actually bring up a good point: even if an actress was made up to appear to be black, she still would not actually BE black. Same analogy applies to Butch/Femme. Clothes, hair, makeup/no makeup, shoes, etc. don’t make someone Butch or Femme. Thanks for reading & commenting!

      Like

  3. I really like your list of clues to decipher if someone is butch. The point about “catnip to straight women” was very cute. My partner always gets lots of attention from straight women when we’re in clothing stores and I find it very amusing. They see her in the menswear section and decide to ask her questions about what they should buy for their husbands! I wonder if you have a similar description of what makes one a femme? I’m suspicious I might be a femme but I’m not really sure—I don’t know what the definition is. If there is a femme “checklist” I’d love to read it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your comments! I will have to think about a “femme checklist” since we aren’t as easily discernible as butches. We are often misunderstood, even by other lesbians, so that would be a good topic to tackle…

      Liked by 3 people

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