butch isn’t ugly

Butch Lab Symposium is a blog carnival/round-up where participants blog independently on a monthly theme related to butch identity, and then later post a list of other participants’ pieces.

This month’s question, “What do people think ‘butch’ means? What are the stereotypes around being butch? What do people assume is true about you [or the masculine of center folks in your life], but actually isn’t? What image or concept do you constantly have to correct or fight against? How do you feel about these misconceptions? How do you deal with them? Do you respond to these stereotypes or cliches? How?” seemed particularly on point for me.

In my essay in Whedonistas I talk a good deal about how hard I find it to identify with the women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series. I don’t look, or feel, like them by default. Yes, sometimes I wear dresses and present femininely, and, when I do, I can be quite good at it. Sometimes it feels comfortable and sometimes it doesn’t.

My life as a boy, meanwhile, is very much the same way, and, and the end of the day, it’s hard for me to have a word for what I am because there are such rigid definitions, not just of male and female, but of butch and femme. Sure, I have the de rigueur short hair, but the fussy suits make people questions my masculinity cred in the queer community as surely as they make some people questions the masculinity of foppish men in the world of more mainstream gender roles (see: my off-hand remark about Wesley Wyndham-Price in my Whedonistas piece).

As far as I can tell, most people think butch means a whole lot of things that don’t really have very much to do with me. Of course, there’s the role of the butch/femme dynamic in the lesbian community past and present, and I’ll confess I have some affection for its cultural presence in my world, even if it’s largely worked against me and mine (I’m not just butch, my partner wouldn’t define as femme (again, check Whedonistas for more, but she keeps a pick-axe under our sink), and a whole lot of femmes I know that have dated each other are really sick of explaining to people, that yes, really, two femmes can be together!).

But more than that, there are just all these cultural expectations of masculinity that get bound up in butchness that make me really uncomfortable, not just because in a lot of ways I’ll never measure up, but because in a lot of ways, I don’t want to. Because gender is often defined through others (the “a man is a man because of how a man responds to a woman” theory of gender), butchness often seems to become about what it’s not, and as such, often seems to engender a great deal of rhetoric that is covertly, if not overly, misogynist.

Being butch doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, mean I have to have certain interests (e.g., sports, which I largely don’t care for), skills (e.g., Patty changes lightbulbs and deals with tools because I am largely useless at these things), and social and sexual roles (my own being unnecessary to describe for the sake of this entry). And it certainly shouldn’t require me to be misogynist, which is something I see more and more gay women complaining about lately — butches that assert their butchness by denigrating femmes in all the same ways that women get denigrated by men in het culture.

But, if I reject the external assumptions of what a butch is, what’s left to define me as butch, at least on the days where I would consider myself such? The answer, is, simply, that I don’t know. This is striking, not, however, because of any need to self-define a role in the community of gay women, but because of what it says about gender on a wider scale. If there is nothing that is essential to butchness (although I’m sure a lot of us, probably even me, would say we know it when we see it), then there is, also arguably, nothing that is essential to masculinity.

And that’s when people in the heterosexual and heteronormative world, especially if they’re politicians it seems, start getting really scared. If masculinity or femininity — if butchness or femmeness — only exists in the eyes of others, how can you ever really be sure you are what you say you are? Is it too much to ask that people be that self-assured of their gender identity, whether it is consciously constructed or not? And is this challenge to the idea of gender certitude why the idea of gender as flexible and self-defined makes some people so angry? Or why trans and gender non-conforming people are so often in so much danger?

On this theme, I was struck particularly by Rachel Maddow’s segment last night on political truth. In passing in that segment (it’s towards the end, for those of you not wanting to watch the whole thing), she mentions the way that people try to insult her when these arguments about political truth come up — they say that she’s gay and that she looks like a man.

Now, I don’t know whether Maddow identifies as butch or not, but I do know that in her off-camera presentation she reads so much more masculinely to me than she does on camera (and effectively admits to same in the segment, although even more briefly). I imagine, based on my own experiences, that that’s a hard bargain to make every night. It’s a moment she doesn’t linger on in the piece, but it points the way to one clear thing: “looking like a man” is, apparently, for many people, one of the worst things a woman can do.

But for some women, that’s not an insult. Hell, it can be the best thing we’ve ever damn heard. Which gets me to the misconception about butchness — whether my butchness meets some butch standard or not — that aggravates me the most: butch isn’t ugly. It’s not a presentation that derives out of some failed femininity. It’s not this thing we do because we were bad at what we’re supposed to do. It’s just this thing we do.

On the list of preconceptions about butchness that come from both inside and outside the queer community, this one is, I recognize, seemingly trivial. But, using people’s self-definition as a slur is a nasty business, and defining butchness as ugliness is a special type of misogyny that is restrictive and vicious for all women, regardless of whether butchness is even anywhere on the map of their world.

38 thoughts on “butch isn’t ugly”

  1. Part of my problem with butch and femme is the same problem I have with male and female –there is no other category.

    I’m not femme. I’m sure as hell not femme. I am stubborn and solid and angles and sharpness, and I don’t wear make-up, and I don’t wear pretty clothes. All this does not a femme make, of course, but even breaking it down to the basic explanation of “gender is what feels right”, I have never been femme[1].

    But then, I’m really not butch either. I’m not at all masculine, I have hair past my ass and smile often and easy and completely like a girl. Again, all this does not a butch make, but the same criteria apply.

    The closest identity I have to butch is either tomboy or that certain variety of scrawny geek teenaged boy –not traditionally masculine, but decidedly male.



    1: I do feel feminine sometimes, and an urge to be female, to be _pretty_ that hurts with how fierce it is, all at once the same as and different than the hurt from wanting to be male. But I never learned how to be pretty, and charismatic is not the same thing.

  2. Thank you for this post.

    I think, personally, part of it (but not all!) is just another false binary: if you’re not pretty, you’re ugly. I’ve known some *pretty* butches, mind — “dapper” is perhaps the closest gendered term. But even so, I think the binary is lurking in the back of a lot of people’s minds. Most butches aren’t pretty, therefore. And you’re right, it’s an incredibly aggravating misperception.

    I’m not pretty. Nor am I ugly. I called myself “plain” in a recent post and several people who know me in person expressed surprise. But I can’t find a better term at the moment to express it. So many loaded words. Still teasing some of it out.

    1. In this conversation, I think “handsome” creates some of the most interesting discussion. This used to be a deeply acceptable adjective for women. Now it’s only applied to men, generally, and is considered obnoxious if said about a woman. Most people don’t even know its historical context. I’ve always been handsome (arguably, moreso as a woman than as a man, where different adjectives might rightly apply), and I’ve watched people FREAK OUT when I don’t take exception to the various archaic people in my life who are happy to call me handsome, not when I’m dressed like a man, but when I’m dressed as a woman.

      Certainly, anything mannish was the ultimate insult in my years in all girls school. And I’ve long paid the price of hospitality, mostly from men, for personally being desireable but not pretty.

      This is very messy stuff, and I think it’s interesting how a subcultural discussion (butchness speaks to a segment of the lesbian community only, really), has such potentially universe application.

      1. i have a dog. her name is pirate. she is a very very handsome dog.

        it freaks my mother out to no end when i say that to the dog. i suspect my mom is worried about the dog’s gender issues as a way to not be worried about mine (i am not butch, but do get mistaken for butch a lot).

        1. My dear departed Little Kitty was a very large, very butch cat. At first glance new vets would always refer to her as he, and sometimes, even after realizing she was a female cat, continue to slip up. And then they would apologize SO INTENSELY to me and the cat, as if I was going to have trauma over my cat’s vet’s pronoun issues. Little Kitty didn’t care as long as she was the biggest thing with fur in the room. I didn’t care. But oh man, it was awkward when the vet cared.

          1. People often gender Hector as female when first meeting him as he is ridiculously fluffy and cute. somehow they can’t get their heads around something that decadent looking being male, even though behaviorally, he is quite male, and kept trying to mount females for five years after we had him snipped.

            Not that he knows gender pronouns from rocket science, I just find gendering fascinating.

      1. While I’m personally comfortable with it, I’m also keenly aware of it as a euphemism in the heteronormative world, for what we say about people we want to bang even though they are weird looking or whose desirability we’re not sure our friends will sign on to, and in fact, even may mock us for acknowledging. So accurate? You bet. Loaded? Oh yeah. And I think not just for me.

        It does, at least, have the value of being usable for all genders without adding that bit of loadedness into the discussion.

        1. I’m a fat woman with long silver hair, so I get “striking” a lot. I have mixed feelings about it, since I translate “striking” as “we think you are attractive, but we’re not sure why”. Or “you are fucking with our conventional ideas of beauty, but we kinda like it,” in a more positive way.

  3. I’m not sure if I’m butch or femme–it seems like a lot of the time that depends on the field of comparison at the time, like if I’m around people who are ‘more butch’ or ‘more femme’ than I am. It also depends heavily on the weather–in the winter I might dress ‘more butch’, but in the summer, all I wear is dresses, short skirts and flip flops. It’s what I’m comfortable in. But I don’t wear make up, I don’t do my hair, and I don’t really ‘dress up’ or wear jewelry. My girlfriend says I’m like a nerdy guy, but I’ve been comfortable being a woman and identifying as a woman for quite some time. I have no desire to be a male, but I do sometimes envy certain aspects of masculinity. I tend to feel slightly inadequate when a guy is physically much stronger than me–I want to have that arm strength that most guys tend to have–I’ve never been able to beat any guy at arm-wrestling! I know it’s a weird thing to be concerned about, and I know in the long run it doesn’t really matter whether I have upper body strength or not, but it irks me.
    So yeah, I have no idea if there is anything essential to masculinity or being butch–I’d like to say no, there isn’t.

  4. Okay, what?! I was going to write about this!

    This conversation dominated the discussion with a group of friends I was hanging out with this evening, and I was deeply troubled by the way it was going – mainly because I was told multiple times by a friend (who is a gay guy) that I looked butch-y and everyone (the majority of them straight) said that he shouldn’t insult me and laughed at the same time at the idea that femme-ish me would or could be butch (my own reading of the situation and not that far fetched).

    He didn’t mean it as an insult he told me after and said to the group that butch isn’t another word for ugly and people started spouting the most horrid lesbian stereotypes I didn’t think friends of mine would dare say in my presence.

    Thanks for this post. It’s awesome.

  5. I think part of the confusion comes in using the single word “butch” to describe outer appearance, hobbies/activities and roles in a relationship – probably among other things.

  6. Several years ago I got tired of having very long hair and got it cut in a series of progressively shorter haircuts. I’m fairly conservative about changing my appearance — I’ve made extreme changes before, often for cosplay related reasons, but I usually had a good idea of what it would look like.

    I got to the point where I was cutting my hair shorter than I had ever had it, but I wasn’t sure what sort of style of extremely short would look good. So I was trying to find a picture of a haircut that I liked, was utterly failing when it came to “very short” women’s styles, because my conception of “very short” differed from the salon’s, and moved on to the mens. The woman who was going to cut my hair finally pointed at a picture of a guy who had a style they were featuring, and asked if that was the right length.

    It was, for the sides and the back — it was much shorter than I had been thinking about cutting the top. And as I was thinking this, the woman added, “but you don’t want to have the top that short, do you?” I don’t remember her exact phrasing, but the gist was “because that would be too masculine.”

    What I found interesting about this was that she lowered her voice to add this and sounded a little hesitant, like she was afraid that I did want it that short/masculine and would be offended by her suggesting that I didn’t.

    I didn’t want it that short on the top — mostly because I didn’t know whether it would look good — but “good” is not the same as “feminine” and I would have been perfectly happy to look like a guy if I looked like an attractive one. Which was not something I really wanted to get into at a Supercuts, so I just told her that, no, I wanted it a little longer than that on the top,because I did want it a little longer than that, and she told me what number attachment they used on the razor to do the back and sides. And since I’m the sort of person who sort of frustratedly says “shorter” when stylists ask me how I want my hair cut, knowing the number of the attachment made my life much easier.

    1. I have to get my hair cut super soon, because it’s super awful right now, and I’m dreading the usual routine of where the haircutter explains how they are going to soften it, and I’m like “what part of ‘straight across the back of the neck’ did you not understand?”

      This also makes me think I should do a whole post about “words we whisper” because the categories I encounter seem to be:
      – cancer
      – fanfiction
      – non-traditional gendering

    2. :/ Hair has been such a … loaded thing for me, ever since I started cutting it short. Not because *I* want it to be, but because other people insist on making it so. In any case, one of the milder incidents was when I went to get it cut last year, and I wanted a “men’s” cut, something very short and, ideally, androgynous, and the stylist kept saying, “I’ll soften it up, because we’re women, and you don’t want to look like a guy.” It made me feel uncomfortable, to say the least, because she gave me a good haircut, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted, and I wanted to play with self-presentation, instead of having a cut that was easily read as feminine.

  7. my comments were too lengthy to include, so I just wrote my own post.

    I definitely used to be (and identify as) butch. I am still butch, fsvo butch, but it isn’t something I tend to think about or try to maintain. I like to wear pearls (today, they are pale pink coin pearls). I like to ride a motorcycle that I repair and maintain myself. So I do those things.

  8. If I may be shallow for a moment? Butch isn’t ugly. Butch is HOT.

    Okay, to unpack this, it is not JUST that I, as a bisexual or… inclusively sexual woman, appreciate masculinity; I also have a strong appreciation for nonstandard gender presentations. So a woman who takes on aspects of masculinity, whether macho or dandified? All sorts of awesome.

    Also, much love for the “handsome woman” phrasing, since I read so much set in earlier periods, and it seems entirely natural to me, to discuss a woman whose beauty lies in strength, elegance, spareness, or other qualities not encompassed by the essentially youthful and girlish “pretty.”

  9. I am less taken aback about how people perceive gender roles than I used to be, but I say that about a lot of things–hitting fifty sort of did that to me. A while ago I dyed my blond hair brown and when I got tired of doing that I decided to just cut all of it off so I could go back to my own color. MY hairdresser was not really that horrified when I asked for a super short cut —know why? A lot of us post-fifties have it, Easy to deal with and somehow proper for the matrons, eh? I kept it short for a while, but then got tired of having to get it cut so regularly and it’s long again.

    Debra and I really don’t present as butch or femme—both of us tend to go with how we feel at any given time. One of the women Debra works with is intensely curious about us and asked quite openly which if us was ‘the man’ seemingly having no inkling about the fluidity of sexuality in general and gender roles in particular-she even guessed that it was Debra who is a good six inches taller than I am. Debra also has short hair while I wear mine long as I have much of my life. Between the two of us, though, Debra is much more into ‘femme’ things like makeup, nails, etc and of the two of us I am the one who is handy with tools (thank you Daddy) and can be counted upon to dispose of the remains of a half rabbit that one of the dogs has brought us for sustenance.

    Gender presentation never occurred to me when I was younger, but when I think about it or look at pictures of myself from my high school years (mid ’70’s) and beyond, I see an angular boyish body, lots of t-shirts and flannel and the ubiquitous Levi denim jacket. Now that body is quite a bit fleshier and softer but the flannel is still here and so are the men’s t’s. It wasn’t conscious then, it was ‘comfortable’ (though it drove my mother mad), but then I was also not an out person for a very long time.

    When I read your blog, your thoughts on gender presentation, queerness in general, it fills me with an odd sort of elation. I like i when something wakes me up. Yeah.

    1. Year ago, I was in Texas visiting with a lover and we were in a bar filled with young, perfect, blond, skinny things and they kept _staring_ at me, and it was freaking me out. So I turned to zir (this story is complicated because he is now out at trans, but at the time was not even really out to himself as trans, so we read as lesbians if our relationship was obvious), and said, “are these women staring at me because they think I am a dyke and should I be concerned for my safety?”

      Ze laughed. “No, no. It’s just you have short hair, so they think you’re someone’s mom, and they don’t know why you’re in their bar.”

      I’ll never forget it.

      And playing is fandom, man — the things people assume about Patty and I because of things like what we wear, who’s louder online, and who’s taller. I know it would be a hundred times worse if we were gay men, too.

      And thank you.

  10. I was wondering the other day what gender really meant if we allowed it to be self-defined by what a person feels inside, which seems to be the best way to conceptualize it if we want to be maximally supportive of trans and genderqueer people. I don’t have a good answer for that question though.

    I feel weird about questions of gender because I’ve never really gotten the necessity of it, though I think I qualify as cisgender if only because I have no burning desire to change my body and when I had short hair, I got annoyed when people called me ‘sir.’ But that also tied into feeling like I was being called ‘ugly’ and it also tied into my feelings of failure about being a woman, not having the sexual power or allure that everyone assumes all women must have. (I’m not ugly, but guys don’t notice me most of the time. Which is apparently really strange for a non-ugly woman.)

    Now I’m in an odd place in my life, because I have long hair, but shudder at the idea of wearing a skirt. Wearing a skirt just feels wrong somehow.

    1. I’m FTM trans, and I had a similar experience when I started making the switch from women’s clothes to men’s. Because I’d been a pretty girl before (all cards on the table, there you go) and used to getting male attention, and it was bizarre how that shut off like a lightswitch as soon as I started presenting in a more masculine way. Because that was before I’d even started hormones, so my body was the same as it had always been, but straight guys just STOPPED SEEING ME. It was like I had a mosaic over my face, and I remember thinking how strange it was that they were apparently heterosexual for female clothes, not the body wearing them.

  11. One thing I really love is when people tell me unbidden that I’m somewhere in between a man and a woman to them. Some people say it’s because of my mannerisms, others say it’s because of the way I look (and right now, I’m extremely insecure about the way my weight makes me appear to be more like a woman, in my more gender-biased opinion; that other people can see me somewhere in between is incredibly reassuring, much more so than if they said I was beautiful or whatever).

    I’ve always resented the butch = ugly parallel that people draw. I’ve faced a lot of bullying in my life, mostly as a pre-teen, based on my short hair or unshaven legs or solid muscular build, so this dislike obviously comes from a personal bias on my part…however, I don’t care. It’s never okay to make someone feel bad about h/herself based on appearances, or to try to discredit them by referring to their so-called “ugliness.” On the flipside, I will admit that I find traditional masculinity or femininity unattractive in others, but I’m not going to look down on them for being that way. They’re just not what floats my boat. I wish others would recognize that just because THEY don’t want to sleep with whomever doesn’t mean they’re completely worthless.

    1. I’m really interested in how much discussion this is generating both pre-blog carnival and from people of all genders and sexual orientations. That gender conformity/non-conformity as attractiveness insult is really common it seems. I thought I was super sensitive to it, because it was one of the insults of choice when I was going to an all girls school growing up. But it’s really starting to seem like a default weapon.

  12. Having grown up with Free to Be You and Me, I end up very confused by gender rigidity. My mother always used to be horrified that I ‘sat like a guy’ and didn’t shave my legs. And yet no one who has ever met me in person has ever identified me as anything other than female, despite my tendency to climb around in tidepools or handle slimy or scary things or my ability to change a flat tire (though if there’s someone else around who /wants/ to do that, I’m more than happy to let them.)

    Oddly enough, though, having gone to an all girls school, I ended up playing masculine roles on stage all the time, and I have been known to confuse people with pictures of me in full bead for one of the shows. I think largely because it changes my face enough that instead of going ‘oh, that’s Rebecca in drag for some reason’, they instead end up with ‘Who’s that man… wait, that’s Rebecca.’ And that reaction always made me laugh because something as simple as a fake beard (albeit a good fake beard) could make people miss everything else about me and take a while to identify me in the photo. (The other reason I’d show people those pictures was that, if you believed the pictures, in that production I never moved my elbows away from my sides, which I also thought was amusing.) Still, it always ended up confusing me that people would think I’d be unhappy getting the masculine roles, when I’d usually /wanted/ them. They were often larger and even where they weren’t, they tended to play to my strengths as an actress. Also, they were roles I was unlikely to ever be allowed to play in more standard theater productions, so getting to play them in high school was wonderful.

    1. I also grew up with Free to Be You and Me, but in the environment I grew up in, it came off as “Be nice to kids of color (not that you know any); and as soon as you hit puberty, stop wearing overalls and be a nice young lady, but isn’t it fun you can do things like climb trees, now?” So that didn’t really work out too well.

      I also played lots of men on stage growing up, and agree, it was awesome, even if other kids were mean to me about it.

      1. I’m also of that generation, but luckily had two parents who worked and cooked and were okay with us working out our own idea of what to wear and play with. (My mom did the household repairs, as my dad did not know his way around a saw, wrench and hammer).

        In one of those ironies real life is heir to, my little sister was generally assumed to be the boy when strangers met us, while my flamboyance was generally read as feminine.

  13. This is a subject that’s interesting for me, too, because while I personally identify as female, and am definitely cis, I don’t really perform one way or the other, not strongly. My hair is cut very short, as in “Does not cover my ears,” but I grew up thinking that was perfectly normal for women, because that’s how my mother and grandmother wore their hair. I don’t care for dresses, I wear t-shirts and jeans all the time. I don’t have much of a figure, or a waist. I find being mistaken for male to be amusing most of the time, rather than irritating. Of course, I’m also asexual, which might have something to do with it. As for words, I tend to use “attractive” a lot more than “handsome” or “pretty” or “striking.” I don’t know if it’s loaded or not, but for me, it has a lot fewer connotations.

  14. So wait, do you identify as butch? As a straight female, I find it easiest to identify others as whatever they wish to be identified by. Why not?

    I feel like you and I are in similar circumstances regarding gender. Geeky girls who don’t present femme or butch either way. I’ve been reading a lot about that lately, and came across the idea of genderlessness. I’d take it one step further and say that I am body unidentified. The physical feels arbitrary and foreign, I feel like a brain in a vat. Who nevertheless occasionally enjoys dressing up sometimes, or doing things on both sides of the traditional gender divide.

    I assume since you have such a complicated gender thing that you’ve delved into most of the genderqueer alternatives. Do none of these please you?

  15. A friend of mine says she doesnt mind people labelling her as butch, but she wont allow it to become a box she has to function in.

    Much like what you’re saying, I think?

    Great post!

  16. I hate to come across as naive, but I’ve never heard this equation of butch = ugly before. Maybe it’s because I was fortunate enough to spend my femme-growing-up years in a place where butch-femme is culturally the norm?

    I use handsome a lot. I like good-looking, too, for my butches/bois/male-identified sweeties in general. I refer to my best butch buddy as my brother, not my sister. I use the terms in the gender binary in my own little quirky femme queer way, and in as much consideration to my audience as I can.

    But butch is, bottom line, just hot. 😉 Great post.

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