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.