The Roles of Butch and Femme in Lesbian Style and Presentation

In Week 13 of our course, we studied lesbian style presentations and the idea of the “butch” and the “femme”. Through our readings of Femme-ism (Paula Austin), Lipstick or Timberlands? (Mignon R. Moore), and We’re Going To Be Legends: Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (Kennedy and Davis), we examined how butch and femme presentation influenced and contextualized lesbian style.

Within the broader stereotypes that surround sexual orientation and it’s expression through personal style and gender-norm manipulation, the labels of “Butch” and “Femme” lesbians reside. In “We’re Going To Be Legends: Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold”, Kennedy and Davis discuss the two stereotypes as polar, conventional roles of lesbians in the 1940s and 1950s.

Kennedy and Davis create the notion of butch not as an imitation of male presentation but instead as an appropriation of traditional male style. They distinguish that male style is transformed and given new representative value when worn by women. For many the image of the Butch lesbian is better known and more consistently associated with women who identify as homosexual because it is more distinct from the traditional female and Femme images. Presenting as a Butch lesbian also creates assumptions about the role that person plays in their sexual relationships. The Butch stereotype has long been associated with being macho and dominant. Molding to the Butch stereotype communicates to other lesbians and anyone else that one is lesbian and also takes on a dominant and traditionally masculine role in her romantic and sexual relationships. For lesbian women, having already broken the heteronormative sexual role that their gender prescribes, the Butch and Femme stereotypes might just create another societal role to feel pressure to mimic.

The TNT drama series “Rizzoli & Isles” features two main female characters, individualized by their complementing, masculine and feminine leaning roles. This shows that the idea of the "butch" and "femme" presentation moves outside of just lesbian style and into the grounds of heterosexual women in the modern day.

The TNT drama series “Rizzoli & Isles” features two main female characters, individualized by their complementing, masculine and feminine leaning roles. This shows that the idea of the “butch” and “femme” presentation moves outside of just lesbian style and into the grounds of heterosexual women in the modern day.

Austin presents stories of “Femme-inism” and it’s statements in daily life and politics. She begs the question of whether the Butch stereotype insists that in order to be powerful and dominant, traditional masculine images and style must be mirrored. In the end of her story, her character resolves with the notion that “Being femme for me means risking the violence and sexism to be who I am. It means being mistaken for a straight woman and saying I’m not. It means fighting for the right for myself and my butch lover to dress as we plase and play the way we like. Yes, our roles can oppress us (…) but they do not have to.” (p. 365)

Femmes face these issues even now and express their frustrations online.

Femmes face these issues even now and express their frustrations online.

Moore introduces the notion of transition in lesbian image as a woman moves through different life stages in the context of black lesbian communities in New York City. In her piece “Lipstick or Timberlands?” she examines that changes like a new relationship, new community or coming out of the closet can highly influence the way someone presents themselves and their sexuality. She observes that black communities developed separately from primarily white ones, ideas of “butch” and “femme” were less permanent. In her survey, she ranked her women on a scale of 1-10, 1 being very feminine and 10 being very masculine. She remarks on this ranking system that “femmes score between one and three, gender-blenders score between four and six, and transgressives score between seven and ten. These categories represent physical style and mannerisms and are separate from items measuring personality traits and interaction styles.” (p. 124). While these categories helped to define different groups, she says that there are many reasons for women to change their groupings, should they move locations (and move to fit in with local group’s styles), enter a new relationship and take on a different presentation, or their exit of gay communities to move on to a more heterosexual presentation. These gender categories allow lesbians to better identify themselves within the community.

 

Rachel Maddow, lesbian reporter and television news host for MSNBC who could easily be identified as presenting as Butch. She is also one of very few female prime time hosts on MSNBC.

Rachel Maddow, lesbian reporter and television news host for MSNBC who could easily be identified as presenting as Butch. She is also one of very few female prime time hosts on MSNBC.

Class Discussion 4/28:

We began by discussing gender in relation to bodies, and that gender resides in the surface performance of masculinity and femininity, and are not inherent to their gender. Since the readings that we went through for today’s class came from the 1940’s-1970’s, the gender roles can be seen differently, since these readings came from a time that these gender presentations were highly praised. We discussed the differences between butch and femme, and how they were specifically roles of presentation. These choices lesbians make are strictly about style, and not just the fashion of the objects. Some lesbians, especially nowadays, move away from these roles, into a more neutral ground of presentation.

androgynous

 

Later on in the class discussion, we discussed butch style, and how butch style could be a political statement. Things like short hair can represent different statements in different cultures, along with the different aspects of butch presentation. In discussing political statements of butch fashion, we also discussed the commodification of it. Looking at websites such as Wildfang, Tomboytailors, Marimachobk, theoriginaltomboy, fourteenstyle, and veernyc, we discussed the ways butch style has been appropriated and sold, by saying that the websites resemble popular fashion marketing, and the word “butch” is often avoided. Was the meaning behind the clothes being lost in it’s commodification, and can we say, if the style is being worn by straight women, that “butch style” still belongs to lesbians?

– Alexandra Friedman and Jenna Zimmerman

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