A Measure of Expression

Looking at the Butch/Femme Scale

If you are or are acquainted with a pre-Stonewall or early post-Stonewall Lesbian, you are well aware that the current concept of butch/femme is considerably different from that of the past. Newer women may find earlier depictions of butch/femme convey a rigidity they feel they could never enjoy, even though they may also identify as one or the other and reject the idea that this is nothing more than an imitation of the traditional heterosexual model. These days, we recognize the complexity and diversity of individuals to the extent that we are much more self identifying, employing a much greater degree of "mix and match" in our approach than ever before. At the same time, we do love our labels. If nothing else, we like to know what others mean by their labels, even if we choose not to adopt them. How else would we know whether or not to be satisfied with them? Keeping that all in mind, I'd like to present one possible way to explain the butch/femme experience in our time.

Suppose we were to illustrate the sexual makeup of a person by marking positions on various scales. The first scale could then be used to show the person's sex (physical indicators of maleness and/or femaleness: chromasomes, hormones, organs). We could use the second scale for gender identity (self-perception as male, female, some combination, or neutral). When we arrive at the third scale, we are in a position to choose between two related but distinct options for measuring gender expression. The first is to make it sex and gender identity dependent (the expected choice for someone who automatically buys into society's notion that sex, gender identity, and gender expression should all match up at only one end or the other of the scales for any one individual). That option runs from masculine to feminine. Using that scale, people have often judged that a man who is not masculine enough to measure up to current standards is somehow less of a man. Likewise for a woman who is not terribly feminine. Is she just mannish? Is she part male? Confused? Pry her out of those jeans, stuff her into a dress, and slap some makeup on her. Then she'll look like a "real" woman.

But there's another way. What if we use a scale that is in many ways similar in appearance but, at the same time, sex and gender identity independent? That line would run from butch to femme. By that reckoning, a man is just as much a man and a woman just as much a woman as they would otherwise be, no matter where on the scale they fell. In fact, it is the independence of this measure that allows for the abandonment of it entirely (either as androgyny or as nothing in particular at all) for those who find such labels irrelevant in their lives. They sacrifice nothing on the other scales if they still choose to use those.

Thinking of butch/femme as one of two alternative scales allows us to free ourselves from the belief that we are locking ourselves into copying outmoded gender prisons. Butch and femme are senses of self and ways of being. And, sure, they can also be played up into roles for the pleasure of it. Nothing else I'd ever experienced was quite like the time I went out of town to visit a beautiful femme, and she told me she was glad to have me around because she often felt "butch deprived". The elation and pride I finally had the chance to fully and openly feel while I was there lasted well beyond those two weeks, even though that was only one aspect of who we were and how we related. It was a wonderful gift to be appreciated that way.

People are whole, real life beings, not models. We can abandon all this, if we like. However, if we want, we can go on making more scales; any scales we find illuminating and useful in helping us to shed more light on how different aspects of ourselves are related to but independent of each other. Another couple of scales that could help us think differently about how we group ourselves would be a sexual/romantic attraction (or sexual orientation) set that contrasted measuring from Gay to straight with measuring from loving men to loving women, regardless of the maleness or femaleness of the person in question. That would mean showing loving men as a point of commonality between Gay men and straight women as well as dropping Lesbians and Straight men into the same catagory (without actually calling them the same thing). A little controversy, anyone?

Let's challenge ourselves and experiment with these ideas. Maybe what limits us is not our labels but our belief that we must knuckle under to the demands of their perceived connotations.

(Each opens with Windows Media Player.)

To see some butch images, have a look at:

A personal photographic celebration of being a butch woman - with a little drag thrown in for good measure!

For a bit about how lesbians are portrayed in mainstream films and TV, watch:

I dearly value our allies and all they've had the courage and love to do to help us. It's a beautiful relationship I'm grateful to see continue. But Harvey Milk made a very good point about there being a difference between being represented in government by our allies and being represented by our own people. I believe the same is true regarding representing ourselves in movies and television.

Dykes in Film is an essay on the image of lesbians in mainstream entertainment, accompanied by some very simple animation. It's not intended as a critique or criticism of any single work. The point is simply that, in the mainstream, it seems real lesbians are largely still invisible, even as our image becomes increasingly visible. It's okay to use our image to gain viewers, turn on men, and make money. But, with limited exceptions, it's still not quite so acceptable for real women to actually be lesbians.

lesbian butch dyke gay queer homosexual gender women entertainment movies film tv television allies political politics activists activism awareness

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