Butch Today, Femme Tomorrow

Courtesy of wikicommons.

The visibility of lesbian culture in modern America is greater than ever before, however, it is plagued by stereotypes.  The stereotypes run the gambit from the glamour of The L Word to the overly sexualized lesbian fantasy of the male sphere.

Popular culture’s display of lesbian couples such as Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi and Samantha Ronsom and Lindsay Lohan has helped lesbian culture break into the mainstream.  However, these women have been easily placed into perpetual stereotypes of butch and femme in mainstream culture.  In reality, butch/femme identity is hotly debated in the lesbian community today.[1]

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, Lillian Faderman presents a decade-by-decade study of lesbian sub-culture in America.  She examines butch/femme in its historical context.  Faderman argues that the butch/femme paradigm was actually a very classed and generational definition.

In the 1950s the world of butch/femme is strict.  Each were expected to fit specific roles. The unwritten rules of butch/femme dictated that a butch should have a tough “male” exterior and a femme project a passive “female” exterior.  From the outside this dichotomy seems to be drawn from the concept of male and female.  It is easy to dismiss these identifications as an attempt to replicate heterosexuality by designating one member of a couple as male (the butch) and the other as female (the femme).  However, Faderman shows that the butch/femme world is not actually an imitation of the heterosexual world, but really a movement that is submerged in class struggle. [2]

In the 1950s butch women were tough and defined by their ability to stand up as strong women and protect their femme counterparts.  Faderman’s interviews show that many butch women came from the working class.  Their goal was not to pass as men, but to define themselves by their ability to work as tough women.  Being butch and being part of a butch/femme relationship was a way to claim one’s place as a lesbian working class woman.  The older generation and the upper class of lesbians did not intermix with the butch/femme working class generation. [3]  Butch/femme was entrenched in the 1950s young, working class society and other women who were outside this world did not claim butch/femme identity.

By the 1970s lesbian feminists dismissed butch/femme culture as politically incorrect. Many lesbians of this era critiqued butch/femme as submission to patriarchal standards. Androgyny became the lesbian ideal.  Lesbians from all classes banned together as lesbian feminists.  The move away from the strict butch/femme definition is attributed to the new protection and identity created by lesbian feminism.  Women no longer needed butch/femme to protect themselves from the outside world.  [4]

Modern lesbian culture challenges the butch/femme stereotype, yet it acknowledges the complexity of gender identity.  Today many lesbians believe that simply defining butch and femme in terms of male and female is “highly problematic because of its underlying assumption of heteronormativity” (the tenet that heterosexuality is normal). [5]  If heterosexuality is normal then  all other forms of sexuality are not normal and, therefore, homosexuality is less than heterosexuality.

The world of butch and femme is no longer controlled by outside definitions of how a relationship is shaped (as male and female).  Women can choose to dress and act a certain way in a relationship without becoming more female or male.  Lesbian identity should not be defined by heterosexuality.

Queer culture today aims to show that homosexual and transgender people cannot be placed into heterosexual classifications.  Once we do this we can begin to truly understand the cultural issues and struggles of queer history.  Faderman’s work succeeds in understanding lesbian issues outside of the heterosexual paradigm in a decade-by-decade history.  It is the goal of many historians to now create an overarching storyline of lesbian history that is not simply negotiated through heterosexual definitions.  By understanding the legacy of butch/femme as a cultural movement we can begin to see these connections and escape the male/female heterosexual paradigm.



[1]  Garrett, Emma and Silver, Rachel. “Lesbians and Cultural Issues in the 20th Century.” Out History. 2008. Web. <http://outhistory.org/wiki/Lesbians_and_Cultural_Issues_in_the_20th_Century#Negotiating_Cultural_Identities&gt;

[2]  Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: a History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America. London: Penguin, 1992. 174

[3]  Ibid. 177

[4]  Garrett, Emma and Silver, Rachel. “Lesbians and Cultural Issues in the 20th Century.” Out History. 2008. Web. <http://outhistory.org/wiki/Lesbians_and_Cultural_Issues_in_the_20th_Century#Negotiating_Cultural_Identities&gt;

8 thoughts on “Butch Today, Femme Tomorrow

  1. Faderman also makes an important point about the influence of class on the adoption of butch/femme culture by working class lesbians as part of the bar scene. On the other hand, Faderman points out that middle-class lesbians in the 50s and 60s turned away from such portrayals as they did not coincide with their public lives in service professions that did not readily accept the lesbian community. I think a discussion about the promotion or rejection of the butch/femme culture must include this aspect, as well.

    1. Jill, I agree with you that class must be taken into account in a discussion of lesbian subculture. I found Faderman’s analysis of middle class lesbian women of the 50s and 60s to be one of the most interesting parts of her book. The paucity of records available about these women makes scholarship a challenge, but the interviews and oral histories that Faderman conducted reveal the painful fear of being “outed” that these women lived with.

      Based purely on my personal observations, I think that there is still an element of secrecy among professional, middle class lesbian women. They are in a tenuous position, because they have a lot to lose if they come up against discrimination and intolerance and do not have the resources to easily overcome career or monetary setbacks. Although conditions have definitely improved, I think that middle class lesbians are still more discrete than either working or lower class lesbians, which will continue to make historical scholarship on them a challenge.

      1. I was also drawn to Faderman’s class analysis when looking at lesbian subculture. I agree with Sarah that many obstacles still exist for middle-class lesbian women, but I also believe there are a lot more public social outlets than in the 50s and 60s. As Faderman points out, gays bars in the 50s and 60s were often tough environments susceptible to police raids and brutality. Middle-class women not only had more of the means to socialize in private settings, but avoiding the dangers of the bars were also a priority. Today I believe that many venues, both gay and straight, provide middle-class lesbians with a safer and more appealing environment. Yet, as Sarah points out, the worry of their personal world damaging their professional world lingers.

      2. I would have to agree with Sarah about the point of middle class women keeping their sexuality secret. Especially looking at this from a feminist viewpoint, women have struggled to reach careers and positions of power. The media still uses lesbianism as a means of taking away authority from women–remember the rumors about Elena Kagan?

  2. I think gender and sexuality have been especially problematic because up until the last hundred or so years, they were seemingly rigid entities. There were no options, no toeing the line, no luxury of choice: you were just one or the other. Therefore, it’s easy to understand why in the past folks would’ve immediately connected butch/femme identities with the idea of replicating heterosexuality. The power of identity, however, lies in its inherent self-directed nature. In today’s world, it’s much easier to claim a self-defined identity and have that be acceptable for others. The idea of what is “normal” or not matter less today, because we are increasingly encouraged to assert our own identities instead of subscribing to a preexisting set.

  3. Faderman also points out that in the context of the butch/femme subculture during “the Lavender Scare”, these women really had no foundation upon which to construct their notions of gender and sexual identities. Heterosexual relationships provided that framework, and their notions of sexuality were able to evolve from there. I think that fitting homosexual relationships into a “heteronormative” framework is very much a product of that context. But at the same time, we still see the butch/femme stereotypes at work today. Anyone remember that episode of America’s Next Top Model when Amanda came out, and they had her do a photoshoot as both Ellen and Portia? http://justjared.buzznet.com/photo-gallery/36241/antm-celebrity-couples-09/. There’s a clear butch/femme stereotype going on here. Why do you think this stereotype still persists today, particularly among in the media?

    1. I suspect that this sort of stereotype persists today in the media is because television is often a lagging indicator of cultural trends. Maybe this is just my disdain for most television talking, but I think most television shows are unsophisticated in the way that they address cultural norms and stereotypes. Maybe in the future we will see lesbian couples on television who are more flexible in their gender roles, but that will only happen when our society as a whole becomes used to the idea that lesbian couples do not always exhibit the butch/femme stereotype.

  4. From my observations I actually see less of the stereotypical butch/femme stereotypes in everyday then on television shows and even then its very rare shows. I do think that gay and lesbian images are changing that as I’ve seen men and women on talk shows and news shows with the more androgynous look. I do feel that there may be a marked difference between men and women and their adherence to gender roles, but I think its definitely as Faderman says a view of identity and “what feels natural” to a man or woman then the strict stereotypes of the ’50s and ’60s.

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