The paper I wrote for my Gender and Sexual Orientation class. It is rather long and somewhat academic.
Simone de Beauvoir (1949) states in The Second Sex “one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one.” Judith Butler (1990) asserts in her analysis of gender in Gender Trouble that woman is to copy as copy is to copy, therefore there is no original when speaking of traditional gender roles or gender in and of itself, it is all a reproduction of something else. If these two statements are taken to be true, than anyone could become a woman, a man, or any other gender role which they desire. If women are not born then no other gendered identity is born either. Is gender, then, whatever we make of it?
Traditionally in our society gender roles are supposed to follow the sex which the gendered body is representing. Male bodies grow up to be men/masculine and female bodies grow up to be women/feminine. This isn’t always the case. Transgendered people throw off these two neatly defined gender categories which are socialized into us from day one. While multiple definitions can be applied to the term ‘transgender,’ it is generally and broadly defined as any gender deviance from the (two) traditional socially accepted genders (OutProud, 2007).
The term femme can have multiple meanings and interpretations as well: “[m]any femmes are lesbians, but femmes are also drag queens, straight sex workers, nelly fags, all strong women and sassy men” (Camilleri & Rose, 2002). Some have gone so far as to say “[t]rying to define femme is like trying to capture the essence of mystery” (Drinkwater, 2006) because it is an extremely subjectively defined identity, as all identities are. Specifically in this paper, however, the use of the gender femme in relation to genetic females who identify as femme will be examined.
Due to the correlation between biological sex and gender identity in genetic female femmes, femme seems to be the same as the “traditional” feminine category described above. However, this is not the case. I will show that it is not a traditional gender role: femme is actually a transgender identity. This will be made apparent by evidence of butch and femme identities, interactions, and roles, and by comparing femme to feminine and transgender roles and definitions.
To talk in depth about femme-ininity and the femme identity, we must go back to the beginning of the lesbian femme role and find its origins. It is close to impossible to talk about the history of femmes without talking about butches as well. Butch and femme identities developed together as a pair and remain intrinsically entwined. The butch and femme genders were first widely visible and expected within lesbian communities in the 1940s and were apparent primarily in the working class and young lesbian subculture (Faderman, 1991). They were strict roles which one could not deviate from or change, and a butch had to be with a femme, there was no butch-butch or femme-femme allowed (though that’s not to say it didn’t happen). Originally butch and femme were modled after heteronormative genders, simply for lack of a better model. There was no alternative gender, only masculine and feminine, and the only relationship model avaliable was that of a masculine-feminine heterosexual dynamic, therefore that’s what there was to work with. There was no widely accepted middle ground or a non butch-femme dynamic avaliable at the time.
Butch-femme roles have been a large part of the lesbian subculture ever since they were brought into it. However, as the years went on and the second wave of feminism rolled in femmes were accused of all sorts of atrocities. They were considered the “Uncle Toms” of the feminist movement as well as accused of attempting to pass as a heterosexual and gain privilege through passing (Nestle, 1992). Lesbians were supposed to be androgynous, which meant giving up the feminine in order to not conform to the patriarchal gender roles placed on women, at the same time oppressing the women who were choosing femme-ininity. “A femme is often seen as a lesbian acting like a straight women who is not a feminist—a terrible misreading of self-presentation that turns a language of liberated desire into the silence of collaboration” (p. 142).
To this day the role of femme is still affected by these limited definitions of lesbian and feminist. Although femmes exist today just as strongly as ever there is still a stigma surrounding femmes who are too feminine, they are still accused of trying to pass in straight society. Femmes are assumed to be straight a lot of the time, which can be equally helpful and frustrating.
As butch and femme roles grew and evolved over the years there came those who identified as stone butches. Stone butches “observed taboos similar to those that were current among working-class heterosexual males” (Faderman, 1991, p. 169), such as letting another woman be the aggressor, always having to be the active partner in sex, and usually the pleaser as well. Stone butches are the extreme butches, who don’t want their genitals touched, only want to do the touching “she doesn’t want to feel her femaleness because she thinks of [the femme] as the “real” woman and if she makes love to [the femme], she doesn’t have to feel her own body as the object of desire. The stone butch is not rooted in her body but, rather, is rooted in the body of her partner” (Hollibaugh & Moraga, 1992).
With extreme and stone butches there is an interesting dynamic observed between the butch and femme which is all related to power. In some ways it could be defined as a master-slave dynamic as the butch is in control regardless of if she is giving or receiving pleasure (Davis, Hollibaugh, & Nestle, 1992). At the same time, even though the femme is not in control she is not passive (Hollibaugh & Moraga, 1992) the femme is worshipping, or in service to the butch, but they are both equally receiving regardless of the situation. More often the butch is the giver of pleasure, and the femme is the reciever, though at the same time the femme is giving over her body to the butch for the butch to receive (Hollibaugh & Moraga, 1992).
These butch-femme sexual dynamics are in some ways correlated and in some ways completely different than the “traditional” heterosexual experiences of sexuality. In culturally accepted heterosexual sex, the stereotype is that the man is the giver and reciever. He is the person in the relationship who desires the sexual contact, while the woman does not or is doing it for other reasons such as motherhood or duty. Both partners in the butch-femme relationship are believed to have equal desire for sex. The relational term master-slave used above to describe a possible butch-femme dynamic is sometimes also applied to heterosexual relationships, but in more of a literal way. In a stereotypical heterosexual dynamic the woman is indentured (by society) to the man, she is forced to serve instead of taking pleasure in it. Not all heterosexual relationships are manifested in this way, of course, these are simply the stereotypes.
While the origins of butch and femme were essentially copies of traditional masculine and feminine relationships and gender roles as we can see they have developed into unique interpretations of how masculine and feminine interact and what masculine and feminine mean in relation to bodies. Butler (1990) calls the butch and femme genders parodic identities and then later marks them as assets in the exposure of genders as performative (2004). Butch and femme genders are “explorations” of heterosexual masculinity and femininity transposed on queer female bodies which emphasizes that masculinity and femininity are not body-dependant. Through butch and femme gendered identities are shown to be constructed and performed regardless of the body which they are performed in.
To put such a body-specific gender as masculinity on the socially wrong body is to fundamentally morph it into something new, and to emphasize the constructed nature of masculine. But what about putting the body-specific gender of femininity onto the socially right body as femme does? The difference there is the conscious choice of femme-ininity, as opposed to accepting the role which society places upon femmes simply because they are female, femmes are embracing that role in a very specific and thought-out manner. Femme is performing femininity in a conscious way, both as a parody and as drag as Butler suggested. Femme is as much doing drag queen as butch is doing drag king.
The predominant differences between feminine straight females and femme-inine queer females are choice and sexual orientation. However, these are small and subtle enough to be big differences. To be a “real” woman or have a legitimized “traditional” gender in this society all of your identities have to be properly aligned. Females are automatically feminine, they grow up to be women, and women are attracted to males. Males are automatically masculine, grow up to be men, and men are attracted to females. This is the only legitimized avenue for sex-gender-sexuality to take (Wilchins, 2004). When a body along the sex-gender-sexuality path takes an unexpected turn at any point that body is then invalid, this is where the creation of gender and sexual orientations come into view. We now have some culturally valid words to call some of these deviations of the path, queer identities of all kinds, with new words coming into use every day.
The choice of femme-ininity is also a cultural deviation, although it appears to be aligning itself with society’s standards it is not. Femmes have made the choice of femininity, and are therefore empowered by it, taking strength and power from their individual expression of femme-ininity. Although they are in the clothing and appear to be conforming to the cultural demand of female bodies to look a certain way “resistance lies in the change of context” (Nestle, 1992, p. 141).
As previously stated, transgender has a multitude of meanings and has, also, changed since it was first used (Currah, 2006). In Susan Stryker’s (1994) essay which is said to “mark the emergence of transgender studies” (Currah, 2006, p. 4) she defines transgender as “an umbrella term that refers to all identities or practices that cross over, cut across, move between, or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries” (p. 251).
Butches and femmes effectively queer the gendered categories which they inhabit and parody. Queer is used as a verb in this case, as an active doing, a skewing, a disruption or question of heteronormative ideas of sexuality and/or (in this case) gender. Butches and femmes actively queer masculinity and femininity, turning it on its head and making it their own. While masculinity and femininity are still identifiable within the butch and femme roles and they were originally a copy of them, butch and femme have evolved since their first use, and will continue to evolve as gender roles do.
We know that gender is not dependent on body type. It is a socially constructed category which is impossible not to fit into in some way or another, there is no non-gender in a society which is built on gender. The choice to appear to fit into the sex-gender path without disruption while really exposing it as a fake is what femmes choose to do. Over the top interpretations of femininity, or simply acknowledging the performativity of gender is in itself a rebellious act. Femmes have to consciously examine their role in society, and therefore society as a whole, and they have to face sexism and misogyny both internally and externally on a daily basis, and end up more aware of it than other women. It is not easy to accept a femme role in society, let alone get strength and power from it.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.
Camilleri, A., & Rose, C. B. (2002). Introduction: A Brazen Posture. In A. Camilleri, & C. B. Rose (Eds.), Brazen Femme (pp. 11-14). Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Currah, P. (2006). Gender Pluralisms under the Transgender Umbrella. In P. Currah, R. M. Juang, & S. Price Minter (Eds.), Transgender Rights (pp. 3-31). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Davis, M., Hollibaugh, A., & Nestle, J. (1992). The Femme Tapes. In J. Nestle (Ed.), The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (pp. 254-267). Boston: Alyson Publications.
de Beauvoir, S. (1949). The Second Sex. (H. M. Parshley, Trans.) New York: Penguin.
Drinkwater, R. (2006). Butch-Femme.com – ABOUT. Retrieved November 6, 2007, from Butch-Femme.com – A Real World Community: http://www.butch-femme.com/faq/whoweare.htm
Faderman, L. (1991). Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin Books.
Hollibaugh, A., & Moraga, C. (1992). What We’re Rollin’ Around in Bed With: Sexual Silences in Feminism. In J. Nestle (Ed.), The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (pp. 243-253). Boston: Alyson Publications.
Nestle, J. (1992). The Femme Question. In J. Nestle (Ed.), The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (pp. 138-146). Boston: Alyson Publications.
OutProud. (2007). TransProud – Glossary of Transgender Terms. Retrieved November 7, 2007, from Trans Proud – Be Yourself.: http://www.transproud.com/trans_terms.html
Wilchins, R. (2004). Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications.