March 18, 2006

Saying the F-Word

The woman on the panel tonight called herself a "princess stud" (a label I love and secretly wish I could use to describe myself). But as she twiddled her dangly earrings between perfectly-manicured fingers, she quickly identified herself (I thought) as one of us: "I insisted they let me on this panel," she proclaimed, "because they never have a femme viewpoint on these things." (The panel was gathered to discuss the movie The Aggressives.)

Great, I thought. I like hearing proud, articulate femmes talk about gender in the queer community. And she's right, there aren't usually femmes at this type of thing.

But it seems that, whatever viewpoint she was there to represent, she was not a femme. Y'see, she said so herself: "I could never be a femme," she said - "I stand up for myself, know what I mean? I'm not always gonna be in there cooking for you and doing what some stud says; that femme thing just isn't what I'm about, you know?" [I'll note that the evening was primarily a discussion among African-American lesbians, although there were people of various races, genders, sexual orientations and ages there, and the comments I'm about to gripe about came from a variety of people.]

As the evening wore on, more and more women talked about the importance of being themselves, about those poor deluded women who let themselves get pigeonholed into "boxes," and about how they just couldn't stand it when lesbians insisted on "playing heterosexual roles."

Maybe I don't understand because I'm not a lesbian ... but I, for one, am not playing a role.

Yes, I understand that for many people, "butch" and "femme" (and "stud," for that matter) are about relationship dynamics rather than identities. I understand that, even in a relationship between two people of similar genders, the one who is more dominant may end up being called "butch" and the one who is more nurturing or seductive may be called "femme." And I understand that the extent to which we fulfill various functions in a relationship may vary based on who we're partnered with, so that someone who is usually more passive and quiet may turn tougher in a relationship with someone even less dominant than she.

But the horror with which people reacted when one of the femmier women mentioned that butches and studs aren't the only ones who like to strap it on points, I think, to a problem with the way we're using the terms "butch" and "femme." Because if "butch" and "top" and "masculine" and "the man of the house" are all synonymous, then we have reduced butch and femme to the slots we fill in a relationship - to, dare I say it, roles. And yes - maybe there is a problem with a rigid system that says that you have to be a femme if the person you're dating is more masculine than you, or that you have to be a top if your partner wears a skirt, or that femmes can't strap it on.

But that's not what those terms are about for a lot of people. For example - I can't say I've ever been the more masculine one in a relationship, (because, heck, I don't think there's anyone I'm more masculine than). But I've certainly been the pursuer, I buy my partners flowers more often than I ever receive them, and no matter what my partner IDs as, I feel no obligation to do as they say. And I have no objection, in principle, to wearing a strap-on, if you can find me one purple and glittery enough.

Regardless of who I'm with, I wear my sexuality with a flamboyant femininity. Regardless of who I'm with, I love to fuck - excuse me, make love - but I'd usually rather snuggle. Regardless of who I'm with, I draw people out and try to comfort them when they reveal their problems. Regardless of who I'm with, I choose skirts over pants, heels over flats, lipstick over bare skin. Regardless of who I'm with, I love to hold and be held, to give and receive kisses, to have my lover notice and revel in my breasts, my hips, my curves. I'm basically your dyed-in-the-wool femme - whether I'm with a butch, a boy, another femme, or no one at all.

That's my gender - not my sexuality, and not my relationship role. It doesn't make me a bottom, a doormat, or a straight girl - not that any of those are synonymous. And it certainly doesn't mean that I need a man-figure in my relationships to "fulfill a butch role." If I'm in love with a butch, or a man, or anyone more masculine than I am, it's for who they are, not because they fill the available slot. (Though, um, filling my available slots can't hurt...)

And this is my problem with women who say they can't be femmes because they're not submissive, not attracted to butches, or not interested in aping the patriarchy. Sure, those are all things "femme" can mean; but they're by no means necessary.


icarus said...

(because, heck, I don't think there's anyone I'm more masculine than)

I think I could mebbe give you a run for your money, chica... ;-)

Regardless of who I'm with, I love to fuck - excuse me, make love - but I'd usually rather snuggle.

Wait, I'm confused - is snuggling a "feminine" quality? As opposed to sex?


operation_mayhem said...

I'm just gonna say it . . .
I don't understand femme vs. butch. At all. In fact, I really disown the idea all together. This results after years of trying to figure out what the hell I am. Am I femme or am I butch? Neither really. And I think that relationship roles you've outlined here serve as a perfect example of why these terms are so troublesome in the first place.
I suppose my outward appearance (for the most part) would suggest that I am a femme, but I, like ME, contradict all of these supposed stereotypes of femmes in relationships. I am, and have always been, the dominant half of the relationship. I approach everyday with an agressive attitude- I don't settle for anything less and I refused to be taken advantage of (though many people try).
In short, I agree with ME in that femme is a personal identity and not a relationship role. I'm sure every femme on this site can affirm that. However, I want to go a step further . . . I don't want to use the word femme at all. Its fine if you are an extremely feminine woman, and you choose to ID that way. And its fine if you are a masculine woman, and you choose to ID as butch. But what about those of us in the middle? Those of us that like frilly skirts and strappy sandals but despise makeup. Those of us that are just as likely to play a game of football in the mud as we are to attend a balet class. You have your IDs. Now tell me what I'm supposed to be.

emily2 said...

yeah, what operation_mayhem said.

anyway, i think humans just like to organize their world to make it make sense. creating groups and labels is just another way for us to make sense of our environment. i've had people label me many things from "prissy femme" to "futch" to "andro" to just "plain weird." and after trying to figure out what kind of dyke i am, i finally said "fuck it." nothing really changed about my appearance, or my mannerisms, or my relatioships with my friends after i came out. why bother labeling myself? my girlfriend and i are partners, and that's that.

but then again, we can't help labeling, because as humans, we like to assign identifiers to define our world. and these little labels mean different things to different people, and you can't expect another person to process the words or phrases you choose the same way you do (and vice versa).

tea cozy said...

why do people feel such pressure to fit themselves into either butch or femme? operation mayhem? your tone implied a lot of hostility towards that particular set of categories... I don't really get why. could you offer an explanation as to why? I'm pretty sure no quench blogger would try to require anyone to be either butch or femme (that would be pretty funny, huh?)... I mean, I don't know about y'alls, but I was never really bugged about it.

That said, can we have a quench-wide football (or, if I had my druthers, soccer) game in the mud... uniform being strappy sandals and frilly skirts? Is there even enough mud in cambridge to have a decent ballgame in?

icarus said...

I guess I have more of an issue with assigning behaviors/preferences/things stereotypical "masculine" "feminine" labels.

Like, why is assertiveness or an aggressive attitude "masculine"? I think that's completely ridiculous.

Why do we assume that passivity or high heels or whatever other shit our society labels as "feminine" has anything to do with "femme" as a [queer?] category?

I think identities like "butch" and "femme" can be a lot more subversive and interesting if they involve actively questioning the labels that society assigns to things like football, high heels, and "being taken advantage of." Otherwise, I feel like we're just reinforcing those stereotypes and valuations.

icarus said...

a recent convo with someone re: this discussion:

them: i mean, i care about the butch/femme thing but it seems like a preaching to the choir effect. every­one's like "people should be able to be butch or femme but shouldn't have to be."

me: yeah

them: and then everyone's like, no, i think that people should be able to be butch or femme but shouldn't have to be.

wannatakethisoutside said...

Sorry: I posted this comment on the wrong thread

So, if it's ftms and femmes doing all the presuring, at least according to this thingy, and I'm an ftm and a femme, does that make me doubly evil?

I mean, I kind of like the idea of being evil...

But I don't want to be the kind of evil that forces labels on people

operation_mayhem said...

If we choose to actively dismiss the gender paradigm that tells us that there are but two genders, we need to dismiss the gender personification paradigm that tells us that there is but femme and butch. Cause clearly, very few people would consider themselves entirely one or the other.

I understand why these roles/groups were formed- for people of the queer community (and outside of it) to be able to identify one another- but I don't think the terms do us justice.

I agree with icarus in that sometimes the terms are problematic in that they have underlying connotations.

There are so many stereotypes out there, many of which inadequately represent that respective group of people (hence the term "stereotype")- so why are we perpetuating yet another?

[side note: If I lived in Cambridge, I would totally be up for a game of football (fútbol)].

katie loncke said...

It occured to me while reading everyone's responses that the butch/femme dichotomy may also be racialized to fit (upper-class) white stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. In the States, all black people--regardless of gender--are painted as more aggressive than whites (men with criminal/violent aggression; women with hysterical/promiscuous aggression)--does this merely shift the dominant/submissive spectrum as it applies to black people being labeled as butch or femme?

And on the more positive side, how does the idea of black women's historical strength and resiliance interact with "femme" labels for black women? The narrative of black women's strength seems to contradict the formula "femme = submissive."

I'd just be interested to hear people's thoughts on how race plays into "butch" and "femme" stuff...

emily2 said...

i think discussions about butch/femme and other labels always end up being more or less pointless. this is why.

1) we like to define our world, and assigning labels to a set of particular characteristics is one way to make sense of our world. we like to group things and people together, because otherwise, explaining and identifying things would be onerous and burdensome. sure, there are many shades of grey and millions of colors, but to append all the possible adjectives to completely describe a particular thing, person or occurrence is impossible. there need to be some shortcuts to communicate efficiently.


2) we also like to stand out as individuals, so we say things like "don't label me" or "i don't fit into the stereotype." and then we start appending more adjectives to distinguish one from another, and we're back to square one.

so these types of discussions always end up being played out like a broken record.