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Butches in Popular Culture

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 07:00

The last three chapters of Female Masculinity are all of limited interest to the Project, so I've combined them with chapter 4 into a single entry. Now I have three weeks to do the reading an annotating for the 6 entries after that, which are all full books, and two of which I don't currently own. (I'd been assuming I could get library copies.) Past!Me what were you thinking? Most likely I'll rearrange things a little and substitute in some shorter articles. I still have about three months of content lined up in my to-do list, based on my last orgy of downloading from JSTOR at UC Berkeley. It may be a while before I have that sort of access again, unless I can wangle a home JSTOR account based on quarantine conditions. I do have friends who could pull individual articles for me, but it's a different matter to pull up the entire contents of a journal and comb through it for articles I didn't know I wanted. But in the mean time, I do have lots and lots of books on the shelves, waiting for me.

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Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Chapter 4-8

Due to the social and cognitive complexities of discussing a book written by a self-identified (at the time) butch lesbian who now identifies as a trans man, I have chosen to use “H” as a shorthand for the author’s name, rather than using gendered pronouns or trying to avoid pronouns altogether. This is not meant to disrespect Halberstam’s current identity, but rather to respect the identity from which this book was written at the time.

Chapter 4: Lesbian Masculinity: Even Stone Butches Get the Blues

This chapter opens by comparing expressions by Anne Lister and (the fictional) Stephen Gordon about needing always to be the “active” partner in sex, to the archetype of the “stone butch” in the 1950s. But Halberstam is wary of connecting these dots to construct a trans-historical “stone butch” role, while tracing this motif through various historical understandings of embodiment. The theme of this chapter is the equation of masculine untouchability with dysfunction and melancholy. H disputes this framing (i.e., the dysfunctional one) as well and sees the “stone butch” as demanding differential emotional accountability from different roles. It shows how some sexual roles are dismissed as “inauthentic” while others are privileged as “real” to the point where they are not seen as “roles” at all.

While modern academia has produced insights about queer identities and communities, it has avoided addressing the way specific sexual practices and meanings fit into that picture, including apparent logical contradictions between political theory and sexual practice. There are popular assumptions about characteristic sexual practices of political or sexual identities, but these images have little to do with practice. The failure to address the specifics of sex--like the failure to address race within queer communities--passively allows for the projection of a “universal experience” that follows socially dominant paradigms. The sexuality of marginalized queers is both made invisible and made hypervisible in its Otherness. The default has shifted in different eras providing a temporal “other” as well to the contemporary “invisible” default.

Discussions of sex in queer communities have tended to focus on individual acts rather than identities. [Note: where have we heard the framing of “acts versus identities before? *cough* Foucault.] There is a bit of discussion of gender theory and what “gender as a social construction” does and does not mean.

Although Halberstam sees a distinction between lesbianism and female masculinity, masculinity has often been used as the defining feature of lesbian stereotypes. This is embraced in the modern lesbian community in the form of category “butch”. But within this category, butches have many different relationships to masculinity, from performative style to dysphoric to passing. Some parts of the lesbian community view butches as embarrassingly gender-normative, but H rejects the option of excluding butch from the category “lesbian” in order to save that category for “woman-identified woman.” [Note: and yet in other parts of the book H appears to do just that, claiming for example that Anne Lister shouldn’t be classified as “lesbian”.]

[Note: I’m getting a sense that Halberstam may be using the catchphrase “woman-identified woman” in a different way that I’ve always understood it. H seems to be using it to contrast with masculinity, i.e., that the “woman-identified” part means “identifying as a feminine woman”? But the point of the “woman-identified woman” manifesto, presented in 1970 by the Radicalesbians as part of the Lavender Menace protest, had to do with women whose primary emotional connections and relationships were with women, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. So I don’t quite get the contrast suggested between “butch” and “woman-identified woman” unless one is taking the position that butch isn’t part of the category “woman”.]

An exploration of all the varieties of personal expression and experience make category boundaries impossible, while allowing thematic connections. The rejection of butch-femme by some in the 1970s resulted in limiting acceptable gender expression for lesbians in both directions, in favor of an androgynous ideal. That had the result of rendering lesbian identity less visible. When cultural expressions of lesbian sexuality are brought into the picture, the “lesbian-feminist ideal” becomes a form of cultural imperialism. [Cf. “white feminism]

There is a detailed discussion of the definition and performance of “stone butch” as an identity and practice. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues doesn’t necessarily depict “stone” as a positive option, rather as a closing off, a hardening, in response to abuse or vulnerability, where the “right woman” can allow the stone butch to open up. This feeds into the cultural model of stone as dysfunction. (Feinberg’s novel isn’t any more sympathetic to lesbian-feminist than to the stone butch, so this shouldn’t be taken as authorial judgment.) This culture clash is explored further in the chapter through both fiction and sociological studies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Chapter 5: Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wards and the Masculine Continuum

[Note: This chapter is more about modern social politics so while it’s fascinating history, it isn’t LHMP history except in relevance to handling the butch/trans intersection for contemporary readers.]

Halberstam emphasizes the continuities and overlaps in various experiences of cross-gender identity. [Note: H uses terminology and makes distinctions that were “best practice” in the 1990s but may be deprecated today. In my summary here I’ll tend to follow H’s vocabulary even when usages has shifted, as when H uses  “female-to-male” or uses “transsexual” in contexts where “transgender” is preferred today. H does use “transgender” but equates it with “gender-queer”. So for example when H discusses the concept “transgender butch”, a better translation into current terms might be “gender-queer butch” or perhaps “non-binary butch”. The shifting nature of the terminology landscape makes it impossible for me to both clearly present the discussion in the book and follow current norms of reference, because modifying H’s terminology might distort the intended meaning.]  In particular, H looks at the potential impact of a visible/accepted transsexual (the book’s terminology) population on how younger people develop an understanding of their own identity. The medicalization of transsexuality has moved gender variance from the context of homosexuality to the context of gender identity.

[Note: this is something clearly relevant to creating historical fiction, because just as homosexual/heterosexual didn’t exist in many past eras as conceptual categories, the idea of trans identity is a cultural construct and has not always been available. And yet as writers of historical fiction, we are writing for an audience that takes those concepts for granted. As authors, we will necessarily be finding the balance between historic accuracy and modern reception.]

Medicalization also shifted the possible choices for expressing gender identity. The growing visibility and awareness of trans men has other sociopolitical consequences than an awareness of personal possibilities. It creates fault lines around access to male privilege as well as around how the performative gender of butchness is viewed. This has created a “strange struggle between FTM and lesbian butches who accuse each other of gender normativity.” [Note: I’ve quoted the book directly to emphasize that this is Halberstam’s characterization and not my interpretation. This is where H’s dual status as a formerly self-identifying butch lesbian and currently self-identifying trans man may provide a unique platform for considering this topic.]

Halberstam uses the term “transgender butch” to identify a key experience/identity within this context. H discuses various conceptual conflicts in how trans men and butch women characterize each other. These “border wars,” as H call it, treat masculinity as a limited resource to be fought over, or as a set of fixed and agreed-on protocols. If, instead, masculinity is divorced from maleness (though related to it at the same time) these conflicts become unnecessary.

What H does in this chapter is to explore the model of masculinity that is contested within this conflict. Within queer studies, transsexuality is a popular lens for examining gender theory, but this theorizing is too often done from the outside. H discusses their own 1994 article on trans topics, focusing on representations in media of gender-ambiguous butch-like characters. The article provoked some negative reactions from trans men’s groups and inspired H to reflect on assumptions about the continuity and overlap between the categories of butch women and trans men. The ways in which the article failed in its intent, and the ways in which it was critiqued by transsexuals pointed out the different value framings brought to the topic of masculinity that prioritized different experiences.

Is gender constructed or essential? Is it performed or experienced? Halberstam’s answer is “all of the above” and to embrace the spaces between. Is the stone butch a “pre-operative transsexual” in an arrested stage of a transformation narrative? Or is the stone butch a locus on the gender map that represents an independent stable identity?

The broader discussion, bringing in a wide variety of personal experiences and identities, argues against trying to build monolithic modes of “doing butch/transgender right.”

There is a survey though history of conflict between some feminist, lesbian, and transgender positions that revolve around themes of gender-loyalty, gender privilege, and “ownership” of historic narratives and persons.

Identifying as a butch lesbian can be a transitional stage for a trans man, even though most butches don’t have transgender leanings and not all trans men go though that experience. But the examples feed into narratives from both sides that destabilize the understanding of butch identity as independent and valid.

The rest of this chapter is full of interesting material but we’ve gone well past the relevance to pre-20th century history. It’s definitely worth reading, though.

Chapter 6: Looking Butch: A Rough Guide to Butches on Film

This chapter looks at the history of butch women in film. While of tangential relevance to the Project, there are a few interesting intersections. In particular, the presence of butch images in film can work to create homoerotic possibilities in ways that femme images do not. Any (femme) woman interacting with a butch woman on the screen can be read as potentially lesbian, while that same femme woman, on her own, carries no such associations, and whereas a lone butch woman is easily read as lesbian. [Note: this recapitulates a motif found throughout history, in which only the active/masculine partner is considered a lesbian/tribade, while her female partner is viewed as a “normal woman” who is simply willing to accept her in place of a man.] The butch makes lesbian identity legible at the cost of reinforcing the myth that lesbians can’t be feminine.

There is an extensive discussion of the effect of the Hayes Code, the more recent emphasis on looking for “positive representation”, and the use of butch imagery separate from lesbian implications. The chapter continues with an extensive taxonomy of butch representation in film.

Chapter 7: Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance

This chapter discusses the social and historic context of drag king performances. In a modern context, there is a contrast between male impersonation versus the more parodic and humorous drag king style. Male impersonation has a long history on stage (going back to the 17th century and “trouser roles”) but those earlier traditions have much in common with drag kings in that the intent was often to highlight the female body doing the performance. Male impersonators were popular around the turn of the 20th century but faded from view around the same time as the Hayes Code. There was some continuing tradition in lesbian bars, but drag king performance didn’t really make a comeback until later in the century.

There is an extensive discussion of cultural differences between drag king and drag queen traditions, particularly revolving around the equation of femaleness with performance and maleness with “naturalness”. This changes the dynamic of how to “perform maleness.” There’s a typology of drag king performance genres.

Chapter 8: Raging Bull (Dyke): New Masculinities

This chapter summarizes the general themes and includes some personal anecdotes from the author, especially revolving around gender in sports.

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