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Multiplicities of Butchness

Monday, May 11, 2020 - 21:00

Lots of thinky thoughts on this book, but they're all in the commentary below. Due to length, I've split this entry up into several parts, though my coverage of the chapters is uneven so I've clustered the shorter ones together.

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

Prefaces and Chapter 1

I put some thought into how to refer to the author of this book in my write-up and my choice may not please everyone. But the subject of the author’s gender is not one that can be side-stepped or easily handled following standard practices. Back in the 1990s, when writing this book, Halberstam declared “I was a masculine girl, and I am a masculine woman.” Halerstam explicitly claims the identity of butch lesbian and descries writing out trans issues as an outsider. These identities are intrinsic to the subject matter of the book, to Halberstam’s personal authority in having tackled it, and to the reason the book was written at all.

Female Masculinity was written by Judith Halberstam. The author is now Jack Halberstam. Halberstam’s Wikipedia article doesn’t specifically address the chronology of transition, but footnotes to the article that include the author’s name suggest the name and pronoun change came between 2012 and 2013.

This puts me in something of a quandary, because I am reviewing and summarizing a book whose content is inextricably connected with the author’s gender identity as expressed by that author at the time of writing. To the best of my ability I’ve been following the principle of using an author’s preferred name and pronouns. But I can’t help feeling that it would be a betrayal of Halberstam’s intent in this book to write “...he proudly claims the identity of butch lesbian.” I don’t think this is me holding tight to gender essentialist notions. What I want to do is to honor the identity that Halberstam was writing from. The identity that Halberstam inhabited so solidly that it inspired the very existence of this book. And yet it feels inescapably rude to refer to “Judith” and “she” in this write-up. My best approximation is to side-step the issue by using Halberstam’s surname whe I want to reference the author, making liberal use of the abbreviation H to reduce the awkwardness, and writing around the need for pronouns. This is not intended as a political statement or a judgment on Halberstam’s identity. It’s simply the approach that feels like it least betrays the author’s identities, past and present.

As I read Female Masculinity, it occurred to me that in our present moment of socio-political time, Halberstam’s personal history may provide a unique authority to address this topic. In the 1990s, a butch lesbian could write a serious study that tackled the “Butch/FTM Border Wars” as chapter 5 labels them. But in the 2020s, a study on that topic from a self-identified butch lesbian would face skepticism and criticism. Conversely, I don’t think anyone except a butch lesbian could have done justice to the book’s topic with such loving detail.

I could wish that in the new preface to this “Twentieth Anniversary Edition” Halberstam had spoken personally to that change in point of view. H does discuss some more recent popular culture images of butch identity, such as in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (both the graphic novel and the musical). That discussion embraces the continuing relevance of butch identity, even within the expanded scope of options for those with female bodies and masculine identities. But I was disappointed that H didn’t directly take advantage of experiencing masculine identity from a different angle, and discuss that aspect in the new preface. If anyone is aware of Halberstam having addressed that topic, I’d be interested in following up on it.

Every once in a while I read a book for the Project that adds a particularly sharp-edged tool to my toolbox for thinking about historic genders and sexualities. The tool that Halberstam adds is a demand to think about gender and sexuality in a much broader spectrum than gay/bi/straight or LGBTQIA+. Halberstam doesn’t believe in a single unified theory of sexual identities. And coming out of reading this book I realize that it isn’t quite enough to reject the notion of a coherent lesbian identity across time, but to also reject the notion of a coherent lesbian identity at any one point in time.

When trying to reconstruct the range of lesbian-like identities in the past, we’re already hampered by having to rely on atomized examples. Working from the position that the very identities we’re trying to reconstruct are multiple and even discontinuous makes the job even harder. Some identities are more visible than others, and some aspects of identities are more visible than others. Femme invisibility is a thing in the past as well as in the present. And while this book has an overt focus on butch identities, there are some places in the text where that focus does stray into erasure, as if butch identities in history are the only genuinely queer ones (while at the same time, but author hints at a position that “butch” is a separate and non-overlapping category from “lesbian”, but I think that may be imprecision in the writing rather than a theoretical position).

Halberstam’s choice to focus only on the 19th century and later distorts an understanding of the changes and cyclical and overlapping understandings of gender and desire across a larger time-span. Any small enough scope will give the illusion of teleological development in some direction. Two points define a line. I’ve pointed out several places where the text might come to different conclusions if a deeper set of historic data had been considered.

But overall, I found this book much more fascinating and more valuable to my thinking than I had expected. The ways in which f/f historical fiction handles gender-crossing identities can be problematic, especially when it projects backwards from a narrowly specific model of modern lesbian identity. Female Masculinity suggests that the first step in addressing that issue may be to revise our understanding of the wealth of models for modern identities, so that even when we project them back in time, we have a more realistic variety to choose from.

New Preface

Halberstam takes as a subject the concept of a “masculinity” that is distinct and separate from people born male, comparing it to the long tradition of studying “male femininity” from the Greek kinaidos through early modern molly houses and up to the present. When first written in 1998, similar histories had not been written for women. [Note: I think this is overstating the lack a little bit.] Yet there have been many modes of lesbianism that involved the evocation or claiming of “masculinity.”

Halberstam takes a quick survey through the many different modes and images belonging to the category “woman”. There is a long tradition of associating lesbianism with female masculinity, and female masculinity with ugliness. This linkage is used as a specter to keep women in line. What happens when this association is turned on its head, and female masculinity becomes a site of desire?

In the 20th century, the demand for female emancipation was repeatedly tied to female masculinity, either in positive or negative ways. “Great women” have repeatedly been claimed to be masculine in essence. This association is inherently misogynistic. It created the image that a successful or powerful woman was always inherently masculine, and a masculine woman was -- at least latently -- homosexual. Where did this leave feminine women? Still at the bottom and considered not worthy of higher things.

Forces hostile to both feminists and to masculine women set them up as being in conflict -- a conflict that is unnecessary but continues to this day. In popular media, the image of the masculine woman -- the tomboy, the butch -- has swung wildly in visibility and interpretation. Butch identity crosses between the genders: both and neither. [Note: this book was written at a time when non-binary gender had not become a significant part of the conversation yet.]

Original Preface

Halberstam points out the popular preoccupation with male femininity, but the near absence of discussion about female masculinity. As context for writing this book, H states “I was a masculine girl, and I am a masculine woman.” That identity was the inspiring force in writing this study. (The remaining preface covers similar territory to the updated one.)

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men

What is “masculinity”? This isn’t an easy question if the answer is not simply “the expression of maleness.” Female masculinity provides a lens on how masculinity is defined. Female masculinity must be framed as second class in order for male masculinity to be defined as “the real thing.” This chapter is a catalog of myths and fantasies about masculinity, as well as alternate forms of both male and female masculinity.

H points out how female masculinity has been ignored, both by culture and academia. Masculinity is defined by power and privilege, but also in terms of class, race, sexuality, and gender. You can’t understand masculinity until it is separated from the white male middle-class body.

The tomboy is viewed as an “extended childhood performance of female masculinity.” She is considered both common and unproblematic, compared to gender cross-identification in boys, which provokes strong reactions. But can you actually measure relative tolerance this way?

The tomboy is considered to be expressing a “natural” desire for male freedom and independence. She is only punished if female identification is actively rejected, or if the “phase” doesn’t end as expected at pubescence. Can the identity of tomboy be considered “tolerated” if one is required to leave it behind and embrace femininity? With no adult models of female masculinity, tomboyism can be framed as a rejection of adulthood, rather than a rejection of femininity. The increasing visibility of lesbian communities made it more possible for girls to envision maintaining masculinity past puberty.

Halberstam looks at the genre of “tomboy movies” in chapter 6 and the inadequacy of available gender categories for discussing them. The traditional tomboy narrative offers no way to retain masculinity and yet become a fully realized adult. It offers no approved forms of desire and so suppresses desire entirely. H’s goal is to identify existing taxonomies that recognize and offer that approval to female masculinity.

[Note: This book can only be properly understood if the reader fully internalizes the distinction between male/female and masculine/feminine. That the latter are artificial social constructs arbitrarily attached to the former.]

Female masculinity is a productive topic for study because it is scorned by both heterosexist positions and by feminist ones. [Note: Feminism is, of course, not a monolith, and one must consider that H was responding to the dominant feminist discourse of the time the book was written.] In contrast to the somewhat ritual function of male femininity, female masculinity is viewed as maladjusted and a longing to be something impossible. But there is not only a single version of female masculinity, nor does it exist to subvert or oppose masculine power, but to create new categories that are indifferent to male masculinity.

This chapter spends some time discussing the book’s methodology. It explores the relatively new (at the time) field of masculinity studies, which has largely ignored masculine women. H considers other studies of masculinity flawed if they assume that masculinity equals men.

In the section titled “the bathroom problem”, the text’s date of writing is most apparent in asking why the available gender categories have not been expanded beyond the binary. H considers how even given the flexible standards for gender presentation, few people are not easily readable as male or female, so “unreadable” people are viewed as deviant or forced into the binary. The “policing” of binary bathrooms (sometimes literally) shows how this institution forces category analysis. Masculine or androgynous women are particular targets of bathroom policing. Whereas gender-ambiguous people using a men’s bathroom are rarely challenged.

For those whose identity crosses sex/gender categories, the idea of “passing” as one or the other is not an acceptable strategy. [Note: given the focus of the book, the “bathroom problem” discussion revolves around the masculine cis woman rather than the trans woman.] The bathroom problem contradicts the assertion that masculine women are tolerated and even praised, while feminine men are despised. Rather, it suggests that femaleness is harder to achieve and more narrowly defined than maleness.

In media, female masculinity is protected from suspicion so long as heterosexuality is unambiguous. When combined with lesbian desire, it becomes less acceptable. Because of this enhanced effect, Halberstam focuses primarily on queer female masculinity rather than heterosexual female masculinity. Another destabilizing context is the varieties of gender specifically associated with minority cultures.

There is a long discussion of artistic (semi) nude photography that challenges gender expectations. The chapter ends with a summary of what the book will cover: 19th century examples, the early 20th century “invert”, the “stone butch” archetype, the border between “lesbian butchness and transsexual maleness”, cinematic representations, and drag kings. [Note: my summary will focus primarily on the historic sections.]

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