I may be posting something that has already been posted..if so..I AM SORRY...with so many threads, I didnt see it....I just read this and was curious about what others thought of it.....
*WARNING: long post to follow*
Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch Femme:
an Annotated Bibliography
compiled by Amy Goodloe
Copyright © 1993, 1998. All Rights Reserved.
Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Inside/Out: Lesbian
Theories, Gay Theories. ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.
(reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New
York: Routledge, 1993. 307-320)
As in most of her work, this essay of Butler's problematizes the constructed nature of all identity categories, raising in particular the question of what it means to identify oneself as "lesbian." If the dominant ideology constructs heterosexuality as the "original, " true, natural expression of human sexuality, then lesbianism can only be seen as a kind of "mimicking" of the norm, an attempt at pretending to be heterosexual. This is often the critique of consciously role-playing lesbians in particular, such as those who adopt butch-femme identities, who are accused of an imitation which is at best inferior and inadequate. But Butler argues that such a critique is grounded on the faulty assumption that there is an "original" to be imitated, when in fact all gender roles are an imitation for which there is no original. Heterosexuality has a vested interest, however, in disguising this fact by promoting itself as originary and constructing the illusion that there is such a thing as an essential sexual or gendered identity. But gay identities work in opposition to this illusion, not by emulating heterosexuality but by exposing it as "an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization" (314). In the context of homosexuality, then, gender roles are exposed as the product of social performance, which means that butch-femme role playing is not only not an imitation of a heterosexual "real," it is perhaps the ultimate expression of gender in its "parodic replication and resignification of heterosexual constructs within non-heterosexual frames" (314).
Case, Sue-Ellen. "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic." Discourse 11 (Winter 1988-
1989). (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al.
New York: Routledge, 1993. 294-306)
Case begins her article with a critique of the feminist argument, particularly popular in the seventies and early eighties, that butch-femme role playing among lesbians belongs to an "old" pattern of heterosexual behavior which should be discarded in favor of a new identity as a "feminist woman." This argument is built on the assumption that what is oppressive about heterosexual roles is the emphasis on difference, which necessarily implies hierarchy, and that equality depends on the elimination of difference in everything from appearance to sexual roles. Case counters with the critique that this feminist devaluation of lesbian butch-femme roles not only fails to take into account the importance of these roles for working-class and other marginalized women, but that it also fails to see in such role-playing the subversive potential of exposing all gender roles as masquerade. Whereas the dominant culture has naturalized heterosexual roles as innate or essential, butch-femme role playing exposes them as constructs with a specific agenda, which then lends agency and self-determination to the women who actively choose, rather than passively accept, these roles. Thus, Case continues, butch-femme roles are not replicas of a heterosexual pattern which disempowers women and deprives them of subjectivity, but are, in fact, anti-heterosexual in their ability to empower women in either role by allowing them both to occupy the subject position.
Davis, Madeline, and E. L. Kennedy. "'They was no one to mess with': The
Construction of the Butch Role in the Lesbian Community of the 1940's and
1950's." The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. Joan Nestle.
Boston: Alyson, 1992. 62-79.
In this article, Davis and Kennedy focus particular attention on the function of the butch role among working class lesbians in Buffalo. Although both butch and femme roles were extremely important to this community in the forties and fifties, it was the butch role that was the most visible, and therefore the most likely to cause public scorn. In a time when "gender-appropriate" styles and behaviors were rigidly enforced in order to maintain a clear distinction between the sexes, butch women's choice not only to reject traditional femininity but to actively adopt masculinity (the two being the only models available) was perceived as a threat to the very order of society, and a prelude to social chaos. Despite the fear, and likelihood, of harassment by police and other straight men, the courage of butches to claim their identities in many ways prepared the way for later generations of lesbians to break free from the narrow conventions of socially constructed womanhood and to claim access to a kind of power traditionally held only by men. But, as Davis and Kennedy insist here and elsewhere, although butches took their "masculine" role very seriously, they nonetheless had not desire to actually be men; rather, they often felt that adopting the masculine role was the only way they could actually validate who they were as women, since they only did so in order to signal their desire to be with other women. Nonetheless, there was some debate in the community over how far to take the butch role, particularly when its obviousness attracted "bad press" from the public. For lesbians in the forties, such visibility was considered to be too dangerous, and so butch styles of dress and behavior usually took place only inside the walls of lesbian bars; but by the fifties, visibility became more of statement, and it was thought that for one to be a "real" butch one must look butch all the time, even though this often meant a butch woman would either have to try and "pass" as a man to the outside world, to avoid conflict, or would depend on her femme for support, since there were few jobs open to working-class women who would not wear skirts. Although this arrangement may seem strangely parallel to working-class heterosexual relationships, Davis and Kennedy argue that it both imitated and subverted such a pattern, both because it did not consistently follow the conventional gender divisions, and because it was unconventional in its emphasis on women's sexuality and sexual pleasure.
________. "Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community:
Buffalo, New York: 1940-1960." Feminist Studies 12 (Spring 1986). (reprinted
in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. eds. Martin
Duberman et al. New York: Penguin, 1989. 426-440)
In this important study of the pre-sixties working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, Davis and Kennedy examine the cultural function of highly defined butch- femme role-playing as a means of resistance and survival. Rather than criticizing role- playing among lesbians as being nothing more than capitulation to the dominant heterosexual pattern of behavior, which is the common critique of sixties and seventies feminists, Davis and Kennedy argue for a reevaluation of the significance of roles as a "powerful code of behavior" which shapes women's relationships both within the lesbian community and in relation to the straight world. Before the 1960's, when the movement for gay liberation became explicitly political in organization and strategy, transgressing gender boundaries through rigid butch-femme role playing was one of the few ways to resist the dominant heterosexist ideology. According to Davis and Kennedy, this is why the Buffalo lesbian community strictly enforced role-appropriate behavior until the sixties, when other means of resistance became available. But role-playing still remained as a powerful critique of the dominant gender hierarchy, particularly in terms of sexuality, because unlike the male role in heterosexual relationships, the butch lesbian was/is concerned primarily with giving pleasure. A woman in the butch role has nothing physically invested in this giving, so it can be done freely and unselfishly, while it is the femme's role to demand and receive sexual satisfaction, which is typically associated with masculine sexual activity. Thus, as Davis and Kennedy demonstrate, butch-femme role-playing can hardly be understood as an imitation of heterosexuality as it works within the community, even though its appearance of imitation is what separates and preserves the community apart from and in resistance to the dominant heterosexual culture.
de Lauretis, Teresa. "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation." Theatre
Journal 40 (1988). (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds.
Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 141-158)
In this theoretically sophisticated essay, de Lauretis critiques the notion of gender as sexual difference because the very concept of difference is predicated on maleness as the norm and femaleness as that which differs, which means that gender in this view is therefore an essentially male category. If, as this male-centered thinking suggests, sexual attraction is presumed to depend on difference, then it makes no sense to speak of female homosexuality, unless one of the women is understood to be in a male role. But this, de Lauretis argues, is hommo-sexuality, because of the privileged status of the "male" in any conception of gender and sexuality, whereas a homosexuality that does not define itself in terms of difference has the potential to subvert the hierarchical system of male privilege. Such a homosexuality becomes possible when two women, instead of defining themselves in terms of the only erotic category available in the dominant culture, which is that of sexual difference, instead exploit that category as a means of articulating lesbian desire over and against male desire. In other words, a woman playing the role of "butch" in a clearly defined butch-femme relationship is not making a claim to male social privilege or sexual behavior, but is instead asserting sexual agency which is independent from men, and which fills the construct of the "male" role with the reality of a woman. Thus, de Lauretis argues in favor of the figure of the "mannish woman" as the representation of a "reverse discourse," one which stands as "the representation of lesbian desire against both the discourse of hommo-sexuality and the feminist account of lesbianism as woman-identification" (146).
Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in
Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin, 1991.
As a historian of lesbian life and culture over the past several centuries, Faderman's approach is more one of recovery than critique, though she of course operates on her own set of assumptions when considering the cultural situations that have shaped lesbian behavior. In this book, she provides a particularly detailed account of the many forces that gave rise to the prominence of butch-femme roles in the lesbian subculture of the forties, fifties, and sixties, using a rather large and diverse selection of personal narratives as her "sources" and therefore attempting to maintain some degree objectivity by simply "reporting" the experience of others. In the forties, she explains, women's dress codes began to relax ever so slightly as it became tolerable for women to be seen wearing slacks outside the house, which then allowed for more of a sense of distinction between butch and femme women. In the fifties, as lesbianism began to gain a small amount of national attention, the opinion of medical experts that lesbians were "men trapped in women's bodies" began to filter into lesbian consciousness, which had the result of enforcing the notion that butch-femme roles were "natural" and of encouraging a rise in "passing" women. In addition to the medical opinions, most working class lesbians had nothing else to go on in constructing their sexual identities other than the model provided them by heterosexuality, which seemed only fitting if indeed one of each lesbian pair was really by nature "male."
Thus for small communities of lesbians all over the country, butch-femme role playing took on a rather high degree of importance and significance, which dominated the way these women related to each other well into the sixties and seventies. For middle class lesbians in the same period, however, butch- femme roles had little meaning, and were in fact largely incomprehensible, as these women held the much more egalitarian standards of behavior that were supposedly typical of the middle and upper classes, even though they often gave into conventional definitions of femininity and seemed more concerned with social respectability than with social change. Unlike Joan Nestle and several other lesbian scholars, Faderman seems to share the middle class women's critique of butch-femme roles as being simply replicas of heterosexuality, rather than seeing them as unique and potentially subversive. She does not, however, speak negatively of the way butch-femme roles shaped lesbian identity in the middle of this century, but rather attempts to account for the power and prevalence of these roles, and what they meant in the lives of women who lived them.
________. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendships Between Women
from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow & Co.,
Because the source materials for earlier periods in lesbian history are rather hard to come by, especially with regard to the lives of working class women, Faderman here focuses more on aristocratic women's relationships, which means that her study doesn't reveal much about the role of butch and femme identities over the past several centuries. She does, however, document the lives of several nineteenth-century women whose "romantic friendships" with other women seemed to have developed into a kind of butch-femme pattern, with one partner acting as the passive, submissive "supporter" of the more active and well-known partner. This was frequently the case when one of the pair was involved in artistic or literary pursuits, since these were the few areas open for exploration by women, and in which women could achieve some measure of public notoriety. In a relationship where one of the women became well known for her literary or artistic talents, it usually happened that she also took on a role similar to that of "husband," with her female partner as "wife," although such arrangements still didn't reproduce structures of domination and self-abnegation quite to the extent that heterosexual arrangements did. So it would seem, then, given Faderman's evidence, that before Freud and the other sexologists began to divide lesbians into "congenital inverts," who were "butches" or "men trapped in women's bodies," and "mates of inverts," who were "femmes" misinformed or maladjusted to the "true" calling of women, there were socio-cultural reasons why women might find themselves in relationships which seemed to replicate heterosexuality, even though such situations were more the product of cultural and economic forces than "nature." The lasting effect of the sexologists was just this attribution of lesbian sexual preference to "natural," even if "perverted," causes, which makes butch-femme roles then seem a necessity rather than a choice, and thus (according to the approach Faderman takes to the material) suggests that these roles did not have the subversive potential, at least at the time, that many scholars which to claim for them.
Hollibaugh, Amber, and Cherrie Moraga. "What We're Rollin' Around in Bed
With: Sexual Silences in Feminism." Heresies 12 (1981). (reprinted in Powers
of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. eds. Ann Snitow et al. New York:
Monthly Review Press, 1983. 440-459)
In this dialogue between two lesbian scholars from working-class backgrounds, the feminist critique of lesbian butch-femme role playing is foregrounded as one of the most divisive aspects of the feminist movement, particularly in its failure to recognize that issues of class and race surround role-playing as much as gender. Even lesbian- feminism, which has primarily been the preserve of white, middle-class, educated women, threatens to alienate a large population of lesbians from feminism in its denial of the fundamental significance of role-playing in so many lesbian lives. Hollibaugh and Moraga speak from personal experience of the ways in which the very movement that promised sexual freedom and autonomy for women instead made them slaves to a rigid and uncompromising form of sexuality, based on absolute equality in bed, which was both overly idealistic and ultimately unsatisfactory. In making "outlaws" out of anyone whose sexual practices appeared to operate on unequal power terms, the feminist movement effectively invalidated the experience of whole communities of lesbians whose identities were constructed around butch-femme role-playing, even though, as Hollibaugh and Moraga argue, these roles do not replicate the unequal distribution of power inherent in heterosexual roles. On the contrary, the very performative nature of these roles allows for the exchange of power positions between partners, so that power becomes not a tool of oppression but a means of erotic playfulness and stimulation.
McNaron, Toni. "Mirrors and Likenesses: A Lesbian Aesthetic in the Making."
Sexual Practice / Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. eds. Susan J.
Wolfe and Julia Penelope. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993. 291-306.
"Most male depictions of lesbian relationships have substituted a phallic situation or rhetoric for the absent penis, leaving the reader/viewer undisturbed in his or her comfortable habit of seeing all human relationships through such a limited filter." Because our culture is built around the idea of sexual difference, lesbians have in the past defined themselves in terms of this binary, but it has been "within the systematic growth of lesbian-feminist analyses of culture and psychology that real-life lesbians have come o understand these adopted modes of representation. Only within such a context have we been able to chose to alter them in favor of something more nearly approximating a valuing of self and other as expressing sexual likeness" (294-5). McNaron essentially wants to propose an aesthetic based on similarity rather than difference, so that roles such as butch-femme, which seem to depend on difference, would no longer be useful or even desirable between women because of the way such roles capitulate to the dominant cultural ideology that difference alone is the basis for attraction.
Nestle, Joan. "Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950's." Heresies
12 (1981). (reprinted in Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country. Ithaca, NY:
Firebrand, 1987. 100-109)
As one of the first essays to emerge in defense of butch-femme role playing in 1950's lesbian communities, Nestle's analysis is particularly bold in its claim that such role playing, because it made lesbian communities so visible, actually helped pave the way for the subsequent women's and gay liberation movements of the sixties and seventies. Nestle, a self-described femme, argues from personal experience against the feminist critique that butch-femme role playing is an inferior imitation of the male-female roles of heterosexuality. She explains that "[n]one of the butch women I was with, and this included a passing woman, ever presented themselves to me as men; they did announce themselves as tabooed women who were willing to identify their passion for other women by wearing clothes that symbolized the taking of responsibility" (100). Contrary to claims made feminist scholars in the seventies, Nestle insists that these women, the butches and femmes of the 50's, were in fact feminist, that they exercised the very autonomy of sexual and social identities that feminism claimed to want for all women. But feminism, in refusing to see this, instead contributed to the further oppression of butch-femme women by marginalizing and even invalidating such behavior, rather than seeing in it evidence that lesbians "have always opposed the patriarchy; in the past, perhaps most when they looked most like men" (106).
Nestle, Joan. "The Femme Question." Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female
Sexuality. ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge, 1984. (reprinted in The
Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. Joan Nestle. Boston: Alyson,
In this essay Nestle argues against the historical devaluation of femmes, both within the lesbian community and in the culture at large, which is primarily based on the misconception that femme women are attempting to disguise their homosexuality by "passing" as straight -- which is to say, by buying into rather than rejecting the dominant culture's construct of "femininity" in appearance and demeanor. The femmes of earlier decades, most notably the 50's, are often accused of not having been "different" enough from heterosexual women to actually be considered "resisting" or transgressive, in other words, for not being "feminist" enough, even though an examination of their historical context reveals that these women were in fact breaking gender taboos in much more subtle, ultimately more subversive ways than has previously been imagined. As Nestle notes, both butches and femmes created very distinct personal styles that, even though they may have seemed to replicate heterosexual gender roles and styles, were in fact radically "re-writing" them in order to signify their desire for each other. A butch woman dressed in men's clothing was still a woman, but the creation of this particular style was used to "signal to other women what she was capable of doing -- taking erotic responsibility"(141). And a femme woman, dressed in what might be considered conventionally "feminine" and therefore designed to attract the attention of men, was in fact subverting this convention altogether in using it to attract other women. Nestle points out, however, how quick feminists have been to overlook the empowering potential of this kind of role-playing, so much so that this "erotic conversation between two women" is not only completely unheard but is also devalued and relegated to the "dark ages" of lesbian history. In order to recover the doubly-oppressed image of the lesbian femme, then, Nestle urges feminist scholars in the present to look back on this role with new eyes, to begin to ask questions about what this role meant in the lives of actual women and to reevaluate its potential as a means of sexual liberation rather than oppression.
Newton, Esther. "The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New
Woman." Signs 9.4 (Summer 1984). (reprinted in Hidden from History:
Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. eds. Martin Duberman et al. New
York: Penguin, 1989. 281-293)
Newton's argues that the image of the "mannish" or "butch" woman portrayed in Radclyffe Hall's novel, The Well of Loneliness, "was and remains an important symbol of rebellion against male hegemony, and ... of one significant pattern in lesbian sexuality and gender identification" (281). The hero of the novel, which was written in 1928, is a woman who from birth finds herself "different," somehow masculine in personality and desire while female in body. Hall has been criticized for creating a character based on the stereotype of the congenital invert defined by sexologists such as Krafft-Ebing and Ellis, but Newton counters that Hall's character is, in fact, not simply a passive victim of nature (via a birth defect). She writes: "y endowing a biological female with a masculine self, Hall both questions the inevitability of traditional gender categories and assents to it. The mannish lesbian should not exist if gender is natural. Yet Hall makes her the hero -- not the villain or clown -- of her novel" (291). According to Newton, what Hall is doing is asserting a vision of lesbianism that posits sexuality as the essential defining "difference" between lesbians and straight women, and it is precisely this emphasis on sexuality that troubles most feminist critics of the novel. But their criticism rests on the unexamined assumption that sexual desire is masculine, and that any woman who sexually desires another woman must therefore be acting "like a man," rather than seeing the "mannish woman" as potentially subversive of the whole category of masculinity.
Newton, Esther, and Shirley Walton. "The Misunderstanding: Toward a More
Precise Sexual Vocabulary." Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female
Sexuality. ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge, 1984.
Newton and Walton examine the way labels and sexual identities shape the way we interact with others on sexual and other levels. For example, to assume that all straight women act in a femme or "bottom" role by nature, because we assume men are dominant by nature, is to deny many women the possibility of sexual satisfaction. The same thing is true in lesbian relationships, where couples often either try to avoid labels and attempt "egalitarian sex," or to maintain strict roles that may not feel natural or "right." Newton and Walton argue for clearer definitions of erotic roles and identities, and for more effective communication between partners using these definitions to better understand each person's sexual self.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs 5
(1980). (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al.
New York: Routledge, 1993. 227-254)