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Thread: Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch Femme

  1. #1
    femmegirrl
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    Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch Femme

    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.,
    Inc., 1981.

    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,
    1992. 138-146)

    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)













  2. #2
    femmegirrl
    Guest

    In this foundational essay in lesbian studies, Rich argues against the notion that heterosexuality is somehow "natural" or innate in human beings, and suggests that possibility that it is, in fact, imposed on women, whose "natural" bonding usually occurs with other women, starting with their mothers. She goes on to suggest that lesbianism is more than sexuality, that it is the emotional and psychological identification of women with other women and that women have enjoyed this kind of essential bonding throughout history, regardless of the gender of their sexual partners. In its critique of heterosexuality as a social construct with a specific political and economic agenda, Rich's argument lends itself well to the claim that butch-femme role playing between women can't be simply an imitation of heterosexual roles -- a woman in the butch role is still a woman, without access to male privilege and with nothing invested in the systematic subordination of women. Rich does not use her argument, however, to make this claim, and would in fact probably critique butch-femme role playing, primarily because of the emphasis it places on sexuality rather than other aspects of woman-identification, but probably also because role-playing in itself can be seen as a construct that stands in the way of individual identity.
    Roof, Judith. "Polymorphous Diversity." A Lure of Knowledge: Lesbian Sexuality
    and Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. ch. 6.

    In this chapter of her theoretically sophisticated book, Roof argues that cultural configurations of lesbian sexuality, especially butch/femme roles, are much more "complex, contradictory, and diverse" than is usually assumed by academics or by lesbians themselves. The configuration of butch/femme, she explains, seems on the surface to be "a resolution of the 'inconceivability' of lesbian sexuality in a phallocentric system, recuperating that inconceivability by superimposing a male/female model on lesbian relationships" (245). Thus, lesbian role-playing can be understood as a construct of the dominant culture, imposed on lesbians in order to make sense of female sexuality in the absence of a phallus, and therefore not a self-empowering move on the part of lesbians themselves. But, Roof notes, the internal contradictions inherent in the configuration of butch/femme produce a "systematic challenge to the necessary connection between gender and sexuality while appearing to reaffirm heterosexuality and [yet] forcing a consciousness of the artificiality and constructedness of gender positions" (245, emphasis added). Roof's point, then, is that there is too much going on in the configuration of butch-femme roles to claim either that they are merely the tool of patriarchy or that they are wholly subversive of patriarchal gender roles. As she notes, while some lesbians may find it powerful to reject conventional definitions of femininity by adopting masculine attire and mannerisms, thereby also signaling her desire for other women, masculinity is often also the charge hurled against lesbians as an expression of "anger and anxiety about a decentering of phallic privilege" (249). Thus, in contrast to other scholars working in the same terms (Butler, de Lauretis, and others), Roof believes that while lesbian butch/femme does offer a critique of binary heterosexuality and the sex/gender system, "lesbian sexuality is already too completely intertwined with cultural constructions and configurations to comprise more than a partial perspective in any politics premised on identity" (251).
    Roof, Judith. "The Match in the Crocus: Representations of Lesbian Sexuality."
    Discontented Discourses: Feminism/Textual Intervention/Psychoanalysis.
    ed. Marleen Barr. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. 100-116.

    Representations of lesbian sexuality is often evoke the phallus by calling attention to its absence -- so that it appears and seems necessary even when it is not needed. Lesbians are often depicted as appropriating the penis, masquerading as though they "had" it, and therefore assuming male privilege and acting on it. Lesbian sexuality is assumed to depend of the taking on of a male role by one of two women, and therefore inspires the anger of men, whose power, primacy, and basic necessity is thereby challenged.
    Rubin, Gayle. "Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and
    Boundaries." The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. Joan Nestle.
    Boston: Alyson, 1992. 466-482.

    According to Rubin, the butch role is "most usefully understood as a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols" (467). In other words, according to Rubin, butchness and even masculinity itself are nothing but performative roles, complete with codes and symbols available for the use of anyone, regardless of biological sex. The reasons lesbians may choose to identify with masculinity vary, says Rubin, from a desire to use the role to signal their desire for women to an actual feeling of innate "maleness," possibly even a sense of having been born the wrong sex (known as gender dysphoria or transsexualism). Because there many was to be butch, and many meanings of the role, it is no more useful to essentialize butchness than womaness, and thus Rubin's aim in this essay is to "diversify conceptions of butchness, to promote a more nuanced conceptualization of gender variation among lesbian and bisexual women, and to forestall prejudice against individuals who use other modes of managing gender" (476). She does this by exploring briefly the cultural necessity of butch-femme roles in the forties and fifties, and then examining the multiple ways these roles come to have meaning for lesbians in the nineties.
    ________. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality."
    Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. ed. Carole S. Vance.
    Boston: Routledge, 1984. (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader.
    eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 3-44)

    Rubin argues that the contemporary backlash against sexual behaviors considered to be "deviant" has its roots in the Western need to preserve monogamous heterosexuality as the paradigm of "natural" sexual relationships. Historically, whenever forces have risen to challenge this "norm," the dominant culture has launched a campaign to strengthen the ideology that if sexuality is not kept under strict social control, the result is bound to be social chaos. This ideology inevitably produces moral panic in the culture at large, which leads to the persecution of those whose practices are not "sexually correct." As Rubin notes, there is one particularly powerful strain of feminist thought that has contributed to this oppression, despite its presumed goal of sexual liberation for women, and this she terms "anti-sex feminism." As a result of the hegemony this brand of feminism has over feminist analysis in general, even lesbian sex roles come under attack when they do not conform to the feminist definition of sexual correctness, which in this case means monogamous and non-role playing. Thus, such practices as S/M and butch/femme role-playing within the lesbian community are seen as transgressive and potentially threatening the fine line between social order and decay. But there is another strain of feminist thought that argues, rather powerfully, that such practices are in fact potentially sexually liberating for women, and therefore should not cause moral panic among feminists. Rubin's critique, then, is of those forces that work towards the oppression of sexual minorities, particularly of those forces that claim to be feminist.
    Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "Discourses of Sexuality and Subjectivity: The New
    Woman, 1870-1936." Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian
    America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. (reprinted in Hidden from
    History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. eds. Martin Duberman et al.
    New York: Penguin, 1989. 264-280)

    Smith-Rosenberg's article reconstructs the history of those women who, around the turn of the century, began to achieve more economic and social independence in America and England, and who were subsequently dubbed "New Women." Because these women often rejected traditional female roles and conventions of "femininity," particularly in terms of dress and means of financial support, they were frequently accused of "acting like men." But, as Smith-Rosenberg notes, women who desired independence from men and freedom from patriarchal oppression did not necessarily want to become or be like men, but would instead adopt the appearance of masculinity to signify their rejection of the male-defined traditional role of "feminine." In so doing, these New Women posed a threat to the binary structures on which society was built, because they called into question the relationship between biological sex and gender roles, thus exposing gender as well as other organizational categories in society as artificial, as not natural but constructed. The first generation of New Women, however, were tolerated to some extent because even though they seemed to want access to male social privilege, it was not thought that their desires extended to the level of sexuality; in other words, even though these women frequently formed close, intensely emotional primary bonds with other women, their relationships were understood by the outside world to be asexual. As the sexual "inversion" theories of sexologists such as Krafft-Ebing and Ellis became popular, however, the next generation of New Women, now termed "mannish lesbians," came under attack for seeming to aspire to male sexual privilege, which was considered a far more serious threat to the social order than merely aspiring to social or economic privilege. Thus was born a cultural fear of those women who publicly adopted the male role, because according to the sexologists such behavior was the result of a congenital defect known as "inversion," which carried the stigma of being not quite either male or female but almost a third sex altogether, and one doomed to a tragic existence at that. Here we can see the roots of the contemporary fear of the butch identity.
    Stein, Arlene. "All Dressed Up, But No Place to Go? Style Wars and the New
    Lesbianism." Out/Look 1.4 (Winter 1989). (reprinted in The Persistent
    Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. J. Nestle. Boston: Alyson, 1992. 431-439)

    If there was such a thing as a lesbian "style" in seventies, Stein argues, it was essentially an anti-style, a refusing to submit to the dominant culture's standards of feminine beauty and behavior and a rejection of the rigid butch-femme role playing of earlier decades. But in the late eighties, a new trend has emerged in which lesbians are once again embracing "femininity," and even experimenting anew with butch-femme roles, although this time, Stein notes, the motivation is not cultural necessity but the new freedom to explore erotic possibilities. While the "new lesbianism" has drawn fire from the older, more politically oriented lesbian-feminist community, it has also had the effect of promoting lesbian visibility in unprecedented ways, even though, as Stein states, "whenever power is at stake, a politics of images is not substitute for a 'politics of substance' [because] images are too easily manipulated, their meanings complex and evanescent" (438). Nonetheless, Stein suggests that those who participate in the new freedom of exploring and redefining the limits of lesbian identity should trace the roots of their liberation in the very "anti-style" lesbianism they are reacting against. If it weren't for those who've gone before, both the strictly defined butches and femmes of the fifties and the androgynous feminist lesbians of the sixties and seventies, there might not be such a thing today as a new lesbianism which, perhaps for the first time in history, can actually produce a positive and even liberating experience for women. The new lesbianism, then, can be seen as a measure of the extent to which the gay liberation movement of the past three decades has succeeded in destabilizing gender categories so that all people can "play" at gender roles, and thereby perhaps begin to shake the foundations of the heterosexual monopoly on gendered identity.
    Vicinus, Martha. "'They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong': The Historical Roots of
    the Modern Lesbian Identity." Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? eds.
    Dennis Altman et al. Amsterdam: An Dekker, 1989. (reprinted in The
    Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge,
    1993. 432-452)

    In this essay, Vicinus examines the possibility that there have always been different "types" of lesbian identity, but that the only type that has historically caused trouble for women is that of the "mannish woman" who goes so far as to attempt to assume masculine social privileges. While it has often been considered acceptable for mannish women to fulfill "men's roles" during periods of necessity, such as wartime, real persecution comes to those women who refuse to give up their masculine identity even when there is no apparent social need for maintaining it. Such women call into question the very nature of what it is to be masculine, suggesting not only that it is not necessarily a function of one's biological sex, but that it is possible for women to co-opt the sexual freedom implied in the masculine role, which is particularly threatening to the male- dominated social order when that freedom is exercised between women. In the historical evidence of women who have taken on a male role in order to be sexually and romantically involved with other women, Vicinus sees the roots of the modern butch identity, which is not so much a desire to be male as to have access to the same kind of freedom and privileges as males. This is why it is the butch identity which is so frequently the target of attack, both within lesbian-feminist circles and without, and why sexologists until recently have tried to explain the butch woman as a man trapped in a woman's body.
    Whatling, Clare. "Reading Awry: Joan Nestle and the Recontextualization of
    Heterosexuality." Sexual Sameness. ed. Joseph Bristow. London: Routledge,
    1992. 210-226.



  3. #3
    femmegirrl
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    Whatling's essay offers a reading of Nestle that shows how necessary her argument is in re-evaluating butch-femme roles, recovering them from the bad press of the feminist movement. Nestle illustrates an "affirmative way of understanding sexual power and sexual pleasure" by examining the cultural and psychological function of butch-femme roles as something other than simply a replica of heterosexual roles. According to Whatling, Nestle's work shows us that a woman who passed as a man, or wore masculine clothing, was in fact asserting her refusal to give in to the dominant definition of "womanliness," and asserting her right to act on her desire for other women. Butch- femme, then, is not a "straight" imitation of heterosexual roles, but a kind of Irigarayan mimesis, using these forms to turn them inside out, so to speak -- exposing all roles as constructed and not natural.
    Wilson, Elizabeth. "Forbidden Love" Hidden Agendas: Theory, Politics, and
    Experience in the Women's Movement. London: Tavistock, 1986. 169-182.
    (first published in 1983 in Feminist Studies)

    In this essay, Wilson traces the meaning of butch-femme roles in England from the 1950's to the present, and argues for a culturally-situated understanding of the roles which allows us to recover the subversive potential they once had and to understand why such role playing is not longer as necessary. As in America, in England butch- femme role-playing was predominantly a working class activity in the fifties and early sixties, as the middle classes attempted to build relationships on egalitarian terms and in ways that would enable them to "blend in" to the culture around them -- which usually meant that both women in a "couple" would adopt conventionally feminine dress and behavior. By the mid-sixties, however, the politics of a "permissive society" allowed for an increasing emphasis across class lines on androgyny, which was an attempt to blur the lines of sexual difference. Role-playing was viewed primarily as a tool of patriarchy, which oppressed all who bought into them, men or women, gay or straight, and freedom from roles allowed one to discover one's "true" self. This attitude persisted into the seventies, encouraged especially be lesbian-feminism, even though lesbians were still often defined by the dominant culture as women who wanted to be men, who aspired to "maleness" and were therefore sexual outlaws of a sort. But even this cultural definition, which applied first to identifiable butches and later to all lesbians, was and continues to be extremely useful, Wilson explains, because it puts women in a position to destabilize, by their very existence, the categories of male and female, and to challenge the social construction of gender roles.
    ________. "Gayness and Liberalism." Hidden Agendas: Theory, Politics, and
    Experience in the Women's Movement. London: Tavistock, 1986. 137-147.

    Although Wilson does not come out completely against butch-femme roles in the lesbian community, she does warn that inherent in any role playing is the possibility for the abuse of power, and that in this case butch-femme role playing can be just as sexist as heterosexual male-female roles. Because the identities of both butches and femmes are built on popular cultural stereotypes of male and female behavior, they tend to reinforce the inequality in power inherent in this dichotomy, where one of the partners is active, strong, dominant, initiating, etc., and the other passive, weak, submissive, and enduring. But perhaps the most negative aspect of role-playing, according to Wilson, is that women often feel compelled to adopt roles (in order to conform to the standards of certain lesbian communities, for example) and then find themselves constrained to the limitations inherent in each role. Wilson also argues that adaptation to role playing merely assuages the culture's need to define lesbians in terms of stereotypes, that without this easy system of definition and classification, lesbian behavior would be less likely to be tolerated. Thus, she argues not for the androgynous ideal of feminists in the seventies, but for a broader cultural acceptance of many varieties of sexuality -- an acceptance which she, as a socialist, believes is and will continue to be hindered as long as the "nuclear family" is put forth (falsely, and often with terrible consequences) as the heart of Western culture.
    Wolfe, Susan J., and Julia Penelope. "Sexual Identity / Textual Politics." Sexual
    Practice / Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. eds. Susan J. Wolfe and
    Julia Penelope. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993. 1-24.


  4. #4
    femmegirrl
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    According to Wolfe and Penelope, it is more than a little coincidental that the recent theoretical move towards "deconstructing" the notion of a unified self began just at that moment in history when oppressed and marginalized people began to achieve some measure of subjectivity. The task of lesbian theory, they argue, is to posit a lesbian subject, "experienced through a collective history and culture we have had to construct before we can begin to deconstruct lesbian identity" (2, emphasis added), and an important part of this task is helping lesbians see in postmodernist and poststructuralist thought not only an overtly patriarchal agenda but also a more subtly heterosexist motivation. Although part of the aim of these theoretical movements may be the deconstruction of systems of power in the dominant culture, which has as an end the making visible of marginalized and oppressed groups of people in relation to these dominant powers, these movements nonetheless argue for the constructed nature of all subjectivity, which perpetuates the lack of a coherent identity that kept marginalized groups oppressed in the first place. As Wolfe and Penelope note, with some degree of irony, just as "women, lesbians, gay men, and racial minorities rose to challenge their marginalization and to define themselves as subjects, the white male intelligentsia declared that subjectivity was a fiction" . Thus, the aim of the essay is to remind scholars of the need to address just these issues in terms of lesbian identity, and particularly when deconstructing the politics of such controversial aspects of identity as butch/femme roles, s/m practices, and lesbian pornography.




  5. #5
    femmegirrl
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    Written by Amy Goodloe
    Copyright © 1993, 1999. All Rights Reserved.

    Lesbian Identity
    and the Politics of Butch-Femme Roles
    I. LESBIAN IDENTITY/POLITICS
    One of the fundamental tenets of postmodern theory is that all identities are socially constructed, and that, throughout history, dominant groups have had the power not only to construct their own identities, which they disguise as "innate" or "natural" rather than created, but also to construct the identities of groups the dominant group has a vested interest in marginalizing. The appeal of postmodern theory lies in its method of "deconstructing" the power relationships inherent in constructions of identity so that it becomes possible to articulate a counter-ideology which has as its aim the liberation and de-objectification of marginalized groups. The irony in this is that those most often attracted to and who are in a position to utilize postmodern methodology are themselves members of the dominant group, even if only in terms of level of education, and in the attempt to give voice to those historically silenced and oppressed, they frequently run the risk of re-inscribing oppression along very different lines.

    The contemporary feminist analysis of lesbian identity is an example of just such a tendency. For the past two decades, the dominant form of feminist discourse has, in attempting to "liberate" lesbian identity from patriarchal control, instead imposed its own identity politics on the lesbian community, with the result that those lesbians whose behaviors or "styles" do not conform to the feminist agenda have been doubly-oppressed -- once by the dominant patriarchal culture, and again by the movement that claimed to seek the liberation of all women. This is perhaps most obvious in the feminist critique of role playing among lesbians, which is considered by the dominant feminist discourse to be a barrier to one's "true" identity as a woman (assuming that there is such a thing).

    Despite the power and influence of this discourse, however, voices have risen from within a sort of "counter" lesbian-feminist community of scholars who wish to challenge the limiting identity politics of the seventies and early eighties. Before moving into a review of the way these voices address the identity issues surrounding lesbian butch-femme role-playing, however, it would be useful to consider some of the more general attempts at understanding the politics of lesbian identity which have both influenced and been influenced by this more specific issue.

    Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope, in an article entitled "Sexual Identity/Textual Politcs" (1993), have recently issued a warning to theorists who are too quick to use postmodern theory to deconstruct lesbian identity, arguing that any move to invalidate the "identity" of a marginalized group necessarily prevents that group from attaining the degree of subjectivity needed to overcome the oppression of having been for so long objectified. In other words, if theorists make the whole notion of lesbian identity so problematic as to suggest that there can be no such thing, on what grounds then are lesbians to come together in the fight against oppression and homophobia? Deconstructing lesbian identity in such a way perpetuates the "divide and conquer" strategy of the dominant ideology, which has historically been used to deprive oppressed groups of the unity needed for power, by failing to recognize the agency of lesbians in resisting dominant constructions of their identity in favor of ones that more accurately reflect their lived experience.

  6. #6
    femmegirrl
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    It is the task of lesbian theory, then, Wolfe and Penelope argue, to both resist a kind of deconstruction that would render lesbians even more invisible, and to work towards the (re)construction of a lesbian identity as it is "experienced through a collective history and culture" (2). This is not to assume, however, that identity is an unproblematic concept, but rather to insist that any analysis of identity which concerns a historically oppressed group pay close attention to such questions as where do different constructions of lesbian identity come from, what agendas underlie those constructions, and what do different constructions of identity mean in the actual lives of lesbians. Thus, though it was written more recently than the rest of the essays I will be reviewing and does not directly address any of them, Wolf and Penelope's essay in a way makes clear some of the theoretical concerns of earlier academics working on the issue of lesbian identity.

    One of the problems with the construction of lesbian identity that is often noted by theorists is that it most often takes place within the terms of the dominant discourse, which has established heterosexuality as the "natural" or normative expression of human sexuality against which all other expressions are considered deviant and deficient. One of the first academics to challenge the naturalization of heterosexuality was Adrienne Rich, in an important and controversial essay entitled "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980). Rich's main argument is that heterosexuality is not only not natural or innate, it is in fact an institution designed to perpetuate male social and economic privilege, which means that the ideology of difference as the natural basis for sexual attraction is, in fact, a construction. While she is not the first to make this claim, Rich goes on to argue that it is the primary bonding between women that is, in fact, natural, but which is disrupted by the imposition of compulsory heterosexuality in all women's lives -- or rather, in all but those few who resist heterosexuality in favor of the more "natural" state of woman-identification, which is the broader definition Rich gives to lesbianism.

    The problem with Rich's argument is, of course, that she assumes that it is possible for any identity to exist naturally, and that women by nature identify with other women, but this does not lessen the impact of her insight that heterosexuality has a vested interest in making itself appear to be "natural," and therefore unchallengeable, in order to maintain male dominance. If it were not compulsory, Rich claims, most women would never choose heterosexuality because of the inequality and insubordination built into the system -- if, that is, they were indeed aware of them. But the issue at stake here is that heterosexuality is compulsory precisely because it is not natural, which means that it makes no sense to speak of homosexuality as "deviating" from natural sexuality, regardless of whether or not we accept Rich's belief that lesbiansim is in fact natural. Thus, Rich's essay contributes to the deconstruction the dominant definition of lesbian identity as "deviant" and "unnatural," a definition which is at the heart of lesbian oppression.

    A common critique of Rich is that she places too much emphasis on woman-identification as the basis for lesbian identity, almost to the exclusion of sexuality. In fact, some critics consider her position to be anti-sexual, presumably because sexuality is constructed as "masculine" and therefore has no natural place in woman-identification, which thus perpetuates the oppressive ideology that women are not sexual by nature. By not questioning the constructed nature of this ideology, then, Rich in a way fails to follow her analysis all the way through. Instead of seeing that all sexuality, all attitudes towards sexuality, are socially constructed with specific agendas in mind, Rich simply rejects heterosexuality, thereby dismissing role-playing and all other forms of sexuality that seem to replicate the oppressive structures of heterosexuality -- with the notable exception of monogamy, which is still considered "natural." This thinking, in turn, leads to an insistence on "egalitarian sex" between women which, ironically, parallels the dominant ideology that there is only one "right way" to have sex.





  7. #7
    femmegirrl
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    According to Gayle Rubin, in her article "Thinking Sex" (1984), the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality may be a powerful force in the social construction of lesbianism as "deviant," but the supposedly feminist insistence on regulated sexuality even between women is equally powerful, and no less oppressive. Rubin argues that the dominant ideology regulates social/sexual behavior by positing the notion of "sexual correctness" (institutionalized heterosexuality) against the fear of social decay should trangression occur. Rather than challenging the whole notion of "sexual correctness, " anti-sex feminists like Rich simply redefine lesbian sexuality within feminist terms, using the fear of being "unfeminist" or "oppressive" as a means of social control within the feminist movement-- which has the ironic result of enshrining "feminist" (read: non-role playing) sex as normative and all other forms as deviant.

    Rubin's critique of this brand of lesbian-feminism is that it fails to interrogate its own assumption that egalitarian sex is not only possible, but that sexual difference (which makes role-playing possible) can never be anything but oppressive. In failing to see that regulating women's sexuality, albeit in a different form, runs counter to the stated goal of feminism to liberate all women from all forms of oppression, the dominant feminist discourse perpetuates the marginalization of women whose behavior is not "sexually correct." What is obscured here, Rubin argues, is that the question of identity is still in the hands of the dominant group, so that a lesbian who defines herself as role-playing has less of a voice in naming her identity than the lesbian-feminists who declare her behavior "out-dated" or "misguided." It is precisely issues such as these, Rubin insists, that feminist analyses of identity and identity politics must engage with, especially in terms of the unequal use of power inherent in the regulation of sexuality; it is also issues such as these that point to problematic nature of using sexuality as a source of identity in the first place.


    Written by Amy Goodloe
    Copyright © 1993, 1999. All Rights Reserved.

    Lesbian Identity
    and the Politcs of Butch-Femme Roles, Part 2
    II. THE POLITICS OF BUTCH AND FEMME
    The critique most often levelled against role-playing in the lesbian community comes, as we have just seen, from the feminist belief that all role-playing replicates the very (hetero)sexual structure from which lesbians are supposedly free. The idea that one's sexual identity might depend on or evolve from such role-playing is considered "unenlightened," and a sign of one's successful socialization into the dominant ideology. But there is also a growing body of lesbian-feminist scholarship that attempts to shed new light on our understanding of the function of role-playing within the lesbian community, arguing that lesbian roles not only challenge the constructed nature of heterosexual roles but are, in fact, subversive of the sex/gender system as a whole. Before turning to the work of these scholars, however, I will first review some of the work of those scholars who assume or insist that butch-femme role-playing is merely a replica of heterosexuality.


  8. #8
    femmegirrl
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    A. Butch-Femme Roles as Replicas of Heterosexuality

    The main assumption underlying the feminist disdain of role-playing is that roles depend on sexual difference, which is inherently hierarchical, polarizing, and oppressive. Sexual difference, it is argued, is the ground on which heterosexual roles are built, and thus contains within it an inherently unequal distribution of power. This is the argument that Adrienne Rich makes, in the essay discussed above, when she claims that compulsory heterosexuality exists to perpetuate male dominance, which does not exists naturally but must be replicated through the institutionalization of male-female roles. For Rich, lesbian existence and identity, or "woman-identification," exists outside the constructs of these roles, and it would seem by extension that any lesbians who do engage in role-playing would not be considered to be "woman-identified." Although Rich does not explicitly make this claim, her thinking in this regard is representative of the very powerful form of lesbian-feminist discourse that virtually controlled the politics of lesbian identity in the seventies.

    A more moderate view is offered by Elizabeth Wilson in her essay "Gayness and Liberalism," which was originally published some time in the early eighties but revised slightly for publication in a 1986 collection of essays. Instead of arguing completely against lesbian role playing, Wilson issues the warning that inherent in any role playing is the possibility for the abuse of power, and butch-femme roles have the potential for being just as sexist as heterosexual roles. Because the identities of both butches and femmes are built on popular cultural stereotypes of male and female behavior, she argues, they tend to reinforce the inequality in power inherent in this dichotomy, where one of the partners is active, strong, dominant, initiating, etc., and the other is passive, weak, submissive, and enduring. The assumption here, however, is not that butch and femme roles are inherently sexist, but that in the popular construction of these roles along heterosexual lines, the possibility for sexism is increased. What Wilson does not address, at least in this essay, is the extent to which butch and femme lesbians simply absorb or actively resist popular constructions of their roles; her later work, which will be discussed further on, begins to take up such questions.

    Another scholar whose earlier work assumes that butch-femme role playing replicates heterosexual structures of identity is Lillian Faderman, whose groundbreaking work, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendships Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981), laid the foundations for the study of lesbian history. 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 (among whom butch-femme identities seem to take on greater importance), Faderman focuses more on aristocratic women's relationships, which means that her study reveals more about lesbian role playing in general than it does about specifically butch and femme identities.


  9. #9
    femmegirrl
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    For example, she documents 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 noteriety. 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 did not reproduce structures of domination quite to the extent that heterosexual arrangements did. Nonetheless, one can imagine that such relationships might well have suffered from the kind of sexism Wilson warns against, especially given that the heterosexual roles they imitated arose out of an rigidly sexist culture.

    Faderman's evidence points to the possibility that, before Freud and the sexologists developed the notions of "butch" and "femme" lesbians, there were socio-economic reasons why women might find themselves in relationships which seemed to replicate the clearly defined roles of heterosexuality. In these instances, then, it was cultural necessity and not "nature" (as Freud would claim) or ignorance (as later feminists would argue) that compelled women to adopt role-playing. Although the same may well have been true for subsequent generations of lesbians, the impact of Freud and the sexologists, as well as other male representations of lesbian sexuality, was such that role playing could never quite recover its primarily utilitarian status.

    Male representations of lesbian sexuality have had perhaps the most influence in shaping attitudes towards butch and femme identities throughout the twentieth-century, and such representations have almost always assumed that lesbian role-playing is an imitation of heterosexuality -- that it is based on sexual difference, if only through pretence. According to Toni McNaron, in her article "Mirrors and Likeness: A Lesbian Aesthetic in the Making" (1993), most (male) literary representations of lesbians have long perpetuated this construction by "substitute[ing] a phallic situation or rhetoric fo the absent penis, [and] leaving the reader/viewer undisturbed in his or her comfortable habit of seeing all human relationships through such a limited filter" (294). This filter is, of course, that of sexual difference as it is conceived within a phallocentric discourse, which insists on the presence of the phallus in all situations of sexuality, whether in actual or symbolic form.

    The insight of lesbian-feminist analyses of male constructions of sexuality, McNaron argues, is that their phallocentric bias is exposed, which then frees women to resist these "adopted modes of representation," based on sexual difference, in favor of "something more nearly approximating a valuing of self and other as expressing sexual likeness" (294-5). McNaron's aim, then, is to propose an aesthetics which challenges compulsory heterosexuality's insistence on difference, and which provides a way of reading, writing, and thinking that seeks similarities rather than differences, and thus affirms a more "lesbian" way of looking at the world. While this may be useful as an alternative approach to textual representations of sexuality, such an aesthetic, taken to an extreme, would render language meaningless, since difference is the guiding principle of linguistic constructions. McNaron's argument, then, can be critiqued for its assumption that difference is by nature oppressive, rather than heterosexuality's misuse of difference, and that a truly lesbian aesthetic would reject difference in favor of seeking likenesses. This kind of thinking, in claiming to represent what is "truly" lesbian, perpetuates the ideology of sexual correctness by invalidating the experience of those women who construct their identities, through role playing, around the principle of difference, and who nonetheless consider themselves lesbians.


  10. #10
    femmegirrl
    Guest


    Despite what I perceive as the shortcomings in McNaron's essay, it is true that male representations of lesbian sexuality as replicas of heterosexuality have had a significant impact on women's self-conception of their sexual desire, to the point that it is difficult to determine where women have simply absorbed such representations and where they have actively resisted them -- particularly in the case of women who have adopted what would be considered a "male" role. In her article "The Match in the Crocus: Representations of Lesbian Sexuality" (1989), Judith Roof suggests that it is just this ambiguity that gives rise to the dominant culture's outright disdain of "mannish" lesbians, even though it is partly responsible for this construction. According to Roof, representations of lesbian sexuality in the dominant discourse often evoke the phallus by calling attention to its absence (or its substitution) in sexual relations between women, so that it appears and seems necessary, at least symbolically, because of the inconceivability of sexuality without a phallus present. Thus, lesbians -- or at least one of every "pair" -- are often depicted as having appropriated the penis, masquerading as though they "had" it, and therefore assuming male privilege and acting on it. This, of course, evokes the stereotypical image of the lesbian as a woman who acts like or imitates men, an image which is both imposed on lesbians by phallocentric discourse and seemingly embraced by the lesbian community in the form of the butch role.

    What Roof's analysis makes possible is an understanding of the ways in which the dominant ideology has a vested interest in making butch-femme role playing appear to be a mere replica of heterosexuality, as a way of calming male anxiety over the threat of female appropriation of male dominance. If lesbian role playing is merely imitation, then it is always inferior to the "real" thing, or so the thinking goes. But there is another way of understanding butch-femme roles which arises, importantly, from the experience of self described butch and femme lesbians, and which suggests that lesbian role playing, far from imitating heterosexuality, in fact poses a powerful challenge to heterosexuality by exposing its roles as nothing more than constructs which are far from stable or "real."

    B. Butch-Femme Roles as Challenging Heterosexuality

    Those academics who wish to argue that butch-femme roles challenge rather than uncritically replicate heterosexual roles typically employ a historical approach which examines not male representations of lesbian sexuality but what lesbians themselves have had to say about role playing in their own lives. This approach draws on writings by lesbians, from letters and journals to fiction, oral history, and the experience of the academics themselves, and focuses primarily on one of three main areas of contemporary lesbian history: the turn of the century emergence of "New Women," the urban working class lesbian communities of the forties, fifties, and sixties, and lesbian-feminist communities of the seventies and eighties.

  11. #11
    femmegirrl
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    The Emergence of the "New Woman"
    In an article entitled "Discourse of Sexuality and Subjectivity: The New Woman, 1870-1936" (1985), Carroll Smith-Rosenberg reconstructs the history of those women who, around the turn of the century, began to achieve more economic and social independence in England and America, and who were subsequently dubbed "New Women." Because these women often rejected traditional female roles and conventions of "femininity," particularly in terms of dress and means of financial support, they were frequently accused of "acting like men." But, as Smith-Rosenberg notes, women who desired independence from men and freedom from patriarchal oppression did not necessarily want to become or be like men, but would instead adopt the appearance of masculinity to signify their rejection of the male-defined traditional role of "female." In so doing, these New Women posed a threat to the binary structures on which society was built, because they called into question te relationship between biological sex and gender roles, thus exposing gender as well as other organizational categories in society as artificial, as not natural but constructed.

    According to Smith-Rosenberg, the first generation of New Women was, however, tolerated to some extent because even though they seemed to want access to male social privilege, it was not thought that their desires extended to the level of sexuality; in other words, even though these women frequently formed close, intensely emotional primary bonds with other women, their relationships were understood by the dominant culture to be asexual. In fact, this is the way "romantic friendships" between women had long been constructed in society, as Lillian Faderman has demonstrated, because of the dominant ideology that women were not by nature sexual creatures, and that their sexuality existed only in their relationship to men. As the sexual "inversion" theories of Freud, Krafft-Ebing , Havelock Ellis and the other late nineteenth century sexologists became popular, however, the next generation of New Women, now termed "mannish lesbians," came under attack for seeming to aspire to male sexual privilege, which, Smith-Rosenberg argues, was considered a far more serious threat to the social order than merely aspiring to social or economic privilege. Thus was born a cultural fear of those women who publicly adopted a male role, because according to the sexologists such behavior was the result of a congenital defect known as "inversion," which carried the stigma of having been born into the "wrong" gender and therefore doomed to a tragic life.

    Given their vested interest in perpetuating rigidly defined heterosexual roles in order to preserve male dominance, it is not surprising that the sexologists tried to erase the implications of a woman adopting a male role by ascribing such behavior to a congenital defect; after all, compulsory heterosexuality depends on the assertion that there is a necessary connection between biological sex and gender, and so a woman who acts contrary to her gender must in fact be a biological male, albeit one with the ultimate misfortune of having been born into a female body. While the dominant culture was most certainly influenced by the work of the sexologists, which subtly implied that if women werent' themselves "cursed" with inversion they might fall victim to the seductions of such women, the New Women themselves responded to this work by arguing that their oppression was unjust if their condition was the product of nature rather than choice. But that is not to suggest that all New Women did indeed absorb the dominant construction of their identity. In fact, Esther Newton argues that one New Woman, Radclyffe Hall, resisted the construction of the invert as a passive victim of nature in the creation of Stephen Gordon, the female hero of her famous novel, The Well of Loneliness.

    According to Newton, in "The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman" (1984), the figure of Stephen Gordon "was and remains an important symbol of rebellion against male hegemony" (281) because of the way she challenges the "natural" relationship between sex and gender. As Newton notes, the "mannish lesbian should not exist if gender is natural" (291), and the sexologists answer that she is, in fact, the victim of "inversion" does not work in the case of Stephen Gordon. According to Newton, who counters the feminist critique that the novel perpetuates the stereotypes created by the sexologists, the character of Stephen Gordon is not "mannish" because she wants to be a man, but for the more complicated reasons of resistance to the dominant construction of "femaleness," and decision to publicly announce and act on her desire for other women -- which, in a phallocentric culture, means appropriating the male role.


  12. #12
    femmegirrl
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    The claim Newton is making for Hall's character is that, rather than capitulating to the dominant construction of lesbian identity as a defect of nature, she instead destabilizes gender categories by exposing them as roles that can be assumed by either sex. Masculinity then becomes nothing but a social role, albeit one accorded power and dominance in the culture, and therefore women who reject the prohibitive and dehumanizing role of "femininity" symbolize this rejection by "cross-dressing," appropriating the codes and symbols of masculinity while remaining fully female. Role-playing then becomes, at least for the "butch" woman, a challenge to heterosexuality rather than a replication of it.

    Despite recent theoretical trends which make Newton's reading of Hall's novel seem "obvious," there has long been a good deal of resistance within the dominant culture, and especially within lesbian-feminism, to the idea of the mannish woman, due largely to the failure to see the power of such a figure as a challenge to stereotypes rather than a fulfillment of them. Martha Vicinus traces the resistance to this particular type of lesbian identity in her essay, "'They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong': The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity" (1989). According to Vicinus, there have been times in history when it was considered socially acceptable for women to fill male social and economic roles, the most notable example being during wars, but as soon as these periods of necessity end, the dominant culture seems to forget that it was possible for women as women to cross gender boundaries into male roles.

    When there is no clear social need for gender-crossing, women who do so face public persecution, and with the increasing influence of the sexologists around the turn of this century, persecution might involve being labelled a "congenital invert." Of course the irony is that many women adopt a masculine style of dress and behavior precisely in order to signal their desire for other women, with little regard for whether their condition is the product of a birth defect or simply a choice, so that the label has little effect except as a means of inspiring fear in the culture at large. In other words, they are not mannish because their nature compels them to be, an assumption which rests on the belief that sex and gender are the same thing; "mannish women" instead disrupt the sex/gender system by crossing genders out of choice, which therefore challenge the very foundation on which compulsory heterosexuality is built. Such women, according to Vicinus, also lay the foundations of what later lesbians would appropriate as the "butch" identity.


    Butches and Femmes in the 40's, 50's, and 60's
    Perhaps the most popular area of study for scholars interested in the social history of butch-femme roles is the middle of this century, when working class lesbian communities began to be visible in urban areas precisely because of very clearly defined role-playing. The most frequent approach to this period has been, however, somewhat negative, centering around the feminist critique of role playing as mere imitation of heterosexuality. While role playing may have been necessary in the forties and fifties, so the typical argument goes, the "enlightenment" made possible by the women's movement renders role playing obsolete; in fact, those who participate in it only do so out of ignorance, or a misguided desire to be men. In a move which is ironically paternalistic (not to mention "classist"), lesbian-feminism labels role playing as a working class phenomenon and sets out to "reform" it, without ever considering the power of role playing to serve the same ends as feminism: the deconstruction of patriarchal ideology.



  13. #13
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    More recent work on the lesbian communities of this time period has begun to consider just this issue, arguing for a re-evaluation of the positive impact role playing has had on lesbian identity. As early as 1981 Joan Nestle began to voice some of these concerns, but at the time her work stood on very lonely ground, and it took several years for other scholars to brave the threat of feminist critique in order to make arguments similar to Nestle's. As perhaps the first essay to emerge in defense of butch-femme role playing in the lesbian community of the fifties, Nestle's argument in "Butch-Femme Relationships and Sexual Courage in the 1950's" 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 male-female heterosexual roles. 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 by feminist scholars in the seventies, Nestle insists that these women, the butches and femmes of the fifties, were in fact feminist, that they exercised the very autonomy of sexual and social identities that feminism claimed to want for all women. But they did so in a way that "made lesbians visible in a terrifyingly clear way" (108), which thus provoked the anger of the dominant culture as well as of those lesbians who preferred the safety of invisibility.

    In a later essay, entitled "The Femme Question" (1984), Nestle again argues for a re-evaluation of the social function of butch-femme roles, but in this case she focuses on the often neglected identity of the "femme." Because it is butch women who visibly disrupt the dominant ideology of gender roles with their seeming appropriation of masculinity, scholarly attention tends to focus on "butchness" when addressing issues of lesbian identity. The equally important role of femme women in the construction of lesbian identity is ignored, often because of 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." What Nestle suggests, however, is that the femme role is just as threatening to the institution of heterosexuality because of the way it co-opts the conventional female role in order to signal desire for other women, which of course runs counter the very purpose behind the social construction of femininity. What the femme role makes perhaps even clearer than the butch is the performative nature of all roles, which makes it possible for a biological female to "play at" being a woman by exaggerating what the culture has defined as "womaness." Thus, Nestle's work recovers a very different understanding of butch-femme roles in earlier lesbian communities, one with which subsequent scholars of the period have had to contend.

    Elizabeth Wilson's article, "Forbidden Love" (1983) takes an approach similar to Nestle's two essays, although she is writing about lesbian history in England and does not indicate familiarity with Nestle's work on American lesbian communities. She is also somewhat more concerned with tracing the general history of attitudes towards role-playing rather than with analyzing the meaning of the roles themselves. In England, as in America, butch-femme role playing was considered a predominantly working class activity in the forties and fifties, as the middle classes attempted to build relationships on egalitarian terms and in ways that would enable them to "blend in" with the culture around them -- which usually meant that both women in a "couple" would adopt conventionally feminine dress and behavior.


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    By the mid-sixties, however, Wilson argues that the politics of a "permissive society" allowed for an increasing emphasis across class lines on androgyny, which was an attempt to blur the lines of sexual difference. Role-playing was viewed primarily as a tool of patriarchy, which oppressed all who bought into them, men or women, gay or straight, and freedom from roles allowed one to discover one's "true" self. This attitude persisted into the seventies, encouraged especially by lesbian-feminism, even though lesbians were still defined by the dominant culture as women who wanted to be men, who aspired to "maleness" and were therefore sexual deviants of a sort. But even this cultural definition, which applied first to identifiable butches and later to all lesbians, was and continues to be extremely useful, Wilson explains, because it puts women in a position to destabilize, by their very existence, the categories of male and female, and to challenge the social construction of gender roles.

    The research of Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy work towards similar ends as Nestle and Wilson, although they narrow their focus considerably by concentrating only on the working-class lesbian community of Buffalo, New York in the forties and fifties, and using oral history as their primary resource. As a result, their work explores the meaning of butch and femme roles to those who lived them in much more depth and detail, and offers a variety of perspectives on the cultural function of these roles. In their article "Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York: 1940-1960" (1986), Davis and Kennedy examine the ways that highly defined role playing offered lesbians a means of resistance and survival in an otherwise hostile 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 a powerful way of resisting heterosexist ideology by revealing that the dominant gender hierarchy is built on socially constructed gender roles rather than on innate sex-distinct behavior.

    In a later article specifically addressing butch identity, entitled "'They was no one to mess with': The Construction of the Butch Role in the Lesbian Community of the 1940's and 1950's" (1992), Davis and Kennedy examine the ways in which the visibility of the butch role 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. The irony of the butch identity, as they note, is that it became necessary for these women to adopt a masculine role in order to validate who they were as women, since this role was the only means available in the culture to signal their desire for other women. The butch role, then, can hardly be considered an imitation of the heterosexual male role, since it has nothing invested in the structures of domination this role is designed to maintain. Instead, butch women not only challenge the socially constructed nature of heterosexual roles, they also point to the possibility of different ways of "being" masculine, ways that men interested in equality might do well to take note of.

    Another recent attempt at explaining the cultural significance of butch-femme roles in the fifties and sixties comes from Lillian Faderman, whose understanding of role-playing is similar to that expressed in her earlier work, discussed above. In her more recent book, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (1991), Faderman provides a 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. Unlike Nestle, Wilson, and Davis and Kennedy, however, Faderman shares the assumption of middle-class lesbian-feminism that butch-femme roles are imitations of heterosexuality, adopted by lesbians who unquestioningly accept the dominant construction of sexuality as polarized and hierarchical. She does not pass judgement on these women, though, as many feminists have done, but instead simply ignores the possibility of agency in lesbian constructions of their own identity, as well as the potential that lesbian role playing has for challenging the ideology she assumes they passively accept.


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    Maybe next time, a simple link would do.

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    Butches and Femmes in the 70's and 80's
    A more difficult area of study for scholars of lesbian identity is the recent past, primarily because of the impact of lesbian-feminism in the seventies, which argued against all role playing and in favor of dissolving gender distinctions through androgyny. Because of the power of this brand of feminist discourse, most academics have shied away from addressing the continuing existence of butch-femme role playing in the seventies and eighties, largely because acknowledging this existence means that the feminist campaign against role playing has not been entirely successful. If such behavior continues to exist despite its "deconstruction" by feminism as oppressive and uneccessary, then the unsettling possibility remains that roles may indeed serve a purpose which has yet to be considered -- which may, in fact, undermine the feminist critique of roles.

    It is not surprising, then, that few academics have come forward to discuss the significance of role playing in the past decade, nor is it surprising that those who do often choose to work in pairs. As early as 1981, Amber Hollibaugh and Cherrie Moraga conducted a courageous conversation about butch-femme role playing, which was later transcribed into written form as "What We're Rollin' Around in Bed With: Sexual Silences in Feminism." 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 surround role playing as much as gender.

    Speaking from personal experience, Hollibaugh and Moraga consider 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 the overly idealistic goal of absolute equality in bed, which means that lesbians essentially traded one form of oppression for another. In making "outlaws" 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 a 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 an exchange of power positions between partners, which, once again, reveals role playing as a way of challenging heterosexuality's inflexibility regarding roles -- if the roles are interchangeable, especially between two women, then they can not have anything to do with biological sex.

    Part of the risk Hollibaugh and Moraga take in their dialogue is in using their own personal experience to explain the continuing importance of butch-femme roles, but this is also what lends their analysis a level of credibility that middle-class lesbian-feminism cannot claim. While Joan Nestle uses her personal experience to analyze butch-femme roles in the fifties and sixties, Hollibaugh and Moraga speak of the present, and they do so by abandoning the formal academic discourse in which they have been trained and speaking instead in a more "comfortable" dialect. Nevertheless, both are respected scholars within the feminist community, which allows them to maintain a degree of authority even while positioning themselves in opposition to this community's opinion of role playing.





  17. #17
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    Esther Newton and Shirley Walton make a similar move in their co-written piece, "The Misunderstanding: Toward a More Precise Sexual Vocabulary" (1984). In this essay, Newton and Walton examine the way labels and sexual identities frequently both shape and limit the way we interact with others sexually, particularly when these labels and identities go unexamined. For example, the lesbian butch identity is usually understood to be constructed along the lines of the "male" role, which is to say that butches are usually expected to initiate and maintain a somewhat "dominant" position during sexual encounters, but such a construction depends on the assumption that "maleness" somehow inherently contains these traits. While this may, in fact, be true, since maleness is a social construct that has been artificially attached to biological men, the freedom to play with this construct that butch-femme lesbians enjoy nevertheless does not extend to heterosexual men, who are frequently expected to behave in stereotypically "male" sexual roles.

    Newton and Walton's main point, then, is to problematize the way all sexual identities are constructed and utilized, and to argue for a more precise use of the terms used to discuss these identities. The reason for their insistence on this point, and what makes their move similar to that of Hollibaugh and Moraga, is that this essay arose out of a sexual encounter between Newton and Walton which failed because of their own misunderstanding of the meaning of sexual identities. In other words, in order to argue their case about the importance of understanding the sexual significance of roles such as butch and femme, Newton and Walton appeal to their personal experience, which, though risky in some ways, nonetheless insulates them from the criticism of feminists who cannot speak from this position.

    C. Butch-Femme Roles as the Subversion of All Gender Categories





  18. #18
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    The scholars in the previous section, most of whom were writing in the early eighties, responded to the feminist critique of butch-femme roles by pointing to the historical ways such roles have challenged the institution of heterosexuality. Building on this largely historical work, lesbian scholars in the late eighties and early nineties have begun to apply postmodern theory to their analysis of lesbian role playing, in order to reveal the potential of butch-femme roles to disrupt and subvert the very notion of gender categories. While, to some extent, this type of analysis was present in the work of several earlier scholars, the methodology and critical vocabulary made available by postmodern theory opens up new possibilities for critique and analysis -- for example, theorists can now speak of butch-femme roles as a disruption of phallocentrism.

    Among the first lesbian academics to use this approach are Sue-Ellen Case and Teresa de Lauretis, both of whom employ (and revise) postmodern theory to call attention to the performative nature of butch-femme role playing. In her article, "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic" (1988), Sue-Ellen Case argues that lesbian role playing offers women the kind of agency necessary to resist the dominant construction of femininity. This agency is made possible because the "butch-femme couple inhabit the subject position together" (295), and are thus in a position to critique the ideology of sexual difference (which depends on the object status of "woman"). Case continues that butch-femme roles are not split subjects, suffering the torments of dominant ideology. They are coupled ones that do not impale themselves on the poles of sexual difference or metaphysical values, but constantly seduce the sign system, through flirtation and inconstancy into the light fondle of artifice, replacing the Lacanian slash with the lesbian bar. (295) The artifice of butch-femme role playing is its insistence on roles as roles, as a masquerade which, in its excess of "genderedness," unmasks the performative nature of roles which have their origin in social constructions rather than nature. As a result, these roles lend agency and self-determination to the historically passive subject, providing her with at least two options for gender identification and with the aid of camp, an irony that allows her perception to be constructed from outside ideology, with a gender role that makes her appear as if she is inside it. (301)

    Teresa de Lauretis also claims that butch-femme role playing lends agency to women, but she does so by the slightly different route of deconstructing the phallocentric bias inherent in dominant constructions of homosexuality. In "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation" (1988), 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 phallocentric thinking suggests, sexual attraction is presumed to depend on innate difference -- with the male as that which desires the "otherness" of the female -- then it makes no sense to speak of female homosexuality, unless a masculine desire (and thus male role) is ascribed to women who desire other women.

    But this, de Lauretis argues, is hommo-sexuality, because of the privileged status of "male" in the construction of gender and sexuality, whereas a homosexuality that does not define itself in terms of difference 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 lesbian 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 body of a biological woman. Thus, de Lauretis argues that the performative nature of "butchness" operates as 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).

    Like Case and de Lauretis, Gayle Rubin also wishes to demonstrate the ways in which butch-femme role playing destabilize dominant conceptions of gender categories, and she does so in "Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries" (1992) by focusing on the multi-layered construction of the butch role. According to Rubin, the butch role is "most usefully understood as a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols" (467). In other words, butchness and even masculinity itself are nothing but performative roles, complete with codes and symbols available for the use of anyone, regardless of biological sex. The choice to use such a category, then, becomes a way of appropriating the tools of the dominant sexual system to serve very different, and subversive, ends: the signalling of desire not across the lines of sexual difference but within the context of sexual sameness, which thus disrupts any attempt at linking sex and gender.

    Using the same theoretical framework of lesbian role playing as subversive, Judith Butler makes a compelling argument, in "Imitation and Gender Insubordination" (1991), against the dominant construction of lesbian sexuality as imitative of or derivative from heterosexuality, but she also suggests that the opposite is not exactly true either -- that neither is lesbianism wholly unique and independent from heterosexuality. Rather, Butler raises the possibility of a third understanding of lesbian sexual roles, as at once both imitative and subversive. She asks: Is it not possible that lesbian sexuality is a process that reinscribes the power domains that it resists, that it is constituted in part from the very heterosexual matrix that it seeks to displace, and that its specificity is to be established not outside or beyond that reinscription or reiteration, but in the very modality and effects of that reinscription? In other words, the negative constructions of lesbianism as a fake or bad copy can be occupied and reworked to call into question the claims of heterosexual priority. In a sense ... lesbian sexuality can be understood to redeploy its 'derivativeness' in the service of displacing hegemonic heterosexual norms. (310)




  19. #19
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    Butler's project, then, is to deconstruct the ways in which heterosexuality constitutes itself as the originary or "true" expression of sexuality in order to subordinate all other expressions of sexuality as, at best, inferior imitations, and she goes about this task by exposing heterosexuality as "an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization" (314). All gender, then is an imitation, a kind of impersonation and approximation, so that "the imitative parody of 'heterosexuality' -- when and where it occurs in gay cultures -- is always and only an imitation of an imitation, a copy of a copy, for which there is no original"(314). It therefore makes no sense to speak of butch-femme roles as in some way replicating heterosexuality, since such a statement depends on an assumption of priority that no system of gender roles can accurately claim. The effect of Butler's work is that it becomes impossible, in light of her argument, to speak of the existence of an"inner sex or essence or psychic gender core" -- which is of course the claim that compulsory heterosexuality has a vested interest in making , but it can only do so, ironically, by institutionalizing the performance of gender roles which in turn produce only the illusion of an essential identity.

    Using the framework that Butler has thus provided, Clare Whatling offers a re-reading of Joan Nestle's work in order to illustrate that Nestle's understanding of butch-femme roles in fact lays the groundwork for what becomes Butler's theory about role playing as subversive imitation. In her article, "Reading Awry: Joan Nestle and the Recontextualization of Heterosexuality" (1992), Whatling explains that Nestle's emphasis on the way that butch-femme roles challenge heterosexual roles leads to an understanding of roles as imitative, but not in the "straight" sense -- rather as a kind of Irigarayan mimesis, "existing independently and even ironically in relation to those forms in which it is, however, still defined" (215). In a way then, we can see in Whatling's text the beginnings of a new way of re-reading lesbian sexuality and identity, using the theoretical frameworks provided scholars such as Bulter, Case, and de Lauretis to re-evaluate in particular the politics of butch and femme.

    Written by Amy Goodloe
    Copyright © 1993, 1999. All Rights Reserved.

    Lesbian Identity
    and the Politcs of Butch-Femme Roles, Part 3
    III. BUTCH-FEMME, LESBIAN IDENTITY, AND THE POLITICS OF TOMORROW
    Given the rather hopeful note on which the previous section ends, it would seem that butch-femme role playing has finally recovered from the devastating blows long dealt such behavior by the dominant culture, and more recently by a certain brand of lesbian-feminist theory. But there is at least one voice that is not quite so hopeful. According to Judith Roof, in a chapter entitled "Polymorphous Diversity" (1991), cultural configurations of lesbian sexuality, and especially butch-femme roles, are much more "complex, contradictory, and diverse" than recent academic work admits. The configuration of butch-femme, she explains, seems on the surface to be "a resolution of the 'inconceivability' of lesbian sexuality in a phallocentric system, recuperating that inconceivability by superimposing a male/female model on lesbian relationships" (245). Thus, lesbian role playing can be understood as a construct of the dominant culture, imposed on lesbians in order to make sense of female sexuality in the absence of a phallus, and therefore not a self-empowering move on the part of lesbians themselves. This is, in effect, the argument made by those scholars discussed above who see butch-femme role playing as mere replication of heterosexuality.

    Roof goes on to note, however, that the internal contradictions inherent in the configuration of butch-femme produce a "systematic challenge to the necessary connection between gender and sexuality while appearing to reaffirm heterosexuality and [yet] forcing a consciousness of the artificiality and constructedness of gender positions" (245). The work of those scholars who view butch-femme role playing as challenging and even subversive of gender categories employs this same strategy of analysis, but unlike Roof, these scholars seem comfortable assuming that the deconstruction of gender categories alone is sufficient in the work towards redefining lesbian identity politics. On the contrary, Roof argues, there is too much going on in the configuration of butch-femme roles to claim either that they are merely the tool of patriarchy or that they are wholly subversive of patriarchal gender roles. Thus, in contrast to theorists such as Butler, Case, and de Lauretis, Roof believes that while lesbian butch-femme does offer a critique of binary heterosexuality and the sex/gender system, "lesbian sexuality is already too completely intertwined with cultural constructions and configurations to comprise more than a partial perspective in any politics premised on identity" (251).





  20. #20
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    Quote Originally Posted by June2Pence View Post
    Maybe next time, a simple link would do.

    J2P
    sorry if you arent intrested, just bypass the thread.......

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    I fail to understand the point of this. Is everything you posted someone else's words? My assumption is that you are posting summaries of articles/books/etc.

    What is it that you want? Is there something you want to talk about?

    And actually posting a link to all this would take up way less space on the forums and I believe that Rhon, Chriz and Peach have requested that we post a link instead of the copying and pasting lengthy articles....

  22. #22
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    I am curious about what peeps think of what was written. Just as I said at the beginning.


    "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*"

    as far as bandwidth, a hell of a lot more is taken up by fluffy threads, if anyone has issues, please report it. If Rhon wants to delete it, Hy can.

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    good grief.....laughin....no need to get so defensive......I was in no way suggesting the thread be deleted.....I just suggested that you post the link if you were going to continue with the articles....which I believe is the policy for the forum concerning long articles....shrug....

    So what do you think of all of those ideas in all those articles?

  24. #24
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    well I suppose Im defensive because I also made "the lesbian thread" which basically got ripped apart, not just on my thread but on the other thread, so I am begnning to feel like anything "lesbian" here is just like a deer on opening hunting day, ready to be shot down....sorry, if I misunderstood your post.....

    well first, I disagree that butch-femme is "role playing", being femme is something as ingrained in me as being lesbian, as being an artist, as having southern manners. Its not like, I woke up one day and said "gee..think I'll be femme today". I think thats a ridiculous notion that peeps use to try and justify in their heads, why we are attracted to whom we are or identify as we do.

    I also do not see butch femme as mimicking heterosexuality. I am attracted to masculinty in a female, but I am not attratced to bio males. I am sort of a June Cleaver in that I prefer to do the household chores while my butch takes care of the yard work and changes the oil in the car. Its not because i see sam as being the "man" and me being the "woman" but i hate being dirty and sweaty and so doing the laundry and fixing sam's dnner are chores that I prefer.

    I also am very intrested in the feminist things mentioned, because I have never considered myself to be feminist. Mainly because my only feminist r/t encounter was with my old landlord who was a butch (though she did not see herself as butch) lesbian who was very agressive and overpowering when she talked to me. Honestly she scared me, and i think because of the dominance in her personality, I probably missed out on a lot of what she was trying to reach out to me.


  25. #25
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    Its not because i see sam as being the "man" and me being the "woman" but i hate being dirty and sweaty and so doing the laundry and fixing sam's dnner are chores that I prefer.
    that, I get.

    A) I personally have no problem getting dirty and sweaty but my partner always likes to be neat, gleaming and slicked-out. She's very Urban. So she generally does most of the cooking, the laundry, the budgets and light house cleaning. I do the home improvements (cause although she owns every tool on the planet, it's mainly just for show and I doubt she could screw in a hinge if her life depended on it) and clean the drains etc. We don't have a yard/garden.

    B) When we go out on a date-night, she opens the doors, holds the cash (though a large proportion of it comes from me), gets the drinks, finds me a seat and lights my cigs.

    granted, to me this is nothing like a het relationship. mainly because in all my het relationships "A" still occured, I still did most of the home repairs, but "B" NEVER happened. I got my own coat, my own chair and if I ever wanted my boyfriend to open my car door for me they'd look at me funny.

    I never hung out with straight people who had defined gender roles. So when I discovered butches I was shocked and pleased with all the pampering I got. I never got that from my het relationships. I was, however, really shocked to find out that to be "uber" femme I should be doing stuff that even the guys I dated would find dated and kind of backwards.

    I'm not saying that doing them IS dated or backwards. what I am stating is that the should, in order to qualify as Femmer Than Thou or Femme Enough, is dated. Extremely so.

    I have absolutely no experience in my heterosexual relationships that would even come close to my dyke/queer/lesbian ones. The guys I dated were far more willing to let me fuck them up the arse to start with...

    ;-)
    B Morgan is a Busty Middle Aged Lezzo that Talks too much

    Letters of Adventure - Daily life of a mature femme dyke readjusting to various local subcultures coming home to Vancouver after 10 years in the UK
    Femme in a Dakini - open rantings of a baffled femme dyke in butterflies and corsets.

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    Quote Originally Posted by femmegirrl View Post
    I am curious about what peeps think of what was written. Just as I said at the beginning.


    "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*"

    as far as bandwidth, a hell of a lot more is taken up by fluffy threads, if anyone has issues, please report it. If Rhon wants to delete it, Hy can.
    As a bibliophile, I have read Nestle, Rich, Faderman etal from your previous posts. I think their work is invalueable, but I also think gender theory as it is written out can be very dry and unappealing when looking over something juicy to read here on the forum. I appreciate your posts (and others) that discuss specifics in your life and how it reflects on how you see butch femme, and how you confront what is considered the norm. (ie: heterosexuality, or egalitarian lesbian sex. or gender specific role behavior)
    Honeybarbara, you mentioned that you were surprised at the pressure you received to suddenly be "uber feminine" when you started hanging out in the Butch Femme community and ID'd as femme. I had the same experience. And in addition, I suddenly also found myself questioning my own ID as I knew I could never live up to the expectations of "what was a real femme", when I first found this website. (I had never questioned this part of myself before!) Obviously, by now I realize there are all sorts of ways femmes can be...passive / aggressive / tidy / messy / in traditional feminine work/ in nontraditional feminine work...etc etc having met and spoken to all sorts of wonderful women on this website.
    Thanks for the thread!
    Bijoux

  27. #27
    femmegirrl
    Guest
    thank you for responding!

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