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Butch/Femme: An Introduction

Samantha and Lindsay. Ellen and Portia. Christine and Cynthia. Thanks to celebrities, the butch/femme dichotomy that is part of some lesbian couples' gender performance is visible even to mainstream Americans who may not think they even know a lesbian. (Samantha Ronson, Ellen DeGeneres, and even Christine Marioni are what the lesbian community would probably call "soft butch." They're more androgynous and tomboyish than they are "tough" and masculine in a macho way.)

As a denizen of San Francisco’s Mission District, for me the butch/femme thing is as much a part of the atmosphere here as Rice-A-Roni and foggy mornings. (OK, I actually don't know anyone who eats Rice-A-Roni, but I digress.) I remember being pretty psyched the first time I saw a very San Francisco lesbian couple walking together — one with a James Dean swagger and pompadour, the other Bettie Paged out with retro clothes and lipstick.

Not all lesbian couples have one person who is femme and one butch, but those who adopt the dress and/or the stereotypical gender roles that go with it — whether they're conscious of it or not — are performing gender, as queer theorist Judith Butler put it.

What does that mean, exactly? To find out,


Performing roles traditionally considered masculine/feminine shows that those attributes are not necessarily expressions of the person's biological sex. You can actually put on and take off femininity and masculinity. And like a lot of performances, it shows that gender can be fun when it's separated from the idea that these attributes are natural or fixed. (Butch/femme also shows that an alpha-male-type guy and his hyperfeminine trophy girlfriend are probably doing the same thing — "putting on" the accoutrements that culture tells them signify masculine and feminine.)


Not everyone in the gay community is cool with butch/femme. Some think that it's just a reproduction of heterosexual roles within gay relationships, but even that, to me, ignores how fluid the roles can be. In the same way a tough-looking guy could be a total sweetheart, and a femme woman a hellion on wheels (hello, Angelina Jolie!), a butch woman could behave in non-macho ways. And don't forget "Femme in the streets, butch in the sheets" — which could be a mantra relevant to straight people, too.

Whether you're straight or gay, what do you think of butch/femme roles?

Image Source: Getty
Join The Conversation
angelbaby2 angelbaby2 8 years
i dont like this site but still come once in awhile to see if it gets better. I would love to have dear sugar back.
Symphonee Symphonee 8 years
"Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat" I don't differentiate. They are all lesbians. Butch and femme are fluid states of mind, so screw it.
Amanda-La Amanda-La 8 years
I think it's interesting cause I've wondered the same thing Caterpillar Girl. But then i thought that maybe naturally we are attracted to the look of the opposite sex and need it maybe but are more attracted sometimes to the same sex because they are on the same level as you and can understand everything. I don't know anything about it, just my thought.
tinyflame tinyflame 8 years
So interesting! Thanks for educating us!
cherrygirl143 cherrygirl143 8 years
I feel like Tres just tries to post topics just for shock factor. Why is this a topic? Who cares...let people be who they want to be.
queenegg queenegg 8 years
I love Rice-A-Roni!
Briandiesel Briandiesel 8 years
I'm all for the education of people, but this just seems kinda silly. Why does everyone need to be put in their box? Monday I want a lesson on the difference between Bears, Twinks, Jocks, and Daddies. lol
Segat1 Segat1 8 years
Wow, Cynthia Nixon's gal looks a lot like Billy from the movie Big.
CaterpillarGirl CaterpillarGirl 8 years
I never really understood the Butch thing, You dont like men, but you want to look like one? and the women who like the Butch women, its confusing.
MSucre MSucre 8 years
stumbler1001 -- I get what you're saying, but I for one really dig this post. It adds a lot to the tres mix I think.
MSucre MSucre 8 years
One example of J Butler's 'gender trouble' is drag. Drag is a performance and witnessing it shocks us into realizing that we all (to some extent) perform our gender whether in 'acceptable' or not so 'acceptable' ways.
MSucre MSucre 8 years
Why the need to analyze to death a person's personal choices? Jazzytummy, I think the point of J Butler's work in general and this article in particular is to show that a) it's not necessarily a conscious choice and b) it's not only those who depart from traditional gender norms who are recreating or preforming stereotypes. Her theory of gender performance applies to all of us, but may not become apparent or problematic until people don't give in to them or don't fit within what is considered the proper or appropriate role.
janneth janneth 8 years
I think it is a human characteristic to label, categorize, and find patterns. Anyway, interesting post. I find much truth to some of these concepts.
fuzzles fuzzles 8 years
Why do we have to find labels for everything and anything? How much time is wasted with this flagrant practice of idiocy? And how much knowledge of people as individuals is lost because of it? Just my two pennies.
jazzytummy jazzytummy 8 years
Really, does anybody care? Why the need to analyze to death a person's personal choices?
jessie jessie 8 years
i have no comment to the story. but my dad used to call me "butch" when i had my hair cut short..really short. it was cute!!! hurt my feelings! :(
likeKlikeJ likeKlikeJ 8 years
i've never commented on Tres before, but i want to say that i truly enjoy the efforts to educate readers! the items you post on South Africa, or the UN's reports on women, or the updates on Iran: i really appreciate them! thank you, and i'm not sure what Jezebel is, but i LOVE Tres Sugar just the way it is! :)
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