These women are articulate, sophisticated, and often downright sexy. In one sequence, each woman describes her definition of a "femme," the historical opposite and complement to the "butch." When Skyler, one of the interviewees, describes a femme as someone who is simply "beautiful," my heart just melts for her. (It doesn’t hurt that Skyler is also incredibly hot.)
The sincerity of the sentiments expressed by these women transcend butch or femme identifications; they are simply women expressing their appreciation of and capacity for love.
But Butch Mystique fails to contextualize these interviews historically or geographically, which could lead to some confusion on the part of viewers who are not familiar with butch identity, or with lesbian politics and history.
This group of women hails from a very specific location: Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area in 2002, a fact that is never mentioned at all within the documentary. This has the effect of universalizing the stories of these women — a mixed blessing that also erases the uniqueness of the place and time in which they live.
For example, when Johnnie, the performance artist, notes half-humorously that "I’m really a big nelly fag" rather than a butch lesbian, no explanation is given for this statement. Johnnie is referring to a recent development within the transgendered/queer community to reappropriate the pejorative term "fag" — usually an epithet thrown at effeminate gay men — as an identity marker for women who may look butch but may feel more like a fag (that’s right, an effeminate gay man).
In the San Francisco Bay Area, which is known for its huge gay population, the concept of gender as a continuum — or even a playground — is probably much more common than it is in the rest of the US. Providing a context for Johnnie’s statement would have created a richer discussion about the concepts of butchness and gender for these African American women, allowing them to bring in generational differences as well as geographic ones.
Butch Mystique would also have benefited from a more in-depth exploration of the development of butch identity within lesbian history.
Although Matu, a retired carpenter/musician, does provide a skeletal outline of butch history, this outline is too thin for viewers who are new to lesbian history.
This wasn’t necessarily a problem when Butch Mystique was playing only at gay and lesbian film festivals, but now that it’s being shown on Showtime, it will be accessible to a much broader audience who is probably unfamiliar with much of lesbian cultural history.
Despite these shortcomings, Butch Mystique succeeds in presenting an interesting and informative picture of the lives of African American butch lesbians, because the interviews succeed in making each of these women truly human. In the past, butch lesbians have been stereotyped by heterosexuals as mannish freaks of nature, or castigated by 1970s-era lesbian-feminism as sell-outs to heterosexism.
Butch Mystique challenges those stereotypes by showing that butch lesbians may not fit within culturally proscribed boundaries of femininity, but they are certainly women.
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