Debra A. Wilson’s award-winning short documentary, Butch Mystique, explores the lives of a group of African American butch lesbians in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area. This documentary won the Audience Award for Best Short at the 2003 San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and spent most of 2003 touring gay and lesbian film festivals across the US.
Luckily for those of us who missed it at those festivals, Showtime is airing this groundbreaking documentary several times this month, as part of its programming for Black History Month.
A 15-year veteran of the entertainment industry, director Debra A. Wilson was the director of the 2003 Oakland International Black Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and is president of Moyo Entertainment, Inc., an Oakland-based production and distribution company. She has just been awarded Showtime’s 2004 Black Filmmaker Showcase grant, providing her with $30,000 to produce a 15-30 minute short film to be broadcast on Showtime in the future.
In Wilson’s brief introductionto Butch Mystique, she explains that “this film goes beneath the surface, beyond the stereotypes, to reveal the heart of what it means to be an African American butch-identified lesbian.” Her documentary consists of interviews with a diverse group of African American butch lesbians, ranging in age from the teens to retirement.
As one of the first documentaries about butch lesbians to air on a national platform, Butch Mystique is truly groundbreaking. It is certain that the vast majority of American viewers are not familiar with the stories of these strong, proud women, and hopefully Butch Mystique will break down some of the stereotypes that are associated with butch lesbians.
Each woman intervieweddiscusses a series of topics, including what defines a “butch,” childhood and family, coming out, relationships, sexuality, stereotypes, and society’s perceptions of them as individuals. What is revealed is both similarity of experience—most of these butch lesbians grew up disliking girlish clothing—and difference, such as their attitudes toward sex.
In addition, because these are all African American butch lesbians, the common thread of race links these women together. As “butches,” they are often perceived as black men, and that brings with it a whole host of other problems and issues.
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.