Is the Butch Back?

While as recently as a decade ago, many butches could still be found in their natural habitats–dyke bars and softball teams–and while some could even be spotted in the wild, in recent years, their numbers have declined leading some scientists to predict their eventual disappearance. Indeed, like the passenger pigeon or Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise that died in 2012, the butch seemed like a category whose time had passed–a relic, a fossil, a victim of cultural climate change and an irredeemable symbol of past times that a new generation was eager to forget. But, in a kind of miraculous adaptation, the butch, like the Eurasian beaver or the Dalmatian Pelican, seems to have trembled on the brink of extinction and…made a remarkable recovery!

Bechdel11.9.1-photo-credit-Elena-Seibert

From the Broadway musical based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir of growing up butch with a closeted gay father, Fun Home, to Lea Delaria and the consortium of butches (what is the word for a group of butches? A Charm? A Pace? A Kennel? A Brace? A Barren? A Murder? A Parliament? Or, my favorite–a Bale? I am going with bale of butches) in Orange is the New Black, from Charlize Theron’s turn as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max to the hockey playing tomboy in Inside Out, we would seem to have a bale of butches in popular culture right at the very moment that the category has supposedly gone out of style.

Are the new representations of butches ghostly after-images of a recent past that has come and gone and taken its place within a pantheon of gay and lesbian histories relegated to the past by the recent triumphalism of the gay marriage era? Or, conversely, are they harbingers of a new future of gender variability that has expanded beyond man and woman into a wide ranging set of expressions of the gendered body? Is butch back or was it never gone? Has butch been around long enough to become trendy? Or, in an era of unprecedented visibility for transgender embodiment, does butch represent an obstinate fragment of an older paradigm, still capable of generating both fascination and fear?

big-boo-butch

It was less than a decade ago at Wimbledon that French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo was accused by Lindsay Davenport of “playing like a guy” and then described by Martina Hingis of being “half a man.” Now Mauresmo is the super effective coach for a male top ten player–Andy Murray. And, only six years ago, South African runner, Caster Semenya was subjected to a clearly racist “gender test” when her unapologetically athletic appearance led to suspicions about her masculinity, drug use and so on. And in the world cup winning women’s soccer squad there are several visibly butch players and plenty that are openly gay. How, then, did we leap, in the last year or so, from uniform expressions of disgust, suspicion and dismay directed at the masculine female form, to empathy, recognition and even acceptance?

In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Alison Bechdel, who appeared in the photograph accompanying the piece dressed in a very smart tailored suit, was asked:

“In Fun Home, you wrote about becoming a connoisseur of masculinity at a young age. Today a young person like you would be more likely to identify as transgender than gay. Is the butch lesbian endangered?”

Well, first of all, great question! Second, wow, in The New York Times? Really? Third, well, is the butch endangered? Bechdel answers adroitly:

“I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.”

So, is butch the designation of a new space or an old space? The article is ambivalent and implies both that butch is an old-fashioned form of identification that is in danger of being eclipsed by transgenderism and that it is a “new space in the world.” And maybe that captures perfectly what shall hereafter be known as “the temporal paradox of the butch”–it is out of time and ahead of its time and behind the times all at once. Butch is simultaneously a marker of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag” or “the visceral pull of the past on the supposedly revolutionary present” and of certain forms of what Juana Maria Rodriguez terms “sexual futures.” The uncanny, uncertain, dislocated and indefinable terrain of the butch competes with our sense of the stubborn, recalcitrant, unmoving and unmoved essence of the butch. Butch was supposed to fade away as a category precisely because it encapsulated the ugly, the dowdy, the backward and the tragic (Stone Butch Blues not Stone Butch Ecstasy), but its calcified intransigence may actually have equipped the category for survival!

A close friend sent me the clip of young Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (thanks GG!). The show-stopping song, penned by the incomparable Lisa Kron, that has thrilled audiences on Broadway found an even larger audience when Lucas performed it at the Tony’s awards this year. While singing children are nothing new and generally kind of irritating, lesbian-themed Broadway shows and songs about youthful identifications with butch women are as rare as gay men on football teams or straight ladies in the power tools section at Home Depot. So, this song and this musical had few cultural traditions upon which to draw. Amazing then that the song is so effective, so moving, so…emotional!

“Ring of Keys” tells the story of an encounter between the young Alison and the adult butch who walked into the diner where Alison and her closeted father were eating. Sydney sings:

Someone just walked in the door, like no one I ever saw before, I feel…I feel… /I don’t know where you came from, I wish I did, I feel so dumb… I feel…I feel./Your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you’re wearing/Your short hair and your dungarees, and your lace up boots and your keys, ohhh, your ring of keys!

“I know you,” she sings, “You’re beautiful…no, you’re handsome”! This song is just so…it’s…I feel…I feel…Ellipsis in the song conveys the unspeakability of this articulation of butch cross-generational identification. There are no words for such affect, no precedents for generations of butches past who may also have seen strong, gender-queer female-bodied women and who may have wanted to claim them.

As novelistic descriptions by Leslie Feinberg and others of just such ghostly encounters between adult, abject butches and the young proto-butches who want to find their likenesses in the world demonstrate, in the past, the butch adult would have been more likely to spark terror and fear in the young queer’s heart than adoration, acceptance and identification.

What the young Alison feels for the anonymous butch who crosses her path has no words, cannot be culled from any archive of feelings, gay or straight, and so is captured in that open mouthed, soundless wonder that punctuates the song. The mouth, open and silent, mimics the ring of keys that say everything without speaking, that jangle a noisy song of their own without words, that say butch in a way that ordinary language could not.

The success of Alison Bechdel’s work, long overdue and so well deserved, both exemplifies and contributes to the evolution and repopulation of butches. Butches can now be found in sports and in the arts, on the soccer field and on Broadway, on TV (Orange is the New Black) and in movies. Ten years ago, we had an entire TV series, The L Word, that represented butchness as “the B word” that dare not speak its name. Despite the fact that the character of Shane (Katherine Moennig) drew heavily on the history of butch sexiness, she never could claim that history, name it or own it. And when a butch character was introduced, Moira played by masculine of center actor Daniela Sea, they quickly transitioned to trans leaving the category of butch stranded like a missing link, like a bad memory to be expunged from queer representation.

shane

But now, in Orange is the New Black, Lea DeLaria’s character “Big Boo,” has the letters B-U-T-C-H tattooed on her arm and is not the only butch on the prison block either. Black butches on the show, including Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and (formerly on the show) Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) represent a much longer history of non-traditional Black genders that may or may not be captured by the term “butch” at all.

Poussey-Washington

Game of Thrones has its own bale of butches including Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) who represents a tall, strapping, princess-saving heroic knightly butch, and Arya Stark (Maise Williams) a renegade princess turned sword fighter and monk. For more comic butches, think Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) of Glee who plays a gloriously mean, bully butch athletic coach competing with the Glee club for school funds.

brienne

The butch is, to continue our wildlife conceit, neither fish nor fowl. But to introduce another rhetorical device, the butch is neither cis-gender nor transgender, the butch is a bodily catachresis. The Greek word, catachresis, means the rhetorical practice of misnaming something for which there would otherwise be no words (I feel I got this formulation from bullyblogger pal Tavia Nyong’o, but not sure from where). Butch is always a misnomer;  masculine but not male, female but not feminine, the term serves as a placeholder for the unassimilable, for that which remains indefinable or unspeakable within the many identifications that we make and that we claim.

For Derrida, catachresis captures the inherent linguistic instability in all signifying practices and for Spivak it names the inherent colonial violence lurking in the practice of naming and identifying, systematizing and translating. And so, in this era of LGBT rights and recognition, let the butch stand as all that cannot be absorbed into systems of signification, legitimation, legibility, recognition and legality.

Even as the butch seems to be back in circulation, I do not think this representational presence is a marker of social acceptance, rather, the butch, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, survives or fades away depending upon the levels of toxicity in the air. Unlike the canary, however, and now I wish I had never introduced said bird in the first place, the butch thrives in toxic conditions and fades away in the clear air of apparent freedom.

The butch is back, in other words, and here the butch is not canary like at all, in fact forget the damn canary, because we need a reminder that recognition is NOT freedom, that the absorption of the few at the expense of many others is not liberation and that the illegible, the unassimilable, the inconsolable, the illegitimate multitudes still await a coming emancipation. The society that embraces the butch will be ordered in a way that we cannot yet imagine. Our current social order, after all, with or without gay marriage, with or without mainstream images of transgender bodies, is the one that rendered the butch as the anachronistic, useless, dowdy misfit in the first place.

ButchUps_December

To quote a smart rapper, don’t call it a come back, we’ve been here before. Butches have flickered in and out of cultural visibility for at least the last hundred years. They have survived wars, economic depressions, homophobic panics, gentrification, petrification, Andrea Dworkin and Camille Paglia, stupefaction, French cinema, the ’80s, and both film versions of Sex in the City. Despite flannel shirt shortages, shifting fashion trends towards androgynous looks, the trendiness of transgenderism, a severe height disadvantage in relation to many femmes, and new levels of emotional sensitivity in queer communities, the butch has survived and lives to wear another ring of keys.

Whether, in the future, the butch will hit a rough patch in the evolution of sexual ecologies and die out like the Golden Toad, or whether the butch has the capacity to replicate under precarious conditions remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, live or die, the butch, represents a piece of queer history that remains unspeakable and unspoken and all the more resilient for it.

This was shared with permission from its original post on Bully Bloggers in July 2015, and has been edited. 

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