With Pride season around the corner and a lot of us preparing to show up as our best queer selves, it’s easy to forget that not everybody is taken to be proud because of the way they look. Or maybe it’s the way they don’t look. On that same train of thought, others are accused of hurting our collective pride exactly because of how gay they look. To put it plainly: invisibility and super visibility are issues our community continues to grapple with. Not that it’s talked about much, though. But two new documentaries aim to change that. Jodi Savitz’s Girl on Girl and Lisa Plourde’s Gender Troubles: The Butches are must watches.
At face value, it seems like you couldn’t be dealing with two more different groups of women. After all, Girl on Girl highlights femmes, whereas Gender Troubles highlights butch women. But as you’ll find out, there’s actually a lot of overlap.
“I’m invisible because you don’t know I’m gay, and if I happen to meet you on the street I would have to come out all over again,” says Lauren Russell of The Real L Word fame, who’s featured in Girl on Girl. If only she meant just straight people. But no, femme invisibility is very present in the lesbian community.
What could possibly be worse than the one community you’d want to pick you out as gay not doing so? When members of that community don’t believe you or, worse, question you when you make it clear you’re one of them. For the women of Girl on Girl, this reality is too real.
And then there’s the other side of the coin.
“Coming out is a choice if you present in a way that is perceived as gender normative,” says Sasha Goldberg in Gender Troubles. Well, Sasha doesn’t present that way, and neither do any of the other women in this film.
While the subjects of Girl on Girl are struggling to be recognized as queer women, those featured in Gender Troubles are fighting for their identity as women, period. Almost all of the women interviewed said people assume they’re trans men.
The accusation that butch lesbians are just trans men who aren’t courageous enough to transition yet is something we don’t talk enough about in more formal channels. Instead, we’ve let online forums and other social tools take the lead on this (as the movie shows), allowing for incredibly toxic conversations. Gender Troubles is, therefore, an eye opener to what it’s like to be at the receiving end of that kind of abuse.
Indeed, self-acceptance didn’t come easy for either group of women. Several of the women in Girl on Girl tried to “look gay” to fit into a world that takes you more seriously if you look the part. Others even dated men because it took them awhile to figure out they were lesbians because they had never met any women like them.
By contrast, the women in Gender Troubles grew up watching friends and family point out butch women with disdain in their voices. Most of them didn’t want to be butch because of the negative association they had with the word.
Of course, that word isn’t necessarily embraced by the lesbian community either. This may never have been truer than in the ‘70s. Back then and particularly within feminist communities, butch-femme relationships were considered heteronormative and, as a result of this, problematic. It was for this very reason that Lenn, who’s featured in Gender Troubles, did not present as butch when she came out as a lesbian in the ‘70s.
Ironically, Kris, who’s featured in Girl on Girl, butched up during her feminist days in the ‘70s because appearing too feminine could be interpreted as giving into sexist ideals. I’m happy to report that today she’s loving life as a femme with her butch sweetheart.
Without a doubt, defining what makes one feminine or masculine or both can be very tricky. Ultimately, that thinking is very personal. Watching these two films, you’ll notice that there are stereotypes that some of these women embrace and others that they absolutely reject. Certainly not all stereotypes are bad, and neither is coloring outside the lines.
It’s my hope that if you take one thing from these films (or even just this review), it’s that both these groups of women want and deserve to be seen for who they are and not have that be put into question. It’s a fair ask if you ask me.