Butch and femme

From ArticleWorld

Butch and femme are used in lesbian and gay communities to denote sets of behaviors and power relations. Both are also sometimes used to describe straight people, and play with normative notions of gender roles.



Butch generally refers to (lesbian) women who present as more stereotypically masculine. They might wear men's clothes and have very short hair, and behave within a framework of machismo. Butch women are often referred to as 'dykes'. Men, usually gay, can be butch too, and inhabit an older, hypermasculine end of the gender spectrum. They sometimes calling themselves bears to denote hairiness and heaviness to a gay sexual culture that often privileged smooth, lean, groomed bodies. Some people who disapprove of homosexuality use the term as a pejorative and a blanket term for all lesbians. Women who work in traditionally male fields such as trucking or construction are also sometimes called butch. The creation of the butch-femme couple stereotype has its roots in the the early days in modernity of open lesbianism, where there was harrassment and often a physical danger to a same-sex female couple, and so one decided to 'play the man'.


Femme refers to (lesbian) women who seem conform to typical standards of female behavior, wearing dresses and makeup, having styled hair, and presenting as domestic, delicate, and demure. Femme women are usually called 'lipstick lesbian', and the use of 'femme' as a descriptive for straight women is relatively recent. Men, usually gay, can be femme too, and in mnay cases fit the stereotyped idea of a limp-wristed, highly strung, creative gay man. Femme men, also called flamers, generally present as 'well-dressed', groomed, fit, and less aggressive and assertive than men are traditionally thought to be.


In general it is coming to be believed that people's gender identity and how they present does not necessarily correspond directly to their sexual roles. For example, people might assume that a 'butch' woman dominates her femme partner sexually. Most often a butch woman will be giving pleasure first and foremost. Butch women and femme men challenge normative ideas of gender and sexuality the most visibly, and therefore the focus in discussions about sex and gender is often on them and on transgendered people.

As butch and femme make their way into the straight vocabulary, usually used with some irony, in lesbian and gay communities they are becoming much less the standard. With the increasing acceptance of alternative sexual orientations, there is more room within the groups to express one's individuality the way there is for staright people. Femme-femme and butch-butch couples are breaking the heterosexually-influenced 'opposites' rule, and some lesbian women and gay men neither identify nor present in terms of butch or femme. These concepts are discussed as abstractions and many fulfil atypical gender roles not defined by these terms.


It is argued that for lesbians or gay people to use 'butch' and 'femme' imagery reproduce heterosexual stereotypes of 'normality'. This is countered by pointing out that for a woman to be a butch or a man to be femme, far from reinforcing standard rules, is a powerful reminder of the constructedness of gender, that there is nothing innate about it.