Recently, Corey Alexander wrote a great series of tweets about butch representation (especially in fiction) and what kinds of butches and butchness are overrepresented and which ones could use a lot more representation. (Aside from the fact that butches/butchness in general could use a lot more representation, of course. See this Twitter thread and this blog post from Corey for more on that.)
Their thread inspired me to write a list of my own femme representation pet peeves (not just in fiction) as a companion to that thread. And since I’m bad at being brief, I’m making this into a blog post.
Before we start: A few words on my perspective and use of language
I’m writing this as a butch-loving femme who actually enjoys and eroticizes many of the more stereotypical representations of butch/femme dynamics. Nevertheless, many of these representations still miss the mark for me, usually in nuances – and often that feels actually worse than “they didn’t even try to make this three-dimensional.” Because it’s sooo close to home and then still misses. I imagine this disconnect is even worse for femmes (and femme-loving people) who match and/or enjoy the stereotype(s) a lot less than I do.
Of course, notable exceptions to the representations spelled out below exist (and I’m adding some at the very end of this post), so this is not about “always” or “never,” just about tendencies/patterns I’ve noticed.
Please note that I’m using “butch” as a shorthand here, which in this context includes masculine-of-center female, nonbinary, genderqueer, and transmasculine individuals/characters who may or may not identify as “butch.” I’m mostly using “femme” to mean “people/characters who actually identify as such and who actively desire and/or support butches” because I feel this is a necessary distinction between the kind of femmeness I’m talking about and a The L-Word type of feminine lesbians (who in my experience very often are anything but butch-loving or even just butch-supportive in a friendship/community/politics way – and that’s not the kind of femmeness I want to associate myself with).
I’m mostly referring to butch/femme dynamics because that’s where my own preferences are. This is not to suggest that other dynamics involving femmes or butches don’t exist or are any less worthy of representation. I just haven’t read enough femme/femme or butch/butch stories to have a good sense of the stereotypes in them. My examples are also heavy on the assigned-female-at-birth side for both femmes and butches because that’s mostly what I’ve been reading (which is mostly because that’s the majority of what’s available in terms of butch/femme stories).
Onwards to my femme representation pet peeves!
I’ll describe them as if they were rules. Because often it feels as if they are.
- Femmeness is mostly about aesthetics/style, not about a deep sense of gender/queerness/genderqueerness. And it’s even less about desiring/inhabiting a specific role in a specific dynamic (which is then communicated by way of visual appearances).
- Femmes are always high femmes. Especially when they go out, they always wear careful make-up (never without lipstick!), heels, stockings, lingerie, neat and stylish clothes, and elaborate hair – the whole 1940s/50s pin-up package. Or maybe the goth chick package. Or any other variation of highly-stylized and neatly-styled femininity. Femmes don’t wear hoodies and jeans, or chunky boots, or inexpertly styled hair (or no hair at all), or go bare-faced, especially not when they go out to flirt/date/hook up.
- Femmes’ bodies are always curvy and have cleavage/bigger breasts. Femme attractiveness (especially when described from a butch perspective) tends to focus on the same bodyparts over and over again: tits, hips, lips, hair, legs/feet (if in stockings/heels). The focus is on how she looks, not what she can do with her body (aside from flirting/sex) or how her body feels (especially if it’s anything but “soft”).
- Femmes have always been girly girls (or at least wanted to be girly girls) and never went through an androdyke or butchy phase (e.g. to fit the still-dominant ideal of dyke beauty/desirability and/or be easily recognizable as lesbians/queers). And if they did, they didn’t like anything about it.
- (Cis) femmes are fundamentally, perhaps even essentially, different from butches in terms of gender and have never experienced any way of being gender-nonconforming themselves (and therefore can’t possibly know what it feels like for a butch).
- The only issues a femme ever has out in the straight-centered world are her queer/lesbian invisibility and the sexism/anti-femininity thrown at her by cis guys (and cis guys only). She never experiences anti-queer hate, unless she’s with a butch. Also, anti-femininity in queer spaces doesn’t exist – at least not as an actual problem. And it of course never comes from butches/people who desire femmes.
- Femmes are always really good at femininity. They just know how to draw a perfect cat-eye, bake a perfect cupcake, style the perfect hairdo, cook a perfect three-course meal, find the perfect accessories to go with any outfit, do a perfect striptease, create the perfect home. They may have learned these things at some point much earlier in their lives, but we never actually see them practice or struggle to get it right. Unless a butch is making them nervous so they burn dinner for the first time in their lives. Or there is a “I’m not like the other girls” narrative woven into the story.
- They never have a fraught relationship with femininity (except maybe when they think it clashes with their feminism). This also often makes for “I’m not like the other girls” narratives. You know, where “they” are everything our plucky heroine is not (e.g. highly invested in their appearance, intensely emotional, bad with tools, bad at sports – in other words “too feminine”). Which is a major way of keeping women/femmes/feminine people from being in solidarity with each other.
- Femmes also rarely have femme friends. Their main way of relating to other femmes is competitively. Unless they need femme friends to either set them up with a butch or talk about a butch. Femme friends are mostly there to help a femme pass the time until an amazing butch comes along. Then they either go into competition mode or they lose importance because now there’s that butch to focus on. Maybe they’ll reappear to do some processing around the butch or offer comfort after heartbreak, but that’s basically all femme friendships are for. Oh, and sometimes there’s talk about lingerie, nail polish, or shoes.
- Femme caring (for butches) often veers into the maternal (cooking/feeding, cuddling, gentle chastising). It’s rarely portrayed as being fierce/aggressive in making/defending space for butches and other queers, being a political organizer, being strict/structured (outside of being a top). This is despite the reality that very often, it’s actually femmes who run (non-cismale-centered) queer things.
- Femmes are mostly into very stereotypical versions of butchness (e.g. muscles, toughness, sexual prowess, good with tools), not butches who are predominantly kind, nerdy, inexperienced, fearful…
- Femmes are always high maintenance. They inevitably require lots of time to get ready to go out (all that perfection needs time!). They also require butches to jump through lots of emotional hoops to show they are worthy of the femme’s attention.
- Femmes never communicate plainly and directly, especially not with butches. Instead, they always speak in hints and make butches read between the lines/read their minds. Femmes actually speak a completely mysterious language (especially amongst themselves) that no butch could possibly understand without years of careful study and/or wise mentoring by other butches.
- Femme sexuality comes in three variations only. 1) Bitch queen goddess top, 2) sexual service submissive, 3) pillow queen. Femmes don’t have cocks, femmes aren’t heavy masochists, and femmes don’t care much about the sexual pleasure of butches (except when they’re giving them blowjobs). Femme sexuality mostly exists to show how sexually skillful a butch is, especially compared to any and all cis men ever.
- Femmes always like to be touched, everywhere, all the time (at least by a butch). The only possible exception to this is when they have a history of sexual violence/abuse (which will then be “healed” by the touch of a butch because butches are magically exempt from ever violating a femme’s boundaries). Or when the femme has body issues around being “too fat” (which will then also be “healed” by the magic of a butch preferring a “curvy girl” over a “skinny bitch”).
- Femmes just magically know how to read/touch/not touch butch bodies to the point of recognizing their (“degree” of) masculinity long before the butches acknowledge it themselves. Because only a “real femme” can really see a butch. There is never a need to have an actual conversation about who likes what, as an individual, especially not in terms of gender. Because gender is natural for both femmes and butches (and if anyone ever needs to explain anything about how they would like to have their gender addressed/handled, it’s the butch). Besides, such a conversation probably doesn’t go well with the “strong silent type” butch who just magically knows what a femme needs – even if she doesn’t know it herself yet.
Which brings me back full circle to Corey’s original threads because of course these femme stereotypes usually come with their respective butch counterparts that are just as limited (and – from what I hear – often feel as prescriptive).
Femme stories I want to see (more of)
I’d like to follow up on this list with a quote that has shaped my own idea of butchness and femmeness from the very beginning (which in my case means the late 1990s):
“One voice is not a repudiation of the other. The courtly butch, the femme wife, the punk femme, the butch bottom, the femme slut, the street butch, the bulldagger and her lady, the lesbian-feminist femme, the movement butch, the tomboys are all here to reconnect us with our history and our creations.”
— Joan Nestle in “The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader” (1992)
Because, yes, I still want stories about curvy high femmes in spectacular outfits who have always been girly girls, easily excel at many traditionally feminine things, expertly speak in subtleties, know how to see a butch without being taught, and are into strong, tough butches who fuck them hard until they’ve had the most and best orgasms in their entire life (at least until their next encounter with that butch). Many of these stories are amazing and affirming and hot as fuck.
I just want other stories along with them.
Stories about femmes who successfully work through their competitiveness with each other. Stories about smart-ass femmes who are into nerdy butches. Stories about femmes with glasses and crutches and non-sexualized trauma. Stories about femmes who mentor each other, about femmes who learn how to put on make-up/a dress/a bra and how to walk in high heels only after they’ve long become adults, about femmes who like to have their cocks sucked by big butches, about tall femmes with short butch partners, and about femmes who lead on the dancefloor (and still want to get fucked hard in bed). Stories about femmes who skillshare and collaborate and put each other first (even though they still mostly desire butches), about femmes who are over 40, or over 60 (and still having sex), about femmes who are entirely disinterested in sex with anyone but themselves, about femmes who are aware of their queer history and heritage, about femmes who have been part of queer communities forever and then meet a butch who has been straight until three weeks ago. Stories about femmes who have butch friends who are neither their exes nor their future partners, about femmes who experience different kinds of marginalizations working together (and with others) to be better allies for each other (without any oppression olympics), about butch/femme team dynamics, and about femme friendship. For example. And if you wanted to throw some spaceships, dragons, pirates, robots, tentacled aliens, and/or witchcraft in there, that would also be fine with me.
So, as promised, here’s a short chronological list of examples of how these femme stories could look like. I have deliberately not just picked fictional stories (those are marked with *) but also included conversations between femmes and autobiographical pieces because, for me, they are all part of the stories we tell each other.
- Madeline Davis, Amber Hollibaugh & Joan Nestle: “The Femme Tapes” (recorded in 1982, published in: Joan Nestle: The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (1992))
— conversation between three “old gay femmes” as an example of how femmes share experiences, support, and knowledge with each other
- Patrick Califia: “The Calyx of Isis” (in: Macho Sluts (1988))*
— kinky erotic story set in a huge dyke-owned playspace with a gorgeous variety of dyke/queer genders, including some amazing femmes
- Patrick Califia: Doc & Fluff: The Dystopian Tale of a Girl and Her Biker (1990)*
— dyke-centered novel with a tough femme main character, massive content warning for all kinds of real-world violence
- Patrick Califia: “What Girls Are Made Of” (in: Melting Point: Short Stories (1993))*
— three queer femme strippers and a butch bottom
- Mabel Maney – The Case of the Not-so-Nice Nurse (1993), The Case of the Good-for-Nothing Girlfriend (1994) & A Ghost in the Closet (1995)*
— series of novels that are a spoof/homage of 1950s Nancy Drew mysteries, populated with a cast of femmes and butches, and featuring many hilarious descriptions of outfits and accessories, added here for its loving play on many, many butch/femme stereotypes
- Minnie Bruce Pratt: “Green Scarf,” “New Year’s Eve,” “Camouflage,” “Fear,” & “Martial Arts” (all in: S/HE (1995))
— short autobiographical pieces about the complexity of femme gender and about butch/femme as a team dynamic (Minnie Bruce Pratt was the partner of Leslie Feinberg of Stone Butch Blues [link goes to free download] and Transgender Warriors fame until Feinberg’s death).
- Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha (now: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha): “Gender Warriors: An Interview with Amber Hollibaugh” (in: Laura Harris & Elizabeth Crocker (eds.) Fem/me: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls (1997))
— intergenerational conversation between two femmes (Piepzna-Samarasinha went on to write a book called Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (2016) which alludes to Hollibaugh’s book listed below – I haven’t read it yet, so it’s not on this list).
- Carol Queen: The Leather Daddy and the Femme (1998)*
— erotic stories about the relationship between a cisfemale bisexual femme and a cismale gay leatherman.
- Amber Hollibaugh: “My Dangerous Desires: Falling in Love with Stone Butches, Passing Women and Girls (Who are Guys) Who Catch My Eye” (in: My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home (1998))
— autobiographical piece about the complexity of femme gender, desire, and politics.
- Xan West: “My Pretty Boy” & “The Tender Sweet Young Thing” [link goes to full story] (in: Show Yourself To Me: Queer Kink Erotica (2015))*
— two kinky erotic stories that feature femme transmasculine/nonbinary/genderqueer bottoms and show femmeness as both a source of strength and a show of intentional vulnerability (please check the content notes in the book).
Most of these authors have written many more stories with more great femmes (real and fictional), but these ones stood out to me in particular.
I also want to acknowledge that this list is missing all of the amazing writing by femmes that I have read in digital spaces, so it’s necessarily excluding a lot of perspectives that nevertheless exist and have had a welcome impact on me.
Please feel free to add your favorite femme stories to my list in the comments!