The Feminist Fairytale about Butch/Femme

Does butch/femme reinforce traditional gender roles? Is it sexist? Misogynistic? Does being a femme mean that you’re a nurturing “little wife” who “stands by her butch?” A sex kitten who is required to perform an idealized fantasy of feminine perfection? Do butches and other transmasculine people get to “wear the pants” (both literally and metaphorically)–defending and protecting “their” femmes– while femmes have less power? Is it really possible to be a feminist butch or a feminist femme–not just in theory, but in practice?

Sometimes it seems like these questions just won’t go away. This post is my very personal–and political–response. My feminism is about freedom of gender expression. I insist upon being respected as a femme but I refuse to be confined to someone else’s definition of what that means. I’m smart, confident, and successful. I love being pretty and sexy but I’m not an ornament or arm candy. Being femme does not mean that I will abide by the traditional self-sacrificing requirements of femininity–the idea that women must reliquish their freedom and autonomy, dreams and desires, to find fulfillment. I like to please my partner, but I will not subordinate myself to make her happy. You don’t like my amazing new outfit? Oh well, that’s too bad because I love it and feel great in it!

For me, femme doesn’t mean that I’m locked into some naturalized gender role, as I think all too often happens (particularly for women) in heterosexual relationships. But I’ll admit, that’s not always easy. There have been times when I felt like I was slipping into a “wifey” role, and I had to work to get that fantasy image of femininity out of my head. (There’s a huge difference between *wanting* to do domestic stuff and *having* to do it.) I imagine that some butch/femme couples do organize their lives in ways that echo traditional gender roles, but that hasn’t been my experience.

There is nothing inherently anti-feminist or sexist about butch/femme identities or desires. What I think is confusing about femme in particular and butch/femme in general is that it can look a lot like naturalized gender identity/roles at first glance. For example, you’ll never see me change the oil in the car or install new faucets–my partner (who ID’s as butch) does that stuff. I clean the bathroom and do most of the cooking. I take out the trash sometimes, and if I break a nail, I’m pissed. (Actually I’m always pissed if I break a nail!) My partner is usually not comfortable in the kitchen but she can be counted on to make a great tortilla soup. We both value and respect each other’s work. There have been times when I’ve been the breadwinner, other times when she’s supported me financially, and times when we’ve both contributed to our household income. We both have equal power in the relationship when it comes to making decisions, which we make together. She came home with flowers for me today, just because.

The contradictions in masculinity and femininity are a part of us and our relationship, just like they are for most other couples. But when others imply that our relationship is somehow more sexist than theirs, I think they’re projecting their own anxieties about gender onto us.

The notion that butch/femme is sexist is a feminist fairytale we need to stop telling.