To The FemmeMobile! Away!

{November 7, 2010}   Femme Vulnerability, and my Relationship with Q

One of the things Kate said in her book, Gender Outlaw, was that one of the gender constructs for femmes was that they look (typically a butch) in the eye, look away, and then look back and hold the gaze.

I almost fell out of my bed, folks, because I do that all the time. (And actually, another reason I think sometimes the social construct theory is wrong; because until I decided femme fit, I didn’t know any other femmes. How could I have learned this pattern if there was no one to teach me? Suggests it’s inborn, rather than created.) Of course, some part of me goes, “Do you really do it all the time? Or are you just remembering the times you’ve done it and forgetting the majority when you haven’t?” But the more I think about it, the more I think I’m right.

Interestingly, I only do it to people I’m personally interested in, whether it’s interest in how they look, in friendship, or in something else. If it’s a business transaction? I’m far more likely just to look and hold the gaze, no looking away needed.

Fascinating. πŸ˜€

It also tells me that somewhere out there someone has studied the social construct of femme, and oh my god I want to read that. We have social constructs? I had no idea!

One of the other interesting things she said was that butch tended to be stepping outside the male gaze. Wait, I’m not sure I’m saying this well. So, in our patriarchal society the male gaze is the one that gets to be active and assertive by looking, and women are to be passive and submissive/vulnerable by being looked at. So butch is stepping outside that; females who are essentially taking that gaze back, taking that power of the male gaze for themselves and refusing to be the looked-at ones. They tend not to expose skin or sexualized themselves in every day life (at least, not in a culturally common way, but let me just tell you how hot Q was when I saw her in scrubs one day, omg. …I’m really looking forward to her coming home tomorrow.), and tend not to attracted sexual male attention. Femme, on the other hand, is typically purposefully stepping into a more vulnerable space, attracting the male gaze and attracting attention, more likely than not showing skin. I don’t mean dressing slutty; if I get dressed up, I will likely wear a dress that bares my shoulders, or a shirt that has a V-neck, or a skirt that bares my legs. Q, on the other hand, is going to wear a suit — that covers a hell of a lot more skin!

This wasn’t interesting because it was a novel concept, though I hadn’t consciously thought of it before, but rather because of the way Q and I interact. Q is a pacifist, despite dressing in a way that tells people she is not to be trifled with. Q has had… well, I think she’s had some major betrayals in her life, but she doesn’t seem to count them the way I do. ;-D (She would agree that she’s had a few, whereas I’m like, “Just let me at almost everyone in your history, I’ll tear them to bits…”) Q’s dated mostly other butches, with the occasional femme thrown in — though lately, as butch/butch has become more acceptable, she’s dated predominantly other masculine-centered andros or butches. I’m far more femmey than any of her recent flirtations. Now, I’ve talked before (at least, I thought I had, but I can’t find that post anywhere. Possibly it was on my personal blog. This is the problem with multiple blogs.) about the clothing deal: I like clothes that put me in that vulnerable space, though I never feel vulnerable. Q prefers other clothes, in large part because when I look vulnerable she feels like it is then her job to watch out for me (though she knows I can take care of myself; it’s still what society says, right? Masculine watches out for vulnerable feminine.). Plus, she’s far more aware of possible harm because she’s experienced it; her trend is to see where things can go wrong. I haven’t experienced that level of harm, and in fact have experienced the opposite; that if I treat people like I expect them to treat me nicely, and even place some slight trust in figures seen as untrustworthy, they are pleased at being treated decently and so they return it. Therefore, I expect things to go well.

(I also have a ruthless streak. I read end-of-the-world books and go, “…I’d survive that.” In general I curb that tendency, due to a violent episode I had when I was younger. But this also means that if I were attacked, while I don’t know if I’d escape, I’d sure as hell do some damage before I was taken down. Most attackers back off when they realize you’ll do damage.)

Now, here is where things started to link together in my mind. Q is pacifistic, feels like she needs to protect me when I put myself in a vulnerable, looked-at position, but her hands are tied; she can’t really protect me if things go wrong because she’s a pacifist. She hasn’t been dating femme women, and I do wonder if this might be a large part of why not; other butches aren’t putting themselves in that vulnerable position, and therefore putting her in a cognitively dissonant position. Which in turn makes me wonder if she was able to take up dating me, despite my perceived vulnerability, because of my underlying warrior. I don’t act like I expect her to protect me, like I can’t take care of myself, like I’m vulnerable or weak, or like I need protecting. Maybe it makes it easier to deal with my small clothes when I break them out, then? I know men treat me differently than other women who wear the same thing; I always assume they’re picking up on my inner warrior (or inner steel, if you prefer). Maybe that’s also what makes it a bit easier for Q to date someone in a more vulnerable state? (Or maybe I’m totally off the mark here.)

Hmm. Hey! Q! Does this sound like a plausible subconscious motivation? I mean, I know you really date me for my hot body, but… ;-D

(It’s much more fun when I can apply things I read to myself and dynamics between me and the people I’m around. :D)



q says:

Well, I think you have a point but I should make some clarifications here. My LTRs have all been with femmes: five and now 6 including you. I’ve always been *attracted* to other butches, but it’s so taboo no one went for it. But the femmes I dated were very low maintenance femmes, and you to date are the most girlie, but even still, not really. It’s only recently that I was able to date a few on the butchy side, like K or J or J, one of which flops back and forth between the soft butch and femme. And now I have to board my plane.

JB says:

I totally feel smug that I’m the most girly. Hee hee. πŸ˜€ Yes, that’s right, I’m girly and you like me anyway. Mwahahahahahaha!


G says:

Q: coolest comment while boarding that I’ve ever read. You win!

JB: Stop making me think so much! So, about those social constructs. I definitely think there are some that shape behavior. We’ve all seen the make eye contact-look away coyly-return the gaze move countless times in the media. But if, like you said, someone just knows to do that, then what? There are things I feel like I just KNOW as a butch, things I feel are innate. I’ve definitely learned things from male role models, but I’ve never had a butch role model.

In terms of the women I’ve dated, they’ve all been femme and outspoken. I’ve never felt like I have to take care of any of them, but that IS part of my personality (I’m probably less of a pacifist than I should be!). I don’t think that any of the women that I’ve dated expect me to take care of them, but it just ends up being part of our dynamic when it feels right.

Also, a quick question for you: are you equating vulnerability with weakness or needing protection? Because I know a lot of femmes who are wonderfully vulnerable and wonderfully capable of kicking someone’s ass if they needed to.

JB says:

Ha! You know I enjoy tormenting you with thinking, G. ;-D

I think also, those of us who are the taking care of/to be taken care of sort probably find each other; if you were a taking care of dating someone who didn’t fall anywhere on that scale, it would probably drive them crazy, and then you’d have to stop dating. πŸ˜‰

Vulnerability is really easy to equate with weakness or protection, but no, I don’t think they have to go hand in hand! I think this sort of a vulnerability is more of a social vulnerability. By dressing very feminine, we’re projecting a vulnerability that may or may not be realistic. In myself, for instance, I feel it’s definitely NOT realistic! At the same time, if I walk around in a low cut shirt and slinky jeans, I’m attracting sexual attention. The very fact of more male/masculine/aggressive sexual attention puts me in a more vulnerable place, even if I, myself, am not a weak person, nor do I need protection. (I just like the feeling. :D) (And I’m not saying that all men/masculine folks are aggressive, but whether it’s inborn or developed by our culture, they are certainly encouraged to be more aggressive, and so are likely to be more aggressive as a whole.)

Make sense?


G says:

Yes, that makes more sense, I think. It sounds like you’re talking about creating an intentional vulnerability, which I totally get. Sometimes it just takes me a minute (and probably a second explanation) to catch on!

ulla says:

I’ve dated butches – but they ended up trying to be me. Femme is better for me, because they’re quite happy with the way they are already. And I do have that masculine protective streak, but I see it as ironic – my gf, though femme in many ways, isn’t in many others + she’s also the kind of woman who can take care of herself. Oooh ja and eye contact is my top mating ritual πŸ™‚

JB says:

Top mating ritual — *laughs!* Thanks, Ulla, now every time I make eye contact I’m going to think, ‘Mating ritual!’ ;-D


aneke says:

Can I ask Q why it’s so taboo for butches to date each other? I mean, I get that it’s taboo, but I don’t fully understand why? Am I just too full of sunshine and roses or something? Because I don’t get it. A butch perspective would be helpful here.

JB says:

I know you didn’t ask me, but I’m going to chime in anyway. πŸ˜€ Q has the personal take on what it’s like now, which I obviously can’t give you, and I have some info on how this culture was created. Together, we’re unstoppable! ;-D

The first is just my theory, and then there are a couple of cultural factors that play into what helped create stigma against butch/butch.

1. Much like it’s more acceptable to be lesbian than gay, my theory is that our male-dominant culture is more threatened by masculine-masculine than feminine-feminine. Also, North America has a history of encouraging feminine-feminine relationships throughout the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s (it was seen as good ‘practice’ for these women to have intimate — at least emotionally intimate — relationships with other women. They couldn’t lose their virginity, but they could practice playing wife!). Sadly, women are just as likely to enforce the phobia against masculine-masculine as men are. 😦

2. When the first feminist movements started here in the US (and many western cultures), there was a huge backlash against butch women in general. They were seen as traitors to the cause, and pretty much hated by everyone for taking “the man’s role.” 😦 It was only in the 80’s that butch women started coming back into visibility, and the 90’s or so that it became something that was grudgingly accepted. In that sense, it was probably easier for feminists to accept butches when they showed admiration and love for feminine women. At least then it was seen as women who still appreciated women. If they were dating other butches, then they were doubly traitors — masculine women, eschewing female things for male things, who like other masculine women eschewing female things for male things. (Combine this with Q’s point about ‘if you’re butch you must want to be a man/if you’re dating a butch you must want a man’, and you have an ugly recipe for a world without women, as many feminists doubtlessly saw it.)

3. Finally, butch/femme in the US came about during WWII, predominantly. At that time, you could be lesbian only if you were very wealthy and could afford house guests, or, if you were of the working class, then all lesbians were either butch or femme, and could only pair within the dynamic; no butch/butch or femme/femme allowed. It’s possible there’s some of that still lingering, too (though I’d guess this has much less impact).


Finally, Q mentions a bunch of stuff that plays into being butch itself; if that’s the leaning for some, then culture would only pile on top of that, making it much harder.

…I like being femme. I’ll leave all this culture-boundary-pushing stuff to braver people. πŸ˜‰


Q says:

Aneke: Well, i’m not sure I have a good answer for your question. In most cases, the other parties (soft butches of a sort, but never *more* butch than me) were always interested in the girlie girls and not butches. So, from that perspective, it’s just what people were or were not attracted. But I can’t help but think that a lot of has to do with really old, narrow minded social paradigms. Think about it: can you think of a time when you saw two butches holding hands or making out? I can’t. Or it could be as simple as “opposites attract”, so butches and femmes are jsut naturally attracted to each other. I see lots of femme on femme. Somehow, I think society, including LGBT, finds it more acceptable. You see femme on femme all the time: platonic girlfriends (straight or gay or other) holding hands and shopping; or in porn, or even other media/movies. The lezzie movies that are out always have more femme women together. Even L Word doesn’t have a true butch on the show. Maybe Max, but Max is transitioning, so not butch, but transgender. And Shane just isn’t butch. Granted, trying to label/sell her as “the butch” on the show, and then making her a total player, just makes butches look like emotionally wrecked assholes. Thanks L-Word!! From a cultural/societal perspective, I’ll go on a limb and say that it’s easier for folks to see two femmes together (seeking comfort, curvy bodies, etc). But I think a lot of the world still thinks that if a woman wants a more masculine woman, then what she really wants is a man, not a woman, and just can’t find one. I’m sure the butch community holds onto a lot of this sterotyping as well. I see the thought process (not for me, but in general) as follows: “butches are supposed to be strong and masculine, and strong/masculine is supposed to be attracted to the damsel in distress, not another masculine woman. So a butch can’t be a butch if she’s attracted to another butch. That might make her the femme, or undermine her butchness, or just be looked at as “wrong” by the rest of the community.” Again, I don’t have a good solid answer, mainly because there is more than one answer. I can tell you for myself, I’m won’t date anyone *more* butch than I am because it just feels fucking weird. It’s an internalized paranoia of sorts. I know, logicially, that no one can take my butchiness away from me. But if I’m dating someone more butch, I somehow feel *less* butch, which freaks me out. It makes me feel vulnerable, transparent and at risk for any type of attack. My confidence depletes, my assertion is weaker, and how I relate to the world is thrown into complete havoc and chaos. I just can’t do it. I tried it once and felt like the total girl in this other butch’s presence. It was nothing she did or said. She was in no way disrespectful to my butchness at all. But the feel of us together, on a date, just didn’t jive for me. I was so awkward and I remember thinking “holy shit!! I”m the total girl here. WTF just happened? When did my boots turn into butch pumps?” On the bright side of that, I got to watch her woo me the same way that I’d woo someone, and I learned from that perspective what to do and what is just totally lame in wooing someone.

Anyway, hope that gives you something. Sorry this post is so all over the place, but I’m at work, so had to think/type fast.

aneke says:

That gave me a lot to think about! I’ll probably be back with twenty more questions. Q your explanation of feeling as if you’re loosing your butchness is fascinating – I can see how not being attracted to the damsel in distress could fuck with a lot of people’s gender paradigms. I wish it was easier for butches to be together if they wanted to, love is love you know? I don’t care who you’re with, as long as you have someone to love. But I get that I’m very much in the minority there.
I also think in a lot of ways femmes have an easier time of it than masculine identified women. It’s good to learn more about this, thank you both.

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