identity politics

Nostalgia for the Butch/Femme Dynamic

Sometimes I hear people say they wish they lived in the 50s and 60s so they could experience the butch/femme dynamic, or they “miss” it even. Team Gina has that line in their song: “Sometimes I miss the butch/femme dynamic / ’cause only girls in carharts make me panic.” When I think about it, it’s kind of odd, coming from a couple of twenty-something girls. It’s an interesting sort of nostalgic feeling for a time that we didn’t actually witness.

Can you really miss something you didn’t actually live through? Seems like there’s a better word for it than “miss” or “nostalgia,” because it’s actually longing for another time. But it’s deeper than that – it’s a historical connection to that time, an inhereted lineage that I really do miss and sometimes long for.

Though the gender revolution/s that are currently happening – especially around butch/femme – are a resurrection of something of the past, maybe it’s actually more more accurate to call it something new – a similar idea resurfacing in a new way.

I certainly didn’t grow up with any sort of model of the butch/femme dynamic, not in my own family – where actually there was a strong rejection of gender roles, falling on the not-rare 70s feminist argument that gender inequality is based on gender difference and gender expression. And yet, I feel connected to the butch/femme dynamic, I feel like a part of it, both currently and along some sort of historical axis.

I’ve been reading Riki Wilchin’s book Queer Theory, Gender Theory lately, and one of her major arguments (so far) is that gender activism got pushed out of both the feminist and gay liberation movements of the mid-1900s because of the ways that the conservative right backlash was using gender deviation as personal attacks against the people in the movements. Now that both of those movements have come so far, and been so successful, we are finally able to unearth this genderphobia that has been prevalent all along and attempt some activism around that.

What’s interesting about that to me is the ways that genderqueerness had to go underground, hidden, shameful, through these liberation movements, and now we – quite often it’s the folks like me, twenty-something, queer, children of the revolution movements of the 60s and 70s – are picking up the torch in our own, new way. And hell, the gender revolution happening seems more radical now than that butch/femme nostalgic time for which some of us long – look at the trans movement, the trans rights, the genderqueer and intersexual activism and knowledge that is getting more and more mainstreamed.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

5 thoughts on “Nostalgia for the Butch/Femme Dynamic”

  1. Yeah… I find that I'm the only one ever bringing up genders or gender expressions out side of male/man and female/woman in my women's studies classes. I seem to be one of the only ones truly interested in the subject, but it's pretty important to feminist studies! Let's keep talking things out, making sure we make a place for ourselves.

  2. babygrrlfemme says:

    I just found this blog yesterday!! yay, i'm so excited!! all of my favoritest things to talk about (except for girly gear!)

    this topic is interesting to me because i have that feeling… nostalgia/missing… i call it longing… sometimes for days when butch/femme was the norm. And i KNOW my queer history, i KNOW that the 50's and 60's were violent times for our people, where we lived in violence, and did violence to one another. And i have also read enough to know that femmes were not universally respected in those days, either… have we all read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold? The anti-femmeness expressed by some of those butches made me wanna be butch when i was 20! But despite knowing this, i have that… feeling. I think sometimes it's because i am a queer, kinky high femme dyke who lives in a town where my partner and i are the only (i'm not kidding) butch/femme couple in town, so i have a longing for a real world butch/femme community. But i also just had this thought- what if what i'm longing for is a time when i was more easily recognized? Because i feel like our culture is so saturated with images of dykes and feminine lesbians etc etc, that even with my butch partner, we are confusing to people. and in my head (true or not) in the 50's or 60's, when people saw a butch femme couple, they thought BAM! DYKES! I feel that way often with my butch, but not always in this town. Especially as i get into my mnid 30's, and my butch keeps looking like a 15 year old boy…. i suspect that people are going to start thinking my Daddy is my son!!

    also, i think i want a dyke community (and the rest of the world, for that matter) who, when i say a have a female partner, says "oh, i'll bet i know what she looks like" and be right!! i am constantly explaining to people that i don't date girls who look like me, i am not dating my femme friends, i do not have g'friends who will borrow my clothes (god forbid).

    I long for what was, in my mind, a time when people had an idea about what a dyke was, and it included me.

    i hope that makes some sense!

  3. nostalgia for things we never experienced is a huge part of our society. you’ve got the butch/femme bit, the right wing “traditional family” of the past, the proto-hippies wishing they could have been there to protest a -really major- war, etc., etc.

    i think it is actually a lot easier to be nostalgic for something you never experienced because it’s easier to make it what you want it to be in your head – you can focus on the aspects that you long for. as well as because you really feel like you “missed out” on participating in it when it was around.

    i say we take a page from the SCA (i mean, who’s better at missing shit they weren’t around for) and try to recreate the butch/femme era, not as it was, but as it should be ;)

  4. Johnny says:

    I think you can have nostalgia and be radical at the same time. Why not embrace genderqueer identitys, trans identites and a gender evolution whilst at the same time love the fact that with the butch/femme dynamic you are also honouring a very important part of queer and lesbian history. Especially when that history has been so invisible.

    Absolutely – I like the idea of nostalgia and radicalism co-existing. Lovely! – ss]

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