I’m an academic which means I get to hear and participate in messy and effective readings of Judith Butler. And I get to do it pretty often. Every semester another straight, white, wealthy professor assigns Gender Trouble and every year we get to ask questions about Judith Butler’s motivations. In a really amazing leap we get to ignore both the linguistic implications of her work and the queer origins to read exactly what we want: delightfully famous writings on compulsory gender identity. It seems my straight, white, wealthy profs and classmates are really interesetd in how they’ve been oppressed without their knowledge!
Who doesn’t like some well-intentioned grave head nodding to stories aout things like:
-omg. it was kinda hard to be a tomboy bc I was always making my barbies play war and btw i’m so married and girly now.
-it was tots sad to watch my sis-in-law buy her infant son blue cloths.

And, sure, we’re sad about that. Let’s take a moment to be how sad. Awww. Okay.

So after a few years of ignoring this reading I begin to wonder— how much ignoring can we do? I mean sometimes the queers speak up but there’s really no space for that since trauma stories are beyond reproach and how can we argue with the pain of it all? We can tell a different story– about how gender/sexuality oppresses queer people differently but it just sounds like another piece of evidence, more proof of just how bad it all hurts us.

The corollary, the punch-line, where we go/get after two weeks of incorrectly reading every word of Judy is: female masculinity, cross-dressing, and transsexuality are all progressive, radical acts which challenge and erode the normativity of gender. Which leads my classmates to do things like:

-use transgender “activities” as the site for experimental theory
-feel politically effective by doing feminist things like wearing unisexcloths and not falling into the Traps of Femininity
-read queerness as a political project
-congratulate themselves

That’s it. We close Butler and move on.
This is so frustrating because Butler is largely not speaking of people whose masculinity is performative-for-the-sake-of-large-scale-social-critique-or-revolt. She is analyzing, in part, the linguistic fall out of some people’s gendered realities. And they’re not just experiments where people go home taking pleasure in the gradual erosion of normativity.
The way that normativity is destabilized entails daily violences against the body. The social attempt to control the body is not a painless process and the individual doesn’t usually win. S/he is tortured, erased, violated, silenced, murdered. It’s a little bit horrific to hear that the ‘point’ of Brandon Tina is how you can convince your brother-in-law that he should let his nephew own a doll.
This all to say: I’d like to propose we think of butch/femme a little differently. Or– there’s stuff missing in the way we talk about it now.
Helpfully, maybe, we (femmes and butches invested in butch/femme) often rewrite historical narratives of butch/femme. I mean we literally write them down in books, articles, chapters, essays, stories, poems and blags. And this reproduction makes sense because, I think, the dynamic of butch/femme is importantly historically linked. Perhaps we envision ourselves as a community united across time. It also makes sense because conversations about butch/femme forge a space and method to describe important things we might need to say but find risky to personalize. Identifying with older narratives encodes safely– it’s shorthand for: we can do this in a healing way OR I am not going to hurt you OR I see your body OR I see your work and it’s okay. Also. It’s not, I think, an obvious narrative or one that’s readily apparent in queer or mainstream conversations. Butch/femme, because it involves so much conscious articulation through/about gender, needs to be re-iterated in contemporary queer contexts.

But anyway.. the new stuff… the new stuff… isn’t this enough for now? I can expand on the new stuff later. I’m not even going to perform the rereading of the rereading this time. Maybe next time. And while I’m working on it: G and I are putting together a book? about butch/femme. Wanna help? Friends. Strangers. Everyone, welcome.