Samantha and Lindsay. Ellen and Portia. Christine and Cynthia. Thanks to celebrities, the butch/femme dichotomy that is part of some lesbian couples' gender performance is visible even to mainstream Americans who may not think they even know a lesbian. (Samantha Ronson, Ellen DeGeneres, and even Christine Marioni are what the lesbian community would probably call "soft butch." They're more androgynous and tomboyish than they are "tough" and masculine in a macho way.)
As a denizen of San Francisco’s Mission District, for me the butch/femme thing is as much a part of the atmosphere here as Rice-A-Roni and foggy mornings. (OK, I actually don't know anyone who eats Rice-A-Roni, but I digress.) I remember being pretty psyched the first time I saw a very San Francisco lesbian couple walking together — one with a James Dean swagger and pompadour, the other Bettie Paged out with retro clothes and lipstick.
Not all lesbian couples have one person who is femme and one butch, but those who adopt the dress and/or the stereotypical gender roles that go with it — whether they're conscious of it or not — are performing gender, as queer theorist Judith Butler put it.
What does that mean, exactly? To find out, read more.
Performing roles traditionally considered masculine/feminine shows that those attributes are not necessarily expressions of the person's biological sex. You can actually put on and take off femininity and masculinity. And like a lot of performances, it shows that gender can be fun when it's separated from the idea that these attributes are natural or fixed. (Butch/femme also shows that an alpha-male-type guy and his hyperfeminine trophy girlfriend are probably doing the same thing — "putting on" the accoutrements that culture tells them signify masculine and feminine.)
Not everyone in the gay community is cool with butch/femme. Some think that it's just a reproduction of heterosexual roles within gay relationships, but even that, to me, ignores how fluid the roles can be. In the same way a tough-looking guy could be a total sweetheart, and a femme woman a hellion on wheels (hello, Angelina Jolie!), a butch woman could behave in non-macho ways. And don't forget "Femme in the streets, butch in the sheets" — which could be a mantra relevant to straight people, too.
Whether you're straight or gay, what do you think of butch/femme roles?