BUTCH: Not Like the Other Girls is a photo-based public art exhibition being displayed in transit shelters throughout Vancouver from March 11 2013 onwards. A gallery of the exhibition will also be on display at The Cultch from April 9 – 25 2013, with an Art Party on April 10 from 6-8pm!
The exhibition is an exploration of female masculinity in contemporary communities. The images celebrate and honour the beauty and power of those who transgress the gender binary. S.D. Holman conceptualizes Butch, “not as oppositional too Femme and Trans identities, but as an inclusive site of resistance to limitations on the way women, gender and sexuality are still defined” (sdholman.com).
The images aim to provide an alternative representation of what it means to be female outside the culture’s narrow vision of femininity. The images serve as a mirror to those who are not represented in mainstream ideas about what it means to be a woman. They also aim to to reach an audience that has little to no exposure to or understanding of Butch identities. Holman states that she wanted to show straight society, in particular, that women exist outside the normative version of femininity that is generally represented (xtra.ca).
Holman also pushes beyond simple representation, aiming to contribute to a more diverse understanding of Butch identities, with subjects reflecting a wide range of Butch styles from diverse backgrounds. It is noteworthy that she approaches the work from the perspective of gender, rather than a coherent subject position. In doing so, she blurs the boundaries between Butch, Femme and Trans identities and diversifies our understanding of “butchness”. Rather than see Butch as simply a “lesbian with masculine characteristics,” she understands Butch as reflective of gender transgression more generally and as an inclusive site of resistance to dominant feminine norms. In strategically placing the images in the public sphere, she thereby complicates the dominant image of femininity in mainstream communities and encourages reflection on what it means to be female in this society.
Though Holman wishes to represent Butch identities, she nevertheless understands “Butchness” as an inherently fraught concept. “I don’t believe in the objective. We always bring something to it. We bring whatever our preconceived notions are. I don’t believe in the perfect moment. I believe we’re a bunch of messy, imperfect moments,” says Holman (xtra.com). Her work contributes to a growing body of queer and trans theory in which “categories like ‘woman,’ ‘man,’ ‘butch,’ ‘lesbian’ and ‘transsexual’ are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary” (Rubin, 2006, p.479).
Historically, “butch” and “femme” have been presupposed as existing in a fixed relationship to each other, with “butch” representing the hypermasculine, active role and “femme” being their hyperfeminine counterpart (Rubin, 2006). As Rubin states, within this system, “gender role, sexual orientation, and erotic behaviour” were defined always in relation to each other (p.475). However, it is increasingly recognized that virtually every conceivable combination of gender and desire exists in Butch sexualities (Rubin, p.475). There are Butches who prefer their partners to control and direct sexual behaviour, Butches who desire other Butches, Butches who are tops, bottoms, FTM transsexual Butches who prefer femmes and those who prefer other Butches.
The Butch aesthetic is also infinitely variable, “historical, temporary and arbitrary” (Rubin, p.479. As Rubin delineates, Butch identity is “semiotically related to a long line of images of young, rebellious, sexy, white, working-class masculinity” and she is “usually accompanied by a half-dressed, ultrafeminine creature who is artfully draped on her boots, her bike, or one of her muscular, tattooed forearms” (p.473). However, this conveys a limited and stereotypical picture of an actually much more diverse community. Butches vary in their expressions of masculinity, the way they present themselves, and the way they relate to their female bodies (Rubin, p.474). Some prefer masculine appearance, style, and clothing, while others may remain relatively unmarked or more intermediate in their gender identities (Rubin, p.472). Some might enjoy their breasts while others choose to pass as men or even desire to alter their bodies.
It is important that Holman situates her work as a critique of binaristic conceptualizations of gender. As such, she conceptualizes the boundaries between Butch and Trans identities as permeable. Within the lesbian community, many lesbians have conceived of this permeability as a threat to lesbian gender categories and have treated FTMs as deserters (Rubin, p.476). In another act of policing gender boundaries, early lesbian-feminists denounced “butch-femme” identities, assuming that they were simply mirroring heteronormative roles (Rubin, p.479). These claims of moral and political superiority are increasingly being recognized as imposing new rigid limitations on gender roles (Rubin, p.479).
Although identity is undeniably a meaningful and formative part of our social lives, Holman’s work speaks to the way that all categories constrain our reality in particular ways. The following quote by Gayle Rubin (2006) serves as a reminder to be curious about the categories that we impose, rather than imposing new rigid rules for already marginalized populations.
“Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. The fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like ‘woman,’ ‘butch,’ ‘lesbian,’ or ‘transsexual’ are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mold us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of skepticism”.
Rubin, G. (2006). Of Catamites and Kings. The Transgender Studies Reader, 471.