This is another topic to file under “Avoiding Patriarchal Language.” Language constructs reality, and imprecise, incorrect, and negative language helps to construct nightmares.
No healthy, consensual relationship involves domination. Domination/submission is the language for master/slave (and other abusive) relationships; it is not, in general, proper language for the characterization of relationships that butches and their partners are in.
It seems to me that what people often mean when they characterize butches as “dominant” is closer to something like “taking the lead” or “initiating.” It is obvious that these relatively neutral ways of behaving have nothing to do with the harmful behavior of dominating.
A blunt summary of the concluding point of the previous post is that gender does not exist except as a tool of oppression and a cultural fiction.
Proper conceptualizations of any given phenomenon must eschew patriarchal language. To my absolute horror, I have read people try to paint butchness as a “gender identity,” usually some type of transgender. Aside from the fact that (in the U.S., at least) butchness does not have the cultural stamp of approval that is the fundamental component of any gender, and is thus not a gender at all, the term “transgender” is problematic from a feminist perspective because it defines people in terms of the patriarchy’s (fictional, harmful) categories. It reifies gender with the claim that those so labeled transcend/cross/etc. it(depending on the sense of “trans-” implied). While it is sometimes useful to describe using patriarchal terms in order to underscore opposition to the default or expected patriarchal order, there can be nothing healthy about a personal identity or a definition expressed or conceptualized in patriarchal terms. Besides, the patriarchally-brainwashed point out that butches aren’t like “regular women” every chance they get – they don’t need the help.
Perhaps more horrifying is the use of “butch/ftm,” as if there is some sort of connection between the two. This sometimes rests on the idea that both butches and ftms exist on the same “spectrum.” Spectrum of what, though? Some say masculinity, but, masculinity being nothing more than a patriarchal wet dream, no such spectrum exists.
As someone who seeks butches for dating, I have some insight into the issues surrounding the term “butch.” Having sought dates primarily through the Internet, I have worked to compose many a description that was meant to convey what I think is encompassed by the word “butch,” and I know something about what it is to describe butches. I have experienced the irritation of suffering through what I saw as clear self-misidentification as butch. All that is to say is, I know the importance of the question: What is a butch?
A simple response might be: A masculine woman.
But what is masculinity? My expensive Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of The English Language tells me that masculine is:
1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men.
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.
…and the rest discuss grammatical uses of the term.
Hopefully, the problem here is obvious: We have a word we want to apply to women, yet it is defined wholly in terms of men. On the face of it, it may not seem such a big deal to refer to one group of people with a term that derives its meaning from a different group of people; however, when we consider the fact that the patriarchy does it’s damnedest to define women and men in opposition to one another, to perpetuate the charade that there are certain natural, universal, terribly significant differences between the two groups that justify women’s oppression, and in the process arbitrarily builds and re-builds grab bags of human characteristics called “masculinity” and “femininity” to further these causes, it becomes obvious that the concept of masculinity is but another tool of oppression.
When we examine what characteristics are commonly referred to as “masculine,” we find assertiveness, physical strength, bravery, sexual prowess, and many other qualities that are not only obviously possible for any human being, but have in fact been a part of the personality of all sorts of human beings. Some people mistakenly believe that this is what constitutes masculinity: a set of behaviors, looks/styles, and states of mind. The crucial concept that they miss, however, is that masculinity does encompass these things, with the qualification that men (and sometimes boys) are the default, original, natural, rightful, and/or most appropriate owners of these demeanors, looks, and thinking patterns. Thus, the man-centric definition (and popular usage).
The concept of masculinity being primarily about men cannot be separated from the word; it is defined in terms of men. It isn’t an originally neutral term that was hijacked; it is patriarchy-manufactured, -maintained, -stamped and -approved. One cannot use it to affirm certain characteristics in a person without simultaneously affirming the fiction that these characteristics derive from men. Clearly, “masculine” is not an appropriate adjective to use at all, let alone in reference to the bold patriarchy-destroyers that butches are. Such usage would confer the status of wannabe or imitation man on the woman thus described.
Not only does Dismantling The Patriarchy 101 tell us that a key dismantling tactic is the rejection of patriarchal language, it also instructs us as to the importance of defining oppressed groups on their own terms, so, the question remains: What is a butch?