Female masculinity refers to a range of masculine inflected identities and identifications. Debates over the status and meaning of female masculinity and the bodies and selves to whom the terms may be ascribed emerge in the context of analyses of sex, gender, and sexuality.
Research in social and cultural history has documented the lives of individual women who defied gendered conventions, adopted masculine clothing, and/or engaged in gendered non-conformist behavior in Anglo American and European contexts from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries (Wheelwright 1989). The case of Colonel Victor Barker, for instance, caused notable controversy in England in the early twentieth century, as this military man was exposed to be female bodied and deserving a perjury trial (Wheelwright 1989). Scholarly approaches to archival material have tended to challenge trans historical claims of stable forms of female masculinity across time (Halberstam 1998; Doan 2001). Assumed relations of equivalence and translatability between and across culturally specific practices relating to female masculinity have also appeared suspect (Blackwood 1998).
Key to the development of innovative conceptual trajectories on female masculinity in interdisciplinary academic gender studies are the numerous critical readings of Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) and related analyses of its cultural, social, and historical context. In her pioneering essay on the subject, anthropologist Esther Newton (2000 ) notes that Hall’s novel constitutes a central reference for paradigmatic imaginings of female masculinity in the twentieth century, and the ground for the entrenchment and popularization of a relation between female masculinity and lesbianism. Newton (2000 : 177) shows how, since the obscenity trial that took place in London in 1928, the novel’s protagonist Stephen Gordon has acquired ‘‘mythic’’ archetypal status as a ‘‘mannish lesbian,’’ that is, ‘‘a figure who is defined as lesbian because her behavior or dress (and usually both) manifests elements designated as exclusively masculine.’’ Further analysis reveals that the subject matter of the novel exemplifies the cultural salience of discourses of sexology in early twentieth century England, the social significance of the medicalized category of ‘‘the invert,’’ and the ways in which these discourses played out in the public domain (Prosser 1998; Doan 2001). A different reading is offered by de Lauretis (1994), who highlights the relevance of psychoanalysis to an understanding of the relation between masculine identification and lesbianism in The Well of Loneliness. It is de Lauretis’s contention that the Freudian ‘‘masculinity/virility complex,’’ with the female subject’s longing for a masculine identification, should be reinterpreted and not entirely dismissed. De Lauretis (1994: 211–12) argues that Stephen Gordon’s subjectivity comes into being through a fantasy of ‘‘bodily dispossession,’’ as the melancholic subject mourns a feminine embodiment that she can desire but does not fully embody, and a masculinity that she does embody but that is never maleness. In short, an original fantasy of castration underpins Stephen Gordon’s bodily dispossession, with her muscular body standing for the paternal phallus which ultimately places the female body beyond reach.
Halberstam (1998) challenges this psycho analytic reading and instead proceeds from the premise that unhinging the relation between masculinity and men can yield important insights into the social and cultural production of masculinity. This theoretical move reveals a spectrum of female masculine inflected subject positions, identities, and identifications that in the nineteenth century included the androgyne, the tribade, and the female husband. In mid to late twentieth century Anglo American con texts, female masculinity comprises soft butch, butch, stone butch, and transbutch identities and identifications, the youthful exuberance of tomboys and the parodic performances of drag kings. Building on Rubin’s (1992: 467) classic definition of butch as ‘‘a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols,’’ Halberstam (1998) aligns her spectrum of female masculinities, including the figure of the stone butch, firmly with lesbianism. However, in his analysis of transsexual autobiographies, Prosser (1998) contests this point and speaks of butch and stone butch identities as ‘‘propellers’’ toward transgender and transsexual identifications. Butch and stone butch thus become entangled in ‘‘border wars’’ (Hale 1998) that are as much about subjectivities as they are about the intellectual strategies at our disposal for understanding the articulation and experience of sex, gender, and sexuality.
In view of this, future research should aim to clarify the relation between female masculinity and queer theory. Whilst the emphasis on masculinity may correspond to a generalized rejection of the feminine and a specific form of misogyny associated with queer theory (Martin 1994), previous analyses should be complemented by a sustained focus on the psychic and performative processes of production of masculine inflected identities and how these may be implicated in processes of identification and disidentification with, for instance, femme and feminine identities. Second, a response to Newton’s call (2000 : 66) for analyses that address the ways in which aesthetic, social, and cultural categories may function ethnographically is long overdue. This confirms the importance of investigating social taxonomies of female virility and masculine experience, their contexts and meanings in everyday life.
- Blackwood, (1998) Tombois in West Sumatra: Constructing Masculinity and Erotic Desire. Cultural Anthropology 13(4): 491 521.
- De Lauretis, (1994) The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.
- Doan, (2001) Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of Modern English Lesbian Culture. Columbia University Press, New York.
- Halberstam, (1998) Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
- Hale, C. (1998) Consuming the Living, Dis(re)membering the Dead in the Butch/FTM Border- lands. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4(2): 311 48.
- Martin, (1994) Sexualities Without Genders and Other Queer Utopias. Diacritics 24(2 3): 104 21.
- Newton, (2000 ) Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
- Prosser, (1998) Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia University Press, New York.
- Rubin, (1992) Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries. In: Nestle, J. (Ed.), The Persistent Desire: A Femme Butch Reader. Alyson, Boston.
- Wheelwright, (1989) Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Cross Dress in the Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness. Pandora, London.
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