A few weeks ago, fed up with the constant heat, I decided to get a short haircut. ‘It’s brilliant,’ thought I as I looked in the mirror. A little bit of gel and I am ready to face the world. And I loved myself with my tightly cropped locks.
That is until someone suggested I had a ‘butch’ cut.
I was horrified. A butch cut….NOOOOO! It’s elfin, cute, neat, easy…..
I have always asserted that I am non-judgmental about the way people dress and how they wear their hair, and yet on hearing that my new haircut is ‘butch’ I am immediately dismayed? Am I so shallow?
After I had calmed down a little I began to wonder, why have I become so upset about a single word? As usual I headed to my trusty dictionary (The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary (1992, p146) for this definition:
- Butch / adj. & n. sl. –adj. masculine; tough looking. -n. 1 (often attrib.) a a mannish woman. b a mannish lesbian. 2 a tough, usu. Muscular, youth or man [perh. Abbr. of BUTCHER]
Next I tackled my thesaurus, a Roget’s (1992, p.49):
- <mannish female> amazon, virago, androgyne; lesbian, butch, and dyke <both nonformal>; tomboy, hoyden, romp
The takeaway message from these two sources is that butch is heavily associated with lesbian or Masculine of Centre people.
I did some more digging around to get to the bottom of the butch issue and it’s a fascinating one. I never knew that the opposite of being butch is being femme (or maybe it isn’t, depends who you read). The use of these terms has been developed to organise gender and the sexual self. It’s often considered to be the way in which lesbian relationships are arranged, but this ignores femme – femme and butch – butch partnerships that arise.
Importantly the notion that butch and femme are conventional roles that are taken on in a relationship is hotly debated and there is some discussion that these are separate genders.
The word butch apparently became to mean what it did in the 1940s, however ‘being butch’ may have been around for a lot longer but such women would have been forced to live this life in secret.
And there is so much more. The argument that a femme woman challenges the dominant culture’s construct of femininity more than a butch woman does is another wonderful element of this enthralling subject.
And it’s good. It’s fascinating to read the history and context of this component of our world and to get an understanding of it. It’s great to get my brain working, reading the arguments from scholars and scientists, discussing feminism and sociology.
And here’s what I have learned. The next time I am told I have a ‘butch’ haircut (if there is ever one, and there might be because I plan to keep my hair short), I am going to say, “thank you”. Oh and also, “did you know that the word butch means tough kid, and butch dress codes date back to the beginning of the 20th century, oh and the younger version of butch is boi?”
So maybe I had a boi’s haircut?
Or maybe that’s just flattering myself.
Term coined by the Brown Boi Project www.brownboiproject.org
 Nestle, Joan. “The Femme Question.” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge, 1984.
The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 1992, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Australia.
Roget’s International Thesaurus Fifth Edition, 1992, Ed R.L. Chapman, Harper Collins, New York, New York.