Gender Troubles: The Butches. Directed by Lisa Plourde. San Francisco: A Catholic School Girl Gone Bad Production, 2016. 55 minutes.
Guyland: Where Boys Become Men. Directed by Michael Kimmel. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2015. 35 minutes.
Tomboys, Butches, Trans, Women BDSMers: Versions of Female Masculinity. Directed by Elena Tóxica. Madrid: Toxic Lesbian Productions, 2015. 30 minutes.
Each of these three films seeks to explore masculinity and its consequences and lived realities for different groups of people. Lisa Plourde’s and Elena Tóxica’s films depict versions of masculinity as expressed by people assigned female at birth. In Gender Troubles, Plourde focuses specifically on ciswomen lesbians who express masculinity through their clothing, hairstyles, and the ways they occupy space—as butches. The five women profiled in this documentary share what being butch means to them, disrupt popular myths and stereotypes about butches (e.g., Lenn’s comment that “a butch woman is not imitating a man”), and describe the approbations they are challenged with in medical settings, public bathrooms, and within the gay and lesbian community. Plourde’s film highlights the consequences of homonormativity and straight assimilation, as well as the privileges assigned to straight-passing gay men and lesbian women. The rigidity of binary gender norms and biological essentialism leave little room for these women to present, as Lenn names it, “just another way a woman can show up.”
These five women are open about the ways that they have been made to feel “wrong” for being masculine women instead of proclaiming an internalized gender identity as men. Plourde includes shots of online community conversations in which femme lesbians castigate butches as sexually and romantically undesirable, unnecessarily mannish, and simply on their way to being transmen. Both having to fight for their identity as women and making connections to queer family—other butches and those who do not conform to gender norms—shape their daily lives. In this film, “woman” is presented as an expansive category that includes ciswomen who present as masculine.
Tóxica’s film, Tomboys, Butches, Trans, Women BDSMers, considers the lives of four individuals living in Spain, Central America, and France. One of the four also describes herself as a butch lesbian, but the others include two “no-op” genderqueer and trans individuals—who do not identify as women—as well as a ciswoman in Madrid’s BDSM (bondage, discipline/dominance, and sadomasochism) community.1 This conflation of gender and sexuality seems intentional, as the stated goal of the film is to present “versions of female masculinity.” Unfortunately, this conflation reinforces a bioessentialist paradigm of gender which fixates on genitalia as the primary sorter of individuals within a gender binary. Unlike Plourde’s film, Tóxica’s has the effect of restricting the possibility of genderqueer/trans people to be seen and recognized beyond a biological sex binary. For example, "marimachas" a term used by Leticia in the film references women-identified tomboys are actually akin to trans people in Central America. Those wishing to use this film might pair it with a film by Captains and Adams, Gender: The Space Between.
Nevertheless, this film usefully challenges a view of heterosexual ciswomen as inherently conforming to feminine sexual passivity and submissiveness. Through Dita be Teese’s story, viewers see women taking charge of their own sexual pleasure and asserting control over sexual encounters with both other women and men within the subculture of BDSM.2 Teese describes her refusal of heteronormativity as a “form of masculinity” where she takes on attitudes and roles designated as masculine.
In Kimmel’s Guyland, this sexual empowerment of women—though not specific to BDSM—is part of what prevents men in “adultolescence” to grow up into full adulthood. Using his mother’s quick accumulation of the five markers of adulthood (finish education, get married, have a child, get a job, and move out) as a benchmark, Kimmel draws on psychological research on Jeffrey Arnett’s “emerging adulthood” to, as he claims, “map the new 20” by studying young men between the ages of 16 and 26.3 Kimmel restricts his investigation to college men, and apparently only to white, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual college men. Among these men, the “four rules of manhood” are encapsulated by the crass idiom “bros before hoes,” in which young men seek to achieve what Kimmel refers to as “vertical hierarchy and horizontal solidarity” through rituals—illustrated only by fraternity hazing—steeped in “dramatic gender inequality.”
Kimmel’s depiction of “Guyland” is confined to the college campus and to young adults he describes as “over-parented” and “risk averse.” The only substantive depiction of people of color is a scene from Fox Network’s series Empire in which Lucious Lyon, a Black man played by the actor Terrance Howard, harshly disciplines his young son, Jamal, for walking through the apartment in his mother’s high heels. This reinforcement of Black families as uniquely homophobic aligns well with Kimmel’s overall white supremacist, patriarchal, classist, and misogynist view of women’s roles in cismen’s lives. Kimmel valorizes a bygone time, illustrated by his father’s life experiences, in which men spent their entire public lives in sex-segregated, men-only environments in school, the military, and work. The absence of adult men during hazing rituals on college campuses is cited as the reason for displays of homoerotic toxic masculinity, despite Kimmel’s admission to personally witnessing such a ritual in which he did not intervene. Should educators wish to use this film, there is a good deal of literature that contests and complicates Kimmel’s analysis of masculinity. I would especially recommend scholarship by T. J. Jourian and Z Nicolazzo.4
These three films all seek to discuss masculinity and how it shows up in the lives of various people. However, Guyland fails to offer expansive visions of masculinity, where Gender Troubles and Tomboys, Butches, Trans, Women BDSMers succeed. We live in an age when cismen’s toxic masculinity has been promoted to the highest stations in this country and threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions. Now, more than ever, we need versions of masculinity that stretch beyond the gender binary to embrace liberatory visions of human relationships. Through the eyes of these filmmakers, these “possibility models” are only seen in butches, tomboys, transmen, and masculine-of-center genderqueers.5
1 “No-op” refers to genderqueer and transgender individuals who have not undergone surgical, pharmaceutical, or other medical interventions to alter their appearance and secondary sex characteristics.
2 The film cautions viewers that this segment of the film, which is the final one, does show actual footage of BDSM sexual encounters involving needles penetrating flesh.
3 Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004).
4 T. J. Jourian. “Trans*forming College Masculinities: Carving out Trans*masculine Pathways through the Threshold of Dominance,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 30, no. 3 (2017): 245-65; Z Nicolazzo, Z., “‘I’m Man Enough; Are You?’: The Queer (Im)possibilities of Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs 2, no. 1 (2015).
5 Eboné Bell, “Laverne Cox Calls Herself a ‘Possibility Model’ on Katie Couric,” Tagg Magazine, January 8, 2014.