Hm. Okay. This documentary is going to be a tough one to review. From what I’m hearing it was extremely polarising, with people saying they hated it, it made them angry, they almost walked out. I didn’t almost walk out, and it didn’t make me angry; I agreed with the basic thesis, but had definite problems with some of the actual interviews and scenes.
In short, The Butch Factor asks the question: what is masculinity? How do you live it? How do you define it? Through a series of interviews with butch gay men, a couple of more effeminate men, and one FTM transsexual, all relating their experiences, as well some academics discussing the theory and wider issues, it reaches the conclusion that what’s called “masculinity” has changed over the years, is expressed very differently in different cultures, so when you get right down to it—especially in the gay community—masculinity is whatever you define it to be.
This stance is to me a major cop-out. It ignores the politics of gender and sex
None of this was really new to me; I’d already picked up a lot of the theory from reading various articles and books on queer history and gender theory. But what I found problematic was some of the statements—and unspoken assumptions—from the butch interviewees. One pattern I noticed was a desire to distance themselves from a gay identity. For example, one started talking about his “sexual orientation,” then caught himself and corrected it to “sexual preference.” Another (possibly the same, I’m not sure) brought up how his sexuality was only a small part of his life, only one of many labels he wore, so he didn’t see why he should emphasise it.
Which… yes, is technically true, as far as it goes. The thing is, this stance is to me a major cop-out. It ignores the politics of gender and sex, and ignores the reality that all of these labels—gay, straight, bi, queer, etc—are already loaded with cultural baggage; I have a hard time seeing how you can easily separate your sex life from your life in general. It sounds more like something out of the Log Cabin Republican songbook than anything else.
The other worrying viewpoint shared by many of these men is a seemingly clear idea of what “masculinity” really is. One said that it was about integrity; another, about protection (ie: protecting your partner or other people); another, about discipline. But all of these fine virtues are either linked to masculinity in some specific cultures (like mainstream white North American) or could be applied to all people everywhere, men or women! Do women not get to have integrity? Are women not allowed to be protective?
The impression I’m getting from these interviews is that these “masculine” men have internalised quite a lot of mainstream (heterosexual) culture’s criteria of masculinity: namely, that masculinity is an ideal that must be striven for, and that it means discipline, control, competition, and something to prove—maybe competition with other men, certainly competition with yourself.
And above all, “masculinity” means “non-femininity.” Several times the interviewees told about being uncomfortable in mainstream gay culture, with its obsession with pop culture, fashion and shallow beauty, and preferring manly pursuits like rugby and drinking with the lads. Hey, fair enough: I don’t like the club scene much, am mostly indifferent to Lady Gaga, might be described as “fashion-impaired,” and absolutely love playing volleyball with the VGVA. I think it’s great that there are spaces in the gay community for sports and related activities. But that doesn’t mean I’ll agree with guys like Jack Malebranche, author of Androphilia: Rejecting the Gay Identity, Reclaiming Masculinity. He was interviewed in the movie, and his position is… well, the title pretty much says it all. The gay community has placed too much emphasis on the feminine, and that needs to change. Just how we should change, and what our alternatives are, he didn’t make clear in the interview, and I’m not buying the book just to find out.
I see The Butch Factor as an homage to the wide variety of gay men who define and redefine masculinity every day.
But in spite of the title, the movie does give a voice to non-butch men; those who could never pass for straight, who were taunted and abused in school, and who came out the other side with a perspective and empathy that their manlier brothers seem to lack. And a certain toughness, too. The masculine men mentioned a few times that masculinity does not equal toughness, and that a drag queen can be just as tough as the most straight-acting bodybuilder.
I see The Butch Factor as an homage not to masculinity, but to the wide variety of gay men who define and redefine masculinity every day, though it took a pretty odd path to get there. And maybe as a critique of the gay community as a whole: as disjointed as the documentary was, with academic gays vs. blue-collar gays, butch vs. nellie, you might see it as a reflection of our community itself. It’s true that we split ourselves off in sub-communities (though I question whether we have it worse now than a generation ago); it’s true that there are gay men who are uncomfortable with drag queens or any amount of gender bending; it’s probably true that the current mainstream porn look (big muscles, hairless bodies, more youthful appearance) is a reaction to the AIDS epidemic.
What’s the bottom line? Maybe there isn’t one, apart from the aforementioned “don’t worry too much about labels, just live your life as best you can.” If so, you could question whether the whole documentary was really useful, if all these interviews and talking heads were just leading up to this. I think it was, if only to highlight just how many strong opinions there are out there. That alone makes it a worthy entry in the Queer Film Fest.