Before the days of Facebook and Twitter, lesbians were largely confined to meeting in bars or in secret, and they had few sources to link them to a broader community. Logging onto the Internet these days, one can literally find thousands of websites and social media groups dedicated to helping lesbians from across the country and around the globe forge a sense of virtual community.
Although we live in an age of hashtags and electronic tablets, many of us still read bound stacks of paper called books. Lesbian pulp fiction still has meaning for both young queers who are just coming out of the closet, as well as with lesbians from an older generation. What is it about these dated stories that both younger lesbians and those who made the journey to Stonewall find compelling?
One explanation is that younger lesbians are turning to these artifacts of the 1940s and 1950s to gain a sense of a separate lesbian history. In particular, what these books teach us about the construction of gender roles within lesbian relationships is a key component in that history. One of the most pervasive questions that helps one to identify her place within the lesbian community is “are you butch or femme?” Although these gender roles are hotly contested (some say they don’t even exist), it is my contention that they still serve an important function for lesbians of all walks of life. Lesbian pulp, then, is a means of tracing the development of butch/femme roles that is difficult to find outside of oral histories.
Pulp Fiction: A Historical Foundation
Lesbian pulp fiction is a subset of a larger genre that was extremely popular in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Pulp fiction included a wide range of story lines, including Westerns, murder-mystery/detective stories, and science-fiction novels. The books were called pulp fiction because the paper they were printed on was highly acidic and cheaply constructed. The books were never meant to last. According to Christopher Nealon, pulps were looked down upon because they were written by and for the working-class, which flew in the face of the notion that literature was something that was beyond the reach of the masses.
In addition to their class-markings, pulp fiction also gave rise to the emergence of a distinct lesbian community. Ann Bannon explains that:
[T]he classic pulp paperbacks were scorned as literary rubbish; not belles lettres, but rather letters vilaines — ugly stuff that should never been allowed in print, and as distant from respectable writing as a porno flick is from “The Sound of Music.” The word pulp has a lot of meanings, but prominent in the list is Webster’s sniffy definition: “tawdry or sensational writing. (Curve Magazine, August 2002, “The Story Behind Classic Lesbian Pulp.”)
Lesbian pulp fiction was seen as threatening for the very reason that printing lesbian experience on the pages of a book meant that it was real and no longer something that could be swept under the rug. And yet the implicit assumption behind the use of cheap paper was that stories about lesbians were not even worth the paper they were printed on and that homosexuality was not a permanent part of American culture.
However, lesbian pulp fiction was very valuable to its readers because it served as a coming out mechanism for many lesbians during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Christopher Nealon* explains that:
Dog-eared copies of books by Ann Bannon . . . were passed among friends in lesbian communities. The pulps also reached isolated, small-town lesbians who could read them and see that they were not the only lesbians in the world . . . Joan Nestle . . . called these works ‘survival literature’ . . . The act of taking on of these books off the drugstore rack and paying for it at the counter was a frightening and difficult move for most women. This was especially true during the McCarthy trials . . . Although tame by today’s standards of lesbian literature and erotica, these volumes were so threatening then that women hid them, burnt them and threw them out. At the same time . . . they helped form many a fledgling lesbian’s ideas of what life might be for her. And perhaps, miraculously for that time and environment, happy endings could be found in mainstream media. (748)
These paperbacks helped people come out as lesbian, butch or femme, by providing them with a blueprint for constructing their own unique forms of gender expression and sexuality that transgressed social norms. The books also linked the readers and writers together in an intense relationship that helped sustain the fledgling gay movement during the pre-Stonewall era by allowing people to see themselves as part of a larger community and not just as isolated aberrations of nature, because even though they were fictional, the characters seemed like real people.
Ann Bannon was a particularly influential author because her books were written by a lesbian for other lesbians. This was in stark contrast to the majority of lesbian pulp novels, which were written by and for men. Bannon notes that:
Some of them did decent work, but the majority were pumping out a thousand variations on that most cherished of male wet dreams: two nubile young women entwined in an erotic embrace, with the male reader as audience, coach, and finally, fantasy participant. (“The Story,” 48)
Bannon’s works, on the other hand, overcome the formula of the good-girl who turns to lesbianism only to return to the arms of a man to save her from the unhappiness inherent in the lesbian lifestyle. Throughout the Beebo Brinker novels, readers are able to see lesbians in various levels of committed relationships and catch a glimpse of the growing gay and lesbian community of Greenwich Village, New York. Bannon’s novels have earned a place in history because “[she] wrote the stories no one else could tell. And in so doing, [she] captured a slice of life in a particular time and place that still resonates for members of our community.” (“The Story,” p. 49)
Beebo Brinker and Laura Landon: Prototypes of 1940s and 1950s Butch/Femme
Bannon’s first novel, Odd Girl Out, takes place on a college campus in Anytown, USA and focuses on the coming out process of Laura Landon, a blond-haired, blue-eyed freshman from the suburbs who falls in love with her college roommate and sorority sister, Beth. Laura and Beth carry on a secret love affair until the end of Laura’s first year of college, at which point, Laura asks Beth to run away with her to New York. Beth decides to stay behind to get married and Laura heads to New York all by herself.
In I Am a Woman, Laura discovers the lesbian and gay community of Greenwich Village and becomes involved with one of the community’s most prominent members, Beebo Brinker. Beebo is a stone butch who moved to New York when she was young in order to escape the hardship of being a lesbian in a small town full of animosity towards lesbians and live an openly lesbian life. Laura’s previous relationship with Beth defined her as femme and this carries over to her relationship with Beebo.
Beebo and Laura live happily together for two years, but their relationship comes to an abrupt end in Women in the Shadows, when Laura becomes restless and falls in love with another womyn. Laura eventually gives up her lesbian lifestyle to marry her gay friend, Jack Mann. They have a baby and move uptown while Beebo stays behind in Greenwich Village.
In Beebo Brinker (written last in the series, but chronologically first in the Beebo Brinker stories), we learn that Beebo developed her commitment to the gay and lesbian community after she fled to Greenwich Village from her farm in rural USA.
Beebo has grown up her whole life feeling like a man trapped in a female body, which explains her natural gravitation towards the butch role. Beebo has dated many women and played the field by the time she winds up with Laura, which gives her a more grounded perspective on life and love that Laura lacks. It is this perspective, and not just her gender presentation, that allows her to be the butch in her relationship with Laura. Her perspective allows her to guide Laura and act as a protector, attributes that are usually associated with masculinity. Because Beebo and Laura are prototypical butch and femme lesbians, the stories help us to understand why and how it is that lesbians create and maintain such distinct gender roles within their relationships.
Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: Lesbian Pulp as Literary Realism
While many critics have derided Bannon’s work for reflecting homophobic views (by arguing that her books feed on the image of homosexuals as alcoholic and promiscuous), readers must contextualize the novels and understand that the books merely reflect the attitudes about gays and lesbians that were prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s. Bannon’s books are valuable for the very fact that they are able to reflect the self-internalized homophobia that many queers must confront during the coming out process.
Likewise, the historical setting of Bannon’s novels is extremely tied up in the maintenance of distinct boundaries between butch and femme. The importance of these boundaries is explained by Madelaine Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy in Martin Duberman’s book Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past:
Three features of lesbian sexuality during the Forties and Fifties suggest its integral connection with the lesbian community’s cultural-political development. First, butch-fem roles created an authentic lesbian sexuality appropriate to the flourishing of an independent lesbian culture. Second, lesbians actively pursued rich and fulfilling sexual lives at a time when sexual subjectivity was not the norm for women. This behavior was not only consistent with the creation of a separate lesbian culture, but it also represented the roots of a personal and political feminism that characterized the gay liberation movement of the Sixties. Third, although butch-fem roles and the pursuit of sexual autonomy remained constant throughout this period, sexual mores changed in relation to the evolving forms of resistance to oppression. (p. 431)
Therefore, the division of butch and femme helped to formulate a strong lesbian community because each person in the community had a particular role to play, a role that remained relatively stable despite changing attitudes towards sex, gender and sexuality in society at large. While the rest of the country was headed into the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Davis and Kennedy found that gender roles and sexual practices within the lesbian community remained rather static, since lesbians already had a greater degree of freedom to express themselves sexually than did their heterosexual counterparts. The sense of belonging and stability that the butch-femme dyad helped to create was, in reality, an integral part of the politicization of the lesbian community because it helped demonstrate that there was, in fact, a somewhat cohesive lesbian community to be found in the bars and not just a bunch of women meeting for a few drinks and a random hook-up.
Reading Between the Lines: Looking for Meaning Within Lesbian Pulp
The construction of a butch-femme dichotomy occurs at the very outset of Odd Girl Out. Beth, who is the butch in Laura’s first relationship, loves to swear, likes to flirt with authority and easily takes charge of any situation. Playing upon stereotypical notions of masculine chivalry and feminine passivity and helplessness, Beth is described as leading Laura throughout their relationship and towards Laura’s discovery of her sexual orientation. These roles are established early on in the relationship:
[Beth] was enjoying this new role of guide and guardian, enjoying even more Laura’s unquestioning acceptance of it. They found themselves playing a pleasant little game without ever having to refer to the rules: when they reached the door to the back stairs together, Laura stopped, as if automatically, and let Beth hold the door for her. Laura, who tried almost instinctively to be more polite than anybody else, readily gave up all the small faintly masculine courtesies to Beth, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as if Beth expected it of her. (Odd Girl Out, p. 12)
In the 1940s and 1950s, chivalry was strictly assigned to the men in heterosexual relationships. Opening the door for Laura clearly marks Beth as the butch because she is asserting dominance over Laura. This is carried on throughout their relationship as Beth makes all the important decisions concerning the relationship.
More important than mannerisms, however, are the styles of dress that each partner adopts in a lesbian relationship. Laura is femme because she has long hair and wears dresses. She has a difficult time coming out as a lesbian because she doesn’t feel like she has a lesbian’s body:
She had breasts and full hips like other girls. She wore lipstick and curled her hair. Her brow, the crook of her arms, the fit of her legs—everything was feminine. She held her fists to her cheeks and stared out the window at the gathering night and asked God for an answer. She thought that homosexual women were great strong creatures in slacks with brush cuts and deep voices; unhappy things, standouts in a crowd. She looked back at herself, hugging her bosom as if to comfort herself, and she thought, “I don’t want to be a boy. I don’t want to be like them. I’m a girl. I am a girl. That’s what I want to be. But if I’m a girl, why do I love a girl? What’s wrong with me?” (Odd Girl Out, 24)
This side of the lesbian spectrum is important, because it contradicts the assumption that all lesbians want to be men and that lesbians do not try to look feminine. Moreover, it contributes to the sense of confusion that occurs if people conflate sex and gender with sexual orientation, since femme lesbians find the core of their identity tied up in socially defined characteristics of femininity. It is a misnomer to believe that all feminine women have sex with masculine men.
Beebo, on the other hand, defines herself as butch by wearing slacks and closely cropped hair. Beebo has a strong sense of bodily dysphoria that makes her feel like a man trapped inside a female body. On several occasions, she mentions this discomfort:
“[There’s nothing wrong with my body], except there’s a boy inside . . . And he has to live without all the masculine trimmings other boys take for granted. Jack, long before I knew anything about sex, I knew I wanted to be tall and strong and wear pants and ride horses and have a career . . . and never marry a man or learn to cook or raise babies. Never.” (Beebo Brinker, p. 634)
Beebo obviously attaches a strong connection between biological sex and gender based on the views society ascribes to a person’s gender based on their sex and this is what causes her to feel uncomfortable walking around in her own skin. This raises some important questions for Beebo:
“Leo, what if you’d been raised as a boy and learned to be a man, and you had to do it all in a female body? What if you had all your masculine feelings incarcerated under a pair of breasts? What would you do with yourself? How could you do live? Who would be your lover?” (Beebo Brinker, p. 772)
These are important questions because they help us to deconstruct the link between sex, gender and sexuality.
Because of her comfort with a masculine gender presentation, Beebo chooses a job as an elevator operator so that she can wear pants to work. Laura uses this against Beebo in a very heated fight when she says:
“You’re ridiculous . . . You’re a little girl trying to be a little boy. And you run an elevator for the privilege. Grow up, Beebo. You’ll never be a little boy. Or a big boy. You just haven’t got what it takes. Not all the elevators in the world can make a boy of you. You can wear pants ‘til you’re blue in the face and it won’t change what’s underneath.” (I Am a Woman, p. 345)
It is important to note two things in this dialogue that help us to understand the butch lesbian identity. First, the phrase, ‘you haven’t got what it takes,’ implies that Beebo lacks a phallus and that her masculinity is incomplete because of her biology. The comment also reflects and sustains a sense of realism because it mirrors social attitudes about butch-femme sexual practice:
Today, butch-fem roles often elicit deep emotional reactions from many heterosexuals and lesbians. The former are affronted by women assuming male prerogatives, the latter by lesbians adopting male-defined role models. The hostility is exemplified by the present ugly stereotype of the butch-fem sexual dyad: the butch with her dildo or penis substitute, trying to imitate a man, and the simpering passive fem who is kept in her place by ignorance. This representation evokes pity for lesbians because women who so interact must certainly be sexually unfulfilled; one partner cannot achieve satisfaction because she lacks the ‘true’ organ of pleasure, and the other is cheated because she is denied the complete experience of the ‘real thing’ . . . (Davis & Kennedy, in Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past, edited by Martin Duberman, p. 432)
Such a comment is tied up in the conflation of sex and gender and implies that the only valid form of sexual practice involves phallic-vaginal intercourse.
Secondly, the comment, “you can wear pants ‘til you’re blue in the face,” is a reference to both Beebo’s clothing and her role within the relationship. “Wearing the pants in the family” was a common phrase in the 1950s to denote who the dominant (usually masculine male) partner was in a heterosexual relationship. Laura is attacking Beebo’s position as the butch by saying that she will never be more than a girl in slacks and that her deviation from the norm should be rejected. The dialogue shows Laura’s lack of respect for Beebo’s chosen gender presentation and the risks that she must take in order to wear the clothing that most comfortably suits her. In this sense, clothing very much makes the lesbian, because it helps her visibly wear the markings of gender on her body. Laura uses this against Beebo for the very reason that Beebo’s identity is very tied to the clothes that she wears and this is an attack on her very being. This supports the claim that gender cannot be conflated with sex or sexual orientation because each of these things constitutes a separate (albeit connected) part of a person’s identity.
Moreover, butch-femme roles are constructed in the bedroom. As Davis and Kennedy note, butch-femme roles:
[C]onstituted a powerful code of behavior that shaped the way individuals handled themselves in daily life, including sexual expression. In addition, roles were the primary organizer for the lesbian stance toward the straight world as well as for building love relationships and for making friends. (431-432)
They also explain that:
The meaning of butch-fem roles during the 1940s and 1950s was multidimensional. In addition to the political implications embedded in butch-fem appearance, butch-fem roles organized lesbian intimacy, creating and expressing a distinctive eroticism. Intrinsic to the butch-fem dyad was the presumption that the butch was the physically active partner and the leader in lovemaking . . . Insofar as the butch was the “doer” and the fem was the desired one, butch-fem roles indeed parallel the male-female roles in heterosexuality. Yet, unlike what transpires in the dynamics of most heterosexual relationships, the butch’s foremost objective was to give sexual pleasure to a fem. It was in satisfying her that the butch received fulfillment. (Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, p. 191)
This is certainly true for Beebo and Laura. Beebo is responsible for initiating sexual contact with Laura. For instance, in one of their first sexual encounters:
Outraged, Laura tried to scratch her, but Beebo pinned her back against the bathroom door and kissed her. Laura bit her and only made her laugh. With a feeling of excitement so strong it almost made her sick, Laura knew what was coming. ‘No!’ she exclaimed, suddenly sobbing. ‘No, I won’t! No!’ But it was submissive, helpless. Beebo forced her to her knees. Standing spread-legged beside her, she put her strong hands behind Laura’s neck and pressed Laura’s face into her belly . . . Frustration and desire were both so strong in Laura that she was nearly out of her mind. Her weakness had got her again, and Beebo would make the most of it. (I Am a Woman, p. 332)
Beebo is clearly exerting sexual dominance in this scene and the use of force, typically associated with masculine sexual behavior, is condoned because it puts Laura in the proper feminine, submissive position. Laura does not reciprocate the giving of sexual pleasure and Beebo is satisfied merely to please her lover. So, although Laura and Beebo do have a give and take relationship, Beebo is the one responsible for initiating sex in most instances, a highly critical part of maintaining the butch-femme dichotomy.
Happy Endings: Implications for a Postmodern Generation
It is important to recognize that the rigid construction of gender roles within lesbian relationships mirrored the strict division of gender roles within heterosexual relationships during the 1940s and 1950s. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of the butch-femme dichotomy with the claim that such a dichotomy exists in an effort of “heteronormalize” lesbian relationships. The existence of butch-femme was an integral part of securing community cohesion and stability. Davis and Kennedy note that role-appropriate sexuality persisted within the lesbian community, even while people’s attitudes towards sex relaxed in society at large. The assumption that butch-femme roles were designed make lesbian relationships more “normal” overlooks the fact that while untouchability was an important part of the butch role, even the most stone butches had more egalitarian sexual relationships with their partners than heterosexual men did with theirs.
Moreover, femmes had much more leeway in their ability to be sexually active than did feminine, heterosexual women, because females in heterosexual relationships were supposed to be entirely passive and uninterested in sex. Femmes, on the other hand, “were not passive receivers of pleasure, but for the most part, knew what they wanted and pursued it. Many butches attributed their knowledge of sex to femmes, who educated them by their sexual responsiveness, as well as their explicit directions in lovemaking.” (Davis & Kennedy 1989, 436) In the concluding pages of Beebo Brinker, Beebo tells her lover Paula that their first sexual encounter brought Beebo “out of the closet,” since it was her first time making love to a women and that Paula’s responses taught Beebo everything about sex. Therefore, the novels help to illustrate the greater level of freedom that lesbians had to pursue a fuller range of sexual activity than did the heterosexual women of that era.
Additionally, the development of butch-femme roles led to the establishment of a lesbian community that had its own culture and codes of behavior. Consequently, we must look to the past to gain a greater appreciation for the relative freedom that lesbians have in the year 2013 to express their gender and sexuality in a variety of ways.
The importance of the fluidity of these gender roles should not be overlooked or discarded out of hand. Those of us who seek to deconstruct static notions of sex, gender and sexuality should not cast aside the importance of butch/femme for those who find empowerment within these aspects of lesbian identity. Today, we are quintessentially pomo homos who take pride in the fact that we can play with our sexuality and gender presentation to fit our mood. But we cannot forget that there was a long, bitter struggle to get to this point and we owe a great deal to the gays and lesbians who came before us and made it possible for us to have that kind of freedom. By comparing Bannon’s books to oral histories like the ones recorded by Madelaine Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy, we see that even fiction has a basis in reality. Bannon’s novels were certainly revolutionary for their time, but they are still relevant now for the very fact that even though the books were never meant to last, they have helped to quell the silence that surrounds lesbian existence.
* Nealon, Christopher. “Invert-History: The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction.” New Literary History. 31.4 (2000): 745-764.
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.