Do we need a better word for "butch'"?

The only word that used to be available if you were non-straight and masculine presenting was "butch". Times have changed - and one woman has found that the term "Masculine of Center" strikes a chord with America's LGBTQ community.

Whether you’re straight or LGBTQ, chances are you’ve heard of the term ‘Butch’. After all, it’s been around for decades, pre-dating even the legalisation of homosexuality. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that by 2008 it had lost some of its appeal: it was in this year that African American activist and academic B. Cole declared that it was no longer relevant to her cultural identity, and instead coined the term ‘Masculine of Center’.

According to Cole, the only word that used to be available if you were non-straight and masculine presenting was ‘Butch’. Clearly, times have changed. “People call themselves all kinds of things now: in California people are more likely to call themselves ‘studs’. On the east coast, in New York, ‘aggressive’ is much more popular. In DC, Maryland, it’s more ‘dom’ (short for dominant). I wanted to make space to identify many different people to participate in the research project."

We are Skyping across the Atlantic. Cole sports a charismatic smile beneath her shaved head, and is more than happy to talk about the term that has taken over the underground queer community in the US.

‘Butch’ has always been seen as an identity for openly masculine-presenting women who wilfully challenge the gender status quo. However, many had seen that as restrictive in the past, or connected to negative stereotypes. ‘Masculine of Center’ represents the ‘Butch’ identity, but also goes above and beyond it in its inclusion of other less mainstream, more modern, queer and masculine-appropriating female identities.

Cole describes herself at the time as “challenged by the lack of language and just how powerful language is for creating disability.  For me, it was far less about creating a monolithic term than being able to speak to the political power of all of our identities, and at the same time recognise that there is a very important complexity – ‘Butch’ and all of these different terms are still very important to our cultural identity."

In the United States, MoC has “grown tremendously... there are trans-men and gender queer people who identify as ‘Masculine of Center’,” she says. “One of the most important things is that it’s about thinking of gender as a continuum... really all of us are a duality of masculinity and femininity.” However, despite coining the term during her Masters degree at the London School of Economics, her phrase has never broken the UK scene in quite the same way.

After finishing her Masters, Cole returned to the United States. There, in 2010, she founded a charity-based activist group for queer people of colour - The Brown Boi Project.  In its manifesto the group describes itself as “a community of ‘Masculine of Center’ womyn, men, two-spirit people, transmen, and our allies committed to transforming our privilege of masculinity, gender, and race into tools for achieving racial and gender justice.”

Cole’s work with The Brown Boi Project has aimed to create a space in which ‘Masculine of Center’ can exist, not just as an academic term but as a functional tool for non-straight societal representation. “I think that part of our work as academics and social change theorists is to be creating things. We get taught so often in critical theory to dissect and pull things apart as a form of critical enquiry…which is really exciting, but I think that in some ways we don’t have enough generative spaces where we’re building things that could work for us. I built this because it worked for me at the time, and its evolved in ways that I think have worked for other people.”

The Brown Boi Project provides regular retreats that focus on training individuals, particularly in regards to community organising and leadership development, around the issue of queer masculinity. With now over 5,700 likes on Facebook, the organisation has been growing rapidly; activists and community workers come from all over the United States to be trained. “We have 200 people apply for the odd 20 slots we fill on each of our cohorts, which I think speaks to a real desire and a renaissance around gender and masculinity.”

But what about those in the LGBTQ community for whom the identity MoC doesn’t appeal? “I am really excited for folks who find that the term ‘Masculine of Center’ speaks to their identity, and I also totally understand for folks that it doesn’t."

Will ‘Masculine of Center’ boomerang its way back across the pond, overtaking and encompassing ‘Butch’? If there is a need for it, according to Cole – and with this, only time can tell.

A rainbow flag symbolising gay pride hangs in Manhattan, New York. Do we need more terms to describe LGBTQ identities? Image: Getty
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA