It does not matter where you are on the sexuality spectrum, all gender is performance. In our unpacking of gender and social constructs, all of it is really and intensely personal. Gender coherence, consistency, conformity and identity are culturally mandated normative ideals. Unfortunately, the ability to tolerate the ambiguity and instability of gender roles is more sustainable than the goal of “attaining” a single, pure, sex‐appropriate view of oneself.

Basically, because of all the things that have worked together to make you the person you are, you have a better chance at morphing gender roles to fit your reality than to shed every intricate layer to become a non-categorized being. (Although non-binary people continuously forge the way for us every day. We give thanks!)

This existential crisis is the bane of the LGBTQIA community and the reason that “identity” is so complicated. For the purpose of this article, let’s discuss WSW. The debate on female masculinity rages on but one thing is clear: It goes much further than aesthetics. Female masculinity expresses itself as a combination of those things that are inherently you and those things imposed on you. It is not about dressing or presenting as masculine; it is having and exhibiting different aspects of masculinity. Sometimes your mentality and logic, or even your emotions, can have more masculine traits, without the physical expression of masculinity. Some describe female masculinity as all the “best parts” of masculinity without the misogyny, but I beg to differ. I want to expound on the ways in which it can be problematic, specifically on the aspect of “emotional masculinity”.

Female masculinity expresses itself as a combination of those things that are inherently you and those things imposed on you.

To be clear, by this definition I’m not only referring to the stems, butches, bois and studs who exhibit emotional masculinity. I am also referring to the femmes that fall into this category. (Also, “boo” to categories and division but “yay” to self-expression!)

Emotional labour and female masculinity

Gender is co-constructed and enacted within relationships. Every gender has its respective task in making the relationship work and for women in general the main task is emotional labour. These normative dynamics, including the type and division of emotional work, apply for WSW’s when one partner exhibits emotional masculinity.

Read: What is Lesbian Now?

Hochschild (1979) originally coined the term “emotional labour” to refer to efforts involved in managing personal emotions in an attempt to promote positive emotions in others. She suggested that emotional labour would be most prevalent in the context of intimate relationships and that it would be strongly gendered as a result of gendered expectations and inequality in heterosexual relationships. Consequently, women would be more likely than men to “cultivate the habit of suppressing their own feelings [and when doing so] affirms, enhances, and celebrates the well-being and status of others”.

In the normative context, girls tend to express their emotions more openly, while boys learn that sharing their feelings is less than manly. This gender difference seems so obvious that it rarely gets questioned, yet it is not really clear why emotional stoicism is a key part of the masculine gender role. Even with this lack of clarity, it is a major trait of how masculinity presents itself.

In the normative context, girls tend to express their emotions more openly, while boys learn that sharing their feelings is less than manly.

For WSW emotional masculinity is a challenge that some find insurmountable. Women who exhibit the trait leave the emotional labour needed to sustain the relationship to their partners just as it would occur in a heteronormative relationship. Emotional labour is a common strategy for enhancing intimacy between partners and, in heterosexual relationships, women are much more likely than men to do this kind of ‘emotional work’. They will work harder to promote emotional intimacy in their relationships by urging communication and the sharing of personal feelings.

In a manuscript authored by the sociologists Debra Umberson, Mieke Beth Thomeer and Amy C. Lodge, they state: “Women in heterosexual relationships are more likely than men to repress their own feelings (a form of emotion work) to foster intimacy and their partner’s well-being.”

“Cultural ideas about women (as more emotional, supportive, and reactive) and men (as less emotional and more independent, and proactive) shape behavioral norms, reproducing beliefs about purportedly ‘natural’ gendered behavior.”

Why is it problematic?

Research on lesbian couples has highlighted shared emotional labour as the cause of the relative lack of boundaries between lesbian partners with regard to intimacy and emotions. WSW place greater emphasis on emotional intimacy for positive interactions. Fact is, outside of sexuality, the sacred nature of minimal boundaries in lesbian relationships is what makes them unique.

Women are not just attracted to other women for the physical perks alone; the attraction extends to the openness they inherently have. That in WSW relationships the emotional labour is shared and appreciated is what makes the relationships less taxing. Emotional stoicism can be a gendered behaviour that alters this dynamic, leaving the burden of emotional labour on one partner, just as in imbalanced heteronormative relationships.

One the one hand some feminists have seen butch/femme (in this case emotionally masculine/feminine) dynamics as regressive; that they are a misguided reflection of heterosexual norms. Norms that mean women who already have to constantly toil to validate their realities as women and also as gay must now extend the toiling to relationships that are historically less emotionally intensive. Which seems like a rip-off. To add to this, there is the aspect of generational transference, which may mean that these traits could be passed on to the younger generation as the status quo or studied gender behaviour in the gay context. This would alter the fabric of lesbian relationships, making them conform even more to heteronormativity.

Read: What can men learn from lesbians about sex?

On the other hand, stoicism was gendered for us. Anyone could be stoic, really, as it is a matter of personality type or temperament, which is more ‘natural’ behaviour and less performed gender. So, if a person presents as emotionally masculine, this may just be inherent and not necessarily learned behaviour.

For a lot of WSW who uphold gender roles even in their gay context, emotional masculinity in a partner is just more of the same dynamics they already encounter. But for ‘conservative’ WSW that are looking for ‘traditional’ relationships, emotional masculinity more than physical masculinity may not be welcome and may be a hard pass.

One thing is for sure, relationships are hard across the board and the more partners do to lighten each other’s load, the better for everyone.