Partly Inflated Butch
Are you a woman-lovin’ woman? Do you enjoy a little giggle on the toilet? Well, then this is the book for you. Not too deep or controversial, Ellen Orleans’ newest book The Inflatable Butch offers you a collection of light-hearted short stories that find humor in just about every lesbian cliche ever created: attending an ex-girlfriend’s commitment ceremony, “born gay” vs. “made gay” issues, the drama of lesbian love, the Indigo Girls, being closeted, S/M, moving in too soon with a new girlfriend, women’s bookstores, etc….
What is refreshing about this book is that Orleans seems well aware of the need to bring humor into the lesbian circuit. Indeed, she has written four other books suitably titled for this purpose, including The Butches of Madison County (for which she won the Lambda Literary Award) and Who Cares if It’s a Choice? In The Inflatable Butch, each of these three dozen stories is written just short enough to give you a moment’s chuckle and an opportunity, should you care to take it, for a hastened discussion on issues surrounding lesbians’ existence: lesbian identity, lesbian relationships, lesbian sex, and lesbian stereotypes.
Subtle but somewhat bittersweet, the book offers a strange mix of humor and seriousness in one neat little bow-tied package. Take the tale about JeHomo’s Witnesses, in which Orleans admires the persistence of Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to her door and decides lesbians and gay men should be able to do the same in spreading the good news about homosexuality. Instead of being concerned about the afterlife, JoHomo’s Witnesses are concerned with people’s sex lives. Friendly yet persistent, JeHoma’s Witnesses come to your door and ask questions like, “How do you know you’re not homosexual unless you’ve tried it?” and offer free publications (the “Witchtower” for potential lesbians; “the Bitchtower” for potential gay men) until you agree to convert. This story is silly when thinking about troops of lesbians and gay men actively recruiting more people for their cause. But it also taps into much broader societal and religiously based fears of a “gay agenda,” whereby the lesbian and gay community really is secretly trying to woo people into joining the dark side and “turning” gay.
Another amusing story about polyamory (i.e. open relationships) talks about the confusion surrounding lesbians’ definitions of open relationships and the possible horror of mixing up little personal habits with different lovers (“I thought you liked cream in your coffee?” “But you like it when I slide my fing- oops, nevermind…”). While this scenario is sure to evoke at least a smirk from the reader who may have experienced a similar conflict, it taps into the more serious issue of the lack of concrete definitions available for lesbians in defining themselves, and in validating the commitment of their relationships when there is no legal system in place to recognize it.
Overall, The Inflatable Butch is great coffee table reading for the next lesbian dinner you’re planning on hosting. However, torn between a self-interest in promoting queer writing and a loyalty to artistic integrity, this reviewer must side with integrity: this blow-up doll of a book is only partly inflated. Ironically, while Orleans’ intent may be to unite lesbians through humor in their shared experiences, the book serves to further segregate the lesbian community from other people by triumphing lesbian-directed humor over, well, humor itself. Whether or not you may find this book funny, lesbian readers can count on feeling pigeonholed by their sexuality, while non-lesbian readers are simply left out of the fun.
It is a welcome gesture of Orleans to bring humor into the lesbian community, which is generally more associated with political, legal, or moral tangles than with laughter. But she limits herself as a storyteller by locking herself into a “lesbian-only” tale to tell. The result is that she severely reduces her audience to self-described, self-aware, stereotype-aware lesbians. And even if you fall into this group, such a label-oriented focus behind humor is quick to show its lack of substance. Each story winds up with some kind of larger-picture statement about lesbian life, yet it falls short because you just can’t sum up something universal about lesbian life in a two-page quip. In fact, the very categorizations of and assumptions about all lesbians being the same is simultaneously the focus of Orleans’ humor and the site of the book’s demise.
Perhaps Orleans’ humor would be most appreciated somewhere like HBO. Imagine Sex and the City for lesbians, something where you could tune in every week for half and hour and follow the antics of a group of sexually liberated, identity-searching, hip, middle-aged dykes. These women-who would provide you with actual characters with whom you could identity—would be so amusing that, despite their shallow and consistently lesbian-focused discussions, their unique styles and demeanors would continue to make you laugh and think about their dramas in the context of your own life.
The reason this scenario doesn’t quite work in The Inflatable Butch is because, simply put, it speaks at once to every lesbian and no lesbian. The assumption of a universalized lesbian to which Orleans targets her humor falls apart as soon as any lesbian reader realizes that she is not that subject. Indeed, had Orleans been working from a frame of mind not based in generalized lesbian subjectivity but instead in a diversified understanding of who lesbians are, perhaps The Inflatable Butch would have offered a more comfortable balance between chuckling at cliches that run rampant in the lesbian community and in thinking about what being a lesbian means specifically to you.