Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

"Called Me Crazy": Insanity and Non-Normative, Butch Identities

jfwright's picture
See video

          As Eli Clare describes in Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, queer identity has been treated as madness, and queer people have been pathogized and condescended to for centuries:

“[q]ueer identity has been pathologized and medicalized. Until 1973, homosexuality wasconsidered a psychiatric disorder. Today transsexuality and transgenderism, under the names of gender dysphoria and gender identity disorder, are classified as psychiatric conditions. Queerness is all too frequently intertwined with shame, silence, and isolation…[q]ueer people deal with gawking all the time: when we hold hands in public, defy gender boundaries and norms, insist on recognition for our relationships and families…Queer people have been told for centuries by church, state, and science that our bodies are abnormal” (Clare 2009:112-113).

Under what circumstances is the pathologization and misunderstanding of queer gender identities still active? Certainly, transgender individuals interested in physical transition are still subject to the pathologization of identity, but what about those individuals who, though outside the bounds of traditional gender presentation and identity, choose not to transition physically? How are the identities of these individuals seen as madness, and continually treated as a form of insanity rather than identity? An examination of art produced by queer individuals surrounding butch and genderqueer individuals who have been sexed female will begin to elucidate the sorts of pain and patholigization still experienced by individuals whose gender presentations and identities are, in some senses, queer.

          The most requested song (Margaret Cho and Young James Dean) by the band Girlyman, “Young James Dean” (Girlyman 2005) talks about a disjuncture from a strictly feminine gender identity. This song, about butch identity, is sung and was written by a butch, female-identified member of the band named Ty Greenstein. In an interview about writing the song, Greenstein explains that her inspiration was a memoir called The Last Time I Wore a Dress, written by a trans man, Dylan Scholinsky, who was sent to “mental institutions” (Margaret Cho and Young James Dean) throughout his childhood simply because his gender was at odds with his assigned sex. Although as the interview goes on, the band members explain that the song is a compilation of experiences from Scholinsky’s and Greenstein’s lives as well as lives of other queer individuals, the perception of a threatening deviation from normative identity is a threat that runs throughout the song. Another band member, JJ, described her understanding of the song in the following way:

…you don’t fit in with who you are, which is a girl, and you don’t fit in with the guy who you’re sort of emulating, so everyone is sort of like, you know, you’re a freak, you’re weird, but at the same time you know you’re doing the right thing, and there this sort of maverick quality…that you’re forging ahead with your style and what you know is right. (Margaret Cho and a Young James Dean)

           The charged separation from normative gender identities is felt throughout the song:

All the real girls with their backs turned

called me crazy

called me crazy…


I guess I’ll feel less than real all my life

With these feathers I made,

Under me, lifting me up


But I was a Young James Dean

With a way with the ladies

All the real boys in their black jeans called me crazy

Called me crazy

Called me crazy

Called me crazy (Girlyman 2005)


Although the Young James Dean was assigned a female sex, their gender is illegible; they are neither a “real girl” nor a “real boy”; they[i] are simply a Young James Dean. The Young James Dean’s gender is the only gender not elucidated at any point in the song; no pronouns are used. However, what is repeated many times over the course of the song is the perception of insanity, as the Young James Dean is repeatedly called “crazy”; as long as the Young James Dean refuses to cooperate with hegemonic gender categories, they will be described as insane. Later in the song, the Young James Dean’s experiences working in a diner are described:

I worked for a while in a diner

The manager said I had to wear that little uniform

Said I was part of the problem


But I was in love with that blonde girl

She kissed me twice behind the counter

But when I asked her to get into my car,

She called her man, said ‘Don’t bother her.’ (Girlyman 2005)


Because the Young James Dean’s assigned sex is female, they are forced to “wear that little uniform”; here, bodily sex is willfully substituted for gender, and the Young James Dean is forced to comply with instructions that disregard their identity. The Young James Dean is contrasted against the “little blonde girl” and “her man,” and falls short on both accounts: neither able to “wear the little uniform” nor to conform to hegemonic standards of masculinity, the Young James Dean is rejected by the blonde girl in favor of a “man” and chastised by the manager for not assuming their ‘proper’ identity.

            Illegible identities are also discussed in Ivan Coyote’s “Which Doctor,” in which Coyote discusses getting sick away from home, and away form a queer and trans*[ii] friendly health clinic. Coyote describes her fears in the following way:

“I could see it unfolding like a homo horror movie plot in my mind: the doctor walking into the waiting room  with my chart in his hand, and calling out my legal name, and then doing a double take when I stood to follow           him. Even though all I needed was a stethoscope on my chest, in my nightmare I am naked except for a           paper dress, on my back on the examination bed with my icy feet in the stirrups, trying to explain my complicated gender identity to an ex-military doctor with a brush cut and still muscular forearms…I am crying and he is frowning.” (Coyote 2010:24)

 Once again, a substitution of assigned sex for gender leads to a terrifying scenario. At odds with the doctor’s perception of reality – assigned sex – Coyote’s non-binary identity would be disregarded, and she[iii] would be treated as a woman. Because the doctor would be unwilling to understand her “complicated gender identity,” he would assume that she was not sane enough to make her own decisions regarding her medical care. Mad and on display for examination, Coyote imagines that she will be stripped naked for the doctor to see. This is not dissimilar to the “the medical practice of public stripping” (Clare 2009:103) discussed by Clare, in which

“disabled children to their underwear and examining them in front of large groups of doctors, medical            students, physical therapists, and rehabilitation specialists…They justify public stripping by saying it’s a training tool for students, a way for a team of professionals to pool knowledge…[this] takes…control away…[and] lets a large group of nondisabled people gawk unabashedly…” (Clare 2009:103-104).

In a terrifying vision of what will happen when her pathologized identity comes to light, Coyote fears that she will be treated as many others whose lives and bodies have been pathologized: her wishes will be disregarded, and she will be stripped.

            The imagery of public stripping a gender non-normative individual can also be seen in If These Walls Could Talk 2. The section of this movie that takes place in 1972 tells the story of a second-wave feminist, Linda, who sleeps with a butch, female-bodied person, Amy. In the scene immediately preceding the scene in which Amy is publicly stripped, Linda has just slept with Amy, and wakes up in Amy’s house. She goes to take a toothbrush out of Amy’s medicine cabinet, but upon opening the door, she finds a picture of a very young Amy wearing a dress and standing with her family. When she leaves the bathroom, she initiates the following conversation:

Linda: So am I the woman and you’re the man?      

Amy: No.

Linda: Then why don’t you dress like one?

Amy: This is how I feel comfortable.

Linda: Do you see yourself as a woman?

Amy: Don’t you think I know what people think of me? This is me. I can’t be any other way.

Linda: Have you ever been –

Amy (interrupting): -- What’s bothering you?

 Linda is unable to comprehend why Amy would not dress “like [a woman]”; again, assigned sex is misunderstood to be gender. Now that Linda has seen an image of Amy that depicts her original position as female, she believes that Amy’s identity has been constructed.

            The stripping scene immediately follows. In this scene, Linda introduces Amy to friends of hers, all of whom are lesbians and second-wave feminists. These womencomment that Amy, who wears a collared shirt and a tie, “has been suffocating herself and she doesn’t even realize.” One of Linda’s friends, Karen, throws a feminine, billowy shirt at Amy, and forces Amy to change into it. When Amy attempts to leave the room, Karen forces Amy to change in front of the group, saying, “we’re all women here.” Karen forces Amy to identify herself with her assigned sex, and rejects any identification other than that of a woman for someone who has been sexed female. Eventually, Amy changes in front of the other women, but immediately leaves because she has been humiliated. Thus, Amy has been typed as insane: stripped of her clothes and her dignity, the women force her to define herself in terms of normative gender. There is no middle ground between genders, and assigned sex must determine Amy’s gender identity. Although this scene portrays a scenario from 1972, the power of this scene comes from the ways in which gender non-conforming individuals are still treated.

            The ways in which individuals have been forced to use assigned sex to dictate gender identity has led to a perception of insanity among gender non-normative individuals. Because assigned sex is all too frequently used to stand in for gender, individuals who are female-bodied but do not have a feminine gender presentation and/or have a gender identity other than that of a woman are stripped, literally and metaphorically, of their agency, and are treated as irrational and unable to decide for themselves how they want to experience gender.


Works Cited

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. 2nd ed. 10. Brooklyn: South End Press, 2009.

Coolidge, Martha, Dir. If These Walls Could Talk 2. Dir. Coolidge, Martha. Perf. Williams, Michelle, Sevigny, Chloe. HBO, 1996. Film.

Coyote, Ivan E. Missed Her. Vancouver: Arsenal Press, 2010.

Girlyman. “Young James Dean.” Little Star. Daemon Records, 2005. CD.

“Margaret Cho and a Young James Dean”:

[i] I will be using “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun throughout this essay to refer to individuals whose gender is unclear or non-normative.

[ii] I am using trans* as an umbrella term for individuals who do not conform to normative gender categories.

[iii] Ivan Coyote has stated that she is comfortable with female pronouns in multiple works, and refers to herself with female pronouns throughout the anthology of short stories that “Which Doctor” is from.

See video


jfwright's picture


I had a bit of trouble with the video I chose, too. I wanted to illustrate where I was getting my ideas from, but the videos that accompany "Young James Dean" are always about the formation of a queer community. That's definitely an important thing to think about, but there is a kind of melancholy in the lyrics that never seems adequately expressed through these joyful visual celebrations. It's a bit of a disconnect that throws me off, too. The lyrics for "Young James Dean" can be found here: The first time I heard this song was when it was accompanied by another video, the main music video for the song: . I questioned if I was hearing the lyrics right; I even thought that the part about the little blonde girl said, "She called her man, said, 'don't bother her,'" as in, she was chosing the Young James Dean over her man. But, I thought that the video provided an interesting discussion of gender insanity, so I included it. I definitely understand the disjuncture.

I suppose I hadn't adequately addressed the questions of who is upset by butch identity: individuals of both (binary!) genders are threatened for very different reasons. I had included a discussion of individuals identified by gendered pronouns in a previous edit of the paper, but had to cut it out because the paper was becoming unreasonably long. I really wish I had included it! I thought it was interesting that the manager's gendered identity was not clear, but most individuals hearing the song would probably assume that the manager was a man. Why I, too, thought that is also an interesting question: do I expect men to be more prejudiced or more likely to enforce gender roles? Do I expect women not to be managers? I really couldn't say. I'm kicking myself for leaving that discussion out, though; it was a difficult decision to cut it, and I could see how it might've weakened my argument.

Kaye's picture

"owning that pride/redemption"

Embedding the "Margaret Cho and Young James Dean" video offers an interesting introduction to your web event.  While the lyrics of the song reveal how genderqueer people can be ridiculed and labeled as "crazy," the video is also  a joy-filled celebration of non-gender conforming expression.  Bringing in Ivan Coyote's story, "Which Doctor," and the scene from the 1996 film, If These Walls Could Talk 2 shows us how people with abnormal bodies continue to be publicly stripped of their dignity, resonant with the public stripping and exposure sanctioned in medical training. The humiliation that genderqueer people can experience and the pain they suffer is palpable in these examples. Yet, perhaps because the video set the tone for the web event, I was not left feeling discouraged, but rather hopeful that more and more people are discovering that "being yourself and not being normal, and having that be OK."

Two other notes:  I read the Bio on Ivan Coyote's website and discovered this wonderful quote that resonated with Karen Barad's ideas about intra-action:  "Ivan is interested in collaborations where the text and the score are equal players, not just storytelling with musical accompaniment, but a conversation between two artists: the text is listening to the chord progressions and pacing itself with the downbeat, and the music is responding to what happens next in the story."

You claim that the only character in the lyrics for "Young James Dean" whose gender identity is unknown is the Young James Dean.  However, the gender of the manager is also not specified.  It could be a woman or a man telling Young James Dean to wear that "little uniform."  The fact that no gendered pronouns are used makes me wonder if both women and men are equally unsettled by a butch female-bodied person.  The blonde girl kisses Young James Dean, but her "man" is upset.  In the movie, it's second-wave feminists and lesbians who strip Amy, while in Ivan Coyote's story, the doctor doing the exam is male.  Am I trying to read too much into these examples?