Defining femme.

9 Aug

Essin’ Em at Femme’s Guide asked how we define femme, both our own femme and femme in general. It’s not easy. She locates the essence of femme in a certain kind of sass, saying

We give it out when we feel invisible, showing people that we have our own identity and please stop grouping me in with the other straight girls/women here, thank you very much.

Ulrika Dahl in Femmes of Power calls us “proud, fierce and intentional” (p 20), and that resonates with me. Though obviously it’s not exclusive to femme, I think intentionality is crucial.

Intent makes femme queer. And having sex with men, even cis men, can’t un-queer that: I am somewhat frustrated with queer femme identities being defined against heterosexuality. Invisibility sucks, but so does hating on straight women’s femininity, not to mention the implied biphobia and transphobia. If femme stands alone and doesn’t depend on a femme/butch opposition, femme writers need to stop centering our identities on our choices of partners. (I think oppositionality is hot, by the way, so long as the binary doesn’t pretend to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive.)

That said, femme is relational, if not oppositional. I’m not sure how to characterise the relationship of femme to either gender identity, presentation or position without limiting it in ways that exclude others, but I feel femme is oriented, in some way, towards femininity, whether it takes it apart, make it up, or fakes it real loud. And regardless of how much femme might reject traditional femininity (aesthetically, culturally and politically), I think for femme to be anything more than an overwrought but underthought excuse for my outfit despite my politics, femme has to be connected to femininity — to defend the feminine (1) in all its guises, even those that don’t appeal personally, rather than denying all association with whatever femininity isn’t queer, isn’t subversive, isn’t self-conscious (2).

If femme is conscious, that consciousness is rooted in the kind of feminism that questions the values of a masculinist culture, that asks us to rethink the worth of all that is called feminine and effeminate (3), and dismissed and diminished for it. Femme consciousness asks, why is architecture more serious than fashion, who decides what is public and what is private, and when will people stop asking me what I get paid for and let me tell them how I love?

So for me, femme is a collective cultural resistance; individually, something like risk-aware consensual gendering. And as Jeanette Winterson often says, “what you risk reveals what you value”. Femme is often framed in terms of what you put on (pearls and lipstick, heels and hose) but I think it’s more about what you take off — a certain kind of armour (4). Sass is not the same as bravado. It shares while it resists. Femme wears its heart on sleeve, and such gestures are not high maintenance, but often high risk: not only of invisibility, but also everything that femininity risks, whether or not it’s consensual, whether or not it’s intentional.(5)

I wish I could buy back the woman you stole

– Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Y Control”

I think femme is always extravagant, because femme is always expensive. Femme costs as much as I can afford, all the strength and flexibility I can afford, all the softness and forgiveness I can afford, but I’ll spend it. It’s worth it, and I want to be generous. I am trying to be generous. As generous as I’m greedy. This is femme for me.


1. The phrase “the feminine” sounds ambiguous and amorphous to me, which is how I intend it — though of course putting a definite article in front of an adjective could easily be read as making it something solid and sharp-edged. I think femininity varies enormously across cultures and is often contradictory within even the most specific, limited cultural space. I mean to convey that I’m not too sure what is this thing I’m talking about. So much for defining!

2. I tend to think femininity is always self-conscious, even when it is isn’t explicitly chosen. I want to resist the image of the unthinkingly feminine, the dumb femme, that queer femme ideas about intentionality seem to suggest.

3. I have thought about doing away with “femme” altogether, in broader solidarity with the feminine regardless of femme identity, but I like that “fem” connects “feminine”, “effeminate” and “feminism” . Much of what is called misogyny is more specifically denigration of the feminine — and this can affect people who aren’t femme-identified equally.

4. There’s a tension here: I think being feminine is often easier when you’re not dressed femininely. Compensatory gender and all that.

5. Obviously other gender identity and expression has its own risks. And when femininity is cisgender, it has substantial privileges (let’s separate, too, cisgender privilege from the specific perks of achieving ideal femininity). But I think femme has some specific and fairly constant risks: for example, femme endures intense public scrutiny, judgement, comparison and objectification even when it is gender-normative. Last year I said in response to something, somewhere

I think the most important thing you can do as a feminist is not to judge women in relation to patriarchal norms, whether that is belittling them for excelling in the achievement of ideal femininity, failing to meet that standard, or refusing to strive towards it.

and that’s far too individualist (as well as missing a bunch of other things), but I think that the level of vitriol directed at women who embody ideal femininity is vicious beyond ordinary competition and criticism, and far beyond some kind of comment on privilege.

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3 Responses to “Defining femme.”

  1. Essin' Em Tuesday 10 August, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    I love this. Thank you.

  2. Lizzie Tuesday 24 January, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    I love this so much. Femme phobia is in so much feminist theory, which really outdates it when it can’t be tied to gender equality.

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