Tag Archives: femme

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.

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On femme shame and feminist solidarity.

6 Feb

This has been my summer of femme: I’ve been fairly consistently made up, dressed up, and chatted up as a super girly supergirl. And I love that, I love playing princess and twirling my skirt and drinking tea with curled pinkie. I think I make it clear that it’s not all I do, but I do love it.

But I’ve met a fair few people through kink in the last several months, who’ve never known my history of more eclectic gender display, and with whom I haven’t really discussed politics at all — which might not sound so shocking but really it’d been years since I’d met any substantial number of people outside of activist circles, with whom I couldn’t readily assume certain values. Instead I’ve been trying to assume the best of people, and mostly I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

There have been instances where I’ve been uncomfortable, though, and realised that my arguments aren’t prepared for dominant culture, that I rely on the terrain of a particular discourse. When I launch my rhetoric leaps without this, they start shaky. Sometimes I don’t start at all — without a community to back up calling someone out, without recognising that as a specific cultural intervention and being able to call on all the strategies and wisdom that involves, it’s just too scary.

Being a young, thin, femme woman who fucks men means that men talk to you like you might agree with what they think of other women, who they think aren’t you but who you know may as well be you — who you will be, one day. It’s not enough to call yourself a feminist, to provide your alternative viewpoint somewhere further down the conversation. You can be horrified, but most likely your horror isn’t palpable, because that’s not what’s on his mind. You have to say it: This upsets me, this is unacceptable to me. But often I don’t.

It’s not just men, either — I’m no less devastated by women who deride all the ugly/old/fat/butch women on the scene. But either way it’s a feminist problem, because people rarely talk about men like their only worth is their fuckability. Not that men don’t have to grapple with that, but that there’s something outside it for them. And obviously (again again) I don’t have a problem with people having physical preferences, but there’s a difference between saying what you like and saying how you think other people should be.

[ Aside: I find it strange (and frankly, hilarious) that people assume that I’m only attracted to women who look like me, especially when those people are men trying to get into my bed. (If that theory holds, it won’t work for you, mister.) I have fucked people double my age, double my weight, a foot or more taller, and with hair in entirely different places. But also my femme identity depends on that being an option, not a requirement — if you take away the intentionality, you take away all my pleasure. ]

So maybe I should say here, because someone might read it: I will always, always take the side of the woman you scorn. I will always empathise with her, even if it seems we’re categorically different, because I know we’re serialised the same. Even if I’m silent, even if I sleep with you anyway, I will mourn the moment later, and feel ashamed.

Afterthought (10 April 2010)

I just read this interview with Jaclyn Friedman, ‘Fucking While Feminist’, which seems pertinent. She says some really transphobic things, but I do like the idea of the various tests, like applying the Bechdel test to internet profile interests.