Tag Archives: intentionality

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 affinity.

2 Dec

I don’t enjoy being fetishised for my race. I generally don’t enjoy being racialised at all. But I get it if you like straight black hair and smooth bodies — that’s alright, I have certain preferences around physical attributes too; probably everyone does to some extent.

I’m much more put off by those who fetishise “Asian culture” and assume that will connect with me. I’ve lived in Melbourne since I was four. My intellectual inheritance is very much Western. I’m not westernised. Culture is never native, but Australian culture (including Asian Australian culture) is naturalised to me. My aesthetic, moral, political and intellectual values, as some kind of critical theory grrrl punk or whatever, spring from and struggle within a Western genealogy. Not that there’s nothing similar within various Asian cultures, or that similar strands there are necessarily imported. But when I say counter-culture, it’s counter to the dominant culture in my life.

My family has been through the Cultural Revolution followed by transnational migration, so I’m pretty aware that even the cultural practices I think of as Chinese are often unique to my family. Migrants from any country adapt their traditions to their new context. Besides which, culture is rapidly evolving in China itself too, as it is everywhere in the world.

When I first started identifying as a person of colour, I was so struck by the depth of my affinity with my new-found peers, I forgot for a moment how that affinity was constructed — as a very specific, strategic, deliberate political project. As Iris Marion Young might put it, we were a group that arose through a common intention in relation to our serialised condition – but the series itself is not already a group.

I’ve had friends and lovers from different backgrounds, and there’s no rule for what makes a strong connection. Two people may have “a lot in common” in terms of experiences, but it’s how we understand and respond to those experiences that creates affinity. Some of the most extreme instances of cultural dissonance I’ve experienced have been with people who have a very similar background. The fissure between our identities and thoughts was so much more dramatic from having been produced out of such like experiences, the same trajectory suddenly diverged. And there are people I’m really close to because we’ve been through a lot of the same shit. We have this camaraderie which is so precious to me. It’s precious because it’s rare, and it’s rare because it’s a potent mix of similarity and solidarity — of experience and desire. The intersection of culture and subculture, seriality and intentionality is what positions me as a queer POC feminist, rather than a pansexual Asian woman, or a radical democrat.

For others, overlaying culture/subculture on seriality/intentionality won’t be appropriate. Many subcultures are founded around aesthetics, and people won’t consider their moral and political desires as situated in or in any way related to their subculture. While I can identify the former independently of the latter, and certainly it’s refreshing to speak to those with similar values who are outside these subcultures, my own subculture is very much a community of political intentionality, and I think locating my values within it helps keep them fresh and fighting. I’ve been grappling with a lot of subcultural resentment lately, but I have a lot of appreciation too. Behind the bandannas, black jeans, faux-hawks and glitter, sometimes there is some real serious support and solidarity.