Hi, folks! I’m Brigid, twenty-something queer femme femininist, environmental researcher, and aspiring badass. I live with my butch husbian, two rabbits, and an elderly cat in Washington, DC. I blog at O, Pioneers! about our misadventures in building a life that’s socially just, environmentally conscious, and personally fulfilling — from urban gardening and angry letter-writing to sociopolitical analysis and the occasional gratuitous pet photo shoot. I’m thrilled and honored to be guest blogging at Feministe these next couple of weeks.
In the winter of 2009, I was squeezed between my then-girlfriend (now husbian) and an old friend into the front seat of a pick-up truck, bouncing down a semi-paved road in my semi-rural hometown. I was simultaneously trying to catch up with the friend and introduce her to the girlfriend, semi-failing at both, when I referred in passing to being femme.
“Oh, but I don’t think, just because you’re a lesbian, you should have to be butch or femme,” said my friend.
Unfortunately, a nuanced understanding of butch and femme is absent from most discussions of gender, even feminist ones, and even in queer spaces. Luckily for you, to invert and paraphrase S. Bear Bergman, I know what femme is. I know, and I’m going to tell you, so listen up and take notes. First of all, femme is a noun. And an adjective. And a verb. It’s an identity, but it might also be a political stance. All I know is what I’ve lived, but I offer that now as introduction and explanation and self-discovery.
I’ve seen femme described as “intentional femininity.” Hexy wrote here not long ago that femme is “a queer gender oriented around performing femininity.” Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has said that “Femme is any way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt.” I often translate “femme” as “queer noncompulsory femininity,” a definition which grew in part from Sinclair Sexsmith’s explorations of butch and femme.
Queer: as in combating normativity, as in queering. Noncompulsory: in rejection of a femininity that is required for one half of the population and forbidden to the other. Femininity: as the embodiment of something that may be socially constructed and may be innate, but feels essential. Femme: because masculinity is not the only way to power.
Some fight compulsory femininity by rejecting it. Femme fights compulsory femininity by reclaiming and transforming it.
I came into my femme identity through this contrast. Growing up in a lazily but well-meaningly second-wave feminist household, I learned that I didn’t have to be girly. You don’t have to be weak. You should be better than those disgusting, sexual women on television. Good for you for not trying to look good for boys! I learned that femininity is weak. Femininity is silly. Acknowledging sexuality is pathetic and/or wrong. Male gaze is paramount.
There were also shades of any sex you could have would be rape and other fun, healthy messages for a young female person. A common theme, I’m coming to understand: you have no agency.
So I fought compulsory femininity by rejecting femininity altogether for a long time, just like I fought sexualization by rejecting sexuality. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that I didn’t realize I was gay until I was eighteen, and instead a near miracle that I realized it at all. It feels like no coincidence that soon after I came out to myself, I started wearing dangly earrings and jeans in my own size.
For some, liberation is realizing that femininity is not the only option. For me, liberation was realizing that femininity was an option. And that I didn’t have to compromise myself to take it.
Of course, historically, femme was a much less queer, much more compulsory identity. Within female-assigned-at-birth (FAAB) queer communities today, I perceive a disproportionate emphasis on androgyny and, on the flip side, disdain for butch and femme identities, prejudices which have grown at least partly in response to lesbian history. I don’t know what it was actually like to be gay in the 1920s or 1950s, much less what it was like to be femme then. But the narrative, at least, is that you had to be either butch or femme, because those were the only options available in lesbian communities. They were as compulsory within the lesbian community then as mainstream masculinity and femininity are for MAAB and FAAB people today. And, the narrative continues, old-school butch and femme roles grew out of a form of heteronormative oppression that survives today in an incredibly rude question sometimes put to lesbian couples of any gender presentation combination: “Which one of you is the man in the relationship?”
Today’s butch and femme, or their rough equivalents in various communities, can also be more or less prescriptive and confining. Indeed, blogs like Fuck Yeah Butches Fucking Butches show that certain behaviors, like butches dating each other, are still marginalized within the queer American neo-butch/femme culture I know best.
Even where femme is not explicitly dictatorial, standards can be brutal. I’ve found lots of femme voices online that claim sexual agency and promote body positivity. But they also often represent — or hold up as ideal — white women who are richer and “classier” than me and apparently have endless hours and skills to apply towards beauty rituals. On average, I’d say femme discourse does include basic race and class awareness and resist gender (and gender performance) essentialism. But it also tends to uncritically assume that we all want to be Betty Draper.
Not that wanting to be Betty Draper (or, say, Dita Von Teese, a contemporary real-life neo-femme icon) is bad in and of itself, even if you don’t share her particular privileges and oppressions. But let me just say, I recently came to the stunning realization that I don’t want to be a vintage pin-up high femme. It was a hard realization to come to, because I had kind of subconsciously assumed that I must want to be that, if I was really femme. It was also a huge relief, because I had gotten kind of tired of thinking, every time I went out in public, “Ugh, I’m not femme enough! I don’t have that perfect dress! Garter belts are too expensive (and also impractical)!” Femme had started to feel indistinguishable from compulsory femininity and/or a Halloween costume party where everyone shows up in appropriative headdresses and Playboy bunny outfits. A charade, in other words, that didn’t live up to the liberating gender performance I came to femme to do.
So femme is not a Get Out of Oppression Free card.
Still, I believe femme is inherently open to fuller, more realistic ways of living femininity. You can define femme as a radical, queer gender, or you can let Dita dominate representations of femme. You can’t have it both ways. My femme — the new femme, a queer femme — is by definition required to live up to the promise of radically reinventing femininity. If femme is even partly about combating compulsory gender performance, then it must combat the race, class, ability, and body compliance that compulsory femininity entails.
I’m not saying we’re already doing it right, and I’m not saying I even get to say whether we are or not. (If femme is not a Get Out of Oppression Free card, it’s not an automatic social justice certification, either.)
What I’m saying is, claiming femme as the authentic expression of my gender means realizing (again) that my very existence is political. Identifying as femme, acknowledging that this radical queer gender is what fulfills me, means that I cannot fulfill myself without justice and inclusivity.
What I’m saying is, femme and liberation cannot exist without each other. That means responsibility, but it also means freedom. And next time someone assures me I don’t have to be femme, I’m going to say, “No, I don’t have to. But I am. And it’s awesome.”
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