Monday, April 4, 2011

Femme is a Feminist Issue

I've been sitting here trying to write a post for awhile now, and all I seem to be able to come back to is that I know some pretty brilliant, beautiful people and that that makes me a lucky person indeed. As I'm about to spend a lot of time with some of them at a conference, expect to be hearing about how excellent and thought-provoking they are.

I had a conversation on Friday with one such brilliant, beautiful person. It lasted hours and was, for me anyway, beyond intellectually fulfilling. I'd imagine I'll write more here about other aspects of this conversation, because it brought up a lot of ideas. My friend's name is Nic Bravo, and she identifies as a queer trans femme dyke (and someday she WILL go to bed before 11. I believe in her). Look for her to write some posts for us here soon.

Anyway. As a queer (cis) femme myself, I've been struggling a bit lately with my place in the queer community, for various reasons. I get the sense sometimes that some people think I'm not quite queer enough to hang out.

As Nic said, so elegantly: "Fuck that. No, seriously, fuck that."

Nic's super smart (please go read her tumblr, which has really pushed me to think hard about things in the ways graduate seminars rarely have), so I feel good about being able to have these conversations with her. One of the things we talked about is the difficulties and political issues around being femme in a queer community. For a large number of queer people, including those who identify with butch, this isn't a problem. My friends tend not to be concerned about it (they're my friends, after all, and we have other things to worry about, like roller derby and smashing the patriarchy). I certainly do not want to give the impression that butch and femme people are at odds with each other. Indeed, in many people,* you find aspects of both identities. There are no lines in the sand here.

That doesn't stop some people from saying, essentially, "You're doing it wrong." They might not mean to do that, or they might be trying to challenge femmes in the way people who respect each other often do, to think about things in new ways.

But there it is, nonetheless: a contested territory about anything involving traditional expressions of gender. And I dig butch, and I get its appeal for people. I really like genderqueer in general. Anything to fuck with the patriarchy, really. But at the end of the day, I'm femme. It is, I think, part of the range of human experience.

Lesley Kinzel (also a self-identified queer femme), in one of her countless moments of genius, said that "Femme is interrogated femininity." It's about more than the way a person dresses or the length of a person's hair. It's about how we relate to queer (or straight!) identity. It isn't the opposite of butch, or something that butch is defined against, or vice versa. She suggests that femme could be thought of as a reclamation or ironic performance of the feminine, and I really relate to that. I like my long hair, I like eyeliner. These are surface issues to a certain extent, but if you know me, you know that I do not embody the faithful reproduction of the feminine. I say fuck way too much, just for starters. Plus, you know, roller derby. One thing I want to be very clear about is that there is no wrong way to identify. So if a woman wants to be feminine and not interrogate it, that's fine. Here's the deal: You can't tell much about a person by looking at them - whether they're healthy, happy, secure, queer, whatever. If you don't get to tell me how to be queer, I don't get to tell you how to do your identity either. I wouldn't want to. The world would be boring, right?

It's easy for Nic and I to reach out to each other in queer femme solidarity, but as she rightly pointed out, we didn't have any butch perspectives in our conversation. Still, there is something so valuable about that kind of solidarity, I think. We all need to find our people. But that shouldn't result in people circling the wagons around the people they feel comfortable with to the exclusion of everyone else.

The point is this: I don't love the idea of policing other peoples' gender identity expressions, and one of the things Nic prompted me to think about was why defending femme is something I (we? weigh in, mama) have to do. As America's favorite drag queen, RuPaul, has been known to say, "What other people think of you is none of your business." If that's true, and if I refuse to sit in judgment of anyone else's identity signifiers, then what does it matter to me what others think about my own queer identity?

Femme is a feminist issue, in my mind, because it has to do with seeing the choices women make about their appearances as their own - for the same reason, butch is a feminist issue. But it seems, to me at least (and to Nic, too, if I understand her correctly) that there are people who think being femme at all is somehow buying into harmful patriarchal prescriptions about what gender should look like. If my hair is long, my clothes are feminine, and I wear makeup, am I somehow selling out?

I don't think so. In fact, I think that requiring people to express their identity in any particular way is oppressive,** like I said in my rant about the transmisogynist I ran across on Facebook. I think butch is super hot. It just isn't who I am, or who Nic is, and as she said, that's okay. It might take people longer to process either of us, because some immediate signifiers aren't there, but can't that be kind of great?

One of the other things we talked about was how it's okay to be processing ideas, and these are clearly ideas that I'm still processing, probably always will be. I know some of you have opinions on all of this. What do you think?

* Including me, to be completely honest with you. When I say that I am willing to get in a fight to defend you, I am not being feminine, am I? I think I have butch aspects to my personality.

** This includes men telling women they think they're hotter without makeup or whatever. I like makeup and I don't care if you don't. Fortunately I'm married to the person in the world who cares least about whether I'm wearing makeup or not, or shaving, or whatever.


  1. I think this goes back to just doing whatever is right for you. I still thinks it's insane [clearly, I feel I say this every other damn day] that people think I dress the way I do to impress anyone, the only person I would ever care about impressing is Eric, and you know what? He thinks I'm just as sexy first thing in the morning, hair a mess in my old bathrobe as when my hair and makeup are perfect, and I'm in my hottest heels. I do that stuff because *I* like it, just how it should be. Now if only all partners would be as accepting as that, the whole system would get blown to shreds because everyone would just do whatever the hell they wanted without any worries. Anyone that tells me or really anyone else period, what to do with their body, life, etc can shove it. Fuck that.

  2. This is a really interesting topic and something I'm still processing as well.

    I present pretty femme and that's how I'm most comfortable. When I try to examine why that is though, it gets a little messy for me. Theoretically, I wear makeup and dresses and fix my bangs in the morning because I like to. I like how it makes me look and I like how it makes me feel, and really, cute dresses just kind of speak to me.

    But I can't end it there and say "I do all that stuff for me, so it's not about patriarchy or societal demands" because that's just not true. My ideas about how I like to look didn't develop in a cultural vacuum; I didn't grow up in a society where no no one shaves their legs and randomly decide one morning that I don't want leg hair. Rather, leg shaving and makeup-wearing and hair-doing are all things that are presented in our society as something a proper woman should do. And while I no longer do any of those things so other people will find me attractive (oh high school, I don't miss you at all) and I couldn't care less what a proper woman should do, those things exist and persist in our society because so many people believe it's the only way a woman can be attractive.

    So, while I can truthfully say my femme presentation is something I do (and occasionally don't do) for myself, it still is very much a product of patriarchy.

  3. Right, that's where the interrogation comes in. Saying "I'm just doing it for me" is actively avoiding interrogation - which is fine, again, I'm not telling anyone how to be. Does the concept of reclamation resonate with you at all? I mean, it doesn't work for everyone.

    This is why this blog has been so much fun - smart comments like these. :)

  4. I love this statement you made: "One thing I want to be very clear about is that there is no wrong way to identify."

    Our society is far too caught up in policing how people express their gender, and it's so frustrating. I started to add "for people who don't fit the 'norm,'" but I think it impacts everyone. Our "norms" are so constraining and completely neglect to recognize the inherent complexity and fluidity of gender expression.

  5. Interesting. I wonder, is the tension in this particular community between 'butch' and 'femme' as extensive as it can be in the gay male community? Most, though not all, of my gay male friends tend to sit on one particular end of the 'spectrum', and have been known to be rather denigrating of those shifting more towards the feminine.
    Thanks for an interesting post, though I would love to see more history or education related stuff. :)

  6. I think it's pretty clear that doing all those things started by doing it for other people, to fit in, and be considered part of a group, and pretty and blahblahblah. It changes though when you get to a point in your life, whenever that may be, for some it never does happen, when you realize how pointless it is, and do your own thing. At that point you either reject it, temporarily or forever, or stick with the parts that work for you, discard the rest and figure out what you do like, and what does work for you. I really don't understand why anyone can be offended by anyone else's clothes or makeup though either way, it's all just fabric and color, and it all comes off every night anyway. Maybe that's a bit simplistic of a view of it, but that could be because I never get beyond why anyone could possibly care what me, a drag queen, or butch woman is wearing in the first place. I personally don't see a point in wasting a smidgen of my energy worrying about what someone else is wearing, and don't understand why anyone else would either.

  7. @Steve: you may find "Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School" relevant to this topic. The author found that gender and sexuality were policed differently, and that acting "feminine" was often judged more harshly than being gay. I wouldn't be surprised if this extends somewhat to adults as well.