On Femme

Updated: Sep 20, 2017

"Find out who you are and do it on purpose." -Dolly Parton

I am three years old, and I am wearing an antique tiara from my grandmother's chest of clothes and accessories. I lean on my side on a bay windowsill with my head in my hand, like a swimsuit model. "I didn't even tell her to do that! She just got in that pose!" my grandmother exclaims to my mom when the pictures get developed. I think, "I'm just acting how you act, Ammie." (Ammie, what I call my grandmother, was fabulous, in the gayest sense of the word. She was flamboyant and theatrical. She had costume-y gowns and vibrant dark pink and red lipsticks, which she'd apply for every occasion, including for dinner at home.) I am six years old. It's been two years since my father was hit by a drunk driver, leaving my mom and me alone in our small house in a rural Ohio village. (It was actually called a 'village,' I'm not trying to be quaint). We are poorer than ever. Mom is temporarily unemployed, barely on the other side of grief, just over a year sober. Our home is full of poor white people in similar predicaments: single parents, addicts of various stages, the un- or under-employed. Many of the women who are in relationships are currently or have been recently abused. But they are resilient. The women I am surrounded with are, I would learn early, considered 'white trash,' but I love them. Their clothes are either too big or too small. Their hair is too big or unwashed or both. They are wrinkled from cigarettes and many of my memories include poorly-executed tattoos of roses on ankles or wrists. They are foul-mouthed without reservation. They wear too much makeup or none at all. They are crass, they are uncouth. But most of all, they are survivors. I find their excess to be a wonderful tool.

* I am 16 years old, decidedly on the path of upward class mobility, and I hate my legs. My thighs are too big, too pale, too full of bumps. I refuse to wear shorts and only wear skirts in the winter when I can also wear tights. I rationalize this as an acceptable choice for a punk, (an identity I've recently discovered), because punks wear jeans and converse sneakers and band t-shirts. I become less feminine than ever, but I feel terrible. * I am 19 years old, I have made it to college (with a heap of daunting loans), and I meet my first butch. She is everything. She has punk patches on her messenger bag and flirts like a boy (no, I would realize later, she flirts like a butch). I crush on her instantly, and after a tumultuous few months of figuring out whether or not I am capable of kissing a woman, I kiss her. And suddenly--I am femme to her butch. I buy the girliest clothes, and scour thrift stores for bright pink pumps (I find them and wear them, everywhere). We go to gay prom, and I coordinate my lipstick to match her tie, my top to match the streak of color in her faux-hawk...(this was the early 00's, okay?). I feel the best about myself than I ever have, because I feel the most like myself than I ever have. This is me. I am femme. *I am 32, and this past week in Portland, I got a tattoo of an anchor with a tube of lipstick--in homage to Ammie and so many others--in the background, and a banner that reads in all caps: FEMME. I am wearing a can-almost-see-your-ass-skirt and a tight, low-cut bodysuit that's kind of see-through in certain light. I feel amazing.

*** My femme identity is a product of my past and an iteration of my politics. I am influenced by the women who came before me (the glamorous, the trashy, the queer), and I am as much a manifestation of my class as I am my sexuality.

I found refuge in femme only after I learned about its history. Femme is a product of the working-class feminine lesbians who came before me. The ones who had to work in the turn-of-the-century cities to survive under capitalism. The ones who, upon situating themselves in their skirts and blouses behind a chair on a desk in an office above a factory floor, would catch the eye of a butch worker. The ones who discovered the possibility of pleasure in female masculinity. They were the femmes who left work to meet up with the butches at the bar. To make-out in a bathroom or on the dance floor. And then later, to take off their heels to throw them at the cops who beat their lovers for wearing more than one piece of men's clothing. They were the Black, white, and Brown women who learned not only to endure capitalism, white supremacy, and heteronormativity, but to find joy in spite of it. They were the poor and scrappy women without whom I would genuinely be less free.

As I learn about my queer elders, I start to make connections. The militance and lack of decorousness of the mostly straight, white, working-class women I grew up with, is not so far off from the militance and lack of decorousness embodied in these pre-Stonewall femmes.

* To put it more concisely then, (as I did on my recent interview on Smash Everything about this very topic), 'femme' is subversive femininity. It can be, admittedly, as certain feminists and queers have asserted, a type of performance that does less to challenge the gender binary than others. My version of femme, in most cases, is seen as acceptably 'female.' I am white, I am not fat (although I am also not thin), and I have a few outfits in my closet that cover my tattoos and look "professional." I wear dark lipstick nearly every single day, but not in a way that appears particularly threatening to traditional norms.

But the days I feel my best are the days when my femininity is a weapon. The days that I break the rules by wearing clothes that many would deem too tight, too short, too young. The days that I shut down a dude's flirtation and then proceed to make eyes at the queer lady barista with whom I flirt shamelessly every time I order tea. (Which is also not to say that I wouldn't flirt with a cis man if the right one came along--because I like cis men too--but my femme is most alive when I'm sharing energy with a queer woman or a transman. (I like masculinity in all genders, for better or worse.)) Femme is at its best when it is militant. But whether or not it will be perceived that way is another question. Disabled, non-binary femme cultural worker and writer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha remembers, "For years I thought, a femme bottom –-what is more common, what is more despised? Than a girl with her legs open. Wanting something. Just wanting. I didn't come up with this idea on my own. The whole world told me it was true. The whole world told me that there is nothing more common and stupid than someone feminine of center with their legs open, wanting something more than a kick or a curse.” But what if the world tells us that and we do and be and want it anyway? Is that not resistance? Femme writer Jewelle Gomez writes, "men and women might mistake us for "just girls" when they see our makeup and fashions, but we were/are actually guerrilla warriors, fighting undercover in the war to save women from the continuing campaign to make us irrelevant fluff." We fight on the sidelines, we navigate the inconsistencies, we continue on unapologetically, even when it's scary.

* But we are more than our individual identities; the implications of gender and sexuality in radical politics is a question that has been unpacked on the Left for decades. And as a Leftist femme, it is something I give considerable attention. Ultimately, I think it is dangerous to get comfortable in my personal subversive performances as inherently political....Just as it is dangerous to dismiss them as such.*The debates within feminist circles about ostensibly traditional femininity are heated and inconclusive. As a femme, I certainly err on the side of agency--that is, femmes do femme because they want to, not because the patriarchy told us we're supposed to. We are not objects for the male gaze, we are the subjects of our own stories and practice self-determination with our own bodies, even if it sometimes looks hegemonic.

What I won't argue is that femme, or any gender identity, is revolutionary in any radical sense of the word. Resistant? Yes. But our performance of gender is not subverting the status quo, just as Yasmin Nair argues, same-sex marriage nor polyamory are not overthrowing capitalism. Sometimes, they are the opposite. I admit that femme (for me) makes me more of a consumer. As a working-class person, I am a thrifty and infrequent consumer, but a consumer nonetheless. But just because femme doesn't challenge any power systems per se, it is a practice of self-determination that ought to be celebrated in any movement for liberation. The more we move through the world as our whole selves, the better fighters we can be in the struggle to dismantle oppressive systems. The more we move through the world honoring the voices that compel us to do our gender a particular way, the more we can show up for our communities. The more we surrender to our own desires and support the desires of others, the more human we all become. In Undoing Gender (2004), Judith Butler reflects on what makes lives livable. She writes:

"How do drag, butch, femme, transgender, transsexual persons enter into the political field? They make us not only question what is real, and what “must” be, but they also show us how the norms that govern contemporary notions of reality can be questioned and how new modes of reality can become instituted. These practices of instituting new modes of reality take place in part through the scene of embodiment, where the body is not understood as a static and accomplished fact, but as an aging process, a mode of becoming that, in becoming otherwise, exceeds the norm, reworks the norm, and makes us see how realities to which we thought we were confined are not written in stone." (29)

Butler concludes that increasing possibilities for gender "is not a luxury; it is as crucial as bread." Indeed. We want bread, but we want lipstick too. *

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