Rethinking High Femme, Part 1

A charming and generous friend recently told me–much to my surprise–that she sees my blog as a femme finishing school. I’m flattered, believe me (much love to you, charming and generous friend!), but the more I thought about it the more I realized that femme for me is a nonlinear process in which there’s no identifiable finish line to cross. I think this is one reason why you sometimes hear femmes say that femme is both something we are and something we do. (Actually, I’d love to hear butches talk about butch in this way, but this doesn’t seem to happen a lot. More on that some other time…)

As I’ve worked on this blog, I’ve moved away from thinking about femme in terms of a continuum or spectrum between degrees of femininity. I’ve learned that femme is too complex and varied to be defined primarily through a focus on quantity or intensity (e.g. whether you are “more” or “less” femme). One of my first posts “No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian (I just look like one)” represented an early effort to differentiate between the terms lipstick lesbian, femme, and high femme. It generated a really illuminating dialogue and prompted many of you to suggest other categories/terms such as earthy femme, queer femme, and chapstick femme. Since then, I’ve tried to complicate notions of femme identity in our discussions of femme style, the politics of femme pleasure, femme and consumerism, what it means to “transition” to femme, how butch and femme are not mutually exclusive categories, and being a stone femme.

This discussion–as well as conversations happening on other blogs–has helped me to expand and revise my thinking about femme and high femme. In my “No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian” post I talked about high femme as “ultra femininity,” but I now think this is a bit reductive. What’s most crucial for me about high femme as a separate gender identity from femme is not that it’s “more feminine” but that it’s a different kind of femininity that, generally speaking, privileges artifice over realness.

Here’s my new working definition of high femme; let me know what you think!

High Femme— Lesbian or queer gender marked marked by a highly stylized and aestheticized form of femme gender expression or identity. Uses exaggeration, artifice, and/or theatricality to denaturalize femininity. When combined with parody or irony, the effect achieved is akin to drag: femininity in quotes. No particular style of dress or external signifiers; may or may or may not wear dresses, heels, and/or makeup. May or may not be a “bottom” or a “top” in a sexual situation; may or may not partner with butches, studs, or stone butches. No particular personality traits. May be passive and demure or aggressive, independent, strong, etc. Not equivalent to a lipstick lesbian or stone femme. *


*NOTE: In the future, I’d like to work on expanding and clarifying this definition even more, since high femme is shaped by class, racial/ethnic, and regional differences. For example, what’s high femme in LA might be different than high femme in Baltimore. Please let me know if you have thoughts on these issues. I also would be interested in hearing from people about the herstory of high femme. Most of us would probably agree that high femme in the 50s and 60s meant something different than it does today, but what exactly is that difference? It’s always good to start with what you know, so my definition above has a contemporary focus.

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow!

12 Responses

  1. You are soo amazing! I love your writing! You should write a book and title it ‘the sublimefemme’s guide to life’ 🙂

    laura luna

  2. Hi Sf, I have a question: From your definition is it fair to say that “high femme” isn’t necessarily female? QRx

    Yes! I certainly think it’s important to recognize that trans, genderqueer and other non-cisgendered people are high femme. Thoughts? xo -Sf

  3. haven’t had time to figure out what i think, but “denaturalize femininity” jumped out at me. fascinating concept.

    regarding your note, so very true. i have a friend who moved to this southern town from la, and was amazed by how many lesbians there are here – meaning (i think) that there is a very visible lesbian community because most of it tends towards butch or androgynous. i suppose you could call it relative vs. absolute femme (reading your note reminded me of descriptions of relative vs. absolute poverty)

    I’m not familiar with this concept, which sounds very social sciencey–either that, or a face-off between femme vodkas. (I’m more of a humanities person myself, as I’m sure is abundantly clear by now.) Pls. explain! xo -Sf

  4. Thanks for clarifying Sf, thats what I thought and it makes sense to me. One more question for you, similar to the one that you asked me a little while ago: Would you describe your gender as innate?

    OMG! A student just approached me about this very question today. This question deserves more than a simple yes or no, so here goes. I’m guessing that by innate you mean an inborn quality based on my biological/genetic make-up (correct me if I’m wrong). From this perspective, my answer is no, I don’t see my gender or sexuality as innate or biologically determined.

    I respect those who feel differently about this question, but to my mind there’s a great deal of evidence to support the fact that gender and sexuality are categories that do not transcend time and place. If a woman with my same exact genetic make-up was born in ancient Greece or 19th century India, I doubt she would be a femme and a lesbian too. I would not go as far as some femininsts who argue that gender excludes biology; rather, I think gender and sexuality come into being as part of an interplay between mind and body, culture and nature.

    This is one reason why in my post I talk about femme as “a nonlinear process in which there’s no identifiable finish line.” I don’t think my femme identity is a pure physical fact but a complex and changing process. Experience, rather than biology, is the key for me.

    OK, the lecture is over. Time to make myself a Manhattan! xo -Sf

  5. WOW! I’m just blown away by the content and quality of your posts, and the ongoing conversation you generate, as well as the responses you elicit from us all, with such intelligent, articulate, and well-thought out posts!

    You have me, for one, thinking and rethinking about who I am, and how I, personally, this is, define myself. Not necessarily within any accepted parameters, or by defined tags. I love how you’ve stimulated me in ways I never thought a woman (I’ve never met) might. Laughs!

    You’re a doll! Thanks for reading, Alex. xo -SF

  6. I like the idea of ‘high femme’ being ‘an embrace of the artificial’, not so much ‘more feminine’. I think I see high-femme-ness in the same way. I’m tired, and I’ve read a lot lately about femme-ness and performance of it that I want to say.
    I’ll be back

  7. Butch is certainly something I am and something I do.

    There- there’s one of us saying it.

    Thanks for your very interesting post SF.



    Thank YOU! I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this. xo -Sf

  8. femme vodkas…hmm…
    erm, yes. it is, indeed, very social-sciencey (as am i ;). basic concept is that there can be an absolute fast-and-hard definition of poverty (such as: you cannot provide for your most basic needs, like food, shelter), or a more situational definition (perhaps: you can provide for your subsistence, but not afford some things all your neighbors have).

    Ah, I see what you mean. I don’t believe in universal absolutes (big surprise, I know). To get philosophical, I think the nature of a thing (e.g. femme, poverty) is revealed in its relation to other things. Which is different than saying that femme is relative or situational.

    But I’m in favor of absolute femme if it’s a vodka~! xo SF

  9. Wow. It never occurred to me that artifice had anything to do with high femme. (See, this is why I’m not high femme!) In fact, I always assumed that high femmes felt most natural in their state, which I suppose doesn’t necessarily exclude it from your working definition.

    It just makes me a little sad, is all.

    When I think of high femmes I don’t think of them gleaning respect from lengthy, well written paragraphs dancing elegantly around offending or excluding anyone in order to simply be.

    Being high femme is offensive to some people. Being high femme certainly is exclusive, and that’s what makes it so brilliant. Simply *being* high femme commands a certain respect and perhaps I’m being…presumptuous when I announce that there are certainly no paragraphs needed for this femme to maintain that respect.

    I would even deign to say that anyone requiring a high femme to produce such a paragraph (SF, I’m not saying that’s your motivation at all for doing this, in fact I assume it is not!) needn’t bother with them at all!

  10. Hmmm. Thanks for the lecture! Obviously, I respect your position on the innate or not question, as you respect mine, and you’re right, there’s much evidence to support the view that gender is not innate. Personally, I have difficulty with the opinion that gender & sexuality do not transcend time & place – I’d question what we actually know about other cultures in terms of gender / sexuality and how what we think we know is framed in terms of a Western world view. So I’m afraid regardless of what the theorists are saying right now and what evidence they present, I’m going with how I feel. I didn’t choose my gender. QRx

  11. […] feminine, I’ve been following Sublime Femme’s "Rethinking High Femme" series (part 1, part 2) with great interest. First, her definition: High Femme— Lesbian or queer gender […]

  12. I know this discussion is year’s old – but it’s so thought provoking, i hope it’s okay to comment. I don’t believe in nature vs. nurture, it’s seems logical there’s a blend. Science has linked a nerve cluster in our brains to gender, and there’s a study showing that nerve cluster is the same in both cis and trans identified humans; ie, that that part of the brain is the same in a trans woman as it is in a cis woman. Social science shows us gender is a socially acquired construct – a man in one society wears skirts, while in another men wear pants – however, what DRIVES us to choose our gender seems neurologically driven. I believe we *also* have biologically determined personality traits which set us on sociologically driven pathways of gender expression – a butch lesbian has certain personality traits similar to a strait tomboy. While there is more room in mainstream culture for a tomboy gender expression, the American frontier was full of woman like that (Calamity Jane, Annie Oakly), but as QueerRose has said, our view is skewed by a patriarchal lens.

    I *know,* for a fact, i did not choose my gender – i’m a trans woman, born in the early 60’s, the first “son” of an Italian-Am family, beaten into a male masquerade by both family and a pre-gay lib, pre-feminist, American society. As an adult i worked in Education, and i live in a rural area, and in all likelihood, if i’d come out as trans, it would’ve cost me my career. So, more than just hide for nearly 5 decades, i engaged in a very active, self-destructive, repression of who i was.

    After masquerading as a man for so long, i didn’t *want* to be a woman; i had a daughter, and students who looked up to me as a father figure. Our prejudiced society helped me keep up my male masquerade in every way. However, in a parallel life, with the help of the internet, and pso’s, i lived as a woman. I thought i simply had a crossdressing fetish, but the more i “gave in” to it, the more i felt whole. Finally, after becoming disabled and leaving work, i had the space to work on my Self enuff to transition, and become the person i know in my heart i was always meant to be.

    I am a woman. I know there are many people, both queer and strait, who won’t accept that (or accept it with an asterisk), based on my physical body, but according to my doctor, therapist, and driver’s license i’m a woman; and my close friends, and my daughter agree.

    I often think about what would have happened if i’d been born 500 years ago. For trans women outside the upper class, there weren’t many options – i could’ve become a sex worker, a pirate, a colonist on the edges of civilization, been part of a pagan sub-culture, or member of a Christian cult, or sadly kept up my masquerade til i died. In the European upper class gender was accepted as fluid; Louis XIV’s bisexual brother, known as “Monsieur,” presented himself as a man or a woman, depending on the occasion. Francois Timoleon, the abbe de Choisy, was a prominent transvestite. His mother dressed him as a girl, pierced his ears, and applied depilatory lotion to his face. He played with Monsieur dressed as a girl. In adulthood he dressed as a noblewoman, and had a lengthy, crossdressing love affair with a young woman who dressed as a man.

    I was forced from birth to choose NOT to express my neurologically driven gender identity, and now that i have, i’m feeling my way toward embodying my femme gender expression. Trans women often get *pushed* into a femme identity, and i know butch trans women who struggle to be accepted, but in my heart, i know i’m femme. I don’t feel attracted to being butchy or tomboyish in the slightest way. I am partially attracted to High Femme, but i wouldn’t feel comfortable taking that on, because i think people would assume i’m a drag queen, and i have enuff problems with that as it is.

    I believe we do make choices when it comes to gender identity, and gender expression, including whether to accept the neurological impulses hardwired in our brains. Society forces most trans people to choose the opposite gender from birth, but i believe that even a cis person – consciously or unconsciously – could choose to be trans. Society makes it easy for butch lesbians in today’s assimilation climate to choose a more feminine gender expression; but perhaps inside, as i did for so many years, they’re denying an internal pull toward their true, butch, gender expression.

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