Rethinking High Femme, Part 2

Are high femmes queen bees?   If you crown yourself “high femme,” are you implicitly suggesting that others are “low?”  Nikki from give me space (to rock) and, more recently, buddhistfemme have asserted that “high femme” suggests a heirarchical ranking of femme that’s fundamentally elitist.  This may seem like an unavoidable conclusion, particularly in today’s competitive and status-obsessed world.

I identify as both femme and high femme, and personally I’ve never felt that high femme = better femme.  As I stated in my last post, my “rethinking” of high femme emphasizes that, for me, this gender is not a rank or a final destination.   I see my femme identity as complex and changing–as I put it yesterday, “a nonlinear process in which there’s no identifiable finish line.” I have not donned my stilettos and clawed my way to the zenith of Sublime Femmeness, I assure you!  Like other queer genders, high femme in my view doesn’t exist in a continuum but as part of nonlinear gender galaxy (see Scarlet Lotus Sexgeek on the gender galaxy model).

Fine, you might say, this sounds great in theory, but let’s get concrete:  in practice high femme performance requires money and privilege, right?  To some extent, yes, but this strikes me as a misconception.  High femme is not an exclusive rich girl’s club, nor is it in my view any more steeped in class privilege than any other gender.  Since all genders and sexualities are shaped by the social inequalities of capitalism, I think it’s fair to ask why high femme in particular should be portrayed as necessarily classist and elitist.

To say that high femme is an inherently classist gender because it “costs money” and therefore excludes those who have less of it actually sets up a very narrow, elitist notion of what high femme is. I learned about high femme from the work of my Femme Icon Amber Hollibaugh, a sex radical, leftist, union organizer and queer activist, who has written about her experience as a “rural gypsy working-class poor white trash high femme dyke” in her book, My Dangerous Desires. Her life story is just one example of how high femme has been historically linked to queer working-class communities since the 1950s. 

For me, high femme says not simply how femme I am, but how I do femme. When I claim this identity and expression, it’s not to undermine anyone else–least of all other femmes!  What I’m trying to do is express a part of me that was shamed, marginalized or belittled by a misogynistic and femmephobic culture. It’s about linking my embrace of femininity with trannys and drag queens and all of my femme sisters who dare to assert the right to be unapologetically and queerly femme. It’s a revaluing and denaturalizing of femininity that, for me, is fundamentally queer and feminist.

For all of these reasons, I call myself a high femme.  Nowdays, when butch is still the gold standard, genderqueer is cool, and bois are hot, I think it’s important for high femme to be recognized as a valid gender identity and expression that sparkles brightly in this queer gender galaxy we call home.


12 Responses

  1. I’m glad you speak about “high femme” is not a devaluation of any other type of femme. I too read the post on ‘give me space (to rock)’ and wasn’t sure how to respond. High Femme is definitely a ‘type’ of femme and I think the embrace of ‘faux-ness’ makes it. About feminine people… the worst accusations that get thrown their way is the judgment of them being ‘fake’. I like taking that and saying “you know what…if it is fake, there’s nothing wrong with that.” High Femme is definitely a specific attitude and acting upon that attitude in regards to femininity.

    At the same time, I wonder if you’d take a look at this article if you have a chance:

    Figuring the Feminist Femme—

    Hi LaurynX, I’ll check this out and comment over on your blog! -xo Sf

  2. What if identifying as femme or high femme could be considered being parts of a whole or also apart and whole? Which is to say there is a part of femme that is self affirming yes? Ultimately we identify with the gender presentation that suits us best; the one that feels right. If we look at it as linear (which is only one geometric model) is there a line where high femme is an extremely feminine presentation and a uber butch boi somewhere further away? Perhaps, but I tend to agree that it needs to be a non-linear model, too many variations and identities to fulfill, none of them perfectly epitomized by any personality in particular. So with respect to my point about it being parts of a whole, I like that there is a polarity and artifice to gender presentation. But with respect to being apart and whole, I choose a more femme style because it feels like right….for me. That’s just me, and I’m no theorist, and this conversation has been made many times long before I was even aware it existed. (there’s the new girl <—spouting off again)

  3. Christ almighty, people sure do take this seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good discourse on thought–provoking and socially pertinent topics, but being femme involves enough complex subtleties without stripping it of all the fun, for heaven’s sake.

    Here is my take on this, briefly:

    1. It’s totally possible to be whatever kind of femme you damn well please regardless of your budget. C’mon. Any femme who insists on a grand, monogrammed budget to be who she is doesn’t know the first bloody thing about herself, much less being femme. Give me a break.

    2. If a high femme happens to be an elitist bitch, then I don’t think, “Wow, she’s SUPER high femme,” I think “High femme AND a superbitch! Where DOES she find the time for, well, fucking, among other things?!” (Well, it’s true!)

    3. I am not high femme, but God bless ’em! So many have cocked their clever little eyebrows and tossed the label into my lap against my protestations, and it never ceases to amuse and baffle me. I think it’s as personal and relative as the varying levels of butch – women I’ve assumed would be comfortable with the “soft” butch label have been taken aback in such a way that I will never make those assumptions again! And yet…

    Here’s the thing, kittens: There will always be those who see life and those living it in a more black / white fashion, and then those who innately grasp at the grays and gradations. That’s important to remember before walking across the plains of anyone’s identity – we never know where potential landmines are buried until, well, until we know.


    Fit For A Femme

  4. I’m high femme, but I have never ever though that implied that I was more/better than someone else. To me, it always meant my hyperstylized femme gender bends just a bit further than some. And, that in doing so, it means just that. Not that I am more femme than some, or that others are less. . .

  5. I always took “high femme” to be short for “high maintenance femme”… meaning that she enjoys the time and effort that it takes to look fabulous 24/7ish. right? I’m not high femme for that very reason, that I don’t like taking forever to get ready, and always touching up my appearance. I usually enjoy myself, no matter how I look.

    Good for you! As for your first point, I’ve never heard or read that high femme is short for h.m.f. I’m guessing the expression “high maintenance” was coined relatively recently, whereas high femme dates back to the 50s at least. Someone pls correct me if I’m wrong on this! xo -Sf

  6. I must be unique, or just maybe A-typical of a lost generation who was never indoctrinated by her peers (having spent a great deal of my childhood in ignorant bliss abroad).

    As not only do I not think Butch is the gold standard, I am not into nor do I particular care one way or the other about bois who, in truth, are not even in my hemisphere, and gender queer? Oh dear! As a Brit, and to someone of my generation (yes, those of us born during the era of the dinosaur) being called queer in any way shape or form was, and still is, akin to an AA being called by the N word. Derogatory!

    And while I’m sure everyone is claiming back these terms, for themselves, not all of us understand the need to create or have labels to begin with. Am I living outside the purview of the rest, do I wear rose-tinted glasses, or am I just totally oblivious?

    Whatever happened to us being simply women who love to love other woman?

    Too simplistic?

    This inherent fear of just being who you are is not (it would appear) just endemic in the US, but, as I saw on my last trip back to the UK, there as well. It was almost as if I were looking at the aliens (though, in truth the more I learn the more I realize I’m the alien here) as they walked around covered in their travel sticker style labels.

    Oh well, scratches head in wonderment of it all. I’m certainly getting an education here, my dear Sf. As always you are wonderfully eloquent and I love that you are having these discussions.

    Give me a high femme any day, Hon! 🙂

  7. (i said this in response to buddhistfemme’s post on the subject as well) to me the “high” in high femme has always been a matter of degree, not of rank. that is, like “very” femme(inine), not “best” femme. and those are certainly not the same thing!

    personally, i’ve never thought of myself as being at the lower end of some hierarchy for not being high femme. (to be fair, it is not something i am sensitive to – i wouldn’t be offended to be called “low” femme, and i’d rather be anywhere than at the top of the ladder =)

    so, amen. i dig what you’re saying about gender (any gender) and privilege and class.

    alex – i don’t think the preference for labeling things (people) is due to a fear of just being who you are. for me, at least, it is related to my interest in theory and discussion, and i feel that having words to describe who i am lends depth to these discussions.

  8. alex – “Whatever happened to us being simply women who love to love other woman?”

    Here are some thoughts I’ve had:

  9. It’s up!

    So’s to speak!!



  10. Maybe I agree with LBA at this point, that it’s not really the higher the better, but rather that it’s the degree to which femininity is expressed…

  11. […] 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 marked by a […]

  12. I have never seen a more fluid definition for a feminine identity…I also have never seen a definition to fit myself so well. Being a bio queen, xy female, very expressive with voice, theater and colors… I simply regarded myself as gender queer without trying to define any more of my values or reasons for my appearance or actions. But your inclusion of all sexes into this exaggerated femme definition allows me to play in the same light I aim to reflect without feeling as if I am trespassing on someone’s territory. Such as, the feeling of being more connected yet out of place as the only female in a room of drag queens and expressive mTfs.
    Your denaturalizing of feminine in order to express it “as is” seems to feel more natural as the _role_ of femme is not the focus but expression of femme as a separate yet personal entity to identify with but not simply indentify as.
    Thank you…

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