What would it look like if we unhinged femininity from the ideal of flawlessness? What part can femme play in this project? All too often, femme is mistakenly equated with prissy, perfect, and idealized forms of womanhood. But femme doesn’t mean being consigned to some vapid and airbrushed model of femininity! Femmes are raw, imperfect, wild, strong, and–yes–ballsy, like my femme icon Janis Joplin.
I discovered Janis’ music when I was a teenager and, although the sixties were long over, I recognized in her a kindred spirit. I was especially amazed that someone could be so tormented and hurt, and yet also so brave and liberated. Although Joplin and Marilyn Monroe have very different personas, I think they’re actually similar because their vulnerability is a key part of their sex appeal–you can see the damaged little girl inside the sexually liberated hippie chick or glamorous sex kitten. Janis wanted everyone to love her but took the kinds of risks that made it seem like she didn’t care what people thought. She was a badass, no doubt about it. But for a long time she seemed to me to represent both the possibility of transcending the wounded self AND the seeming impossibility of ever doing that once and for all.
Now, however, I see Janis not as someone who surrendered to self-destructiveness and pain, but rather as a woman who dared to live her life with electrifying honesty. I think Roseanne Cash gets it exactly right when she says that Joplin “had an unshakable commitment to her own truth, no matter how destructive, how weird or how bad.” Janis reminds me to trust myself and my desires–and not to be afraid to kick down the white picket fences around femme.
Joplin’s style, her screams, her unusual way of moving her body–all combined in a stage presence that was so unrestrained and wild it seemed for many observers to push beyond sex/gender norms. Janis herself was very much aware of the challenge she posed to conventional notions of the feminine:
Sometimes…. you get out there and you really damage and offend their femininity. You know, ‘No chick is supposed to stand like that.’ I mean, crouching down in front of the guitar player goin’ ‘uuuuhhhn!’ You know, lettin’ your tits shake around, and your hair’s stringy, you have no makeup on, and sweat running down your face….I look at the crowd and the front rows are goin’ — these girls have these little pinched smiles and the expressions on their faces are of absolute horror.
What might as first appear to be a vision of “letting it all hang out” is actually a rethinking of femme. Janis presents femme not as the performance of an idealized spectacle of femininity, but rather as the process of that spectacle coming undone.
TELL MAMA: Who is the most badass femme you know?
To what extent do ideals of feminine perfection factor into your experience of femme?