Janis: Undoing Femme


Photo Credit: Janis Joplin Photo Gallery: Rolling Stone http://www.rollingstone.com/

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?  


7 Responses

  1. i like this. minus the hippiedom, i’m not too different from this kind of femme. xoxo.

  2. The most badass femme I know…deffo Queer Rose! She exudes femme from very pore in her body. She knows exactly how to move her lips, her hips, how to flutter those lashes but also how to be in control and use the absolute power of the femme to the ultimate max.

    Stick me in a dress (perish the thought!) I totally lose who I am, I look like I am in drag, I am ungainly, clumsy and look ridiculous!

    Mmmm…yum yum I am now thinking of QR’s cleavage!

    Great post- Janis is an absolute star, I’m trying to think of a modern day comparison but can’t.



    Thanx BB. I’d like to take credit for inspiring these musings about your beautiful & badass girl, but I suspect her cleavage is never far from your thoughts. Just a hunch 😉 xo SF

  3. Oh and a very happy new year to you!

  4. My first instinct is to say that I am, of course, the most badass femme I know.

    I suppose that’s not very ladylike.

    Oh, well.

    I have queer ladyfriends in my social circle who are perhaps more badass than I am, but they trail far behind in the femme dept. (Which is not to say they even aspire to my degree of femme, they typically don’t.) So, if we’re talking both badass AND superfemme, you’re lookin’ at her!

    Well of course you are! And BTW, with that fur coat and mini, you were bringing an updated 60s vibe to FFAF, which I loved. Can we be “queer ladyfriends?” My grandmother, whom I miss terribly, used to talk about her “ladyfriends.” So adorable. xo -SF

  5. This brings me back to your earlier post on tomboy-femme, which you illustrated with a great photo of the pop star Pink.

    As it turns out, Pink was tapped to play the lead in a (sadly never produced) biopic on the life of Janis Joplin. What if Janis could have written a song like Pink’s “So What”?

    So what
    I’m still a rock star
    I got my rock moves
    And I don’t need you

    I can’t help but think that if Janis couldn’t have written a song like that…she’d still be alive! I mean, she never got to go to Vegas, wear Bob Mackie gowns, cut a Christmas album, jump the shark, be rediscovered, do a duet with Amy Winehouse!


    Who knows what kind of fabulous femme she might have been if only she had lived?

    Oh, and badass femme? Ms. Winehouse herself — who might have been an even better pick for the role, except for the whole showing up for shoots and staying in an American accent.

    As I’m sure you know, Pink is a huge Janis fan. And although I *adore* Amy Winehouse, for me the person who should play Janis in the film (which needs to be made) is Dana Fuchs. Love her! -SF

  6. We can absolutely be ladyfriends! Wonderful. I’ve been kind of feeling the updated 60s vibe lately, but I have no idea where the inspiration came from.

  7. hmm, very interesting. i never though of janis as femme. but badass femme, definitely. she instigates such intrigue, you know? that’s why i like the 60s/70s so much because it has this enigma about it that you can never penetrate unless you really lived out your life within. but yeah that has nothing to do with femme, just a rant continuing over from my blog – which i now see on your blogroll. femme say whaaa? WORD. and, of course, you’re on mine!

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