When Femme Fails (and Other Questions)

Last year I discussed “high femme” and shared with you my working definition of the term.   The two posts I wrote on this subject, which you can find here and here, prompted great dialogue–for which I’m so grateful! 

Just to refresh your memory, my goal in those posts was to conceptualize high femmes not so much as “more feminine” than other kinds of femmes, but rather as femmes who use exaggeration and/or theatricality to denaturalize femininity.   In short, for me high femme is a highly stylized form of femme gender expression that tends to privilege artifice over realness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how this definition raises certain problems and questions.  For example, what constitutes “highly stylized” femininity and who gets to decide?  How “stylized” does a femme have to be before she can be considered a high femme? 

Do you have to intend to “do”  high femme to be one?  We talk a lot about our intentions or self-consciousness in performing femme, but doesn’t the reception of our performance matter too?  Here’s an example of what I mean.  What happens if I intend in a self-conscious way to highlight the artifice/constructedness of my femininity as a lesbian gender, but others (the guy who lives down the hall) don’t read me that way? Instead, they just see me as the pretty single gal in Apt. 3-B.  Has my performance of high femme “failed?”  All gendered performances “fail,” but it feels like something else is at stake here and I can’t quite put my finger on it….

These are obviously more questions than answers, but I wanted at least to put them on the table for 2009.   As always, I’d love to hear what you think!


13 Responses

  1. i love when you talk about high femme, because you deconstruct the words associated with the identity in a way most high femmes won’t touch. who does decide what the qualifiers are? i want to think it’s a purely independent decision, but i find that i am most scrutinized by other femmes, and that the rules are socially constructed by femmes as a group/culture.

    i identified as high femme for so long and tried to project an image that i felt was exceptionally different from my class background. when i stopped being able to afford to keep up with it, i was deemed a “low femme” by my peers. hence, all of my ranting on the subject.

    i learn a lot from you. your blog and comments are like my femme big sister pep talk. xoxo

    TY, nikki. This put a big smile on my face. And how kind of you to say “big sister” instead of “mother.” I sometimes think of myself as the Mother of the House of High Femme but big sister sounds so much younger 😉 Thanks for sharing your experience. I don’t know people who define high femme this way, but if I did I would tell them it’s diametrically opposed to high femme’s roots in working-class lesbian communities. I learn a lot from you too, sweetie. xo -SF

  2. Ha! Your timing is perfect. A friend of mine just asked me why I do not consider myself a high femme, and I borrowed – and credited – you with this working definition.

    Well done!

    Also, I have no answers.

  3. I can see it going two ways. Those womyn who are High Femmes because that is their nature. They are just expressing who they are. But then there are others who go High Femme as a type of “performance,” which the intention of defying society’s norms.

    If you’re being true to yourself, regardless of the intent or how other’s see you, do you ever really fail?

  4. Don’t you think that the times have something to do with whether the presentation fails or not?

    I think we’re living through a time in which straight culture is rediscovering femininity. As it so happens, I have a little boy, age 7. Dropping him off at school is a trip, in large part because the seven year old girls are totally pink and spangly these days in a way I can assure you they really WERE NOT when I was growing up, in pretty much the same region/social class. In the 70’s and 80’s little kids were strikingly unisex, dresses were not something you wore to school much, you had the same corduroy pants and turtlenecks in slightly different color palettes. At the same time. But “unisex” did not mean moving boys towards girly stuff — it most certainly meant moving girls towards less girly stuff, to the point where it became very popular for parents to give their newborn daughters names that a generation before would have signaled the birth of a little boy.

    Not so these days — the lineup at the school contains a passel of Sophies and Avas in super spangly Hannah Montana getups.

    I’m not sure I think this is a bad thing. I’m not sure I know what to make of it, really. I’d feel entirely good about it if it were simply a revaluation — an upward revaluation — of things that are traditionally feminine — if it didn’t go along with the super-reinforcement of gender roles for boys, a sense that anything even remotely girly is, for them, totally taboo. (I was telling a story to my son a few years ago, just making it up, and made reference to a “little prince” — and he got a totally horrified look on his face and said I AM NOT A PRINCESS! Of course, he goes to school with little girls, so he’s very, very familiar with the whole Disney Princess ouvre — and yet had no idea that there was such a thing as a Prince. Does this kind of thing erase boys’ roles? Unknown).

    You make a good point, and it’s great that you’re thinking about these issues with respect to your son. For the record, that princess shit–and its accompanying uncritical valorization of traditional femininity–makes me want to throw up. In my view, it has nothing to do with femme, which for me is about *resisting* limiting gender stereotypes, not reinforcing them. xo -SF

  5. I think Helen’s point about certain generations being more unisex in school is interesting, and the subsequent point that little girls these days are doing girlie femme to the extreme, complete with princess tea parties etc. I think for my generation and my mother’s generation there was still a sense that it would be unfeminist to push a gender identity on your child if they expressed unhappiness with it. (this generation of girlies doesn’t seem to dislike the color pink, or glitter, or tiaras….etc) The pendulum seems to swing back and forth with gender presentation/identity. So to you SF I pose the following question: Will we see a new generation of femme/butch expression WITHOUT any of those previous notions/assumptions about its relation or denial of straight gender roles? Will we see the change from high femme/debonair butch to the androgynous and now back to high femme/debonair ….but for different reasons…and is it our challenge/responsibility to pave the way for that?

  6. and also….define “failed” gender identity? Is this in any way similar to the feelings people go through when they have their first serious relationship after a bad breakup/long relationship? Meaning: is it an inevitability that you will “fail” at something you are still trying to work on yourself and don’t have a conclusive answer about?

    Hi grrlchef, About this, see my response to Lady Brett Ashley below. Re your previous comment, I have no doubt there are some very unhappy “princesses” out there! I’m not sure what you’re asking about the “new generation” of femme-butch expression–what exactly is our “challenge/responsibility” in your mind? Generally speaking I would say that queer gender expressions are always in a dialectic with heteronormativity. xo -SF

  7. Sometimes I reread these posts, and they’re so smart and fabulous I feel the rude and nerdy urge to demand a reading list 🙂

    That’s very sweet, and neither rude nor nerdy–but then, again, I’m an academic. I’m always happy to provide suggested readings to anyone who’s interested. Just email me, sublimefemme@live.com. xo -SF

  8. I’m with Helen on this one. 🙂

  9. “All gendered performances “fail,””

    i’m not sure i understand you here, but i’m inclined to disagree (gee, that sounds ornery). i mean, sure, if the point is for everyone to understand you all the time, then maybe they do all fail. but, then, if that is the point then all aspects of everyones identity fail pretty regularly.

    for one thing, you can’t force people to think deeply, so if they want to take your identity at face value, there’s nothing you can really do to affect that.

    but, secondly, perhaps this initial “failure” just sets up an opportunity to highlight the artifice of it even moreso. like when you have a conversation with the guy down the hall, or he happens to walk by when you’re kissing a girl hello, or catches a glimpse of the big “hi, i’m gay” sign you like to wear? at which point you are the pretty single (lesbian) gal in Apt. 3-B, and maybe the belatedness/surprise of it will cause people to give your construction of your gender a bit more thought.

    we can hope.

    Be ornery, by all means!

    To clarify, what I meant when I said that all genders fail is that gender ideals are impossible to achieve. For example, no one can ever actually be a “real” man or a “real” woman. The same is true of lesbian genders. This is Judith Butler’s insight, not mine. As she famously puts it, “Gender is a kind of impersonation for which there is no original.” xo -SF

  10. SF –
    I tend to agree with Lady Brett on having some doubts about “failing” at gender…but then, this is something I struggle with consistently. With respect to the new generation I think I am thinking/wondering about what evolution we may have reached with the butch/femme dynamic…given the swings that started with Kennedy,Feinberg and that generation and then the different sort of liberation that happened with Dorothy Allison,etc. I guess what I mean to say, is there a swing between extreme gender identification then a sort of rejection and then back again…and what do you think it will look like when those that are in the next generation starting thinking these same questions?

    This sounds like a question *you* should answer, not me! I think both degendering and gender differentiation/polarization have been fundamental to queer identities since the early twentieth century. Also I tend to see stylistic shifts–like butch-femme in the 50s or the flanneling/degendering of lesbian identityin the 70s–in relation to broader social changes. I can’t make any predictions but what I’d *like* to see in the future is: moving beyond rigid gendering; the increased expansion of categories like femme, woman, butch, and man; and a celebration of sexual and gender diversity. Is that too much to ask?! 😉 xo -SF

  11. Your questions are interesting. I am taking a frame of high femme as queer gender within the gender galaxy.

    >what constitutes ”highly stylized” femininity and who gets >to decide? How “stylized” does a femme have to be >before she can be considered a high femme?

    It seems like this has to be a personal thing. Isn’t every High Femme performing her own unique gender? If it is her intention to embody High Femme, than it is High Femme even if it look totally unlike another manifestation of High Femme.

    SF asked…
    >Do you have to intend to “do” high femme to be one?

    I would say that it has to be conscious and intentional.

    SF asked…
    >We talk a lot about our intentions or self-consciousness in performing femme, but doesn’t the reception of our performance matter too?

    I would say that reception is crucial. This is where I ascribe to social theory like Bruno Latour. When I perform a gender I am trying to influence those around me. In my case as a crossdressing femme boy, I try to achieve being treated as femme rather than male.
    What effect might a High Femme be trying to achieve through her gender performance?

    Welcome, Jasper. I heart femme boys! I agree about the importance of reception and think this is interesting to think about in terms of the different challenges faced by female-bodied and male-bodied femmes. xo -SF

  12. […] has defined high femme as " a highly stylized form of femme gender expression that tends to privilege […]

  13. I’ve just recently started to identify as High Femme, this is largely because I’ve found that I don’t seem to be like other Femmes and I have struggled be put my finger on why. My natural expression of self through appearance is glamorous and this just isn’t the same for the Femmes I see around me. High Femme does not feel artificial or ‘put on’ to me, it’s just part of who I am. I take care in picking out clothes that fit me, suit my colouring and body shape and, accent my femininity. Picking out glamorous clothing does not have to cost much money, or fall within one kind of fashion style. I have clothing that is Rockabilly, Steam Punk, 1930s, main stream fashion, but it all comes together as High Femme. I am a textile artist and dancer and I regard my clothing choices as an expression of my creative practice as well as my gender identity.

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