Why Do Femme?

This is my response to Making Space’s recent post on femme and femininity.  You can read her whole post here.

It just never ever ever in a million gazillion years would EVER occur to me that ANY woman EVER EVER EVER EVER (have I emphasized this enough?) would voluntarily paint her nails or wear makeup every day. So I’m sorta confused about this. If you’re not doing it because you’re “supposed to” to look good for men, why the hell would you do it? And apparently there are ACTUALLY women out there who, regardless of orientation, LIKE to be all manicured and made up and wear heels and stuff like that. I find it exhausting to contemplate. I mean, have at it if you wanna, absolutely. But if you’re not trying to catch a man, and you CAN look however you want, well – I guess it just never occurred to me that some women would still WANT to do all that stuff to themselves.

I recognize that performing femininity can and often is heteronormative, but the idea that femininity serves only or primarily to “catch” a man is a shocking and troubling thought to me.  What this seems to suggest is that wearing make-up or sexy/feminine clothes is so demeaning and onerous that no one in her right mind would actually choose to be feminine outside a heterosexual economy!

In the media we often hear the notion that women who perform rituals of beauty/femininity aren’t doing it for a man, but rather “for themselves.” As in, I didn’t get these implants for my husband; I got them so I can feel better about myself.  This rhetoric is problematic because it never questions why women need the implants in order to feel better about themselves in the first place.  It pretends that the boundaries of feminine performance are individual when in fact they are social and cultural.

This broader social context is crucial, in my view, because historically femininity has been ridiculed, demeaned, and treated as an emblem of passivity and subordination.  I think it’s a feminist act of resistance to reclaim femininity and separate it from the male gaze–to show the world that women can be strong and smart and beautiful, all at the same time.   And, as I’ve said here before, we need to recognize femme as a lesbian gender and source of power and pleasure for queer women.  From this perspective, femme performance is quite different from conforming to traditional scripts of femininity (e.g. the “dumb blonde”) in order to attract men or bolster the male ego.

For those of you out there who are femme-identified, why do you do femme?  Do you see femme as reframing traditional scripts of femininity?

24 Responses

  1. Wow, thanks so much for your response, I appreciate so much your taking the time and energy. I understand there are issues with commenting not going through on my blog, and I apologize for that – I am not at all technically savvy but will see what I can do to remedy that.

    In the meantime, I appreciate the information, education, and eye opening that your blog provides. I love the sense of style I’ve developed as I’ve started to come out, but I would never identify it as anything that would ever attract a man. LOL That may be why I like it so much, hmm… a bit of newbie rebellion perhaps?

    It wasn’t my intention to suggest or state that other folks who like to paint their nails (that’s one my mama really really wanted me to do that I just hate hate hate LOL) are out of their minds for any reason. I would be out of my mind if I attempted to keep my nails painted, but clearly this is not true for other people (regardless of gender – I’m thinking of a tenor in the choir where I teach who has a rockin’ french manicure).

    It is true, however, that I have arrived at this stage of my life with certain ideas about what one “has” to do to attract men. And it is quite true that one of the most liberating things for me in discovering I’M NOT STRAIGHT (HALLELUJAH!!) was that I don’t have to attract men anymore. For me, that meant I got to throw out the window all kinds of ways of dressing and adorning myself that I always hated but felt constrained to do.

    And I’m just learning, to my surprise, that there are women who like to do these things for reasons that have nothing to do with men. I think that’s pretty cool, though in my case it’s not inspiring me to paint my own personal nails. (Yeah I have issues with the nail-painting. I’ll take it up in therapy. LOL)

    It’s funny, I’m still looking at all the things I can (or must) dispense with, changing so much at this stage of my life. The idea that I could also, at some time in the future if it suits MEEEE, take back some of those things that used to only have meaning in the context of attracting men – it’s a nice one. For now, I’m learning to really LIKE myself. As me. Just me. That’s new. And sweet. And freeing.

    And it’s amazing to look over the horizon and see all the variety that awaits me out there. Thanks so much for your post, and I look forward to comments that come from it. Blessings and beauty be yours.

  2. Note: I’ve taken my blog private, temporarily, for some personal reasons having nothing whatever to do with this blog post. I regret having to do it, and hope I can be back in public form at some point.

  3. Well, I’ve identified as femme always. (Where always equals about 30 years.) Although, I would not say that I am high-femme, or stone-femme.

    I don’t see any expression of femme (where femme is a lesbian identity) as being het-identified. I am not sure I even see my declaration as a femme as reframing traditional concepts of femininity, although I can guarantee that it does. Rather, it is very basically who I am.

    About 20 years ago, I read the entire available canon of women’s the book Femininity by Susan Brownmiller. In it, she argued that women should give up wearing makeup for a variety of reasons. So I did. It was an interesting experiment, and freeing to watch how my perceptions changed and how the people dealing with me changed. Did I go back to make-up and skirts and heels? Yes. Absolutely. Because, bottom line, that was me.

    I’m attracted to women who are on the androgynous to butch spectrum, leaning toward butch. I am not attracted to femmy women. (And the woman could be the most beautiful, sensual, intelligent, interesting woman on the planet. Her, I’d love to be friends with. But not much more.) My suspicion is, once people get around to really studying the spectrum of attraction and expression of sexuality and gender identity, this will be something that’s predetermined and hard-wired in to us. That we’ll fall all over the place on the femme-andro-butch spectrum (obviously, since we do) and that where we fall is the result of something intrinsic. We’ll see if I’m right.

    P.S. MakingSpace: I just found your blog and am sorry it’s had to go private. (I commented on your blog as well a few days ago.)

    Thanks Sublime!

    *Thank you,* Em! I personally would not use the word “predetermined” to talk about gender or sexuality, but I definitely think that, for me, being femme is a core part of who I am. Thx for your comment! xo SF

    • Em! And other alert commenters. If you send an email to MakingSpace(at)live.com I will send you an invite to my blog. I would love as wide a readership as possible, and I expect to have many more questions. Please do jump in, the water’s fine over at Chez MakingSpace!

  4. Somehow, I’ve left off a piece of sentence. It should read:
    About 20 years ago, I read the entire available canon of women’s movement and women’s studies literature that I could lay my hands on, including the book Femininity by Susan Brownmiller.

    Perhaps not much clearer. Ah well.

  5. Thanks Em, I appreciate your take on what it means to be femme.

    I regret the move to privacy on my blog. I hope it can be temporary, but I have some privacy issues to deal with that fall far outside the scope of this discussion. Hold a good thought, it would be appreciated.

  6. i have come to realize recently that my upbringing led me through rather unusual perspectives on gender. one aspect of which is that i never connected femininity with attracting men (personally. of course i understand the cultural way that this is true). maybe because my parents are both rather practical and low-key about femininity. or because the kind of guys i liked tended to like me *because* i was a tomboy.

    but i have two other thoughts on this femininity-as-lure thing. if it is a strictly negative thing, how is it any better just because you’re gay? i just don’t buy that being gay is inherently subversive (or what have you), and it seems that it is the same thing minus a mild dose of patriarchy to dress feminine to snag a girl as to snag a guy.

    on the other hand, what’s wrong with using your femininity as a lure? i mean, surely that oughtn’t be its only purpose, but i think it makes a lot of sense to adjust (not *change*, but tweak, show off or subdue) aspects of yourself in order to be attractive to the person or people that you want to attract. (in a way, it is a lot like what g wrote in his most recent post). to me, it’s the socially proscriptive part that can make all of this problematic (intentionality is a huge part of my definition of femme).

    but to actually answer your question, i do femme because it just happened. rather, femininity began creeping up on me and becoming appealing, and femme was the result of that transition. for me, the fact that it was such a change made it very freeing and revelatory (and forced me to give it a lot of thought) in a way that it may well have never been had it been constant. i think a significant force in my transition to femme, though, was rethinking (and discarding) the idea that femininity is inherently impractical. i have a lot to say on that subject too, but i have my own soapbox somewhere; i’ll step off yours 😉

    My dear Lady B, You can stand on my soapbox anytime you want for as long as you want! Did it sound like I was saying that being gay makes queer femmes inherently subversive? I hope you know me well enough by now to know that I don’t think ANY sexual identity, expression, or practice is inherently anything. Everything depends on context.

    Performing femininity in a hetero context does not mean that it’s necessarily oppressive/normative, and performing femininity in a queer context is not necessarily an act of resistance to sex/gender norms. My point is merely that the queer context matters–it’s meaningful–because it can be a precondition for reframing conventional gender scripts. Or something like that. xo SF

    • oh, no, dear. i was referring to what i have found is a common queer concept, not any implications you made. i think we’ve had this context discussion before!

      the point (i think) is to give your behaviors some thought – and it is somewhat more likely that you have been forced to do so in a queer context.

  7. I’m bi, so technically some of my femininity could be perceived as man-catching. But as my femininity has developed, as it’s changed while I’ve explored its connection/lack thereof to my sexuality, I’ve found that I am able to pick and choose what feminine things I keep and which I don’t. I can keep the make-up and the heels, and I can drop the bikini waxes. My particular vantage point on the spectrum has allowed me to see that a lot of femininity is arbitrary, and only some of it’s fun. I’ll take the fun stuff. And I have no problem if the things you want to keep are different from the things I keep.

    Queer femmes actually have a bit of an advantage, I think. Because we’ve explored our sexuality, because we’ve been forced to see the disconnect between sex and gender, because the women we date have done these things as well, we can take part in femininity while knowing that it’s a game. While knowing that the women in our lives know it’s a game, too. You’ll find straight femmes who haven’t thought about why they do what they do, but queer femmes don’t have that luxury. It’s responsible femininity, not blind following of prescribed rules.

    Great point, Fancy. In general, there is a degree of self-consciousness among queer femmes that is hard to find elsewhere. Of course, self-reflexivity doesn’t inoculate us from the problems that femininity can pose, but it’s a start.

  8. I am in a hurry and oh boy do I wish I could write a novel here but I can’t and all I can say is the timing of this is perfect, because my world has exploded in a rainbow of femmey-gendered things… (as you can tell by my own blog writings).

    But yes and yes and yes I believe so much that femininity and femme-ininity need to have room to breathe as powerful forms of self-expression and -identity for women and men and all gendered people! There is so much strength in femininity.

    I am femme because to be femme is to be fully inhabiting my own power.

    I love your last sentence. And please do write that novel! xo SF

  9. Thanks everyone for these wonderful comments! I am learning so much and it really makes sense to me that context matters. How I express my femininity matters in context of who I understand myself to be, and also the culture I inhabit.

    And the day after I wrote my original post which sparked this LOVELY discussion, I wore heels to work. I thought I should mention that. LOL I was thinking of you folks all day actually. Heh.

    I’m trying to work out a way where new readers can sign up for my blog, even though it’s now private. I would love some of this discussion to happen over on my own blog as well. However I am not as coherent as SublimeFemme, so perhaps it’s for the best. LOL

  10. I love queering femininity. I am quite conscious of the signifiers that (for me) do this: painted nails (but shortish); cleavage (but tattoos); and a ‘fuck off glare’ should a straight man misinterpret these. I go weak at the knees for female masculinity, in the form of my husbutch, and one of the reasons that I love being femme is that I know that it makes her catch her breath…

    In my early 20s I felt safer walking through the world in androgynous clothes. I didn’t know how to deal with unwanted sexual attention from men (I had not perfected my ‘fuck off’ glare, lol) and I was convinced that if I stayed looking girly I would have to deal with being harassed (and that’s how all the lesbians I knew dressed, so I thought I should try it too…) But I also felt really stifled and ungainly and not quite right. Then I started dating a butch who a) blew me away, and b) honored and appreciated the vulnerability/bravery/power/joy of my emerging femme identity (or so it felt at the time). and that was the end of that!

  11. Perhaps there could be a class for newbies in the fuck off glare. I would like that.

  12. For me I do femme because that is what feels the most comfortable expression of personality, sexuality, sensuality etc.

    I was femme when I first came out, which led to a lot of questions about whether I was a “real lesbian”. I was just about the only femme in a sea of butches, which should in theory be a dream come true. Unfortunately they were all andro/ butchy types looking for other andro butchy types because they thought that was the only way a lesbian could be.
    Partially as a response and partially as a rebellion against het society’s ideas of how i should look I changed my appearance to a butch look (though I could never quite give up glitter…).

    I drifted back towards being a femme as I started to do my A-Levels as very simply I needed to be me, and look how I really wanted to look for the sake of my own self confidence.

    (I hope this post makes sense I’m quite poorly and struggling to think properly)

    • Vintage_Femme, that is just about item for item and word for word the same exact experience I had (except I never did A-Levels, being that I’m American and all!). Seems to be a pattern, actually… unfortunately.

    • That’s interesting – what are A-levels? I think the idea of doing what comes most comfortably as an expression of one’s sexuality is The Piece I’ve Been Missing. There is a great deal more fluidity in this arena than I have been exposed to, and I’m really surprised and delighted to learn (for the first time in my forties believe it or not) that there are all kinds of wonderful ways to live as a woman. What I’m getting from your comment and really everybody’s is that this is about the person, the individual, certainly in cultural context but about one person’s expression of self. And it’s about playing with who I am out in the world.

      Those who might be curious about me from SF’s quote above, please do not hesitate to email me at MakingSpace(at)live.com for an invite to my blog. It’s gone private due to some concerns that have nothing to do with this conversation.

      Thanks again to SF for starting this. I ALMOST wore makeup this morning. Heh.

      • To Making Space:

        there are indeed many many ways of being a ‘woman’, a queer woman at that. And most importantly you don’t have to pick one way, I am very much a femme 95% of the time, but every now and then I butch up/ drag up.

        Where as much or little make up as you want, only when you want, if you want -as long as it’s you who dictates your appearance then it’s all fine. And As it so happens that for me is one of the key things of being femme and reclaiming/ reshaping femininity -doing it as it suits you, when its suits you. Not having the pressure of patriarchal society say I must not leave the house without having a ‘bit of slap’ on or I must wear heels – I make the conscious decision each day how I will look, how traditionally feminine I will be.

        As an aside, I don’t know what the US equivalent of A levels is (forgive my ignorance) -in the UK they are the qualification you can get after leaving school at 16 and entering university at 18.

        Great comment, Vintage Femme. The only thing we have that’s comparable to A levels in the US are the SAT or ACT exams, which high school students take for admission to college.

        Now, back to our regularly scheduled femme program… xo SF

  13. Vintage Femme, I love your take on how we decide how to look. This is something I am just discovering for myself in recent years, and it’s a matter of unraveling decades of indoctrination into how a woman “should” look. I frequently like how I look best when I dress and adorn myself in ways I would have shunned before coming out. And yet, I think it’s more a matter of inner style emerging than it is any reflection on my orientation. It’s more about letting my authentic self be reflected in my dress (or pants, or shorts, you get the idea).

    It’s funny I have this anti-nail-painting bias for myself, given that my young daughters adore having their nails painted. LOL So I actually spend quite a bit of time painting people’s nails. Tonight I did a red undercoat with black spots over it. A custom request from a small person. LOL

    Confession time now. I’m new enough at all of this that I haven’t yet learned to distinguish who I find myself attracted to. I’m just sort of “women are SOOOO beautiful” so it kinda doesn’t matter where they are on the butch/femme spectrum (or any other spectrum), if they’re female, I’m gone. I don’t know when that settles down into discernment, but I’m enjoying it. I always knew women were amazing, but now I REALLY know women are amazing. Heh.

  14. Hi Femme sisters –
    Amazing dialogue going on over here. Three things stood out for me right away because I related to them immediately. Lady Bretts comments about men being attracted to her tomboy presentation and her eventual evolution to her own femme identity. When you are trying to embrace an identity/presentation that you think is societies expectation of you, it can come across as inauthentic, and like a dress that doesnt fit quite right, it doesnt feel good on. Some of us sprung fully femme from the womb with nails and heels and all the trappings. Some of us went through a process of rejection and then reclamation on our own terms, in our own timeframe. I only dated one person through my twenties, and he was attracted to my tomboyishness and so that made me feel comfortable in my identity. The other part of that was that WOMEN were very ok with letting me express my inner tomboy so when I would date women they made me feel attractive in that presentation. It all became very confusing when I realized I wanted to be dating ONLY women and my tomboy presentation with HIM became more of an armor. (really though, I was just dressing very poorly and not taking care of myself at all which is another story) So, how did I come around to my femme-ness? Taking care of myself and finding ways to feel beautiful was part of it. That’s why Alphafemmes comment about inhabiting her own power resonates for me. I love the feminine form, the curves, the nice tailoring, the look a woman gets when she is confident, rocking out her look (whether its tomboy femme, high femme, or professor femme ). I liked how that felt on me, and I liked it on other women. I feel sexy in heels, I feel even more fierce and flawless if my makeup is done and my hair looks fabulous. While I would love to get my nails done, cheffiefemmes dont get to have painted nails in the kitchen, so I save that for vacations.
    Also: responsible femininity. Fancy – I LOVE that!

    • I wonder, too, if some of this is about personal evolution throughout the lifespan? Trying on external expressions of different parts of ourselves at different times… I don’t know. I was just thinking about this tonight as I caught a glimpse of myself in a restroom mirror at a show intermission, and I didn’t immediately recognize myself. (The good news: I thought I was cute. LOL Narcissistic much?) But if I look back to how I dressed and how I understood myself a decade ago, I see that my external expression reflected what I understood about myself at the time. In that sense it was authentic. Someone above mentioned the necessity of thinking about one’s external expression of self more in a queer context. For me, so far, at least, just coming out has taken most of my active thought. How to dress and externally show my inner self has been a source of freedom rather than extra thought. If that makes sense. My case was a little extreme, in that I was actively concerned for some time that my extended family would try to take my children from me. So other things didn’t get a lot of thought. But whenever I think of getting dressed now, I feel free to dress how I like. So I think less and enjoy more.

      I know my context for evaluating these questions is very different from most commenters, since I’m really still in the sort of intermediate stage of coming out, and since I never questioned the “rules” about what “girls” should look like before that.

      But I keep yakking because my post got a whole blog post from Sublime Femme. Yeah, narcissistic much… LOL thanks again everyone for all of this. I feel encouraged and inspired. Not to paint my nails, but to enjoy myself. Lovely.

  15. I guess my issues were more hippy related and practical then feminist. However, the inner girl has kicked in of late and I enjoy it. Some of my straight I. T. co-workers have informed me they don’t even own ANY dress. I sense the remaining “kewl” girl has sort of let me into the club. Oddly, we seem to be sporting the same hairstyle and day to day adornments. The other day, we had quite the chat concerning my upper ear piercing.

  16. Hello all!
    I am new to the blog and just came across this topic which I found facinating. Gender identity with in the queer community, esp among women blows my mind! In a good way.

    Personally I identify as femme. Not high femme though I do bust out the paint-and-powder every once and again. People have told me that I’m an Aggressive Femme (I prefer the terms Chapstick Lesbian or Lipstick Butch) because I know what i want and know how to get it.

    I have definitely evolved over the years. When I first came out (16 yrs old) it was the 90’s and there was only one way that lesbians looked. I cut my hair, got a few more ear pierced my ears a few more times, and lived baggy jeans and work boots…but again it was the 90’s and everyone kind of looked that way. As I got older and began to be more comfortable about who I was and I presented myself, dresses and skirt crept back into the mix. I went through a slightly hyper-femme phase when between 22-28 while I was a go-go dancer for various women’s clubs and event; it just fit the territory. I was selling sex and knee-high boots and ruffled underwear was the way to do it. I just turned 30 in November and I can say that my style has relaxed a bit. I would love to wear more heels and skirts but in my day-to-day it’s just not practical. I pretty much live in pants at work and sweats when I’m home.

    There is also the whole other dimension of being African American and the hypersexualized images of women of my race that flood the media. Black women are more than video vixen but I don’t think that I have to completely deny my feminine identity to not be part of that stereotype.

    Thanks for letting me weigh in! I love the blog!!!

    Welcome, Savannah! Thanks for your terrific comment and for sharing your story. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the hypersexualization of black women and the particular challenges this creates for you as an African American femme. Glad you’re liking the blog! xo SF

    • This is cool – I first posted my questions back in October and since then I’ve been thinking about this subject rather steadily. One thing that stands out to me from your response is the idea of evolution of style – and how evolution of style goes along with evolution of identity. I’m dealing with this in my forties, for the first time, and sometimes I feel like I need to stick with what I’ve always done, how I’ve always looked, just because it might be “silly” to change NOW. Other times I feel like I need to change my style/look radically in order to show the changes in my internal world. But it makes total sense that regardless of our age (and age at coming out) we’d go through some evolution as we grow internally – and that evolution would reflect in our sense of personal style… hmmm…. much food for thought here again, thank you!

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