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.

The Politics of Femme Pleasure

Trying to keep down the cost of my fall wardrobe, I took some things to the tailor today and was rewarded for my frugality with a vision of my sexy tailor–wearing a gorgeous chocolate slinky wrap dress and 5-inch nude platform peep-toe pumps–on her knees at my feet marking and pinning my pants. Seriously, this girl is stunning. I may need to take a few more things over later in the week….

I’m sharing this highlight of my day with you because, well, I can’t stop thinking about my tailor. And because I’ve also been thinking about how much my own femmeness is dependent upon what I call “props”–costume, products and objects acquired to perform my gender (or the illusion of it). My gay role model, Oscar Wilde, points out that in modern society we’ve confused what we have with who we are. This extends to all facets of our lives. As long as we’re killing ourselves working, lusting after the next new and improved must-have gadget, and fighting each other at home and abroad, we can’t attain any kind of freedom, including the freedom to be queer.

Without a doubt, it’s important to me to make socially conscious choices in my life (be a frugal femme, shop union made & fair trade, be eco-friendly, give to charity when I can), but in my view these are individualistic solutions for global problems. If Wilde is right, the freedom to be queer–to develop our own individual potential and to experience beauty, pleasure and joy in our lives–depends upon creating a world in which value isn’t measured solely in terms of material things.

So, what’s a progressively-minded and fashion-forward femme to do? Revolt, of course! But stylishly. The philosophy of Sublime Femmeness is that any revolution without beauty is not a revolution worth having.

This post is my reply to Lady Brett Ashley, who threw down the gauntlet yesterday, and to Lucy. Both commented productively on my “Queer Luxuries” post, thanks!