Beyond Femme Realness

Since we’ve been talking about “failed” gender performances and the like lately, a “Masculinity Fail” post from Fail Blog caught my eye.  The video itself, which is about a weatherman who screams and freaks out at the sight of a cockroach in the middle of his broadcast, is pretty hilarious and made me wish I had a sissy weatherman on my local news.  (I don’t mean to say that this particular individual is a sissy, but rather that I have a deep affection for sissies.) You can check it out here.  But don’t waste your time reading the comments, most of which are appallingly homophobic and misogynistic. 

I wonder, how many of the guys leaving these small-minded comments would concede that no one can ever fully inhabit the category of masculinity, including them?  On a very fundamental level, the tendency to essentialize gender and sexual identities is the problem here.  Which brings me to the connection I want to make.  What I’ve tried to do in this blog is think about femme and gender in ways that step outside this naturalizing framework.  

Sometimes, even for me, it seems impossible to escape the allure of “realness.”   As femmes we ask ourselves:  “Can I be a real femme if I don’t wear makeup/want to be penetrated/[fill in blank]?” Or, “I’ve stopped wearing skirts, so am I still a femme?”   My feeling is that if I devote my energy to trying to be a “real” femme, I’m basically reinforcing the same oppressive gender norms that we see in “Masculinity Fails.”  

The discrimination and violence suffered by genderqueer and trans people is just one example of how social imperatives to be a “real” man or woman have disastrous effects in our world.  This is why, for me anyway, the high femme project of denaturalizing femininity is about expanding gender and resisting limiting gender stereotypes. 

And just in case you were wondering, I’m the one who kills the bugs in my house!

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Rethinking High Femme, Part 1

A charming and generous friend recently told me–much to my surprise–that she sees my blog as a femme finishing school. I’m flattered, believe me (much love to you, charming and generous friend!), but the more I thought about it the more I realized that femme for me is a nonlinear process in which there’s no identifiable finish line to cross. I think this is one reason why you sometimes hear femmes say that femme is both something we are and something we do. (Actually, I’d love to hear butches talk about butch in this way, but this doesn’t seem to happen a lot. More on that some other time…)

As I’ve worked on this blog, I’ve moved away from thinking about femme in terms of a continuum or spectrum between degrees of femininity. I’ve learned that femme is too complex and varied to be defined primarily through a focus on quantity or intensity (e.g. whether you are “more” or “less” femme). One of my first posts “No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian (I just look like one)” represented an early effort to differentiate between the terms lipstick lesbian, femme, and high femme. It generated a really illuminating dialogue and prompted many of you to suggest other categories/terms such as earthy femme, queer femme, and chapstick femme. Since then, I’ve tried to complicate notions of femme identity in our discussions of femme style, the politics of femme pleasure, femme and consumerism, what it means to “transition” to femme, how butch and femme are not mutually exclusive categories, and being a stone femme.

This discussion–as well as conversations happening on other blogs–has helped me to expand and revise my thinking about femme and high femme. In my “No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian” post I talked about high femme as “ultra femininity,” but I now think this is a bit reductive. What’s most crucial for me about high femme as a separate gender identity from femme is not that it’s “more feminine” but that it’s a different kind of femininity that, generally speaking, privileges artifice over realness.

Here’s my new working definition of high femme; let me know what you think!

High Femme— Lesbian or queer gender marked marked by a highly stylized and aestheticized form of femme gender expression or identity. Uses exaggeration, artifice, and/or theatricality to denaturalize femininity. When combined with parody or irony, the effect achieved is akin to drag: femininity in quotes. No particular style of dress or external signifiers; may or may or may not wear dresses, heels, and/or makeup. May or may not be a “bottom” or a “top” in a sexual situation; may or may not partner with butches, studs, or stone butches. No particular personality traits. May be passive and demure or aggressive, independent, strong, etc. Not equivalent to a lipstick lesbian or stone femme. *

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*NOTE: In the future, I’d like to work on expanding and clarifying this definition even more, since high femme is shaped by class, racial/ethnic, and regional differences. For example, what’s high femme in LA might be different than high femme in Baltimore. Please let me know if you have thoughts on these issues. I also would be interested in hearing from people about the herstory of high femme. Most of us would probably agree that high femme in the 50s and 60s meant something different than it does today, but what exactly is that difference? It’s always good to start with what you know, so my definition above has a contemporary focus.

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow!