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?

“I am she: I am he”

The charming G has a great new post Hurry, look–I posted poetry, which  immediately made me think of one of my favorite poems by Adrienne Rich,”Diving into the Wreck,” which is also about change. 

Maybe one reason I like Rich’s poem is because I have had no shortage of wreckage to explore in my life–dysfunctional family dynamics, loss, feelings of betrayal, abandonment, identity, self-doubt, sexuality.  (Thank god for therapy. )   Although “Diving into the Wreck” takes up  big questions of sexuality, gender, history, and myth, it has always felt very personal to me.  

Like the diver in the poem, I often think of myself as the feminist explorer who is outside the “wreck” of culture only to discover time and time again that I am actually inside it.  Try as I might to distance myself, I often feel as immersed in cultural myths about sexuality and gender as my students.  And yet, the wound of being marginalized–of being a queer woman excluded from  what Rich calls “the book of myths” –is enormously painful, and so even the “drowned faces” and ruined, “threadbare beauty” of the wreck can draw me in when I least expect it.   

For me, diving into the wreck is a productive metaphor because it means exploring territory that is both new and old.  It means valuing the multiplicity of gender like the androgynous diver; “I am she: I am he,” Rich’s mermaid-merman declares. It means finding ways to confront our myths and desires and fears in order to transform them. 

PS I actually was lucky enough to have lunch with Rich when she came to my university for a reading, which was a thrill.  This was just a few years after she refused the National Medal of Arts from the Clinton admininstration because, as she said,  “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”  Yes, she’s just that cool and brave and leftist and feminist!

You can read “Diving into the Wreck” here  or, for a more multimedia experience of the poem, watch this video:

I’m No Lady

I hate being called a lady.  It’s almost as bad as being showered with “yes, ma’am’s” by my students!  I’m not against manners; to the contrary, I value them highly and even keep a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior on hand in case of an etiquette crisis.  (I kid you not.)

Pulling out my dictionary, I see “lady” not only means that a woman is polite and considerate but also that she’s “proper” and/or “virtuous.”  Which of course implies that other women are not.   Maybe that’s why, for me, lady is a category that tends to resist ironic appropriation.  However, I will admit that there are a few important exceptions:

  1. when used by drag queens
  2. in Tom Jones’ song, “She’s a Lady”
  3. when used by the glorious Lady Brett Ashley, whose namesake (a character in The Sun Also Rises) is independent, sexually liberated and drinks her way across Europe.  What’s not to like?

But let’s face it:  sometimes being called a lady is just plain sexist.  For example, I was appalled when a man (himself a writer) called me a “lady writer” a few years ago.  Ugh.  There are also times when people use the word as a synonym for woman, as in “My new tattoo is a hit with the ladies” or (to a child), “Say thank you to the nice lady.”  I’m not a fan of this more “neutral” use of the word, because I don’t think lady can ever be neutral.  That’s the point.  It’s a value judgment. 

Historically, ladies were the object of a knight’s devotion, so the term suggests chivalric codes as well as a particular social position.  I love being treated chivalrously and think the practice of chivalry can be feminist, but I think it’s problematic to encode chivalry in identity categories (e.g. butch/male lover and femme/lady beloved).  As many feminists have observed, a  pedestal is a small place to live.

Why do I feel immediately constrained when someone (however well-meaning) calls me a lady?  I think it’s because of the engendering work the term does–its quiet insistence that women follow certain codes in order to be thought of as meritorious, desirable, or attractive.  Although I certainly respect those femmes who find a retro appeal the identity of the lady, I see “femme” as a category that breaks gender norms and “lady” as an enforcer of them.  That’s why I’m proud to say I’m no lady. 

Beauty, Femininity and Feminism

Is your lipstick a tool of the patriarchy?  Is the pursuit of beauty anti-feminist?   Before you answer these questions, consider this:

It is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sports are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.”  This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a hair salon.

I didn’t write the words above (except for the bit about the hair salon).  They’re paraphrased from Virginia Woolf’s watershed feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately beacause I believe the question “Is beauty anti-feminist?” repeats the privileging of the masculine that Woolf critiques.

Sublime Femmeness embraces the power of femme beauty and rethinks its politics:

  • We need to separate the beauty industry and anti-feminist beauty standards (e.g. whiteness as beauty) from the pursuit of beauty and femininity, which feminism should elevate.
  • When a feminist or anyone else denigrates makeup, fashion etc, what this person is really saying is that the things that matter to (many) women are trivial and superficial.
  • “The beautiful” is much more complex and varied than we have been led to believe.
  • It’s our imperfections that make us beautiful.

What else should be added to this list?  Does beauty and its pleasures shape your experience of femme?

The Feminist Fairytale about Butch/Femme

Does butch/femme reinforce traditional gender roles? Is it sexist? Misogynistic? Does being a femme mean that you’re a nurturing “little wife” who “stands by her butch?” A sex kitten who is required to perform an idealized fantasy of feminine perfection? Do butches and other transmasculine people get to “wear the pants” (both literally and metaphorically)–defending and protecting “their” femmes– while femmes have less power? Is it really possible to be a feminist butch or a feminist femme–not just in theory, but in practice?

Sometimes it seems like these questions just won’t go away. This post is my very personal–and political–response. My feminism is about freedom of gender expression. I insist upon being respected as a femme but I refuse to be confined to someone else’s definition of what that means. I’m smart, confident, and successful. I love being pretty and sexy but I’m not an ornament or arm candy. Being femme does not mean that I will abide by the traditional self-sacrificing requirements of femininity–the idea that women must reliquish their freedom and autonomy, dreams and desires, to find fulfillment. I like to please my partner, but I will not subordinate myself to make her happy. You don’t like my amazing new outfit? Oh well, that’s too bad because I love it and feel great in it!

For me, femme doesn’t mean that I’m locked into some naturalized gender role, as I think all too often happens (particularly for women) in heterosexual relationships. But I’ll admit, that’s not always easy. There have been times when I felt like I was slipping into a “wifey” role, and I had to work to get that fantasy image of femininity out of my head. (There’s a huge difference between *wanting* to do domestic stuff and *having* to do it.) I imagine that some butch/femme couples do organize their lives in ways that echo traditional gender roles, but that hasn’t been my experience.

There is nothing inherently anti-feminist or sexist about butch/femme identities or desires. What I think is confusing about femme in particular and butch/femme in general is that it can look a lot like naturalized gender identity/roles at first glance. For example, you’ll never see me change the oil in the car or install new faucets–my partner (who ID’s as butch) does that stuff. I clean the bathroom and do most of the cooking. I take out the trash sometimes, and if I break a nail, I’m pissed. (Actually I’m always pissed if I break a nail!) My partner is usually not comfortable in the kitchen but she can be counted on to make a great tortilla soup. We both value and respect each other’s work. There have been times when I’ve been the breadwinner, other times when she’s supported me financially, and times when we’ve both contributed to our household income. We both have equal power in the relationship when it comes to making decisions, which we make together. She came home with flowers for me today, just because.

The contradictions in masculinity and femininity are a part of us and our relationship, just like they are for most other couples. But when others imply that our relationship is somehow more sexist than theirs, I think they’re projecting their own anxieties about gender onto us.

The notion that butch/femme is sexist is a feminist fairytale we need to stop telling.