Never Been a Bad Girl

Whether you’re nice or naughty, you’re going to like Sabrina Chap’s new video!

From The Queerist:

In a world of flash-in-the-pan acts and pop music saturation, it’s a joy to discover Sabrina Chap, a deeply talented musician who’s well grounded in songwriting and grand performanceship . When her songwriting career collided with a discovery of ragtime years ago, it launched her in a new direction, creating jazzy-heavy tunes with vintage, hearty vocals. Clever lyrics and a penchant for cabaret only amped up the appeal.   Read the rest here.

Silver Foxes

Do silver foxes really exist among femmes or is being considered gray and foxy only possible if you’re Anderson Cooper?  My beloved grandmother died at the age of 96 (actually, we’re not exactly sure how old she was) and she was still coloring her hair brown right up until the end.   I’ve been coloring my hair for years, and I’m not ashamed to say that I do it because I’m vain.  Period.  (Have you seen buddhistfemme’s interesting post on the decision to color her hair, “To Dye or Not to Dye?”).

I always thought I would meet my maker like my grandmother–with my hair “done”  in the fullest sense of the term.  But since my last post on aging as a femme, “Stay Young and Beautiful,”  I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to be glam and gray.  I must confess, I’ve had a fantasy of one day becoming one of those “women of a certain age” with silver-white hair.  In fact, some time ago at a party I couldn’t take my eyes off a stunning woman of mature years (a friend of my mother-in-law’s) with absolutely gorgeous white hair.  After we were introduced, I gushed about how much I loved her hair–which she didn’t at all seem to enjoy–only to discover later from my mother-in-law that the lovely hair in question was a wig.  Oops!

I looked far and wide for pics of beautiful gray-haired women and there aren’t a lot.  Here’s what I came up with.  My favorites, of course, are the cinematic ones–Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and Anne Bancroft with those great grey streaks in The Graduate. Let me know what you think!





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. 

Beyond Guilty Pleasures

Do we as femmes focus too much on appearances? Does this make us superficial queers? Do we need to focus more on the internal not the external?

Buddhistfemme raises these questions in her excellent post, Femme-ness & Consumerism (A Few Thoughts). I really appreciate her effort to rethink femme from the inside out–especially in the blogging world where, from what I can tell, there’s a tendency to define femme more in terms of fashion, style and beauty. Are “the inner qualities of femme” missing from the conversation, as buddhistfemme suggests? Here’s my response:

1. Inner vs. Outer? Perhaps when we as (as femmes, butches, etc) are telling stories about our desires, how we experience of our bodies, how we style and dress our bodies, and how and with whom we partner, we *are* talking about what defines our identities at a very core level.

2. The Social, Not the Individual. Although as a pyschology student and buddhist, buddistfemme has a much more inward focus than I do, I think we’re both equally committed to questions of social and economic justice. It’s just that I come at these issues from a different angle–through the category of the social, not the individual or the personal.

3. Lifestyle Politics. I love the point buddishtfemme makes in one of her recent comments on this site about how people need to just *consume less.* She’s right. Our identities are so tied up with consumerism that we find it much more comfortable to look for consumerist solutions to social problems. Why protest if you can shop, after all? This is a major limitation of lifestyle politics, which suggests that we can change the world by just changing our lifestyles. As said here previously, I think making more socially conscious choices in our lives is important, but this just a first step towards authentic social change. Shopping isn’t going to help the queer kid living on the streets, as buddhistfemme rightly point out in her post.

4. Hey, You! Step Away from the Queer Theory. I think it’s worth noting that lots of us schooled in queer & gender theory have been trained to be suspicious about the very notion of gender as an inner, core identity. I’m thinking of Judith Butler’s argument that there is no gender identity that precedes our performance of it, no “doer behind the deed.” So perhaps this is one reason why some of us haven’t been talking about “the inner qualities of femme.”

Last but definitely not least…

5. I Like “Fluff!” And fashion, and beauty, and style. In my view, hair is pretty much a matter of life and death. My cultivation of femme-ininity isn’t a guilty pleasure for me; it’s at the heart of the campy, drag perspective on femme that infuses everything I do in work and play. I’m both serious and trivial, and I value both beauty and brains, politics and pleasure, high-brow art and low-brow pop culture. Not only do I refuse to choose between these things, but I’d like to question why we (particularly queers and women) have been made to feel like we have to.

Thanks to buddistfemme for her honest and thoughtful contribution to this debate. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts, as always!

Making Up

If I’m running super late–as I all too often do (sorry, honey!)–I can work at breakneck speed and get my makeup on in five minutes, but that means putting on my lipstick and/or mascara in the rearview mirror while I’m at a redlight.

Personally, I think the much-trumpeted “5-minute face” is a beauty industry myth. It sounds great in all the magazines: just a little tinted moisturizer, highlighter/bronzer/blush, quickly define the eyes, a natural lip and voilà! But seriously, if you buy and use even *half* of all the products these magazines promote in their pages, how can you possibly get your makeup on in 5 minutes?

I love to take my time putting on my makeup, which I apply sitting at an antique, wooden vanity that belonged to my mother. When she gave me the vanity, I explored it like a time capsule from my childhood. I cleaned out the drawers and found a negative of a honeymoon photo of my parents, a few earrings from the 70s, and a false eyelash! I’m tall so the vanity is kind of small for me, but I love using it. I love how old-fashioned it is, the feel of the wood, even the squeak the drawers make when you swing them open. (The side drawers swing rather than pull open, which is pretty charming.)

There’s also something interesting I discovered about having a vanity. It’s affirming. A vanity bestows value on the process of making oneself beautiful. For years I “dolled up” standing in the bathroom, so being able to sit down and enjoy the experience of doing my makeup is a treat. Usually I do my makeup in 10 minutes–more if it’s a special occasion or I’m playing with a new look, mixing colors, doing my brows, etc. Although I’m openly obsessed with makeup, people tell me that I “don’t really wear that much.” (Untrue!) I guess they’re surprised that I look relatively “normal” when they discover the extent of my makeup obsession.

So, I want to hear from everyone out there who loves to “make up”–how long does it take you to put your makeup on? Do you have a beauty routine?

What Makes (Me) a Femme

Long, long ago in a gender galaxy far, far away…

…I was butch!

I know what you’re thinking: how could your favorite ravishing femme queer theorist–who is typing these words with perfectly manicured red nails–have ever been butch? But it’s really true, my lovelies, I swear. I had Hilary Swank’s haircut in Boys Don’t Cry, stomped around in big Timberland boots, got my clothes from the men’s department, and my only grooming products were shampoo, soap and chapstick. In the community that I came out into, to be a lesbian meant that you were butch, andro, or flannel, period. I actually had no idea that other kinds of lesbian genders existed!

I’m writing this piece in response to Hussy Red’s terrific post “The Femme Archive” on The Femme Guide, which asks all of us to share our own stories about how we’ve come to our identities as femmes. So, I’ve been asking myself: Who and what inspired, affirmed and taught me as I traveled the long and winding road to femme? What made me feel authorized to express my own queer femininity? Here are my answers, in no particular order:

1. Femme Icons. These are the brave, beautiful women who inspired me and educated me about femme, even if I never knew them. For me, Joan Nestle, Susie Bright, and Amber Hollibaugh are at the top of the list; their brilliance, political activism, magnetic eroticism and kick-ass femme attitudes made me think, that’s what I want to be when I grow up! Femme icons from earlier eras have also been a big source of inspiration for me. If you’ve read my post on Greta Garbo, you know that I love old Hollywood glamour and the beautiful and talented lesbian and bisexual women who serve, for me, as icons of queer femininity. (For the scoop about Garbo, Tallaluh Bankhead, Mercedes de Acosta, Marlene Dietrich and more, check out Diana McLellan’s The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood!) But Femme icons are also people we see everyday. For me, getting to know and work with smart and successful femme/feminine lesbians who were my teachers and mentors was an incredible blessing. By modeling their own versions of femme in their lives and work (from lipstick lesbian to campy, queer femme identities), they introduced me to ways of inhabiting lesbian gender that I had never imagined possible.

2. Butch/femme and lesbian history. Learning about the history of butch/femme in the 40s, 50s and 60s was incredibly important to me. Reading Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues–which was itself a life-changing experience–motivated me to learn more about butch/femme working-class communities in postwar America. I was so inspired and impressed by how brave these women were, and how hard they had fought to carve out spaces for public, visible lesbian communities under extremely oppressive social conditions. In fact, the main reason I began to identify as a femme (as opposed to lipstick lesbian, for example) is precisely because I wanted to connect with that past. This is still true for me today; calling myself a femme is one way I strive to honor the struggles, sacrifices, and hard-won victories of butches and femmes and carry them forward into the present. To learn more about butch/femme communities in the 50s, I highly recommend Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis’ wonderfully readable oral history, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold.

3. Gay men. What can I say? I’m a huge fan!! Meet me at the intersection of Oscar Wilde and John Waters. Gay men helped me to embrace my identity as a femme because they offered me a space to celebrate femininity with joy and a sense of playfulness, which felt worlds removed from the shaming, suspicion or just perplexed confusion that I felt from some lesbians and feminists. In the gay world, I wasn’t just “tolerated” for being femme, I was loved and respected. Gay male friends who appreciated beauty, fashion and glamour also taught me a thing or two about queer aesthetics and camp, both of which changed the way I look at the world. Most importantly, they inspired me to approach gender and sexuality with a sense of adventure and frivolity that has shaped how I “do” femme.

4. Facing My Own Pain and Gender Oppression. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had an epiphany sitting in the audience at a GenderPAC conference, that I realized how hurt I’ve been from the years of being shunned in lesbian/feminist bookstores (for being too femme) or being marginalized in the straight world (for being too queer). At GenderPAC, Riki Wilchins was talking about the oppression faced by femmes, which often isn’t recognized because we do not (typically) transgress gender norms. Suddenly, tears filled my eyes and I was overwhelmed by a powerful emotional reaction I had never anticipated. What was going on?

I went to the conference because I’m an ally of trans and genderqueer people, and I wanted to participate in the important education and advocacy work that GenderPAC does. But as I was listening to Riki speak, I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be–not for others, but for me. Coming to terms with my own gender oppression not just as a woman but also as a femme has enabled me to work towards healing the pain I didn’t even realize I was carrying inside me. It has helped me to politicize my own experience as a femme in ways I hadn’t previously, because now I understand and appreciate the depth of that experience not only with my head, but also with my heart.

By Way of a Conclusion. All of this doesn’t quite tell you how I travelled from the andro butch of my younger years to the capitivating vision of femme-ininity I am now, but these snapshots of my journey are at the core of what has made me a femme. I hope you’ll go to The Femme Guide and write about what made/makes you a femme, because I can’t wait to read your stories! Regardless of how we identify or the differences that shape our lives, we all have *so much* to learn from each other.

Love Letter to a Femme in Need

Just a minute ago, my partner sat down on the couch and–seeing my ubiquitous laptop–asked, “Working on your blog?” “No,” I said, “I’m responding to a femme in need.”

I want to offer love and comfort to a femme in tears who’s afraid she’s “doing femme all wrong.” I don’t know her, but I feel like I do, because I understand her pain and confusion. I’m so deeply moved by her story, because her struggle is not only about how difficult it can be to feel at home in one’s gender, but also about the pressure all of us feel to live up to some ideal of what “femme” is. (Of course, this is true for other genders too.)

Am I really a femme if I don’t know how to send the secret femme signals? If I don’t know how to walk, or act, or flirt like a femme, even when I’m dolled up? If I don’t act “classically femme” with a butch? No matter who we are, I think we’ve all had that moment in life when we’ve felt like we were not “the real deal.” You see a world of dykes, butches, femmes or ______ (fill in the blank) who seem to know instinctively how to make all the “right” moves, and you’re heartbroken because you have no idea how to become one of those people.

Arriving at my own femme identity has taken me many, many years. In fact, it’s only been fairly recently that I have given myself permission to claim “high femme” for myself. I remember the first time someone called me high femme; she was a student of mine (a very adorable butch who went on to become a cop–so sexy!). I was flattered, but shocked. I thought, sure I’m feminine, nails, heels, makeup, whatever, but I’m not really femme enough to be “high femme.” It’s funny because that was my first year as a professor and I lectured in a black leather miniskirt and high-heeled leather boots, I kid you not! But back then I imagined “high femme” as some Promised Land of uber femininity where my nails would never chip and, if someone rang the doorbell unannounced, I’d always answer the door looking flawless. (A note to all who wish to befriend this particular femme–call first!)

So let me say this to you, Femme in Need. I could not send femme signals on the train going to work in men’s shorts and Birkenstocks, either! Like trans or genderqueer people, we femmes often cannot communicate the complexity of our gender identities to strangers passing by or in brief everyday interactions. (I’m not saying that femmes’ experiences are the same as those of transgendered people–I’m just highlighting this point of intersection.)

And please believe me, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to be femme. Embracing an identity like femme can be extremely empowering, but identities are invariably a form of constraint as well. I think we have to recognize and negotiate those constraints, to carve out our own definitions of femme that are fluid enough to accommodate our differences and complexities.

The truth is, we’re all femmes in need.

Much love to you.

No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian (I just look like one)

Yes, I adore lipstick and never met a MAC lipglass I didn’t like, but please, don’t call me a lipstick lesbian! I’m a femme.

What’s the difference, my pretty? Is there one? Clearly, it depends who you ask.

Here are my definitions of these terms, which are based on my own experience and how I have observed others using them. Obviously, much more could be (and has been) written about these categories–their subtleties, changes over time, regional differences, etc. What I’ve written is not intended as the last word! Please share your own thoughts on what these terms mean to you and how you use them (or don’t use them). Feel free to add/suggest other words you think should be on this list.

A Very Short Glossary of Queer Femininities

Lipstick lesbian—Media term used to describe feminine lesbians during the heyday of “lesbian chic” in the 90s. Some lesbian/bi/queer women have adopted the term, making it a part of gay/lesbian culture. Usually refers to stylish, feminine lesbians who are attracted to others who look like them. Separate from butch/femme dynamics. Sometimes emphasizes more naturalized notions of gender (e.g. “I like women to be women.”)

Femme—Lesbian gender marked by feminine gender expression or identity. Not dependent on dress or other external signifiers (E.g. you can wear a tuxedo and still be a femme.) May or may not be a “bottom” or a “top” in a sexual situation; may or may not partner with butches. For some, a form of queer gender performance. Spans from “high femme” to more androgynous forms of gender expression, such as tomboy/sporty femmes.

High Femme*— Typically, a highly stylized form of femme identification (e.g. ultra femininity) performed in the context of butch/femme cultures and dynamics. May or may or may not wear dresses, heels, and/or makeup. No particular personality traits. May be passive and demure or confident, independent, strong, etc. Not necessarily a “pillow queen,” and not equivalent to lipstick lesbian.

*Note:  For my revision of this definition, see “Rethinking High Femme, Part 1.”  Still dying for more discussion of high femme?  Check out “Rethinking High Femme, Part 2” and “When Femme Fails (and Other Questions).” 

What does a lesbian look like?

I’ve always loved discovering that beautiful, glamorous women are queer because it’s such a delightful surprise.  I certainly think that femmes are “real” lesbians, but even I find that my gaydar is based on stereotypes most of the time.  In an effort to challenge these stereotypes, I offer up this iconic image of Greta Garbo, which asks (but does not answer) the question, “what does a lesbian look like?”  

In this photograph, Garbo’s face might be described as “a pool to swim in” (to borrow from the critic David Thompson).  Although part of me just wants to swoon over this sculptural face, what especially interests me is how it highlights some of the embodied contradictions of femme identity.  There is certainly something overly precious about this image–if we are to appreciate its aesthetic we must surrender to Garbo’s cool and androgynous eroticism, which is dependent upon being idealized, deified and mystified.   And yet, although she was called the Divine Garbo, her beauty is distinctly human in its fragility.  Her persona is so seductive and haunting because it is both fragile and strong, veiled and expressive, distant and intimate, masculine and feminine. 

These contradictions are what I love about Garbo.  Parker Tyler famously reminds us that “Garbo ‘got into drag’ whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man’s arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck…bear the weight of her thrown back head…   How resplendent seems the art of acting!  It is all impersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not.” In short, Garbo performs queer femininity as drag, and in so doing calls into question what we thought we knew about the look (and act) of lesbian gender.