When Femme Fails (and Other Questions)

Last year I discussed “high femme” and shared with you my working definition of the term.   The two posts I wrote on this subject, which you can find here and here, prompted great dialogue–for which I’m so grateful! 

Just to refresh your memory, my goal in those posts was to conceptualize high femmes not so much as “more feminine” than other kinds of femmes, but rather as femmes who use exaggeration and/or theatricality to denaturalize femininity.   In short, for me high femme is a highly stylized form of femme gender expression that tends to privilege artifice over realness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how this definition raises certain problems and questions.  For example, what constitutes “highly stylized” femininity and who gets to decide?  How “stylized” does a femme have to be before she can be considered a high femme? 

Do you have to intend to “do”  high femme to be one?  We talk a lot about our intentions or self-consciousness in performing femme, but doesn’t the reception of our performance matter too?  Here’s an example of what I mean.  What happens if I intend in a self-conscious way to highlight the artifice/constructedness of my femininity as a lesbian gender, but others (the guy who lives down the hall) don’t read me that way? Instead, they just see me as the pretty single gal in Apt. 3-B.  Has my performance of high femme “failed?”  All gendered performances “fail,” but it feels like something else is at stake here and I can’t quite put my finger on it….

These are obviously more questions than answers, but I wanted at least to put them on the table for 2009.   As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

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).” 

Introducing Sublimefemme Unbound

A belated introduction to Sublimefemme Unbound, dear readers…

If you’re not interested in having your world rocked by a high femme queer theorist, who critiques politics and culture wearing a sheer black peignor and pink marabou stilettos, then this probably isn’t your kind of site.  If you do not worship at the feet of disarmingly smart and exuberantly sensual femmes, what can I say?  Your loss! 

I am shameless in my love for debonair butches, unconventional thinking, pleasure, serendipitous discoveries, contradictions, beauty, and extravagance of all kinds.  I take as my inspiration  Oscar Wilde’s ebullient dictum that “we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things with sincere and studied triviality.”  I have little patience for self-righteous moral and political correctness, so if that’s your thing, be prepared to loose your innocence. 

Sublimefemme is too busy being amazing (or doing her nails) to expend energy on the impolite or the unappreciative.