Femme Bibliography Project

I just discovered The Femme Bibliography Project, a well-researched list of academic and community-minded readings on queer femininities and femme sexuality/gender from the 90s to the present. Updated versions to follow.

Doing It On Purpose

First, a few comments about my uber amazing readers inspired by this week’s dialogue in Butch2Femme and Transitioning to Femme:

I nearly feel off my chaise lounge when I read LaurynX’s comment that she just came out as femme in the past few months. Holy mother of god! You, my dear, are going to be a force to be reckoned with, no doubt about it! That aside, I think LaurynX’s advice “not to let any anti-feminine sentiments get to you” is so wise. And it’s not just lesbians who can put you down for being too girly, since paradoxically revering and disparaging femininity is as American as apple pie. Which is why, for me, being a femme requires developing strategies to negotiate this double bind. Such as calling people out on their shit. And looking fierce.

I think Lady Brett Ashley and I are making really similar points about how tomboy (or butch) and femme are not mutually exclusive categories. Lady B has written well on her on blog and elsewhere about how this gender fluidity is a fundamental part of what femme means to her. I would also add that it’s a perfect example of one way in which femme is different from femininity.

Femmes can and do love femmes! In a blogging universe dominated by the butch/femme dyad, I really appreciate BiblioFemme and how out she is about being a “femme-loving femme.” On another note, I love how open Tina was in her terrific comment about her own vulnerability; her encouragement to “give yourself the leeway to find the femme you will be” is right on the mark–and very nicely put, too, I might add!

It’s not every day that the dapper Leo MacCool quotes Dolly Parton on your blog–an act of pure genius, thanks Leo! I can’t think of any advice more perfect than the suggestion that you “find out who you are and do it on purpose.” It’s so true, so brilliant, and so wonderfully campy that it deserves to be a tenent of Sublime Femmeness. All hail Femme Icon Dolly Parton!

Second, to Butch2Femme: you asked for clarification about my cautionary remark*; it was about my concern that you might be embarking upon a Sapphic version of the “break-up haircut.” I saw right away that you were linking your new femme ID to the femme who broke your heart (sounds to me like she has terrible taste!), but I originally didn’t understand what that connection was about. E.g. Were you becoming more femme to keep a part of her with you? I just didn’t understand what your gender had to do with her gender. So I urged caution and tried to encourage you not to be reactive but instead to think about who you really are and what you really want. And it sounds like this is exactly what you’re doing!

Despite the heartache, one positive thing that has emerged from this break-up is that it’s given you the opportunity to begin to define your identity not for someone else but for yourself. For this and for your adorable peep-toes, I raise my glass to you, my darling! Now that I know you’re so healthy and centered, go ahead and throw caution into the wind ūüėČ

Kisses to all,
Sf

—————
*Note: My cautionary remark from my original post was: ‚ÄúDid you feel free with your ex to express your gender‚Äďe.g. your femme side or your tomboy style? If gender is one reason why you think this relationship didn‚Äôt work out, my advice to you would be to proceed with caution.‚ÄĚ

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.

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.

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‚ÄĒMedia 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. ‚ÄúI like women to be women.‚ÄĚ)

Femme‚ÄĒLesbian 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 ‚Äúbottom‚ÄĚ or a ‚Äútop‚ÄĚ in a sexual situation; may or may not partner with butches. For some, a form of queer gender performance. Spans from ‚Äúhigh femme‚ÄĚ to more androgynous forms of gender expression, such as tomboy/sporty femmes.

High Femme*‚ÄĒ 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 ‚Äúpillow queen,‚ÄĚ 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).”¬†

A lesbian looks like…Lindsay Lohan?

Is she or isn’t she?¬† That’s what¬†The Advocate and everyone else is¬†asking about Lindsay Lohan.¬† “Celeb mags are all agog,” Nicholas Fonseca writes in the Sept 9 issue.¬† “Lindsay is either lesbian, bisexual, or just another straight girl engaged in an elaborate–albeit genuis–publicity stunt.¬† But, really, what difference does it make?”

Genuis?¬† Really?¬†Even Fonseca himself doesn’t really believe this, judging from his own comments on the restrained (even ho-hum) reaction of most major media to Lohan’s very public relationship with DJ Samantha Ronson.¬†¬† The world-weary tone of the article belies its investment in categorizing¬†Lindsay and, even more, pathologizing her for refusing to confirm or deny that she and¬†Sam are lovers.¬†¬†On its cover, The¬†Advocate¬†disses Lohan with the teaser¬†“Lindsay Lohan’s Identity Crisis.”¬† So much for the fluidity of sexuality.

Personally, I live my life by coming out promiscuously, so–despite the limitations of identity¬†politics–I think coming out does make a difference.¬†But the¬†point I want to emphasize is what¬†the buzz about Lohan tells us about the invisibility of queer femininity, and¬†how we use stereotypes to decide what a lesbian looks like.¬† Tabloids write about “Lohan and her lesbian lover,” implying that the two are lovers but there’s only one “real” lesbian in the relationship and we know it’s Sam.

The article in The¬†Advocate¬†is a case in point.¬† It offers a plethora of evidence that there’s a romance between Lohan and Ronson, but¬†then concludes by asking breathlessly, “could it be that Lindsay Lohan is a lesbian?”¬† Meaning, could this beautiful¬†22-year-old woman–who is considered by many to be one of the sexiest women in the world–actually be queer?!

Yes, as a matter of fact, it could be.

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.