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.
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.
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).”
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.