on (not) being femme

So I’m hanging out in Vancouver this week, for the occasion of Canadian Mayhem, the new West Coast leatherdyke conference. And for some reason, rather than kink, the question that my mind is mulling over is that of queer femininity and femme identity.

I feel like I’m poorly placed to say much about it. Which is in itself part of what’s on my mind. 

I was sitting in a sushi restaurant all of two hours after my arrival (how very Wet Coast) with my very kind, very gentlemanly and very butch/transmasculine/masculine-spectrum genderqueer welcoming committee of one. Said individual is very attuned to the complexities of gender identity, and when the word “lady” slipped out in reference to me, said individual made a point to immediately check in about it: “You’re not really a lady, are you? No, I didn’t think so. Something told me I should be careful on that one.” I definitely appreciated the consideration – I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been assumed to be, and labelled, femme.

This is not to say I have any particular criticism of femmes, or of any specific gender category. I think they’re all fuckin’ awesome. Femmes, specifically, are great. As I discovered today, femmes – some of them at least – are the absolute perfect people with whom to go shoe-shopping (mmmmmGravityPope) and to indulge in my first-ever professional manicure and pedicure. (On the topic of femininity, it was very odd to have someone female-bodied and feminine attending to my feet – the presence of make-up and cleavage below knee level is a highly unusual experience for me. And the lack of oral attention to the toes during pedicure proceedings was also. But hey, I got what I paid for – twenty cute and happy digits.)

In the past I’ve posted my feelings about the not-quite space that some people, including myself, occupy in the realm of gender identity. So I’m not going to go on a philosophical trip right now about what it is that I feel I am. I’m more interested in noting a few of the observations I’ve made in the past couple of days about other people, or more specifically, other people who do identify as femme. In a way this is part of an ongoing project to examine such things, but today it’s just some musings.

I’ve noticed that many of the people who identify as femme seem to invest pretty heavily in building, maintaining and demonstrating pride in that identity. It’s quite a beautiful thing to see, and it serves the odd function of making me feel simultaneously included (hey, I can talk dresses and lipstick and feminism too!) and like an impostor – because for all that I find femme corporeal and sartorial aesthetics to be extremely pleasing, and for all that I myself occupy those physical spaces on a fairly regular basis, I don’t have a strong investment in my femininity, and I don’t always present as feminine, and sometimes I’m downright uncomfortable with my own feminine shape and would rather crawl out of my skin than wear a dress. Perhaps I would be more comfortable claiming “femme” as my own if I inhabited it more reliably and more passionately, but as it stands, the word ends up feeling more like a too-tight halter dress than like an open space into which the whole of me (or even most of me) can elegantly step.

Others have written far more eloquently than I could hope to on the strength and beauty of femme identity. Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri’s anthology Brazen Femme, for starters, is a worthy read. I wish I remembered more about the particulars of how the contributors articulate their identities, because I am left, tonight, musing about questions such as, What does it mean to be femme? Because surely it’s about more than the clothes and the manicures. What are the defining factors, the common cues, the agreed-upon boundaries of where femme begins and where it ends? Where does the line fall between feminine and femme?Could one conceivably be femme without being queer, or does femme imply queerness in a way that makes the term distinct from the more general idea of femininity?

What flavours of femme are there, and how do they overlap with one another, or intersect, or contradict each other? What does it mean to identify as femme within the context of a butch/femme binary? Is that binary a productive one or a restrictive one? What does it mean that, for good long stretches at a time, I myself find deep relational and erotic satisfaction in exactly that binary, while still not feeling at home within “femme” and without expecting that my counterparts in that dance will necessarily identify as “butch,” and what does it mean to disrupt that binary by shifting one or more of its key elements en cours de route? Is it possible, for a frequently-feminine queer woman, to refuse the word “femme” without having others erroneously interpret that refusal as criticism or an implicit invalidation of their own identity? Is it possible to play, socialize and erotically engage outside the binary without unintentionally sending the message to those who are deeply engaged within it that somehow binary-transgressing is avant-garde and that only dinosaurs would still take part in shoring up or living by said binaries? Is it possible to criticize the prevalence of the binary while simultaneously upholding the need for the respect for each individual’s gender identity and choices – as in, can we criticize the butch-femme binary without implicitly criticizing butches and femmes themselves?

What does it mean to identify as femme when you are a person of colour? How does that identity get articulated, how does it make sense? Where is the room, in “femme,” for people who aren’t white, or aren’t able-bodied, don’t possess any number of the other features that are conjured up so regularly by the term? How does it work to be femme and poor, for example, when so much of the bonding I witness between femme women revolves around the maintenance of feminine characteristics that in some ways may require at least some monetary investment? I don’t doubt that butch maintenance, much like that of any other gender, requires money, but I rarely hear the masculine-spectrum folks discussing the particulars of that maintenance with the same gusto.

What cues do people who are not femme look for when dealing with feminine women to determine whether those women are femme or not, and what do such individuals do with that information? What assumptions to queers make about femme women – do femmes get instantly pegged as bottoms, as tops, as anything specific at all?

I gotta finish this up, as it’s three in the morning and I’ve gotta get out of bed and go join the conference craziness. We’ll do more questioning tomorrow.

2 Responses

  1. Very interesting… thanks.

  2. Wow, a lot of this firmly resonated with me, and I just wanted to touch on some of my viewpoints, and a correlary that I think fits in nicely.

    Firstly, I know that you’ve touched on this before, that we live with a very definocentric world view. Once you put a word into play that has an assumed definition, or is larger than a direct word-to-object relationship, you hit complications. We used to follow the linguists, we used to defer to those who built the words from subcomponents of other words and relegated extensive documentation in encyclopedias to the definition of such identifiers. Now, we face a world empowered by self-definition, open source encyclopedias, and a global public opinion.

    Secondly, the binaries you speak of are a function of old standards. Male / female, butch / femme, gay / hetero (which has opened up significantly), and others. It stems back to the whole oversimplification / black and white mentality of cultures that wanted a very clear and defined devision, usually in terms of explanation, but often also in terms of “this is the ideal you should strive for, versus anything else”.

    Now we find ourselves looking deeper. People are being brave enough to venture outside of the norms. To stretch the boundaries of these black and white definitions. What kind of man combs his long hair for 2 hours in the morning? What kind of woman wears a t-shirt and jeans to work? How can a person have a male partner one minute, a female partner the next, and a trans partner on opposing Sundays? How do these extremes fit into global views and definitions?

    The beautiful thing is that they don’t. We’ve got our brains trained to do this identification strategy with all definitions. The beleagured ‘what box do you fit in’ mentality.

    It reminds me of math, oddly. Basic math (in this case, definitions) is based on known factors. An apple is a red fruit that grow in trees. These are the numbers of the linguistic equation. Teach children these elements, and they can add, subtract, divide, and multiply easily.

    Then you get into the later grades as well as high school. Variables come into play. The elements of these larger definitions (equations, essentially), are determined by putting in a variable. x is how much a femme spends on her appearance in an average month. y is the percentage of partners of a genetically male individual that are genetically male. These are all distinct numbers or facts that you can identify as numbers, but for individual people will never be constant.

    Once these beautiful and complex equations are grown by a person, you can solve for these variables at any given point in time. It’s a time-based equation though. As time progresses, the value of variables change. Every definition at this level is an ever-shifting equation that is determined by time, experience, viewpoints, and a hundred other factors that you’d have to be a math major (or the linguistic equivalent) to identify. There are still people who seek to capture these equations, and do a valiant job of doing so.

    Authorities on the cultural usage of these terms sell books by the truckloads because people want to know more about other options, viewpoints, and outlooks, but we’re long since moving past the space where anyone is the absolute authority on anything. The most important thing to realize is that, despite the global explosion our social networking is undergoing, definitions will need to become increasingly personal. If you want to know what a person truly is, you need to know them. Even if they identify as femme, even if they label themselves as female, it only gives you the equation to work from, you still need the variables to figure out the bare facts and components you have access to, and what they mean.

    Good luck to you in your (somewhat unexpected) transition to a “social math” major. ;)

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