What a time to be a queer youth with internet access. Like all generations, we think we’re discovering concepts for the first time. Every new idea is a ground-breaker. And here we are in 2016 when people have more space to speak about experiences of gender than ever before. Now I’m going to claim some of that space with an account of observations surrounding the concept of ‘femme’.
First let’s consider what it means for people to separate ‘female’ from ‘femme’ when the two are not co-dependent. People who were assigned female at birth but are uncomfortable living as a binary gender are expected to gravitate towards a masculine presentation and a dominant role in partnerships. To not do so risks their non-binary identity being disbelieved by others. People may be deterred from identifying as trans while still passing for their assigned-at-birth gender. The cultural narrative around trans bodies is linked to dysphoria, hormones, surgery, and trauma as if these things are inherent in being trans and too many queer folks spoil the movement.
When it comes to gender expression, assigned-male transfeminine people can’t win. To not conform to cis ideas of womanhood is to be misgendered; to do so is to anger feminists who think it is reinforcing ideas of femininity harmful to women. None of this is meant to imply that masculine queer people are displaying misogyny. It is not the rejection of typical femininity that is misogynist, but the restrictions of the binary system itself.
What if it is not femininity that is the problem, but womanhood set up as the foil of manhood, and a perceived lack of alternative options? Femininity can be reimagined by each individual, be different in every incarnation, and still be valid. It can be visceral and empowering whether it’s expressed by a bisexual man, an elderly woman, a drag queen, a lesbian, or anyone.
I forgot how to appreciate my own femininity until I took time off from it. Phasing out my old dress-up routine was important to me as it meant leaving behind hours of beauty labour expected on terms I never agreed to. (I blame 90% of the content of the women’s magazines of my teen years). Being femme can take time, care and money, and it’s hard to love the process if you are only participating in it tacitly. After throwing away my Gillette razor, swapping skirts for men’s clothing, and being mistaken for a ‘Sir’, I reconsidered. Being masc was about drawing attention to myself during an angry time in the development of my identity. Once I came to terms with redefining femme, rediscovering it was a revelation.
Aesthetics are only one aspect of the conversation. Gender presentation conflated with gender identity only polices gender roles, meaning that what you look like does not determine who you are. Socially, balancing ‘femme’ with ‘queer’ when living as a cis woman can be hard. You are viewed as more masculine because of your romantic or sexual desires, when often you are trying to reduce the impact of toxic masculinities on your life.
Femme experience is far more wide-ranging and powerful than it is given credit for. When Taylor snaps at Nicki for calling out the dismissal of her black femme body and art, it is because our hegemonic conception of femme is so narrow and racist (not to mention ableist and fatphobic) that Swift can only see plural forms of femininity as being in competition with one another. When Jaden Smith triggers a flurry of think-pieces for wearing a skirt, it is because his act plays with the traditional signifiers of femme presentation. And when feminists dehumanise sex workers on the grounds that every exchange of sex for money is “violence against women”, they are not seeing the myriad ways femmes can choose to claim their space within capitalism.
Femme is doing invisible work, is calling out oppression and being silenced for it instead of praised. Femme is having to make the conscious decision not to apologise. Femme is being noticeable when taking up space in a vacuum of maleness. Femme is never getting comfortable with the meaning of safety. And it is the liberation of recognising it as an independent entity, existing beyond the negation of butch or masc.
*This column is not comprehensive and is limited by my position, so here are some links to further reading:
‘Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity’ Anthology (available on level 9 of the uni library, who knew!)
[Ellen MacAskill – @ejdmacaskill]