Female to Femme: Transitioning
Every time I have had a chance to sit down and relax without responsibilities, I’ve been flipping through Visible: A Femmethology. Each story opens a window into the lives of individual femmes. This book is a cross section of the numerous and sparkling variations of queer femininity that fall under the umbrella term femme. If I had heard the call for submissions (how did I miss it? apparently the voice was calling out for a long time!) I would have formatted and revised the following essay. It is an autoethnography. In other words, through the lens of Queer Theory, I am examining my own subjectivity as positioned within culture. I am sorting through culture’s effect on me, and the way I personally relate to societal expectations. Bear with me, if the language is academic. Ask me lots of questions, if you have them. It’s awfully long, too. But hey – skip my words and support homofactus press – buy the books instead! They’re going to be on my bedside stack for about the next six months.
Female to Femme: Transitioning
I have not always been the feminine woman that I am today, but feminism and queerness have been crucial to my experience of gender. While I knew my sexual orientation from grade nine onward, it took me eight years to come to terms with the fact of my lesbianism, and to settle into a gender presentation that felt comfortable to me. As I was coming out as queer, I learned to use the power of femininity to my advantage. My experience of transitioning from a non-descript femaleness into an intentional femme gender over the past two years has expedited my process of coming out as queer, and has actually given me a stronger sense of power than I would have initially imagined, despite the views of feminists, past and present, on the issue of femininity.
Since I will speak about my experience of being a feminine woman, I will begin with some defining words for both the word “feminine” and the term “femme”. The majority of the essay will be comprised of detailed descriptions of the different ways that societal forces at once required my participation in femininity in order to be called a woman, and then also discouraged me from femininity due to certain disqualifiers I possess. I will describe the situations through which I acquired and presented my gender throughout the many stages of my life, beginning in childhood. I continue on through middle school and early high school. A shift in my gender occurs during late high school, which informed my time in pursuit of an Associate of Arts. The sense of gender difference that I felt as a missionary candidate helped me recognize and develop my preferred gender when I was coming 0ut. Finally, I shall propose some possible answers to the question, “How does femme queer femininity?”
In Gendering Bodies, Crawley, et. al. (paraphrasing Sandra Bartky) address some of the rules that Western society has established for those people who would call themselves feminine. Under this concept of femininity, women must agree to held accountable through surveillance to their:
behavior or uses of the body (e.g. restricting movement, practicing poise, “acting ladylike,” smiling all the time, swinging one’s hips when walking), practices of food intake and exercise (e.g. dieting, doing aerobic exercise to “tone” rather than increase muscle size), and surface ornamentation (e.g. use of makeup to hide or “enhance” features, surgical intervention to control wrinkles, breast implants, tummy tucks, nose jobs, face lifts, etc.). (91)
This is but a short list of physical perfections that women must attain to in the pursuit of femininity. Chloe Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri, in their introduction to Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity have called femininity, “a demand placed on the female bodies” (13). Sandra Bartky, in “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” (65) cites Judith Butler, describing femininity as “an artifice, an achievement, ‘a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms which surface as so many styles of the flesh’.” Bartky aligns herself with a constructionist viewpoint, agreeing that “styles of the female figure vary over time and across cultures . . . Today, massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste.” (66) If women’s bodies cannot comply with the prescription for femininity, “Women are called to “fix” or change parts of their bodies that do not meet the beauty standards of unnatural thinness, facial perfection, large breasts and so on.” (Crawley, et. al., 92)
Due to this strict code of conduct prescribed for women, feminists have long thought of all femininity as complicit with patriarchy, and in service to the wants and needs of men. For this reason, “in the 1970s, lesbian feminist politics endorsed an escape from gender through androgyny. During this time, butches and femmes were condemned “vociferously” for repeating gender roles associated with heterosexuality” (Galewski 2). On the other hand, femme writers like Brushwood Rose and Camilleri have worked to inscribe political power back into the femme identity, which they say is, “the danger of a body read female or inappropriately feminine. We are not good girls – perhaps we are not girls at all” (13).
Growing up in my prepubescent years, I was a femininity disaster. My mother tells me that one of my first full sentences was let me do it” – meaning that if at that time I understood that a woman is supposed to always need help, I ignored the fact. I was a lost cause from the start; a tomboy in a dress, I did femininity all wrong. I demanded skirts or dresses and hated pants yet, at the same time, I refused to limit my physical activity according to my outerwear. I delight in climbing trees to reach forts, running around barefoot, and playing in the dirt. In this initial stage of my journey to a femme identity, my family encouraged me to play outside with my brother, and allowed me the freedom to cover my body with whatever I pleased. My mother home-schooled me for a signification portion of my elementary school years, so I was largely isolated from other children at that time (with the exception of our “home school group”). My parents suppressed media influences on my young consciousness by limiting TV watching to “Star Trek” and children’s programming on public television. With other sources of gender feedback muted, I got my gender messages from church and family. I would like to think that I was shielded from at least some of the damaging messages about femininity that I could have received in a more mainstream environment. This environment, coupled with the utter lack of feminine role models among my family probably doomed me to failure at femininity from the start. My female relatives had short hair, and little feminine advice to offer. Mom broke many gender rules – she had a career and her own place before she was married, and had been quite independent. Her daily makeup regime contrasted with her high level of skill in so-called “masculine” activities, like lawn maintenance, interior painting, and tile installation, as well as with the almost complete absence of skirts or dresses in her wardrobe. Grandma was no help either, as she was a pro at those same “masculine” activities and more, all after putting her “face on” in the mornings. Since my dad was disabled, he would instruct me in doing his maintenance projects, ensuring that I would not achieve the feminine virtue of inability to comprehend technical machines, or to fix what is broken. I didn’t stand a chance.
As a middle school student and high school underclassman I made some feeble attempts at conforming to the role assigned to my sex category. I would periodically shave my legs, wear a skirt, play with makeup, and try to do something attractive with the mess on top of my head. The purpose of all this nonsense, as communicated to me by societal influences, was to attract boys – a pursuit to which my parents had vocalized their strong opposition. The problem was that this fussing with my face, hair and clothes was not gaining the attention of any boys so I gave it up and opted for a more comfortable mode of dress: a ponytail, jeans and a t-shirt. I have and still have a body that is significantly larger than the bodies that society tells men they should want, and at that time I thought my size was my biggest roadblock in attracting boys.
Whereas in my early teens I sought the attention of boys, in my late teens, I wanted nothing to do with them. In hopes that my male peers would become disinterested, and to hide my blossoming chest, I took on a markedly unfeminine appearance. I was trying with all my might to not be pretty, but it was of no use. As a high school Junior, I was assigned a desk behind an older boy who would turn around to say inappropriate things to me about my body or about his own. Day by day, he would not stop, no matter what I would say or do, no matter how much I tried to ignore him. The worst thing about the whole situation was not the boy’s behavior, but the fact that my aged, white, presumably heterosexual teacher refused to reassign the desk of this young man who was causing me great distress and distracting me from the lesson. I received a passing grade of “D” and promptly put the entire experience out of my memory until I recently participated in an exercise in forgiveness.
From 2003 until 2005, I was a student at University of South Florida pursuing my Associate of Arts degree. During this time I held two part-time jobs, went to school full time, and dealt with my father’s declining health. With so much going on, I had little time to bother with the performance of femininity. What feeble attempts I did make were met with the painful realization of my failure at even simple feminine tasks, like walking in heels for example. I had a great fall right in front of Cooper Hall one day, and skinned my knees through my thin khakis due to some heeled sandals which I chucked into the donation pile as soon as I got home.
In January 2006 I began religious studies and a missionary candidacy through a well-established missionary organization where my sexuality was once again suppressed. Authority figures prescribed my matronly appearance. Low necklines or thin-strapped tank tops were out of the question, along with short skirts, tight pants, or midriff baring tops. The people in charge attempted to justify these requirements by appealing to women’s compassion for Christian brothers. Exposing shoulders, midriff, or cleavage could make it difficult for our male classmates to maintain purity of mind; without exaggeration, we were liable for their eternal souls. In this environment where women’s bodies and sexuality were considered evil, I complied with the prescribed mode of dress, suppressing not only my sexual orientation, but also the fact that I was a sexual being at all. Everyone there was held to a standard of asexuality, but women more so than men Within the crucible for change that was my missionary candidacy, the question was not, “will” I choose to come out as a lesbian and leave the mission field, the question was “when” would it happen. I do not intend to say that my experience with Christian missions was without merit – some of the merits included international travel, restored faith in the goodness of some individual men, and a deeper spirituality. A year later, the feminist sensibilities that I developed in late high school and early college kicked back into high gear and I left the mission base in Tennessee, came out to my mother, and moved back home to Tampa to pick up where I left off in the process of acquiring my B.A. in Women’s Studies from USF. I knew that there was more to life than the constant fear and rejection of one’s gender and sexuality because of its propensity to cause others to “stumble” along their spiritual journey. These days, I’d take that as a compliment.
Femme wasn’t my immediate reaction to coming out, however. I stumbled upon it through a series of situations that made my identity apparent to me. On two separate occasions in early 2007, different friends of mine referred to me as “femme” before I really knew what it meant. As I was telling my friend Angie about my recent outerwear purchases, she remarked, “You always were such a femme!” This seemed odd to me because she knew me during early high school when I had largely abandoned the task of femininity. Another friend, Kris, complimented my attire, saying that I looked like a “pretty femme.” At first it upset me, because at that time, I associated femmeness with traditional tenets of femininity – being docile, weak, incapable, and being unaware of how to manage one’s life for oneself. At some point after those two incidents, I began the job of renovating my gender by marching myself home to my computer and googling “butch/femme.” The books, bloggers, and babes that I encountered brought me into a new understand of the kind of agency that femme holds over herself. I liked the way femme was an undercover agent: “In this way, the femme constitutes a contingency that upsets the appearance of heterosexuality. Looking every bit like a straight woman, she reveals homosexuality as insidious, impossible to flag, and, potentially, everywhere” (Galewski 13).
I believe that femme queers femininity by expanding eligibility, making femininity an inclusive label, rather than an exclusive one. Brushwood Rose and Camilleri confirm this in their introduction to Brazen Femme:
“This collection speaks to experiences of femme also complicated by maleness, by racist queers and racism, by transsexuality, by the politics of fat, by class, by age and by institutionalization. Many femmes are lesbians, but femmes are also drag queens, straight sex workers, nelly fags, all strong women and sassy men. We wanted this collection to begin to recognize the many forms of radical femininity that might choose to name themselves femme.” (13)
Traditional femininity has been so strictly policed by society that only a choice few people have been given access to the character trait, “feminine.” The list above, quoted from Crawley, et. al. is evidence to the fact that achieving true and complete femininity is virtually impossible without expensive surgical procedures. People who are not female, people who are overweight, people who have unusual characteristics (like shortness) and dominant, aggressive women have been largely ineligible the traditional label of femininity. Femme, however, is for all people, regardless of sex, physical characteristics or personality styles. In my own life, specifically post-puberty, I had a hard time earning the label of femininity because of my shortness, my larger than average body size, and my general disinterest in boys. But in femme, I have now found a feminine identity that celebrates my imperfections.
Femme queers femininity by involving participants in the making and breaking of rules, rather than abiding by previously established rules. As with queerness, femmeness can be defined by its resistance to definitions of appearance. Feminine women have very strict rules defined by the times in which they live. Whether they choose to live by them is another story, but they may compromise their access to the label “feminine” if they do not live by the rules. Femme (as a queer identity) has very few rules for itself, except for the rule of agency and independence. Femme encourages rule breaking! Femininity is defined by the rules that society has provided for it, while femme is characterized by the people who call themselves by that name, not vice versa. If someone says they are a femme, then that is what a femme looks like – not so with traditional mainstream femininity standards. Conversely, just because a person calls themselves feminine (in the traditional sense of the word) doesn’t mean that society will agree with them. I personally like acting out femininity, but I gave up on it for many years because I could never succeed as a feminine woman. Now I feel free to play with a feminine gender because I understand femme as a transgressive, queer character. Femme as femininity with a twist is the most appropriate label for the gender that I choose to express. I’m feminine, but I’m not what society thinks I am. In “Which One’s the Man,” Tamsin Wilton states that “the binary we call gender is intrinsically political” (SGS 157), so femme, because it is an identity rooted in feminine gender presentation, discards complacency in favor of seeing herself as an actor on the world’s stage who calls for people to recognize her for what she is.
Femme queers femininity in that the femme’s audience is defined by her, rather than by the mainstream culture. A feminine woman without queer leanings may have little say in whom her performance services. Since all femininity can cater to the wants and needs of men without the woman’s agency, queer women have to be intentional about defining their audience. A queer femme can reject men’s ideals for her femininity altogether, and choose to perform her gender for herself and for her other queer companions. Drag queens as femmes may actually have a formal audience for their drag performances, or their intended audience may be fellow drag queens, or whoever. There is a wealth of audience options for actors of the femme role. As far as I am concerned, my audience right now is the butch and femme culture that I became part of when I first came into my femme identity. At other times in my life, my audience has been my peers, or authority figures. I feel the best about my gender in the context of butch and femme.
Femme queers femininity by being intentional rather than by being the default mode of operation for female-bodied people. Femme takes into account the performativity of gender, recognizing femininity as a woman’s practice, than a woman’s nature. It is not simply resigning oneself to femininity because one is female; rather femme is an intentional performance, where the actor takes the role of femininity for herself, rather than bothering to earn the rights to it. Of course, some queer or LGBT women may do “femininity by default” just as some heterosexual, non-queer women may do – this is not femme, even though it is a gender style performed by queer identified people. Femme queers femininity when it is done for fun, and when it makes fun of traditional femininity by projecting it on inappropriate bodies – dykes, men, fat women, etc.
In their appeal to the women’s movement in 1971, the group known as Radicalesbians had this to offer: What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who . . . acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than society . . . cares to allow her . . . (AQ 232) This is where femme contributes to feminism and queer theory – in the fact that femme embodies the experience of women, and she uses it to her advantage, to propel her into action.
Wilton, Tamsin. “Which One’s the Man?” Sex Gender and Sexuality. Eds. Ferber, Holcomb and Wentling.New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 157-170.
Rose, Chloe Brushwood, and Anna Camilleri. “Introduction: A Brazen Posture.” Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity: Eds. Rose and Camilleri. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002. 11-14.
Galewski, Elizabeth. “Figuring the Feminist Femme.” Women’s Studies in Communication 28.2 (Fall 2005): p183(24).
Crawley, Sara, Lara Foley and Constance Shehan. Gendering Bodies. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008.
Bartky, Sandra. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Radicalesbians. “The Woman Identified Woman (1971).” American Queer: Now and Then. Eds. David Shneer and Caryn Aviv. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.