A Matter of Intent

This piece has been featured in 55th Carnival of Feminists and in Sugasm #121

I wrote this paper last semester for my Classic in Feminist Theory seminar. I had been immersed in gender theory the entire semester after discovering some very important sources on lesbian gender, and I want to make this available to you all. There has been a lot of talk lately about wether or not passing is a privilege. I basically stand with Sinclair, that if we start blaming each other and fighting over who's more oppressed or endangered, we are taking our energy away from the important work of making a space for ourselves in society. Butches should not have to feel guilty for any masculine privilege and femmes should not have to be blamed for the flack that masculine women endure for their visible queerness. It's not our fault - it's the fault of homophobic people who hold their prejudice against us. Please don't steal my work - my name isn't in it because this is anonymous, but I feel like it's important enough to share.

Femme: A Matter of Intent

I never grew up as much of a “girly” girl. While I sometimes reveled in skirts and Easter dresses that my mother sewed especially for me, I still wore them to run and play in the dirt, and to climb trees, play on jungle gyms, and swing from monkey bars. Rarely, at least in my very young years, did I notice whether my activities were meant for a boy or a girl, but rather, I enjoyed life for what it was. When I finally started giving myself a gender without the help of my parents, my femininity was noticeably imperfect. I always smudged my makeup by accident, I never matched my clothes very well, my hair was frizzy and I never took the time to make it smooth. I failed at femininity, and there was no one to impress, so I gave up and did “my own thing” throughout high school and until my first few years of college. In the past year, though, I have been rewriting my femininity in the context of a newfound queer community. I’ve known since my first year in high school that I am romantically interested in other women, but it has taken me the last decade to fully integrate myself into queer culture. This queer culture now allows me to define myself in terms of femininity again without feeling shame – my femininity was for the appreciation of other women and not for men, so I had nothing to fear. This time, being feminine meant having the freedom to embrace my gender without being mistaken for something else – for a weak, passive, quiet woman, which I am not. My gender is “Femme.” This title provides me with a way to participate in the current (ancient, endless) job of redefining femininity by queer standards that make a woman strong, daring and loud. That, I can live with!

Historically, three main stereotypes of lesbian gender have prevailed – the archetypal genders, “femme”, “butch” and “androgynous”, and like any archetype would, “all three of these bring images and ideas into lesbians’ minds that are collectively held visions” (Loulan 20). While lesbian feminism sought to terminate the butch/femme dichotomy because of it’s apparent mimicry of heterosexuality, preferring the safety of androgyny, the movement’s effects on butch and femme themselves as valuable signifiers was limited:

Today lesbians . . . still rate themselves on a butch/femme scale. Lesbians still unconsciously know the difference between a soft butch and a stone butch, a femme-of-center and an aggressive femme – even if they don’t admit it . . . Butch and femme are unique archetypes of our subculture. (Loulan 25)

So, with the rejection of butch and femme in the 1970s, androgyny, a sort of “none of the above” category has become the safest space for lesbians within their own community, yet women continue to describe themselves on the butch-femme chart they call “old-culture” (Loulan 27).

The Butch Femme Continuum appears as follows:

Butch <------------------->Androgynous<------------------->Femme

The femme gender is physically and behaviorally similar to the heterosexual female gender, but femmes themselves see the “femme identity as distinct from and critical of naturalized notions of femininity” (Rose and Camilleri 14) because of differences in politics, attitude, and relational styles. In a collection of writings about femmes, Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri have attempted to define femme saying that “Femme is inherently ‘queer’” (12) and that furthermore,

Femme might be described as “femininity gone wrong” – bitch, slut, nag, whore, cougar, dyke, or brazen hussy. Femme is the trappings of femininity gone awry, gone to town, gone to the dogs. Femininity is a demand placed on female bodies and femme is the danger of a body read female or inappropriately feminine. We are not all good girls – perhaps we are not girls at all . . . Many femmes are lesbians, but femmes are also drag queens, straight sex workers, nelly fags, all strong women (emphasis mine) and sassy men. (13)

Most femme lesbians can even pass for heterosexual women, but do they want to pass? Maybe some do. Telling the two apart – femme lesbians and heterosexual women – proves to be essentially impossible if the analysis is based solely on appearances, so whoever wants to know has to dig a little bit deeper. While feminine lesbians who pass for “straight” may avoid some of the stigma of sexual deviance, they are alienated from the queer communities who feel that their passing status takes for granted the hardships that non-passing lesbians face. Rather, “Femmes who pass against their will hate how they are treated – as unattached heterosexual women” (Loulan 91). A femme by herself is seen as merely a failed heterosexual – she was a “dud” in the way that Freud imagined women on the whole as being “failed” or “incomplete” men. As a femme, I have envied butches and androgynous women for their “visibility” because, at least to me, being visibly queer means not having to deal with as many unwanted advances, not having to “come out” all the time because people misjudge my sexual orientation, and it also means having queer legitimacy because while femmes are radical within their intimate relationships, “femininity . . . cannot be seen as resistant in any capacity” (Maltry and Tucker 94). Rather than being able to pass, some femmes, myself included, might say they actually suffer to pass – queer consciousness underscores the femme existence for femmes’ apparent failure to subvert the heteronormative paradigm. They figuratively lose their “dyke card” even though they choose intimate relationships with other women! Femmes subvert the heterosexual paradigm simply by choosing femininity instead of accepting it as nature’s design.

The butch gender is a masculinity tailored to fit the female bodied, but it is also distinctly unlike that masculinity which biological men may exhibit. The degree of masculinity varies from person to person and throughout time and across cultures, so some women who exist in the periphery of butch identity have struggled at times to be accepted into the informal butch fraternity, depending on which characteristics they adopt and how strongly. Some butch women can pass for men, but by identifying as butch, they recognize their femaleness and so deconstruct any claim by heterosexuals that they are all women who wish to be men. Some butches can also “pass” for women if the necessity should ever arise, but they clearly disdain for such passing when it comes up in conversation. Carol Queen writes endearingly of butch women:

Strong. I mean physically strong. Sexual, with a look in the eye that caresses and undresses. Attitude that comes from never fitting in, maybe from never even having tried. Butch. . . . What is butch? Rebellion against women’s lot, against gender-role imperatives that pit boyness against girlness and then assign you-know-who the short straw. Butch is a giant fuck YOU! To compulsory femininity, just as lesbianism says to compulsory heterosexuality. (15)

Butches are gender transgressors by personal necessity and since the personal is political, the public sees this as an outright political statement. Not so with femmes. But to me, while femme may signify femininity gone wrong, butch exhibits masculinity done right. Not all queer genders are a purposeful subversion, an undermining of traditional and heterosexual gender roles. Rather, it is a matter of individual intent.

While many lesbians may still define themselves by these titles, I have noticed younger dykes have increasingly refused these three labels and the genders that accompany them. Instead, they identify themselves as something other, something outside the butch-femme continuum. They seem to reject gender specifics altogether, but I wonder if we all call ourselves “miscellaneous” how we will know how to interact with one another? Centuries of debate lead us to the belief that gender is not innate, but is rather the set learned characteristics that guide men’s and women’s behavior. The Western mindset has separated the genders into masculine and feminine, but I think the concept of gender is broader than that. I do think it is true, children are socialized to distinguish between genders, and to express a sex-appropriate gender, but I also recognize that I have always been femme in the way that my butch friends have always been butch, regardless of any gendered upbringing. When some of my butch friends were little girls, they squeezed and contorted their boyishness because they were punished for it. They tried to hide it underneath a feminine façade. In that very same way, I also tried to compress and disfigure my girlishness because it attracted unwanted attention. I deemphasized my womanly shape when I grew it, and tried to play tough. Finally, somewhere in our teens or twenties, we realized our true genders and have discovered the bravery to act them out publicly. So, perhaps there is a part of gender that is innate, but we must not mistakenly think that any one gender is “meant” for any particular sex. Yet, it is necessary to define gender in order to determine its origins. Gender is more than just the clothes we wear, but how we wear them, how we feel in them. Gender has to do with manners and mannerisms. Gender is a set of rules by which we regulate behaviors, it is simply another category by which we organize our world into something manageable. I think that gender is also a way of thinking about and interacting with society at large. Our genders give us and others a framework by which to understand each other better.

While the femme gender has liberated me from any obligation to meet heteronormative standards of femininity, it has also presented me with a number of problems to work through because invariably, I do meet some of the standards. Just last month I went to a bar by myself (which I do frequently) to meet up with someone I had met a few nights before. Immediately upon arrival, a man commented on my appearance. I was dressed conservatively, wearing business slacks, a pink shirt and a sweater – yet to my disappointment, he conjured up the courage to tell me that I am very attractive. Later, as I sat alone, he joined me again and attempted to make small talk, perhaps hoping to make some kind of connection. I had to tell him outright that I am not interested in men whatsoever, and he was taken surprise! He said, “But you are so beautiful, how can you be like that?” What this gentleman wondered was how I could choose to be a lesbian if I can clearly take my pick of whatever male I want. The idea itself goes back to lesbian pulp fiction of the 1950s where the femme still lacks for sexual agency,

“The feminine invert is either threatened or manipulated into the same-sex sexual dynamic by the masculine invert. She does not then choose her sexual expression, but is coerced into it. Another perception was that the feminine invert expressed inversion because she had been rejected by men and had no other option.” (Maltry and Tucker 89)

The established gender stereotypes for lesbians define all lesbians as being outwardly masculine, such that all masculine women are considered queer, whether or not they are actually gay – and some masculine women are not! To say that all lesbian women are at least a little bit masculine is to completely erase the legitimacy of feminine lesbians. Femmes live in a state of continual “coming out” because their appearance does not fit the stereotype. Even when they do verbally “out” themselves to others, few may believe it, and thus neither queers nor heterosexuals afford femmes a queer legitimacy. In fact, say Maltry and Tucker, “It is precisely the lesbian feminist demonization that permitted the butch to emerge relatively unscathed but that obliterated the femme” (94). So, since lesbians are not allowed to be femmes, they face a compulsory heterosexuality that strips the femme “not only of her identity, but of any understanding of her identity as subversive” (94).

Lesbianism in society shifts the power imbalance away from men and into the hands of women who share their resources, and the comforts of their sex, with other women. With this in mind, if the patriarchal system can make as many lesbians as possible look invisible, then they can believe for a little while longer that men still have an all-access pass to female sexuality. Perhaps, to the mindset of the heterosexual male, if she walks like a straight girl and talks like a straight girl, then she’s fair game – if she’s a dyke, that is ok, he (thinks he) can change her mind. We have discussed in class that most lesbian pornography is geared toward a straight male audience, so men are receiving this message and not thinking critically about it. Logically, it follows that if some girls will kiss other girls for the camera so that he can enjoy it, then any girl who is feminine like them must not really be gay, she’s just showing off, or she just “hasn’t found the right man, yet.” Mainstream heterosexual consciousness cannot conceive of butches and androgynous females as being women because they do not match the gender role established for “woman”, but femmes do match the gender role. By apparently “conforming” (although I dare say a scarce few femme women consider themselves conformists!) to femininity, femmes fall under the category of “woman,” and (at least loosely) fit the beauty standards prescribed by the patriarchy. Thus, as true women, they are for men. But femmes are the epitome of what you see is (not) what you get – they are the very definition of “too good to be true” for heterosexual males because femme is sexy, womanly, and kisses other girls – what more could he want? But it’s a dirty trick he plays on himself. The fact that a femme kisses other girls means that she is not sexually available to him. To him, this is a cruel sabotage.

The gentleman I met at the bar last month had to ask me how long I have been a lesbian and why I decided to “change” before he could be convinced that I truly was not interested in him! Imagine if I had not had such an effective alibi – imagine if I had been a straight woman. What would I have said? I want to live in a world where femmes and other feminine people can say “no” and not have to repeat or explain themselves to heterosexual men, regardless of their own sexual orientation. I want to be taken at my word; no means no, not yes. We must have an effective way to ward off unwanted sexual comments and advances from people we are not interested in. Females must be allowed to choose their gender and present it accordingly without facing discrimination or erasure of their significance as part of queer society. Perhaps it is too daunting a task to stop everyone from making any assumptions about anyone whatsoever, since we use appearance to label everything – we judge race, class, ability, and compatibility with ourselves based on outward signifiers. I don’t think the system of assumption is intrinsically wrong, but it is misused and its purposes are misunderstood. I hope that in the future we will find some way to acknowledge the existence of stereotypes but not focus ourselves so very intently upon them that we are blind to any variation. What fortune have I, that my femme gender mocks the gender assigned to my sex, but not everyone has that luck! I want gender to be a safe space for people, I want it to be a way that we can call ourselves the same and different without fear.

I almost wish I could actually have that proverbial “dyke card” which I could flash if I ever need to become visible at a moment’s notice. If any polite but determined gentleman should approach me again, I will be able to put a stop to his insistent, “But why? What does she have that I don’t have?” simply by showing my smiling face on a shiny laminate card labeled “Dyke // Class: Femme // Name: None of Your Business.” But it is not that simple. After thinking over and over about how femme women might become outwardly visible, I have come to the conclusion that it is simply not possible with the current state of Western society. We will have to redefine the meaning of femininity and write queer femme into the script.

Radical feminist thought has the best chance of actually working out a solution to this problem compared with other feminist traditions because it requires a total rethinking of what it means to be woman and what queer looks like on the body of a female. I am compelled to bulldoze the entire structure and start new from scratch but that is a task that requires the cooperation of a multitude of people. It requires that the infrastructure of gender roles and stereotypes be utterly demolished and replaced by some other relational system. For the time being, I will suggest some minor renovations that are more easily accomplished, and may be considered stepping stones toward a free future. I do not wish to do away with gender “roles” entirely because I value the “naming” of things, I have found freedom in my title, but we must have the freedom to choose between roles.

Firstly, I want to encourage the people who revel in contradictions to continue to do this revolutionary work, and not to limit themselves to likeminded communities – go out and become a missionary to the masses and show them that some dykes are girly, and many gay men are masculine, and that transgender and genderqueer people exist! That is an extravagant dream, and I wonder how many brave souls there are who will actually pursue it despite the prejudice and discrimination that persists. Femmes themselves will be the most important catalysts in changing the “female = feminine = straight” thought process by putting on their big girl underwear and going out, loud and proud, in the world. Femme has to start speaking up for herself and writing herself back into the history of the women’s movement and into the story of lesbian history, where whoever’s in charge has made her existence insignificant.

Secondly, the educational system will require a complete overhaul, at least where gender socialization is concerned. Children need to learn that gender diversity exists and that there are (or there should be) very real consequences to discriminatory practice based on gender identity, or on anything else for that matter! We must re-educate teachers about child gender socialization so that they will know how to reinforce and encourage children’s individual gender expression, whatever it may look like. This goes for gender, but, as always, the situation is even more complicated by the race and class. Where discrimination exists based upon one thing, it has the potential to exist on the basis of anything else.

Promoting the visibility of femmes also requires that we establish a body of writing that validates femininity in the queer existence. I think it is reasonable to believe that writers started all previous revolutions by writing honestly about their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Perhaps these papers were passed around in secret and everyone added his or her ideas to the back of the book until it was full. And when everyone had read it, finally everyone agreed and a unified movement began. This revolution starts with Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, and with the fearless individuals who make it a habit of saying “no” and meaning it. In the end, femmes and other feminine people would never have to say no more than once in order to be heard. The revolution would result in femme queers getting their voices back from a life of having proverbial laryngitis. Femme would be a legitimate, subversive, recognizable queer existence that does not trivialize the struggle gender non-conformant people endure.

Brushwood Rose, Chloë and Camilleri, Anna. “Introduction, A Brazen Posture.” Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity. Ed. Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002. 11-14.

Loulan, Jo Ann. The Lesbian Erotic Dance. San Francisco: Spinsters Book Company, 1990.

Maltry, Melanie and Tucker, Kristin. “Female Fem(me)ininities: New Articulations in Queer Gender Identities and Subversion.” Femme/Butch: New Considerations on the Way We Want to Go. Ed. Michelle Gibson and Deborah T. Meem. New York: Haworth Press, 2002. 89-102.

Queen, Carol A. “Why I Love Butch Women.” Dagger: On Butch Women. Ed. Lily Burana, Roxxie and Linnea Due. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, Inc., 1994. 15-23.


Zombie Cat said...

That was a thrilling read and very thought-provoking. It really does seem femme lesbians blend completely. At work, I'm sure there are plenty of gay women in such a large facility.. but I have the full hear no gay girls, see no gay girls experience.. except for the two or three butches with butch hair cuts.

Anonymous said...

Very well written and definitely a piece that inspires thought. It is often the negotiation of identity within a persons tribe (lesbians, blacks, asians..) that can be fraught with the most challenge.

Anonymous said...

I heart you. Truly. I've read the whole paper and I have a lot to say about it. Damn you for not being able to go for dinner and drinks! Live closer next time you move. Once I get settled from the trip I will write. Thank you SO much for sharing this post and everything on my page and beyond. You're a doll.

Katerina said...

But to me, while femme may signify femininity gone wrong, butch exhibits masculinity done right.

I loved this and it really describes what I enjoy about butch/femme dynamics.

Thank you for sharing that with us. I am ready to go out there, brazenly, with my queer card showing.

D.H. said...

I love this. I want to print a copy out and read it again and again.

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