In the past, the dynamic of “butch/femme” aesthetics amongst queer women has been met with a mixture of negative responses. Some argue that these terms have only served to reinforce gendered standards of behavior (i.e., one partner must be “masculine,” while the other must be “feminine”). Others argue that butch/femme identities only mirror mainstream culture and negate the queer experience. Still more would suggest that when one dresses femme, they deny their involvement with the queer community by “passing as straight.” Yet more recently, “femme” identity has experienced a resurgence as both a political term as well as personal identification, in the form of a social reclaiming. Femme, it would seem, is in.
For instance, I recently attended an event called The Femme Show at New York City’s independent bookstore Bluestockings. The show was a funny, touching and eclectic display of femme identity, with an array of performers from different backgrounds and with a mixture of self-definitions. There were performers wrapped in feathers and miniskirts, discussions of feeling butch as well as femme and readings proclaiming the admiration of feminine aesthetics. With so many forms of femme to see, I decided to try and define for myself what “femme style” was. I enlisted the help of Johnny Blazes, one of the Femme Show’s performers.
How would you define “femme style?” What makes the image of the femme unique in its visual qualities?
I would describe femme style as drawing from or alluding to fashions that have historically been categorized as “feminine” in our culture. There is no one image that comes to mind when I hear the word “Femme!” Femme style might shine on a masculine-presenting person as a silk cravat, a touch of makeup, or just the attention to color coordination used in the assembly of an outfit. Everyone’s “femme” looks different! What unites them is their reference to femininity.
Femininity is something we know when we see it. “Feminine” is a rather arbitrary category, constructed from years of both fashion and oppression. When I wear a men’s blue button down shirt with all but one button undone, it’s going to look pretty feminine on me. However, I would still maintain that the shirt itself is a masculine-imbued object, and it is my styling of the shirt that is feminine.
I don’t mean to imply that we should uphold the binary of “feminine” and “masculine,” by any means. I simply believe that these words already have a ton of cultural weight, and in order to be able to move past the values placed on them (eg, feminine = weak, masculine = strong) then we need to be able to talk about what these words have meant historically, and what the media and our society continues to infuse into them.
What does femme identity mean to you?
For me, “being a Femme” means carrying oneself with a certain assurance and confidence with one’s own femininity. I certainly know that Femmes have days when they feel uncertain or lack confidence, but on the whole, I believe that identifying as “Femme” is a powerful, conscious reclamation of femininity, an acceptance of both its power and its challenges. There are plenty of women out there, straight and queer alike, who are feminine not because they have consciously decided to embrace femininity, but because they blindly follow the dictates of mainstream media. These women, unfortunately, are often prey to the belief that there is only one correct way to be feminine, and that every other attempt is merely an approximation, a failure. Femmes pick and choose which aspects of femininity they wish to embody, and they shed the myths about weakness, fragility and lack of worth.
As a side note, not all Femmes are women. I know many lovely gay men who are Femmes, as well as transpeople who identify as neither “man” nor “woman.” Being Femme is about consciously choosing femininity, however that outwardly manifests for that person – not about biological sex or sexual preference.
After speaking with Johnny, it seemed to me that femme identity was more about a fluidity of self, rather than a fixation. It seems to allow the individual a very direct say in how the term functions on them and what the term “femme” ultimately means: a far cry from the former belief that the term was a socially internalized self-hatred, used to control people’s self-identification. The term “femme” now appears to function as a form of a play on gender, rather than a term that strictly defines or constricts gender identity. And I say, the more play, the better! Viva La Femme!
Join us this week as we explore the intersections of sex and fashion on MySexProfessor.com.