While speaking at Hollins University in October of 2017, lauded feminist and scholar bell hooks took a question about an issue much contested in feminism: the value of femininity. It was towards the end of a long and productive conversation about gender and racial justice. The question was a bit convoluted, and no doubt difficult to respond to in the minute or two she had left to speak; but still, the bareness of her response surprised me. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that she was not interested in femininity, and that, like toxic masculinity, it should be gotten rid of.
Listen, I’m not trying to take on bell hooks. The terse response she gave that night is likely unrepresentative of everything one of the greatest gender scholars in the world thinks and feels about femininity. But, as a queer woman who *is* femme and *loves* femmes, bell’s dismissal of femininity boiled in my head for days and days. I understood what she likely meant: femininity and womanhood, as constructed by patriarchy, is the subjugated underbelly of masculinity and manhood—the short straw in a shit dichotomy. Still, that’s not how I’ve constructed my femininity. My femininity is integral to my queerness and harmonious with my radical feminist politics. My femininity means leather, body hair, getting and giving what I want in bed, loving other femmes, and working for a sexual assault crisis hotline. In part, my femmeness has nothing to do with patriarchal ideas about womanhood; but, in other ways, I know that the femininity I’ve made for myself exists always in relation to patriarchal expectations. Thinking about the conflict between my queer femmeness and heteropatriarchal femininity invigorated me. I put on my best U-Haul Lesbian get-up and went to work unpacking the contradictions.
In the following months, I thought about my own femmeness and the femmeness of my lovers and friends. I attended a panel on queer femininity at a history conference and attempted to see the ways “femme” has been historically and culturally situated. I read what few writings I could find on femme queer identities (for queer femininity is horribly understudied) and interviewed several femme queer people from inside and outside of my own community. After plenty of daydreaming about fishnets and lipstick, I came to a pretty incomplete conclusion:
Heteropatriarchal femininity is more of a myth than a practice, but it’s a myth that we all contend with and work around when figuring what femininity means to us: as queers, as working class warriors, as people of color, as agents and as pawns in systems of power that are, at once, within us and outside of us. Ultimately, to be “femme” is to forge a self-made femininity that subverts the gender binary and heteropatriarchy by refusing to be defined in opposition to manhood and masculinity. In its autonomy, femmeness does not merely “queer” normative ideas about femininity—it confronts them and challenges them, necessitating a radical reimagining of gender and identity in the process.
The Autonomous Femme
To understand the complexities of queer femme identity, it’s necessary to understand the ways queer femme identity has been misunderstood—both inside and outside of the queer community. In one of the few anthologies dedicated to exploring queer femininity—Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls—editors Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker describe “femme” as a marginalized gender category, maligned historically by lesbians, radical feminists, and society at large. Today, femmes still struggle to be seen as multifaceted, autonomous, and separate from masculinity and misogynistic stereotyping.
Even in queer relationships, femininity is often seen as needing a masculine counterpart. According to Harris and Crocker, queer femmes are most obviously defined “in relation to butch identity.” Without a butch, a femme woman’s queerness is often overlooked. Other queer women may fail to read her as sufficiently queer, and—even worse—straight men may think she’s interested in them. Thus, femmes may feel like they have to continually and aggressively assert their queerness to be acknowledged by other queer people or understood by straights.
Several femme women I interviewed described experiencing erasure first-hand. Hillary, a femme woman from New York, said “I get so exhausted by going to gay bars…and people asking or assuming I'm someone's straight best friend. It's pretty hard to meet people, too, without being overtly sexual or overtly ‘gay.’” Sarah, a femme woman from Maryland, spoke on being femme in straight spaces, where straight men often assume that she is heterosexual, and then, when they find out otherwise, fetishize her. “I’d like for straight men to stop thinking of us as pretty props for their fantasies,” she said.
The Radical Femme
In activist communities, femmes are sometimes written off as “good girls” (to quote Harris and Crocker) who are not subversive enough and not queer enough to be radical agents for change. This stereotype has much to do with the subjugating (and also invariably white, middle class, and heterosexual) kind of femininity patriarchy prescribes. In the late 20th century, radical feminist collectives rallied against patriarchal constructions of womanhood and, in doing so, some took a hard stance against femininity. Consequently, femme activists felt belittled and ignored, and femmephobic radical feminists were criticized for failing to take into account the experiences of brown and black femmes, poor femmes, and queer femmes whose femininities were always already in conflict with patriarchal standards. Femmephobia still persists in certain feminist communities, but that hasn’t stopped radical femmes from mobilizing and kicking ass. After all, if Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson could stand up to homophobic cops in heels and lipstick, femmes everywhere can use their painted fingernails to stir the patriarchal pot.
The femmes I interviewed generally agreed that their femininities—however they enact them—are constructed in opposition to patriarchal standards of womanhood. Even femmes who enjoy stereotypically “feminine” clothing and makeup (and not all femmes do) still see their holistic femininities as being complex and critical, tough and tender, powerful and sympathetic. In one interview, Lin, a queer woman from the PNW, described being raised to believe that femininity meant unwavering obedience to men. Now, as an adult, she expresses a different kind of femininity by wearing high-femme fashions that most men find over-the-top and alienating—not that she cares. In her view, she reclaims feminine fashions by wearing them for herself and disassociating them with patriarchal expectations and men’s desires. “You don’t have to act like a housewife to dress like one” she said.
The Bisexual Femme
Femmeness, though historically conceptualized as a gender category within lesbian communities (the femme/butch dynamic), has since been broadened to include bisexual, pansexual, and queer femmes. Not everyone agrees with “queering” the term, but, in my view, applying “femme” to a variety of non-heterosexual sexualities and non-cisgender identities further challenges heteropatriarchal, binary understandings of gender and sexuality—and that’s a good thing. On that theme, in this section I’m using “bisexual” to mean attracted to multiple genders—not just men and women.
Femme bisexuality is not new. Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls, published in 1997, includes an essay on bisexual femmeness by Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha, a biracial woman who calls herself queer and has lovers of varying genders and sexualities. As a bisexual femme, she is critical of the way butch/femme lesbian relationships sometimes mirror patriarchal ideas about masculinity and femininity: femmes are expected to “stand by their butch,” and butches, in turn, are supposed to protect their femmes. Her ideas about gender are inspired more by trans feminisms, which understand butchness and femmeness as “two kinds of gender practices that are oppositional to colonialist patriarchy.” She also emphasizes how identity and marginalization are multifaceted. As a working-class queer woman of color, she finds easier allyship with the working class “butch fags, FTM queens, and Nancy boys in [her] community” than middle-class, soft butch white women (the default “gay woman” stereotype). From her perspective, femme cannot be essentialized as belonging to a single sexuality/race/gender category. It must be considered in relation to other layers of identity.
I interviewed a couple of femmes who identify as bisexual, and they spoke to how their bisexuality affects their femmeness. Sarah, who’s interested in dating other femmes, said she has experienced biphobia from femme lesbians: “lesbian women tend to avoid getting romantically involved with pan or bi women because apparently we're ‘faking it,’” she said. Johana, who also identifies as bisexual, expressed a preference for romantic relationships in which gender roles are fluid and self-determined, rather than oppositional: “We can both wear dresses or we can both wear pants and have long hair and wear makeup and be the little spoon or the big spoon. Sometimes there's a binary but it's all whenever we want.” In both Johana and Sarah’s experiences, being bisexual influences what it means to be femme, whether that amounts to encountering biphobia in queer spaces or seeing gender and sexuality from a fluid POV.
Femme Beyond the Binary
Through talking to femme women and researching queer femininity, I saw some of the many ways femmes challenge binary conceptions of gender and sexuality in their lives and in the way they make and remake their identities, and I celebrate that. However, being femme beyond the gender binary can have serious consequences—particularly for femmes who are not cisgender women. As of late, a number of articles have been written about femmephobia on gay dating sites like Grindr, and femme gay men are more likely than masculine gay men to be targets of homophobic violence. Further, trans women and trans feminine people—and especially trans femmes of color and femmes who don’t “pass” as cisgender women—are even more likely than femme gay men to experience gender-based violence. The Advocate reported that 2017 was the deadliest year on record for trans women. Obviously, misogyny doesn’t just affect cisgender women, and it isn’t just perpetrated by cisgender men. Femme may be fierce, radical, and a force to be reckoned with, but heteropatriarchal society, the state, and even some collectives within the LGBTQ community are enacting daily, deadly violence against femmes who are not white, not affluent, not cisgender, and not in-line with a bullshit gender dichotomy.
This is where bell hooks comes in again. During her talk, she posited femininity as being similar to toxic masculinity, and in doing so made clear that femininity can do harm and perpetuate violence. For queer femmes who have made a femininity for themselves that is subversive, inclusive, complex, and affirming, this claim might fall flat. But, beyond what femininity means to us, a larger, violent system of exclusion and dominance exists—and the gender dichotomy is part and parcel to that system. “Toxic” femininity, like toxic masculinity, gives women conditional power in exchange for their subservience; it requires them to limit themselves and diminish others in the name of power and control. It goes hand in hand with misogyny, white supremacy, state violence, transphobia, homophobia, and myriad other forms of baseless enmity. Queer femmes have done the brave work of creating femininities that confront, challenge, and stand in opposition to patriarchy, thus mapping a path towards more liberating conceptions of gender. But, we must remember, until all femmes can live without threat of violence, none of us are free.
RM Barton is a writer and activist living in Roanoke, Virginia. Originally from Maryland, she moved to Southwest Virginia for school some five years ago, and has since become invested in queering southern space. She is the co-lead of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project and the publisher of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project Zine, which aims to illuminate queer history through queer art and storytelling. She blogs at rmbartonblog.wordpress.com