By not articulating a definition for what a femme is, the documentary, Ftf: From Female to Femme emphasizes the strength and freedom that lies in the ambiguity of this title. For many of the women portrayed in the film, being femme was not a particular set of labels and norms, but rather as Duggan and McHugh explain, “an anti(identity)body, a queer body in fem(me)inine drag” (Duggan 165). In their attempts to identify what they were, many of these women instead found more confusion in the midst of their self-awareness for all the things that they were not. Not fitting into the mold of “butchness” was seen as a failure rather than another example and celebration of queerness. Ftf can be seen as a movement, even a subversive one, that opposes the idea that any feminine body is illegal or a failure. The lack of cohesion in the voices of this documentary indicated a refusal to have one’s (feminine) body labeled and delimited to any particular set of standards, be they hetero or homonormative.
Although the scenes of the Ftf support group were comical parodies of the dramatic breakthroughs that women are expected to have in such situations, they also seemed to have an underlying sense of truth. Such scenes were important to the film since they emphasized the viewer’s willingness to take images at face value without any question. Especially because it was framed as a documentary, everything was readily interpreted as serious fact, something that the film was conscious about and used to their advantage. In this same way, femme women use the awareness that surrounds their body as a positive, “Her perspective is always partially extrasensory- Berger’s ‘Women always watch themselves being watched’, Mulvy’s ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, without the tragedy” (Duggan and McHugh 166). The object of desire is not completely abject of power but through her awareness attains the ability to have the gaze focus on particular areas. In this same way, the femme can also choose to not be “seen” as the can “pass” and be perceived as straight women. Being femme is thus seen as an embracing rather than a rejection of feminine sensuality. Women spoke of their hesitation and fear of rejection from the lesbian community if they wore lipstick. Another woman believed that she could not be a femme if she wore pants. These self-imposed and arbitrary rules portray the delimiting factor of labels, “Butch was used as a synonym for dominant, and most definitions of femme had a lot more to ay about outfits and accessories than identities and politics” (Coyote 25). By showing how silly and even damaging these labels are, the Ftf movement has been successful in allowing women to explore all facets and aspects of their femininity and identity without feeling like they are failing as lesbians or as feminists.
As a viewer, it was often difficult to separate truth from fiction especially when considering the genre conventions associated with a documentary. They brought attention to a sense of “lesbophobia” that arises if individuals step outside neatly demarcated queer identities; “The urge to homogeneity is a deadening disease, even queers catch it” (Gomez 69). Gomez and many of the women of the film herald the plaid shirts and Birkenstock shoes of second wave feminism and lesbians as the uniform of liberation yet for women that wish to express their femininity in other terms, this may also become just as oppressive as a girdle. This uniform has become the norm to the point that putting on lipstick for some women may be seen as an act of defiance. The Femme Shark Communique fiercely fights this idea that women can be place into any uniform, despite how “liberating” it may be, “We’re over butches and boys and other femmes telling us what we need to do, wear or be in order to ‘really be femme’” (Femme Shark Manifesto). Identity is not limited to a particular aesthetics yet by limiting the options of expression only in terms of what is deemed acceptable is thwarting in embracing the individuality that feminism is supposed to respect and embrace. This manifesto, along with all of the women from Ftf shed light on all of the new limitations that may be found even when an individual “comes out of the closet”.
Duggan, Lisa, and Kathleen McHugh. “A Fem(me)inist Manifesto.” Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity. Eds. Chloë Burshwood Rose and Anna Camilleri. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002. 165-70.
Femme Shark Communique #1
FtF: Female to Femme. Dir. Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark. 2006.
Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. Eds. Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011. 23-26, 67-78, 310-12.