Unclean, Complicated, and Dirty: The Multiplicity of Femme

What is femme? It’s a seemingly obvious question, but it has to be asked. The common understanding of femme is the lesbian femme, a lesbian cis-gendered woman differentiated from non-queer cis-gendered women by her sexuality alone. The femme is a stereotype; this is the definition Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sherman find in the Oxford English Dictionary (Coyote and Sherman 25). However, under the slightest scrutiny, this easy definition does not hold up. What makes a lesbian femme’s femininity different from that of a heterosexual feminine woman? Is it possible for a man, gay or not, to be femme? How does femme align with transgender identities? These questions challenge easy categorization and reveal a difficult truth. Femme is difficult—if not impossible—to locate. Femme defies definition, threatening a migraine of multiplicity. In “A Fem(me)inist Manifesto,” Lisa Duggan and Shannon McHugh begin with an avowal of contradiction: “We cannot begin with a definition; we cannot offer assurances of any kind. For ‘fem(me)’ is not an identity, not a history, not a location on the map of desire. The fem(me) body is an anti(identity)body, a queer body in fem(me)inine drag. The voices we record do not cohere. So of course we contradict ourselves…” (165). These contradictions are at the forefront of Elizabeth Stark and Kami Chisholm’s 2006 documentary FtF: Female to Femme. Each interviewee shares her personal views on what it means to be femme, and the documentary never imposes a master narrative of femme. Femme is multiplicity, and that multiplicity is its power.

FtF: Female to Femme presents femme as a transgender category. The documentary appropriates trans language. This is apparent from the title alone, which plays on familiar abbreviations for familiar trans categories, the MtF and FtM. The support group and few of the interviews employ the language of “transitioning” from female to femme. In one interview, Elizabeth Stark characterizes FtFs as an integral part of the transgender revolution. In the support group scene, Leslie Mah tearfully discusses “the shame that I had for my body” as a child and the feeling that she had been “born into the wrong body.” If these expressions sound familiar, that is because they are common lines from the trans master narrative. Talking about femme through a transgender lens certainly seems counterintuitive at first glance. Traditionally, we think of trans as an oppositional identity. The root word means across, beyond, or through; traditionally, trans means across, beyond, or through the gender binary, from one side to the other. At first glance, femme does not cross that line. Female femininity is the expectation, not an obvious subversion; this is, of course, the root of the trouble with femme, invisibility and erasure. Framing femme as a transgender category is a risky move, one that opens up the possibility for widespread criticism. While discussing FtFs as a transgender category seems to catch a shared internal emotional struggle, it fails to represent the external struggle. While Meliza Bañales may have been the scorn of the Santa Cruz lesbian community for daring to wear lipstick, there is a dramatic difference in the sort of violence she experienced as a femme to the violence trans individuals experience. The very invisibility of femme works to protect femmes from that violence. Certainly not all femmes would consider their femme identity a trans identity, but the dissonance of these contradictions–of the multiplicity of categorizations—is half the point.

Femme is also performance and masquerade. The FtF opens with a montage of quotes and scenes that reference drag. There are women zipping up dresses and putting on makeup—the “behind the scenes” steps in the construction of femininity. This inherently performative act references more traditional filmic representations of drag, such as Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, which is later explicitly referenced. Unsurprisingly, the documentary relies heavily on Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Masha Raskolnikov discusses this, the way her mother inhabited the role of high femme, and how being femme is a process of performing an imperfect version of the feminine ideal. Following from Butler, Raskolnikov notes that everyone fails to mimic the gender ideal perfectly and comments that “that not quite achieving [of the feminine ideal] is what femme is about.” Later, Raskolnikov quotes Joan Riviere: “Genuine womanliness and the masquerade are the same thing.” So what is masquerade? In a summary of the female masquerade, Susan Hayward writes, “Masquerade functions as an avowal of difference” (132). In this application, masquerade functions as an avowal of difference in gender expression. That difference, however, is not located across the gender binary; rather, the difference exists in the proliferation of imperfect expressions of femininity. Reading femme as masquerade has broader implications. Duggan and McHugh write that the femme is “the performer who demands performance in return” (165). She presents a challenge to the gender binary itself. If femme is masquerade, then femininity is masquerade; and if femininity is masquerade, then all gender is masquerade.

What lies behind the conscious masquerade is a critique of traditional femininity, informed by the politics of feminism; for many femmes, being femme is an act of feminist resistance. One FtF interviewee cites femmes’ “awareness of what it means to construct femininity.” Guinevere Turner says there is a “level of irony” in femme femininity; femmes know they are “playing a role,” and they do it ironically. It is this irony that supposedly differentiates the lesbian femme from feminine heterosexual women, though this line is hardly stable. Regardless, femmes define themselves. They have agency; they are subjects, not objects. Bitch notes, “Being a strong femme… goes against what society expects of me.” In this sense, femmes inhabit a position of power traditionally afforded to masculine bodies. With femmes’ awareness of constructed femininity comes a critique of the easy femme stereotype. Jewelle Gomez discusses Cheryl Clarke’s 1982 poem “Of Althea and Flaxie,” a butch/femme couple that defies strict stereotypes. Flaxie is a femme who “loved to shoot, fish [and] play poker” (Clarke qtd. in Coyote and Sherman 68). Flaxie defies the notion that there is one stereotypical, easily identifiable femininity. Similarly, the femmes interviewed in FtF do not represent the mainstream hegemonic idea of femininity. They are not exclusively young, blonde, white, skinny, clean-cut Barbie doll wannabes. Yes, femme is makeup, dresses, purses, and an obsession with shoes, but femme is also tattoos, dreadlocks, lip rings, and punk rock. Femme femininity is multiplicitous. Furthermore, the multiplicity of femininities femmes inhabit mirrors the challenge of multiplicity in defining femme.

Meliza Bañales refers to her femininity as unclean, complicated, and dirty—and says she likes that. Defining femme is unclean, complicated, and dirty, but maybe that is the power of femme. It resists easy definition and embraces a multiplicity of viewpoints that privilege the experience of those who identify as femme. To them, femme is masquerade, trans category, gender identity, resistance, and irony all at once. Femme is unclean, complicated, and dirty. Femme means different things to different people, but those meanings share an awareness of their contradictions, an investment in progressive gender politics, and subversive potential.

Works Cited

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.

FtF: Female to Femme. Dir. Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark. 2006.

Hayward, Susan. “Female Masquerade.” Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 132-134.

Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. Eds. Ivan E. Coyote and Zena SharmanVancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011. 23-26, 67-78, 310-12.

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One thought on “Unclean, Complicated, and Dirty: The Multiplicity of Femme

  1. channabach

    You ask fabulous questions here about the elasticity of femme as an identity, embodiment, or set of practices, including “What makes a lesbian femme’s femininity different from that of a heterosexual feminine woman? Is it possible for a man, gay or not, to be femme? How does femme align with transgender identities?” You also nicely explain and analyze the multiplicity and contradictions you note at work in the various authors’ articulations of femme, pushing at the borders of this identity to ask what it can do and where it comes up against its limits.

    One very strong part of your post is the section on the appropriation of trans rhetoric and narratives, which is super interesting. Your close reading of the film here grounds your claims in filmic evidence, and you deftly trace the difficulties of how to respond to this practice. And you correctly point out potential erasures in cisgendered femmes using the language of transition to describe their gender identities when you write “there is a dramatic difference in the sort of violence she experienced as a femme to the violence trans individuals experience.” Do you think this limits the usefulness of transitioning language to articulate femme identities and bodies? Is there perhaps a less loaded rhetoric that would help? I wonder too how this would have been a different conversation if the film had included trans women who are femme: would the filmmakers have changed their approach, or not? I don’t know, but something to think about.

    I’ll also ask you the same thing I asked of another person in your group because you wrote about similar topics: I’m also curious what you make of the historical and cultural specificity of the variations of femme presented in the film and readings, especially as they are demarcated by race, class, and dis/ability. How, for example, does Gomez’s critique of the whiteness of certain queer cultures resonate with Bañales’s critique of class shame and bourgeois gender? How is the familial sexual violence articulated by Millersdaughter intertwined with (but not identical as) the colonial sexual violence critiqued by the Femme Shark Collective?

    Good job on this post.

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