Research Proposal


Currently, I have a very convoluted and entangled web of ideas that seems to become more complicated the more I do research. Mainly however, through this project proposal, I want to analyze the femme aesthetic and the idea of “passing” among mainstream and queer groups. Films such as Bound and Female to Femme presented the tensions that arise between the different forms of self-presentation between butch and femme women, both internally and externally. The LGBT community may often regard individuals that are able to pass by what is deemed as the mainstream heterosexual aesthetic as not being queer enough. Through their appearance as either more feminine or masculine subjects, the film presented the bodies of lesbian women in order to signify different things. The stocking-clad legs of Violet are framed in a much different way than is the body of Corky or even that of Joao in Madame Sata. These films in particular address the varying portrayals of femininity as well as femme-ness. Duggan and McHugh emphasize the fluidity that exists within the category of femme by emphasizing its fluidity, “a fundamental challenge to the category, the slot, the ideal of the feminine” (Duggan &McHugh 166). And at the same time, Female to Femme portrays the process and of the choices necessary to arrive to the label of femme. This is an identity that appeared to be carefully articulated and analyzed; performativity was present as women were aware of and reveled in being viewed. Yet what I still have questions about is the consideration and thought process that goes behind positioning oneself or identifying as a femme. Female bodies are always presented in terms of comparison to one another and this appears magnified in the positioning of femme and butch women. Huxley, Clarke, and Halliwell address the “negotiation of gender and sexual identity categories at the level of individual butch and femme identity narratives” as these two groups are often placed at different ends of the spectrum of lesbian gender performance.

Ellen Samuels address the subject of the passing femme in an extremely interesting way that also addresses the other topics we have mentioned in class in regards to disability and gender identity. She frames disability and the misidentification of gender identity of queer women as “person whose bodily appearance does not immediately signal one’s own sense of identity” (Samuels 323). According to theorists, the analogy that is created between queer and disability identity arises as a result of the difficulties in access to queer culture. We must not forget that at one point, homosexuality and queerness was considered a mental disorder. Samuels speaks about the privileges that arise from passing as non-disabled and being non-queer but also of the internal dissonance that exists.

Even though Bound uses Corky and Violet as juxtapositions of one another, the film argues that the butch is necessary for society to believe the truth and validity behind the identity of the femme. As an audience, we needed Violet to run off into the sunset with another woman in order to believe that she was truly a lesbian yet this question never arose in terms of Corky’s sexuality. Violet and Corky are presented in the film as complementing one another in terms that reflect heterosexual relationships. The femme(fatale) is not shown as an individual that is able to stand on its own but rather requires the butch/masculine aesthetic and identity in order to convince herself and others of being lesbian/queer. While butch subjects face the challenges of hyper-visibility within mainstream society, the femme body is subject to invisibility not only among heteronormative but also queer society. VanNewkirk however, sees a subversive power within being invisible, since they refute the myth that “sexuality is always concrete and permanent… femme sexuality, because of its occasional invisible state, has the potential to move between ideological positions in order to destabilize them.” Being femme thus goes beyond aesthetics as an identity that defies the structures put in place by homonormative and heteronomative societies.

My plan of action for this project will be to organize my thoughts so that a topic as broad as the femme aesthetic becomes more manageable. I will read more articles that expand on the experience of being femme as well as the notion of being able to pass. Additionally, I want to refine my research in order to decide whether I will limit my research to only apply to women that identify as femme or whether this will also be extended onto men, such as Joao from Madame Sata.

Research questions:

–       What are the considerations and thought process that go behind becoming femme?

–       Is there a specific criterion that must be met for a woman to be considered femme as opposed to butch?

–       What are the privileges and downfalls of individuals being able to “pass” within mainstream society?

–       Can the femme identity stand on its own without the butch.


Samuels, Ellen Jean.GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 9, Number 1-2, 2003, pp. 233-255

VanNewkirk, Robbin. “‘Gee, I Didn’t Get That Vibe from You’: Articulating My Own

Version of a Femme Lesbian Existence.” Journal of Lesbian Studies

Caroline J. Huxley, Victoria Clarke and Emma Halliwell ”It’s a Comparison Thing, Isn’t It?” : Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Accounts of How Partner Relationships Shape Their Feelings About Their Body and Appearance, Psychology of Women Quarterly 2011 35: 415



Female to Femme

Madame Sata



2 thoughts on “Research Proposal

  1. channabach

    It sounds like you have the beginnings of what could be a really interesting project. Questions of femme passing, invisibility, privilege, identity construction–these are all great.

    You are correct that you’ll need to narrow it down to a more concrete set of texts. One way to start would be to think about the films you want to analyze. Do you want to stick with some of the ones you mention here? Are there other films you’d want to include? You might start thinking about eh historical and cultural context of the types of queer femininities you want to analyze: Joao’s form of queer femininity is rooted in 1930s Brazilian race & gender politics, while the queer femininities in Female to Femme are very much rooted in 1990s-2000s San Francisco/Los Angeles race & gender politics. These are significantly different contexts that have different gender, race, and sexuality norms and thus different versions of femme. I recommending narrowing the historical and cultural context so you can build strong and well-supported arguments about specific films, and avoid generalizations. You might examine femme constructions in Madame Sata and another Brazilian film about or from the 1930s (bio pic or otherwise). Or examine femme constructions in Female to Femme and another documentary about 1990s/2000s US femmes (for example, Cheryl Dunne’s film The OWLs might be an interesting comparison). Or you could compare several films about femmes from the same cultural location and see how representations of femmes change over a specific time frame, in relation to shifting political, cultural, and economic events. Clearly you have a number of different directions you can take this, which is great.

    One way to avoid this getting to big is to keep coming back to the films–rather than this being a project about femme identity in it’s myriad of forms (way too big for this assignment), this is a project about femme identity/embodiment/practices/whatever in several specific films. Your argument will be about those specific films. This will help you develop research questions and hopefully help you avoid feeling overwhelmed.

    As you know, there are a ton of resources about femme and queer femininities posted to the Readings page. It looks like you’ve read through some of them (you cite some here), which is fabulous. Those texts have all kinds of useful material on passing, femme invisibility, femme privilege, femme’s relationship and tension with butch, etc. There are also a number of texts about femme men if you wanted to explore that topic.

    Overall, this is a good start. Keep asking questions, figuring out how to narrow the topic into one you really love, and honing it. I’m happy you give you more specific suggestions as you do so.

  2. juliersanchez

    All of your research questions are really fascinating, so I understand why you’re having trouble narrowing it down.

    Looking at the considerations that go into becoming femme is definitely an interesting topic, but it might also be the most difficult, especially given the different ways femme is portrayed in the three films you’re looking at. It’s certainly much easier to access in a documentary scheme, where the question is directly addressed, such as in Female to Femme, but looking at, say, the thought process behind Violet’s femme identity seems more difficult.

    I’m particularly fascinated by the question of whether the femme can exist without the butch, or whether she is always defined in relation to the butch. This seems to mirror early feminist arguments (from de Beauvoir, for example) that woman in general is always defined in relation to man. You claim that it’s necessary for Violet to run off with a woman to prove her lesbian identity, but would it have worked for her to run off with another lesbian femme? How does Corky’s imperfect butchness affect this?

    The idea of male femmeness is another interesting topic that definitely deserves research. It could probably stand as its own topic, but it looks like addressing any of your research questions for both male and female femmes is probably a bit unmanageable in terms of scope.

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