Category Archives: Blog Posts

Blog Post Group 5 – Andrea Treus

Andrea Treus

Queer & Feminist Film Studies

 Representation of Los Alamos in Let Me In

            The town of Los Alamos was highly influenced by the Cold War especially considering that it is one of the most iconic places in the United States during this time. It was one of the cities where the atomic bomb was being developed so it eventually became a suburban town where families that were working in the lab could live in. Although Los Alamos is supposed to represent normalcy and nationalism during the Cold War era, it is a direct reflection of the violence and reality of the war through the degenderization and savagery of Abby and Owen’s relationship in Let Me In.

Throughout the entire film, Los Alamos never presents itself as what the government intended the town to become. Ideally, it was supposed to represent a white, heterosexual nuclear family but none of the characters in the film fit these standards. Abby, for example, is a vampire who does not consider herself a girl or a boy. When she speaks to Owen about possibly having a relationship, she tells him she cannot be his girlfriend because she does not fit into any of the categories. Abby is the opposite of what a teen girl should be in a town like Los Alamos, “she’s the queer, nonreproductive, non-human Other masquerading as a good little white daughter.” (Hannabach, 19) She is seen as a threat in an environment like this. Owen’s gender is also vague and questioned throughout the film. He is bullied and called a little girl because he is scrawny and does not act or look like the other boys in his class. Through the bullying, he begins to have tendencies that attempt to make him more masculine such as using knifes and violence to protect himself. The violence that he constantly depends on demonstrates how the wartime culture has made everyone comfortable with using extreme forms of cruelty. The “families” that Owen and Abby come from are not normal in the nuclear family sense. Owen’s parents are divorced and his mother is never really present in the film. She does not have any awareness about where Owen is and never notices when he sneaks out to hang out with somebody who is dangerous. On the other hand, Abby does not have parents but does have a guardian who knows where she is at all times and gives her advice as to who she should and should not be around. It makes sense why Abby and Owen were attracted to each other when they first met considering the fact that “neither Abby not Owen come from traditional nuclear families in either sense of the term. Neither character has strong ties to the lab, and both lack heteronuclear family arrangements.” (Hannabach, 11)

Los Alamos does not embody what the government intended it to be in Let Me In. It is a dark town full of ominous places and violence in all common places. One of the main settings where we see violence playing an important role is the public school that Owen attends. He is constantly bullied and abused by three boys whose sexualities also seem vague. Although they tease him for being scrawny and weak, they refer to sodomy and harass him to entertain and enjoy themselves. During the film, there is an obvious increase in violence and deaths. This may seem odd in other towns but everyone seems to ignore it in Los Alamos except for the one police officer. There were four cases in which one or more people died in the span of two weeks in one small town and nobody necessarily noticed. They are living in a wartime culture and it seems normal to witness and hear about such violent deaths. None of the killings seem like accidents. They are all purposefully done and result in freak accidents. It does not come as a surprise to the resident of Los Alamos “when a child-vampire begins attacking local residents, and exsanguinated bodies start appearing drained of blood.” (Hannabach, 6)

When Abby and Owen begin to interact more closely and regularly, Owen begins to notice that there is something different about Abby. Instead of staying away from her, like she has warned him in the beginning of the film, he becomes intrigued in her friendship. One of the most violent scenes occurs when she is killing the police officer and Owen just closes the door and does not stop her. When she is done, she approaches him and kisses him on the lips even though her face is covered in blood. In another scene, she gets into bed with him while she is naked and just finished killing her guardian. Although she is also covered in blood in this scene, he does not hesitate to let her in. This shows how he considers her the most innocent character in this film. He does not question what she does and never doubts her intentions with him. He “prefers this monstrous, inhuman, aggressive, queerly feminine creature who is neither girl nor boy to the life that Los Alamos embodies.” (Hannabach, 21) Owen runs away with Abby at the end of the film because he determines that his life with her is healthier for him rather than the “normal” life he is supposed to have in Los Alamos.

Let Me In is an accurate representation of what a lot of towns must have looked like during the Cold War era. Although the towns were specifically designed for heterosexual families, the wartime culture prevented this from occurring. Violence plays a prominent role in this change and is eventually normalized like Owen did in his relationship with Abby.

Works Cited:

Hannabach, Cathy. “Between Blood and the Bomb: Atomic Cities, Nuclear Kinship, and Queer Vampires in Matt Reeves’s Let Me In

Monica Enriquez-Enriquez, Media Activism and the Politics of Representation

Lexi White

Queer and Feminist Film

Group 4 Post

In dealing with the complex narratives of citizenship, sexuality, and migration, Monica Enriquez-Enriquez’s work provides essential representations for queer asylum, but also highlights the important function of digital technologies, communities, and arts with regards to creating visibility and representation for historically silenced and marginalized populations, particularly queer migrants and asylum seekers.  Her installation fragments of migration, a Spanish-English video project, combines video and audio in depicting interviews with four transgender women from Mexico and one from El Salvador who are seeking asylum.    This project in particular, questions the asylum as a United States institution largely based on gender identity and sexual identity. It depicts the normative narratives that characterize the asylum process which yield violence and exclusion for queer migrants.  Further, it creates what Enriquez calls a “collective counter-narrative” to the institutionalized narrative produced the Department of Homeland Security.

In an online interview Enriquez-Enriquez discusses how this project and her work in general allow for very real and personal emotions to be made public.  Enriquez-Enriquez suggests that when this happens, representations can “serve as a common point to resist oppression, racism, state violence, xenophobia, and queer phobia as a community or as a set of communities coming together.” While reading this, I am particularly interested in thinking about documentary and other media representations as creative tools of activism.  In “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum,” author Rachel Lewis claims, “to be visible is to be in the realm of popular culture” (Lewis 428).  Lewis engages with the relationship between LGBT human discourses and rights, and more broadly, media advocacy.  I would agree with Lewis in that media is increasingly being used as a tool for human rights activism and globalizing social justice movements.  Lewis suggests, “Human rights organizations are repeatedly turning towards global communication networks in order to obtain and promote visible human rights victories” (Lewis 427). NGOs, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and the NCLR all have used mini-documentaries to both document and distribute queer asylum cases in the United States.

While on the one hand, I recognize the manner by which documentary serves as a vehicle for enhancing representation, visibility as well as creating space where the personal can become political, I question whether or not there is a politics of exclusion present within the realm of documentary advocacy, distribution, and representation itself.  If the claim that to be visible is to be in the realm of popular culture is true, it is important to consider how documentary advocacy for queer asylum seekers can become more visible.  Who has access to these films?  Who gets represented? Is language itself a barrier in terms of terms of accurately representing and depicting the identities and needs of queer migrants and asylum seekers in a globalizing world?  How do we avoid universalizing certain identities and experiences while depicting them?  While more cinematic films like “Unveiled” enhance visual representation in the realm of popular culture, they do not always “build communities in the flesh” as Enriquez-Enriquez aims to do through real representation.  Likewise, advocacy documentaries do not always pervade “mainstream” audiences and venues.  Enriquez-Enriquez expresses recognition of the limits of certain types of media advocacy.  In an online interview, she admits having struggled and continuing to struggle with the concept of digital technologies, New Media, interactivity, and online communities because of issues of access and marginalization.  I question whether or not some of these mini-documentary video projects actually have enough of a following and platform to yield palpable political change.  According to Timothy Randazzo in “Social and Legal Barriers” Sexuality Orientation and Asylum in the United States,” to some extent, they do.  Randazzo argues that documentary work by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and its Asylum Program have recently been the deciding factor in several successful asylum cases and in combating anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States. I do, however, believe many of these organizations have extremely limited resources in addition to limits in their capacity to reach out to and represent a diverse range of queer asylum seekers and allies both nationwide and globally.

Crossing Borders in the Digital and Flesh: Monica Enriquez-Enriquez!” Interview. Weblog post. Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. Margaret Rhee, Apr. 2010. Web. Apr. 2013.

Lewis, Rachel (2010).  “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum.”  International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12:3, 424-443.

Randazzo, Timothy.  “Social and Legal Barriers: Sexuality Orientation and Asylum in the United States.”  Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship, and Border Crossings.  Eds. Eithne Luibheid and Lionel Cantú Jr.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Quick Queer Glances at Immigration

Monica Enriquez-Enriquez’s work brings up a lot of ideas about the intersection of queerness and nationality, but very specifically, it deals with the process of changing nationalities as a queer person.  That issue seems to be really generally overlooked by both immigration reform activists and gay activists.

Of course, the HRC has no stance on the issue, but what I think I’ve found most surprising was actually how resistant to it most immigration reform organizations were.  As Timothy Randazzo points out, “While it is still difficult for many gay, lesbian, and transgender immigrants to find support and advocacy from gay and lesbian rights organizations, neither can they always rely on immigration organizations and attorneys.”  Major organizations like FAIR ignore queer people almost entirely.  In fact, I’ve personally had many conversations with leaders of immigration reform organizations who have said explicitly that they would not include queer people in their platform or even acknowledge support from queer organizations, because they felt it damaged their campaigns.  (The strategy has for a long time been to focus on highly religious communities, because they tend to have the most power in the South where immigration is most relevant.  Queer acceptance then posed a threat to relationships with those communities.)  Obviously, that’s terrible and it’s bullshit and it’s yielding to the politics of respectability and it’s not equality and it’s something that no reasonable social justice activist should support, but it’s real, and in the eyes of straight people, it is a good thing.

In class we touched a little bit on how being queer will almost certainly negatively affect a person’s chances at asylum, even though it’s a reason to be granted asylum.  If you aren’t the right kind of gay or the right kind of beaten, you probably won’t be able to stick around.  Extending the conversation further, though, immigration is hard for queers, period.  Certain paths of citizenship like marriage and childbearing are basically non-options for queer people, and the discrimination in housing, healthcare and employment that queer people face will make it significantly harder for them to carve a path.  Finally, the “invisibility” of the queer community may make it more difficult for queer immigrants to find people they can relate to, in a way that is not true for, say, African immigrants.  So then the issue for queer activists (or immigration activists, or anti-racists, or feminists, etc.) is to recognize the common aspects of our struggle and work together.  Equality for some is not equality.

Randazzo believes that LGBT activists should be concerned about immigration reform because “even seemingly neutral policies… have a disproportionately harsh impact on gay, lesbian, and transgender asylum seekers,” and because the inclusion of queer discourse in immigration brings “issues of sexual orientation and gender identity to the forefront of legal and public discourse.”  Additionally, in Enriquez-Enriquez’s piece, un/binding desires, the voiceovers reveal the way that oppression of queer people is frequently compounded by insecure national identity.  One interviewee reflects on his reluctance to embrace his sexual desires because of the judgment or shame he originally felt for his difference (though he did ultimately learn to appreciate difference).  Another interviewee expresses the difficulty of accepting her queerness while in a foreign country and realizing that in order to stay she would need to marry her transsexual partner.  This caused problems not only for the interviewee who was basically forced into marriage, but for her partner whose transsexuality was inspected in order to verify its authenticity, which is absurd and invasive.

Tackling further issues of intersectionality in immigration, Rachel Lewis addresses the issues of lesbians and queer women.  Because of cultural standards that deny many women access to public forums, travel, or autonomy, women around the world are often not given the credit that men are when trying to defend themselves in court.  Laws are inherently biased against women.  When trying to immigrate, and especially when seeking asylum, that misogyny evinces itself.  As Lewis explains,

“lesbians… file fewer asylum claims than gay men, making it more difficult for asylum advocates to invoke legal precedents in the context of lesbian asylum cases….  Unlike gay male asylum applicants, many of whom experience traditional human rights violations in the public sphere, the limited information we possess about lesbians internationally suggests that they are particularly vulnerable to abuse in the private sphere at the hands of non-state agents.”

This creates a serious dilemma and revelation in queer immigration (and queer rights, in general) of how we even define what an abuse is.  Is the economic disadvantage that LGBT people face not just as real as the physical abuse they experience?  Are private human rights violations less real than public ones?  Going back to the concept of seemingly neutral policies, we’re forced to understand that no policy in our world is really neutral.  The very foundational structures of our societies serve to advantage some people and disadvantage others; they serve to normalize some experiences and not others.  When you inhabit a marginalized body, you are essentially a foreign object.  Immigration and asylum is in a sense, the ultimate act of assimilation.  It is literally giving up one legal identity in favor of another.  But what if it didn’t have to be?  What if immigration could allow for difference?  I think that’s the ultimate queer thrust of this issue.

Lewis, Rachel (2010).  “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum.”  International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12:3, 424-443.

Randazzo, Timothy.  “Social and Legal Barriers: Sexuality Orientation and Asylum in the United States.”  Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship, and Border Crossings.  Eds. Eithne Luibheid and Lionel Cantú Jr.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

I knew next to nothing about the Millennium Trilogy before this week. I’m glad I was introduced to this phenomenon in the context of this class as I’m sure it allowed for deeper appreciation of the series and the conversations it has spurred than I would have felt otherwise. Looking at The Girl Who Played with Fire from two distinct angles, placing it in a geopolitical context and discussing its queer potentiality, are generative ways of thinking about how the film operates in the world, especially how it might change perceptions about Sweden on the global stage (for the negative) while inspiring optimism about radical and queer possibilities in unexpected art forms.

Americans and other foreigners perceive Scandinavia as a liberal and forward-thinking region of the world, with its socialist politics and commitment to values such as egalitarianism and secularism. I associate Sweden with impeccable design, minimalist living, a hard work ethic, existentialism, and art that takes itself seriously (Bergman). However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire express concern with a much bleaker underbelly of society. Stockholm is steely, constricting, and gritty in these films. Interior spaces at night are given disproportionate screen time. Sweden is not all airy and bright neoclassical buildings in Stieg Larsson’s estimation, but has unresolved and violent streaks of patriarchy, Nazism, racism, and misogyny festering in dark corners behind its pristine façade. All of these themes, but especially the Vanger family episode reminded me of a Danish movie, The Celebration (1998), that takes on similar issues of sexual abuse and revenge within a dysfunctional aristocratic family. Though very different in style and conception, that film also cracks Scandinavia’s pretty image, and points to scary people and structures that hold power. One could argue that Larsson pushes this a step farther by linking, “family violence to larger systems of political and economic violence and which implies that any resolution to the plot has to seek social justice by connecting the intimate and personal politics of the home to the public and transnational politics of the economy” (Halberstam).

While on the one hand the The Girl Who Played with Fire does harm to the nation’s public image, it also offers glimpses of something beautiful according to Halberstam, who sees the series and its heroine as righteously queer and appealing because she is supposedly more grounded in reality than many of her techno-thriller and action film counterparts. Halberstam sees in the Millennium Trilogy a positive reinterpretation of the genre, which, as we discussed in class, is often very conservative in ideology. It is often about maintaining the status quo, and appeals to an elite male audience who has enough disposable income to develop expertise in technology. According to Halberstam, Lisabeth fights “real” enemies (people who commit the types of ubiquitous sexual crimes that mostly go unreported) rather than imagined ones (such as North Koreans, who probably don’t pose an immediate threat), even if it is in a highly stylized and fantastical manner. This makes Lisbeth a much more political meaningful and useful character than one typically finds in a heteronormative geeked out thriller aimed at young white males.

Munoz’s delightfully non-linear and imaginative ideas about extracting something optimistic from works of art that don’t seem to deal directly with utopia also applies to The Girl Who Played with Fire. Munoz states, “potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense” (9). Though it may seem counterintuitive, Larsson, Oplev, and Alfredson could be expressing their desires for a more honest and safer future through the deeply disturbed and horribly abused Lisbeth and her shocking story. The ideal world isn’t the one shown in these films, but the stories gesture toward a more harmonious and justice-centered world in various ways. The films seem saturated with a belief in something better than the world that Lisbeth inhabits, and her actions point to the possibility of such a world as she attempts to right uncountable wrongs. Perhaps this fictional character’s very existence plays a role in restructuring society and shifting ideas of what could be as she works her way into our historical consciousness and taps into our hope for improvement through displaying atrocities we can hardly believe.

Works Cited

Esteban Munoz, Jose. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

Halberstam, Jack. “The Girl Who Played with Queer Utopia.” Bully Bloggers. http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/the-girl-who-played-with-queer-utopia/

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, 2009.

The Girl Who Played with Fire, Daniel Alfredson, 2009.

The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, 1998.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Millenium Series, written by the late Stieg Larsson, follows Lisbeth Salander—the edgy, introverted, and technologically savvy protagonist—through the trilogy. In the second installment, The Girl who Played with Fire, Lisbeth figuratively plays with fire—a symbol for the all-engulfing, dominating, intricate, and at times invisible, system of patriarchy. ‘Fire,’ although a different plot, is a continuation of this greater theme from Larsson’s first installment, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (The audience also learns that she has literally played with fire before, as well—the reason that sent her into the psychiatric institution).

First, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is an English adaptation of Larsson’s original title for the story: Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men who Hate Women. The story—and in fact, the entire trilogy—chronicles numerous violent acts against women. “Larsson’s point in showing so much violence against women is to underscore how ubiquitous the violence really is” (Halberstam). Halberstam also points out that “if you want a good conspiracy theory, just start with a radical feminist take on patriarchy,” and perhaps the English translated title is a homage to just how entrenched the patriarchy is within our culture and society. The release of the US film was a preface to the 2012 American political storm of misogynistic comments (e.g. “legitimate rape,” “God intended [pregnancy from rape] to happen,” etc.), just in time for Lisbeth—and, in essence, all feminists—to take them on.

Halberstalm also says that the pervasiveness of the patriarchy is evident with not only “the larger system of political and economic violence,” but also “partly with the character of Salander”—which now brings me to discussing the way in which both films portray her. I would first like to address the opening sequence to the American film that we viewed in class. After reviewing it, I believe even more now that there is a clear difference between the way the Swedish film portrays the character of Lisbeth in contrast to her American counterpart.  The American opener is highly sexualized; it is slick and sensual.  That being said, I don’t mean that the Swedish film doesn’t portray an element of sensuality—in fact, The Girl who Played with Fire lit ablaze during the Lisbeth-Miriam sex scene, when the camera pans across Lisbeth’s sculpted body.

But, where I find the two films to diverge traverses the silver screen. The hyper-sexuality found in the US film was a sentiment carried through the promotional efforts for the film, as well. One poster for the film portrays Rooney Mara, the American actress playing Lisbeth, half-naked with her nipples exposed. The original film, on the other hand, portrays Lisbeth sitting on the floor staring down the camera. The gaze she maintains with the audience is surely intriguing; however, isn’t one that is enticing, but rather one that is intimidating.

Lastly, despite his critique, I believe Halberstalm is no exception to the system. I found it surprising to read his comparison of Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress playing Lisbeth, to Angelina Jolie. He as calls Rapace “slender,” but Jolie “anorexic” and “starving”—something that felt so out of place. Rapace and Jolie’s characters are very different. Lisbeth, taking on the patriarchy, is a character that should inspire and empower women to leave the theatre and continue the fight; Jolie’s character in Salt is stereotypically beautiful for entertainment purposes. After reading his criticism about body size, I find Halberstam to be a tad discredited. It’s problematic to criticize any woman’s body, especially within the entertainment industry—a realm that is so prone to view women through a confining lens. It is surely indicative of the misogyny inherent to the Hollywood film world—and our society at large.

Works Cited

Flickan som lekte med elden. Dir. Daniel Alfredson (2009).

Halberstam, Jack. “The Girl Who Played with Queer Utopia.” Bully Bloggers. Web. 23 March 2013. <http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/the-girl-who-played-with-queer-utopia/&gt>.

Män som hatar kvinnor . Dir. Niels Arden Oplev (2009).

Female to Femme

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”.

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.

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 SharmanVancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011. 23-26, 67-78, 310-12.

 

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.