To The FemmeMobile! Away!

{October 15, 2009}   Realizations 4!

Over the last few days I’ve been inhaling things on femme and butch and the femme/butch dynamic. I’ve been looking for an answer.

This feels like me! I’d thought, three days ago when DK first posted her links. And then I started annihilating everything I could find, looking for a definition of what it was so that I could say, “Yes! I identify!” Or, “Well, sort of, but…” Part of me thinks I should be able to declare myself femme without needing this extra assurance, but I can’t and not just because of me. How awkward to walk into somewhere and say I’m femme, only to find out something that the other lesbians know: I’m not.

Yesterday I had very nearly given up. The most anyone could identify as femme was that a femme wasn’t about clothes and style, really! Oh, and look at this article on how to put an outfit together… I could spot a femme, and often folks commented on the butch/femme dynamic. How you can spot a femme if she’s with a butch, but how they also go femme/femme. Straight? Gay? Bi? Kinky? Single? Monogamous? Poly? Attracted to butches? Attracted to other femmes? No one could say for sure, and the things I was reading were things that didn’t apply to me.

Yes, I pay attention to my clothing, but not that much attention. Yes, I feel invisible. Yes, I’m attracted to butch women, but I’m attracted to butch men, too. (Can a man be butch? Ahhh, another thing for everyone to disagree on.) Yes, I like the feeling of being cared for and protected, but I wasn’t seeing that very much. There was no, “In Praise of Butches” as there was “In Praise of Femmes.” (Perhaps I will remedy that.) Sometimes I’m a tomboy, and some days I dress more boy than girl. I don’t craft my appearance and performance in an irony of what is female.

What is femme?

DK sent me more links this morning, and I followed those. In some ways they were good: here were positive femme rolemodels. In some ways they didn’t help me with what I really wanted to know: What was femme? Here were more women who loved to dress, who loved fashion, who used their appearance and performance in an ironic way.

I went in search. I was looking for two books: Femmetheology or Femmes of Power. I went to the two-story Borders in Santana Row, where they had no homosexuality section, and nothing on homosexuality AT ALL in any of their sections.

I drove to Barnes and Noble on the corner near my house, and there — ah ha! — was a gay and lesbian section. Two shelves of non-fiction (half of which was fiction), a shelf of fiction, and then on to women’s studies. I pulled five likely books off the shelves and sat down, determined to plow my way through them.

Four of them weren’t at all what I was looking for (though one was very interesting). One was Butch/Femme by god only knows, for $50. I didn’t buy it, but I did sit and do a lot of reading. Finally, finally, here was an answer. A tentative answer. An answer saying, “this is only partial. This doesn’t cover everyone. This will change over time. But here is part of what being femme might be for some people, according to the things we’ve read and the femme groups we’ve interviewed and our own experiences.”

So. My current working definition of femme. (Which will change over time — I have no doubt.)

A woman who very likely enjoys the feminine role. She likes to be cared for. She is unapologetically female, even when the people around her say that it is not right.

She is sexual. She knows her sexual power, and she uses it. She knows the gazes that are on her, and she dresses for it — not necessarily as irony or for a performance, but because she is aware of how to manipulate the gaze, because drawing attention brings her power. Because she knows how her lover, how strangers, how other lesbians, how straight men, look at her when she does. Because when they look like that, it is because she consciously attracted them to do it.

In a culture where many lesbians are feminists, she is likely also a feminist. She may also feel that it is her choice to act, dress, and so on in a highly feminine manner, regardless of whether or not it is giving into the patriarchal gaze. (She may likely argue that it is not).

She is strong. She does what she feels is right for her, in a culture that says being feminine is giving into the patriarchy. In a lesbian culture that says lesbians are not feminine. In a world that likely doesn’t recognize her as lesbian at all, but sees her as straight. In a culture where she is outside the straight norm because she is so feminine, where she is outside the gay culture because she is so feminine, where she is outside the norm because she is lesbian. She is still who she is, because it is right for her: feminine, whether in clothes, attitude, desire, or just that she is female and therefore feels feminine.

She is often without a culture. Gay culture doesn’t accept her because she “will probably switch back to straight,” and because she can “pass.” Straight culture doesn’t accept her because she is gay. Femmes will accept her, but they are invisible, often even to each other.

The big thing here? In some way, she is a girly-girl. But she is not a damsel. She does not need a knight to rescue her. She rescues herself, and is strong and proud of who she is, even when she is told she’s wrong for being such a girl. She is aware of how she looks, and uses it to her advantage. She probably dresses to get a reaction. She is feminine, but not necessarily motherly, nurturing, innocent, or sweet. She is sexual and powerful and female.

This is important for me. I am a girly girl in inward ways. I want someone to take care of me. In my secret heart, when I was a teenager, I knew that if someone rode up one day and said, “Hey, I’ll put you up in a house, pay the bills, wrap you in gauze and keep you safe.” I would have said, “Yes.” I would have given up an education and a career for that feeling of love and safety. And I hated myself for it.

My mother raised us, her three girls, to know there are other options than getting married and letting a man provide. In some ways, I internalized this WAY too well. I thought that needing to be cared for was weakness (disgusting), that marrying someone was “settling” (a happy marriage was a myth), that if you ever needed to be rescued by a man you had failed (a strong person would never need rescuing). You can imagine how this played havoc with my wanting to be cared for, which in my mind was one and the same as needing to be rescued. I could tell you story after story about how I interpreted events to support these beliefs, believing my family supported these beliefs. But I’ll spare you. 😉

I was always the boy of the family. In pictures of me as a teen with my best friend Danny, only my long hair is a signal that I am a girl. I was the daredevil, the hellion, my father’s only son. My older sister still threatens to revoke my girl-card. *grins* So when I started dreaming about someone who would take care of me, I didn’t dare tell anyone. I sneered even more at women who got married and settled down (the key word there being “settled”). At 17-18, I was blessed with a women’s studies professor who pointed out that if we are to give women choice, we must also give them the choice to be mothers, wives, traditional. Thank God for her.

I learned to accept it in other people. To stifle my “!!!” response. I couldn’t accept it in myself. I hated myself. Hated is not too strong a word, here. I saw this need as weakness, as a sure sign that I would fail in everything, but most importantly in being an adult who could stand on their own. I would fail in my own spiritual and personal development, which is far more important than anything physical.

I met my boyfriend, and not only did he not despise me for needing that extra support, he seemed to enjoy giving it. That was a blessing. By the time we parted ways, I knew that there were people in the world who could support me that way, who didn’t think I’d failed because of it, who could help make me stronger instead of breaking me down.

I still couldn’t admit it out loud.

My mom, on her own spiritual journey, started reading about archetypes, the patterns and energies in our lives that we carry from birth to death. Two of them had this need to be rescued: princess and damsel. She said my older sister had a damsel: I had to agree that it seemed familiar. I realized that I likely did, too. Along with damsel comes not only the desire to be cared for, but the need to be rescued.


Over the next five years, I slowly resigned myself to the idea that I had this desire in me. I certainly had the desire to be cared for. More, I got a thrill when I dated people larger than me. People who could pick me up and carry me around. I liked being literally swept off my feet. I liked being bundled into a couch and told in words and deeds that they would take care of things, they wanted to take care of things not because I couldn’t, but because it was a way to show love.

This was all proof of a damsel archetype. The need to be cared for was obviously one and the same as the need to be rescued: I’d internalized that. Failure, failure, failure. It never felt right, but even if I threw the damsel out the window, I had proof I needed to be rescued in the fact that I wanted to be cared for. In the fact that I resonated with people who acted like heroes or knights. And of course, cared for meant only one thing: failure.

I learned how to dress, how to walk, how to regain some power in a area of my life where I felt powerless: my body, my sexuality. I liked that feeling of power. I liked walking into a club, strutting or slinking into a room, and feeling heads turn toward me. I liked giving a flirty smile or being able to dance and draw attention to hips, breasts, waist, arms and legs that as a kid had been gangly and now were graceful. I didn’t feel like I was a victim of being ogled. I didn’t feel like people were taking liberties with my body. I didn’t feel like I was giving into the patriarchy. I felt like I’d claimed space. I’d made them look. I’d drawn gazes even of people who wouldn’t do anything about it: they still had to look. I did that.

I liked knowing I could go home and put on a pair of blue jeans, wear clothes that were comfortable and me — not very girly — but that accentuated things I liked about myself. Pants that made my legs look good, men’s shirts that made my collarbones and neck look even more delicate. And I could still make people look, if I so desired, even in my “regular” clothes. I became very aware of my body, and how to use it when I wanted to. Not in the way that sounds: not in a calculating, manipulative way. But in a way that was unconscious and powerful. I grew into myself.

None of that changed my problems with cared for/failure.

It has taken me years to let what I feel (that I like being cared for, but I still feel strong and don’t need to be rescued), begin to override what I had learned (cared for = rescued = failure). I realized I was bisexual, and started looking at women. Few of them appealed to me in a sexual sense. Talk about confusion.

Enter DK. I am not bisexual: I am knight-sexual. Hero-sexual.

I had made a list a few months before, all the things I wanted in a partner. Three inches or more taller than me (so I can wear my heels; I don’t want to be taller, even then). Someone smart, caring, compatible with my spirituality, likes dogs, likes the outdoors — the list went on. I was thinking male, but I didn’t say male. And there came DK, who fit everything on my list.

She is even the kind of person who likes to sweep me off my feet and carry me to the couch. Wrap me in a blanket and grab some tea, tell me in words and deeds that she loves me and wants to show it by caring for me. It makes me laugh. It makes me feel warm and loved and cared for. I adore it, and her, because she does it so effortlessly, and never makes me feel like a damsel or a victim or a failure.

And I was still struggling. If I needed that care, I was a victim or a princess or a damsel. I was a failure. And yet, I liked it. I didn’t feel like a victim or a princess or a damsel. I just liked being cared for. I could say out loud, “I’m a damsel. I like being pampered,” and not cringe. I could ignore the whispers in my head that I was a failure, even if I couldn’t entirely get rid of the knot in my stomach. I was better, but far from great.

And then along came femme. Some part girly. Strong. Able to stand on their own against all comers, even as they are utterly feminine, sexual, powerful, and might even like to be cared for. And I thought, “Ah.”

So for the last few days, I’ve been on a tear. Trying to find this. Trying to see if it fits. If I could be this creature that feels so right, even though I don’t always wear dresses or walk around like a retro girl and even if I act like a tomboy sometimes. It was important to me to figure this out, and I’m glad I have. Figured it out to my satisfaction, anyway.

Ideally, of course, I wouldn’t need the outside validation to tell me I could be cared for and not be a failure. But a few steps at a time: I was getting there slowly, I like to think. This just made it easier.

So. Femme. I am a girl, in that I liked to be cared for. I like someone who can sweep me off my feet, who can make me feel treasured in all those old chivalrous ways. And I’m strong. I can stand up to all comers, I can do it myself, I am so strong that I can be a girly girl and not break under social pressure to conform. I am bisexual, attracted to other women.

It gives me the things I already felt were right. It tells me there are other people out there, validating my experience. It tells me that I can enjoy being cared for, and not be a failure.

It even goes a step further: the fact that I like masculine men isn’t because I’m a fake bisexual. I just like masculine men. The fact that I am, in some ways, girly doesn’t make me a cop-out. I’m just girly.

And now that I know I’m femme, now that I can finally adopt that as a self-identity, now that my question has been answered and I can say, “YES, I am femme!” …I find it’s not as important. It’s cool, it’s nice, it’s easy, it’s fun to have an identity and community, and if I had not recognized it, that would matter. But now, it’s not something that will make me or break me. Maybe I’m learning. 😉



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