To The FemmeMobile! Away!

{February 1, 2010}   Femme subversion

So, (do you have any idea how many posts I started with, “So”? Go ahead. Count them. I’ll wait.) Alphafemme has a post up on femme markers, and since it’s been something I might have thought about obsessively occasionally, and it’s something that still makes my head feel all twisty inside, I thought I’d write about it.

Here’s the thing: butch is obviously subversive. I often hear that femme is subversive too, but rarely can anyone explain how. This fact often makes me feel like I’ve been given a pat on the head. “Butch is subversive! Oh, and don’t worry, since it’s part of the dyad femme is subversive, too. You aren’t being left out!”

This attitude is not fair of me. I know that, but when you ask people again and again what’s subversive about it, and moments after stating that it IS subversive they can’t give you an answer, I start to feel this way. There’s a few things that come up, over and over.

“Femme is subversive because it’s femininity geared toward drawing a female, rather than male, gaze.” That’s assuming the person is lesbian, rather than bi (in which case, I’m in part drawing a male gaze. Does this make me not-femme?), straight (I know some straight girls who seem to have the same femmeness I do), or asexual. And what about the people who aren’t trying to draw a gaze at all, who are just wearing what they wear because they like it? What about the lesbians I see who are clearly feminine, but not femme? They’re trying to draw a female gaze. Why aren’t they subversive?

“Femme is subversive because it’s queer.” In that case, all queer identities are subversive. I’m not saying that isn’t true, because it may well be, but I haven’t heard that before. Aside from that, I’m not sure femme has to be queer. Part of gender subversion is separating gender from biology, so to then pin it to sexual orientation feels just as limiting. Maybe that’s just me.

“Femme is subversive because of the intentionality of performing femininity without giving power to men.”  Maybe. Except when I first read about femme and saw myself reflected, I wasn’t at all aware of the femininity I was performing, much less performing it with the intention of keeping my power rather than bowing to the patriarchy. In this definition, femme is something you make yourself into, but I feel more like it was something that resonated within me. After, I learned about intentionality and whatnot, but learning about it wasn’t what made me femme.

The traits that make me feel femme, that I identify with femme, are all traits that could as easily be assigned to feminine women. I once heard that a femme is a woman in control of her own sexuality, but that’s certainly not me (yet), and hopefully all women are headed there, anyway.

Nezu once said that she couldn’t put her finger on what femme was, but that she knew it when she saw it. There’s a girl in my class who, every time I look at her, I think, “Femme.” My friend Phi and I had a long discussion about femme one day, with our friends Nezu and DK about femme and butch and what we’re attracted to in each and why it works for us. In this conversation, Phi asked me what femme was. She felt very femme, and heck, I’d already privately identified her as possibly-femme. She’s dating a man, though, and wondered if you could be femme if you were dating a man. (Later, we had a brilliant discussion about dresses and how they hang, while DK and Nezu looked on in bafflement.)

How is femme subversive? What makes it different than feminine? Is there something, some key or cornerstone, that I’m missing? I’ve started reading books on the subject, but they often tend toward the political (which I’m not) or list things that could be feminine as easily as femme. Right now, it doesn’t feel like femme is subversive so much as femme is trying to find an identity that isn’t linked to butch. A sort of, “We are femme, with or without the mirror of otherness.” But I might be missing something. I hope I’m missing something, to be truthful. And sometimes things have to be explained to me several times before I start to get it. 😉



Phi says:

I still think I might not have any real clue what femme is, or whether I am one, but…

I tend to feel femme when I dress up in a feminine way, or act in a feminine way, for the purpose of having some kind of power over the people who are attracted to me, rather than just to please them. Not that I’m saying not-femme femininity is subservient — I can dress up exactly how I want, and and feel totally sexy, without feeling femme — but for me there’s something very different in feel between when I choose to take that power trip and when I don’t.

Likewise, the ‘making your partner dinner’-type fantasy reads as femme to me because it’s another instance of doing something that’s stereotypically thought of as subservient, but in a way gives power. (In the sense of, ‘I have the power to make you happy by making your favorite food,’ or something like that. I think this is why I love making desserts…)

In that case, the complement to a femme would be someone who is susceptible to (‘weak against,’ in a way?) those kind of behaviors. Someone who, in response to the that sharply feminine display of vulnerability and attractiveness, is driven to protect and admire her. (But really, the power is shared between the two, just in different ways.) It would seem to me that this complement could be either male or female, but guys would have to struggle against the power structure of traditional gender roles in order to cede power to the femme in her sphere, so maybe it’s harder, whereas women are already outside those preconceived notions.

The subversive nature of femme, then, could come from the co-opting of traditionally powerless feminine roles (sculpting one’s appearance for admiration, cooking something to please someone else, allowing oneself to be taken care of) and treating them as something powerful, something that can elicit a certain response. But it wouldn’t really require the complementary people for the definition — just the confidence that, yes, this way of being does give power.

Um, pardon me while I spend way too long thinking about this…. >.> I certainly don’t mean to draw boxes around any terms or anything — this is just how I’ve been thinking about it at the moment, as a relative newcomer to thinking about gender roles, etc. I look forward to reading more about your (and others’) thoughts and definitions!

Nezuko says:

Wow, Phi. You really did a lovely job of articulating that. (And you can dress up and cook for me any time. I promise to swoon just a little.)

JB says:

I think the problem I’m hitting is that I read this and I go, “Ah! Yes! That makes total sense!” And it does — but isn’t that also what feminism is trying to do? Which means femme isn’t subversive at all — just trying-to-be-equal. Or is it because it’s highly feminine, which is still considered non-powerful? I mean … Hmm, I’m not sure I’m being clear, here. Feminism is trying to make women powerful, but is often doing so by sidestepping femininity. Saying that’s just a cultural thing, and women don’t want to be feminine. Whereas femme is saying, “I want to be feminine, and I want to be powerful.” Is that the subversion?

Man, this gender stuff is hard. Glad I have smart people to talk it out with. ;-D


Phi says:

I’d say it’s somewhat different from feminism, or at least it could be. (I tend to not like the kind of feminism that’s anti-femininity…) I could feel perfectly feminist about cooking dinner for my SO just because I felt like it, and because it would make him/her happy, without any power dynamics getting into it. I tend to associate my feeling of femme with the power dynamics of the situation: that feeling of making someone else go weak at the knees.

(And now I feel all weird about it, because the first thing that comes to mind on thinking of having power over someone is manipulating them, which isn’t the case here at all. It’s a good kind of power, and seems to be mutually enjoyable for both participants, but it still weirds me out a little to think of it that way… )

I totally agree with your last point, that femmes are disputing the assertion of some kinds of feminism that femininity is weak, and saying, “no, this can be powerful too.” And I think even the more benign kinds of feminism tend to hold that femininity is neutral: something people can embrace or not as they choose, but ideally, a power-neutral venture. Whereas femme goes past that, to construct for femininity a similar set of power-roles to those that masculinity has always had, and to celebrate those separate-but-equal strengths.

JB says:

Phi – *laughs* I know what you mean about feeling manipulative. I finally decided it was, but in a non-harmful way and therefore it was okay. ;-D

I think I get this, now. I’ve come back to re-read it whenever I have questions, and there’s always an answer in there for me! So, thank you. 🙂 *hugs* I still occasionally have the, “But isn’t feminism supposed to create power for women…?” reaction, but then I stop and realize it is, but in a different way. Femme is making feminine acts powerful, saying that there is power in doing feminine things, instead of (well, but also…) saying women are powerful. I think. I’m still reading, thinking, and mulling things over. ;-D


[…] my question of how femme is subversive, Phi gave me a very good response that I’ve been mulling over, which is that (now I might get this wrong, but that’s why […]

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