To The FemmeMobile! Away!

{December 22, 2011}   Femme as a Gender

Wow. I started this post in AUGUST, you people. Jesus, my life is entirely too busy. *sighs*

So, Q is more knowledgeable than me about general women’s studies, but I’m more knowledgeable than her about femme specifically. Given she’s not femme, this makes sense to me. ūüėČ After one of my posts, she was asking me about femme as a gender and why it was transgressing gender boundaries, and I was trying to explain it. This is, edited, what I wrote:

I had a guy friend once say to me, “No matter what else, you can always claim ‘woman’ as an identity.” At the time I hadn’t even heard of femme, and had no idea about gender identity. Still, I was appalled and offended that he’d apply ‘woman’ to me. I couldn’t say why, only that, like you say, it didn’t fit. It makes me feel twitchy and horrible. When people refer to me as a woman I generally want to slap them. I don’t, because they don’t understand why, but it makes me feel awful.

Femme is a gender separate than ‘woman.’ (Let’s just say that if I’m going to refer to biological sex, I’ll say ‘male’ or ‘female’ — otherwise I’m talking about the genders. :)) You kind of have to just start there — there isn’t any easy “here is what makes something a gender” sort of definition. What makes femme transgressing gender boundaries is… well, there’s lots.

The first thing that most femmes point to is the fact that it breaks the patriarchal hold on things. Femmes dress up and look nice NOT to attract or please men, but to attract or please other women, which is the first gender boundary broken.

Femmes also do it, much like butches, in the face of great prejudice from other lesbians: butches get attacked by hard-core feminist lesbians for giving into the male stereotype, but so do femmes. Just like butches, they’re seen as “selling out,” which isn’t something “normal” women have to deal with from other women. Straight women are expected to be feminine and it’s applauded if they are, and gay women are, mostly, expected to be really andro. So here, femme is transgressing gender boundaries; women as a gender aren’t dealing with discrimination for looking pretty, but femmes as a gender are.

There’s also a power difference between femmes and women. I’ve gotten pretty damn good at spotting a femme when I walk into a room, even if they’re not “high” femme. N is an obvious femme, for instance, even when she cowgirls up. Those women who, whether or not they look all girlish, are feminine in some way (even if it’s a tomboy way), but have that underlying steel are almost always femme. Femmes, when they state a preference, are typically deferred to. This is another of the gender boundaries that are broken. Women – lesbian and otherwise – tend to defer to masculine-centered people, but masculine-centered people tend to defer to femmes.

In a similar¬† trend, while many women are deferred to out of politeness, they are also expected to do “womanly” things. Not true of femmes: femmes might look all feminine, but that doesn’t make them delicate flowers who are restricted in their activities: a feminine woman typically won’t climb a tree in her skirt, or would be frowned upon if she did, but a femme won’t let the skirt stop her, and is generally encouraged in her boisterousness.

There’s a sexual component, too; femmes are seen as more sexual, more sexually powerful, and more sexually dominant in their relationships. You and I are a pretty good example: the majority of the time, your goal seems to be that I come first. ūüėČ In that sense, it’s seen as more important to make sure that the femme enjoys herself; after that it’s the butch’s turn. (Not so cut and dried as that, but I hope you get the idea!) With women and sex, it’s the guy’s privilege to come first, and hopefully he’ll then attend to the woman or let her attend to herself. Think about media: women are still seen as less sexual, less likely to come, and that’s considered okay. It’s not, however, considered okay with femme women. Again, it’s breaking gender boundaries.

Finally, femme takes all the things marked as female, and therefore weak, and makes them powerful. Women in a patriarchal society are seen as second class; femmes, especially in a femme/butch society, are typically first class and often deferred to. Again — by becoming anything other than second class, it breaks gender boundaries.

…[F]emme is typically a female gender, but it’s not the gender of “woman.” It’s gender bending because it’s a different gender on a female body. It’s very similar to woman, just like butch is very similar to FTM, but they’re both different things. Butch and FTM, and femme and women are similar in that they’re very close to each other, and sometimes the lines blur, but they’re still definitely different.

Ironically, this challenges my earlier assertion that anyone can be femme, because part of my very definition is that femmes are queer. A big part of it, in fact.

I was reading Butch/Femme: New Considerations of the Way We Want to Go¬†recently, and noticing that they didn’t really seem to have a definition of femme, either. In fact, their biggest definition was that femmes were the counterpart to butches. (Not all of the articles said that; most didn’t touch on definitions at all, but those that did were often of this bent.) Now, this is an older book with older theories, and maybe what I need is some newer reading, but it got me thinking again about what makes femme? And what makes it transgender? Because most of the things I listed above are feminist, rather than femme, and I felt femme long before I understood feminism.

One thing I read over and over is that femme is a conscious act of gender, but I felt femme before I was consciously acting any gender. (I still don’t feel like I’m consciously creating a gender, but rather am expressing what’s always been there. I haven’t changed, I just found the right label.)

I think, though, that the question I really need to start with is: what’s gender? What makes something a gender? has a lot of useless definitions. So, naturally, I went to Wiki. You want to know what Wiki says? Of course you do.

Gender is a range of characteristics used to distinguish between males and females, particularly in the cases of men and women and the masculineand feminine attributes assigned to them. Depending on the context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to social role to gender identity.

Sexologist John Money¬†coined the termgender role¬†in 1955. “The term¬†gender role¬†is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but is not restricted to, sexuality in the sense of eroticism.”[30]¬†Elements of such a role include clothing, speech patterns, movement, occupations, and other factors not limited to biological sex. Because social aspects of gender can normally be presumed to be the ones of interest in sociology and closely related disciplines,¬†gender role¬†is often abbreviated to¬†gender¬†in their literature.

This makes me think I ought to look at this list (“clothing, speech patterns, movement, occupations”) and see if femme (and whatever else I decide to pick on) has its own gender. If it doesn’t, does it matter that it doesn’t fit that list, or does it still qualify as its own gender because it “feels” that way? And back to the oldie but goodie, is gender created or innate? Because it certainly felt innate to me when I stumbled upon femme.

I wish I had more time to read about stuff like this… And to examine that list in regards to femme. I wish I knew more femmes so I could examine them, too. >.> Jeez…



Jen says:

This is fascinating. It does raise some questions, though . . . because I dress to attract females and males. I tend to be sexually forward (as in, I might do something that would initiate sex), but I’m also sexually submissive (what can I say, I like being tied up and told what to do!). I’ve been known to demonstrate BJJ grappling moves while wearing a skirt.

So what does that make me?

JB says:

*laughs* I think that all falls under femme, if you feel that term fits. I mean, I’m sexually submissive: that changes person to person. The difference is that I’m, like you, happy to initiate, which is discouraged in most women. I also expect that my needs will be seen to, which definitely isn’t a given culturally; how many TV shows do you see where the women are faking it or turning down rather than instigating sex, and this is seen as normal? Make sense?

Of course, someone who doesn’t identify as femme could also be all of those things — and that’s where the trick comes in. Someone who doesn’t identify with any of them could still be femme. Which begs my constant wondering: how, exactly, do we identify a gender? Clearly not only by what a person does and doesn’t do!


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