The Staging of a Femme Coup: Acting Your Gender

I remember when I first moved to Portland, in the early 2000s, it was not uncommon for me to spend an entire night at a party without uttering a word. I would stand against the wall observing all of the queers in their baggy Carhartts and closely-shorn haircuts and wonder what a girl had to do to get their attention. I would smooth my hands over my tight skirt, my hair, which I had only begun to grow-out, and wonder. Looking around the room on an average night would reveal not a single lipstick wearer, and only the scant, seemingly ironic, skirt. I felt like a fraud. As if somehow my queer desires weren’t quite enough to flag me to others; as if I needed to assimilate, to change who I was, in order to become visible. After a lifetime of forced flirtation and awkward fumblings with boys, coming out queer hadn’t proven nearly as liberating as I had hoped. Here I was, finally out to my family, out at work, and yet completely invisible to the queers I hoped to date. I was not alone. It took me a while to spot the other closeted femmes in a room. It was hard to see past their uniformly scrubbed faces and shoulder length hair, but the femmes were there—hiding behind the perfectly tweezed brows and the shirts brazenly hugging the curves so many others in the room hid under too big clothing. I started moving towards these women at parties, slowly, cautiously at first. I was afraid to out myself as femme and suddenly be seen as less enlightened, less gay.

            I had good reason to be fearful. At that time, it felt as though to be femme was seen as tantamount with being brainwashed. To put it into perspective, during this period I recall a group of friends reporting to me of their experiences at a recent gender conference. Although the conference was intended as a way to speak about queer gender as a spectrum (here, I emphasize the idea of a range), the workshops and presentations centered almost primarily and singularly on FTM politics. At one point, as one of my friends recollected, a group discussion veered into childhood experiences. Almost without exception, every queer in the room spoke of a childhood spent in typical tomboy fashion. Folks regaled the room with stories of wanting GI Joes instead of Barbies and a disdain for anything “girly” their mother tried to dress them in. Although these experiences echo those of the people around me, and I find it compelling and heartbreaking to think of a childhood spent forced into an unwanted gender, I questioned the odds that every person grew up as a tomboy. Wasn’t there even one other person in the group who enjoyed a range (here we come back to this idea again) of gendered activities and dress? Like me, for example, I remember feeling my happiest in a fancy dress whilst I built a fort. Neither seemed excessively masculine nor feminine to me at the time. Someone must be closeting their variant gender, I assumed. And because I was accustomed to this sort of dialogue, I asked my friend what she thought might have happened if anyone in the room had said, “As a child I loved to play with dolls! I adored dresses—the frillier the better!” We both admitted that this imaginary speaker, if assigned a female gender at birth, would have probably come across as frivolous, and perhaps as if they had wandered into the wrong conference. The message seemed implicit to me—if you were a true queer, you had demonstrated an early and natural antagonism towards all things feminine; if you had actually enjoyed wearing your Easter dress and relished playing with Barbies, you were most likely going through a college lesbian phase now.

My cousin and I as children. Can you see the gendering?

It was around the time of this conversation with my friends that I realized the discourse community around gender theory struck me as heavily slanted towards the embrace of the masculine and a subsequent evacuation of the feminine. The reigning gender theoreticians of the time wrote almost exclusively from butch perspectives; for example, Halberstam’s, Female Masculinity and Butler’s Undoing Gender, both texts aimed at rebelling against the imposition of the feminine onto what we now know as cisgendered female bodies, yet markedly absent in each is a sense of powerfully and intentionally chosen femininity. It was as if a feminine gender expression signaled a desire for mainstream or patriarchal approval. As such, there was an implied level of intellectual sophistication in the adoption of a more masculine or male-centric identity. What, I asked myself, is the difference between this view of female masculinity and the oppressive misogyny of the world at large? I understood, and still do, the reasons to interrogate social versus biological gender constructs, and I apprehend why cisgendered females may eschew the feminine roles assigned them, yet I remain skeptical of what strikes me as a ready collapsing of the masculine into the apex of subversion. I question the motivation to be subversive, at any rate, but that is a line of thinking for a later time.

When I attempt to trace or understand the evolution of this moment in queer history, I am reminded of the political discourse of the time and its understandably heavy emphasis on transgender issues. In many ways, the burgeoning trans movement took center stage in the early 2000s, for incredibly significant reasons. But this necessary visibility in concert with an undeniably entrenched cultural misogyny may have helped to create a chasm by which many a femme was swallowed whole. Let me be clear, I am by no means suggesting that trans and femme identities occupy mutually exclusive political spaces, especially in our contemporary society, but speaking to this historical moment there was a critical focus on the inclusion, protection and activism needed to advocate for trans rights, and the deprioritization of femme visibility may have been an accidental byproduct of this singular focus. In addition, as proven by Mich Fest’s strict “womyn-only” rule, female identification in general and feminism in particular began to seem outmoded and problematic. Our community struggled to redefine what it meant to be a feminist when the fight against patriarchy now included a broad range of gender identities. What is it, we asked ourselves, to fight for women’s rights when we begin to question the validity of socially constructed gender in the first place? The answer seemed to be to temporarily bracket feminism, as we knew it, and press-on against the inequities in culturally forced or coerced expressions of gender.

In many ways, this period, although seemingly absent the feminine, set the stage for a queer community that would embrace—by virtue of its acceptance of a gender spectrum over a binary—the various gender presentations imaginable. In other words, through an almost accidental discursive shift, queer communities that moved to accept multiple genders created an aperture allowing femme politics to enter the conversation. Although this conversation was slow to form, and continues to unravel into our contemporary moment, the dialectic appears to me undeniable.

But, by far the biggest shift in femme visibility seemed to coincide with the rise in body positive politics. Seemingly overnight, the queer community was challenged on two fronts: to reject assigned and expected gender roles and to charge against societal body standards. Both were, and are, incredibly rooted ways of thinking. The body positive movement worked in tandem with the trans movement in that both engaged with ideas of moving beyond the body’s presentation to get at the truer identity. Perhaps it was not coincidental that in the early stages of the body positive movement, the most outspoken fat queers also appeared to be predominately femme-identified. There emerged a thread, however tenuous, between a movement that took pride in dispelling the prevailing myths about ideal bodies and one that extolled the virtues of femme identities in predominantly masculine-identified spaces. Specifically, fat femmes came to represent an exaggeration of all that was deemed excessive in our society, whether those exaggerations took the form of “too large” bodies or an incredibly femme appearance. In much the same way as drag queens, historically accused of exaggerating the femme artifice to a point of mockery, fat femmes looked to lead the charge of amplified femininity.

In time with the consumerist “Sex and the City” mentality that had come to proliferate the American female’s consciousness, yet another group of new, queer femmes began to take their affection for femme performance and materialistic accumulation to almost fetishistic levels. The pendulum swung with a razor-sharp quickness from a point of femme invisibility to one of high-femme saturation. The problem remained though: femme desire was still seen as nebulous, something to be distrusted and excised from the queer discourse. Again to contextualize, high-femmes, possibly as a rebellion against years of suppression, often embodied many of the traits of mainstream femininity that seemed to cause such problems for queers and feminism in the first place. Their voices were sometimes shrill and valley-girlish; they proclaimed their love of designer clothing with an embarrassing level of garishness; perhaps most egregious was their tendency to feign an intellectual simplicity where once there existed a complexity.

At first, I felt almost betrayed by this femme identity. All of my years in the corners of parties had prepared me for a femme coup, and I was a bloodthirsty as the rest. But I had imagined a femme identity that was at once serious and beautiful, brilliant and nuanced. I sought a meeting of the two worlds in which I could openly present as femme, but remain strong and intelligent. I saw the first incarnation of femme identities, in a post-genderqueer world, as a weakening of and extraction from the potent femininity I had imagined. My instinct was to distance myself by downplaying my appearance. I continued to wear skirts and lipstick, but approached my appearance in an almost utilitarian fashion. I cast myself out of the femme circle into a frumpy and self-imposed 2nd wave feminist-esque exile. I threw myself into my studies, and stubbornly refused to entertain queer academic theory with any level of seriousness. “Everything has been said,” I told myself. “Butler’s moved on from gender theory, you can too.” In short, because I felt disillusioned with the femme movement as it first presented itself, I retreated and disavowed it almost entirely. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I all but gave up on the idea that an outwardly high-femme appearance and inwardly native intelligence would be perceived by others.

This all began to change when I stepped back from the situation and gave it a more generous reading. Yes, like drag queens the first significant wave of high-femme queers embodied femininity exaggerated, but also like drag queens, most of them may have done so out of a desire to retain queerness despite a relatively heteronormative appearance. To be sure, many of these women had never embraced femme artifice before—presumably, they had gone from awkward teen years, in which they felt conflicted about their sexuality, straight into a queerness that all but disallowed femininity. Many of these femmes, I came to realize, weren’t just being unnecessarily extroverted, they were fiercely and unapologetically taking up space previously denied them. It occurs to me that many of these femmes acted out against a staid model of masculine and androgynous queerdom that they could never successfully mirror back. They were not alone in their visible growth spurt, to say that queer femmedom as a whole underwent (and I think it would be fair to say it continues to undergo) a sort of puberty would be to understate the situation. Much like a teenager seeking to detach from their parents in order to arrive at some sense of self, many newly identified femmes may have tried on various acts before settling on one that felt natural to them.

The inevitable synthesis of a Butlerian model of gender as a performance is that the performance exists as a mimetic of some untraceable original. Gender is not natural—it is not inborn—because it is precisely a social and cultural construction. Gender expression is then the byproduct of some unattainable ideal. Whether the gender expression is masculine, feminine or anywhere in between or outlying to this, it is something we pile upon ourselves. It is the exterior through which we signal to, but do not, and cannot, entirely expose the interior. I am not breaking new ground here, I realize that we’ve come to so wholly accept the idea of gender as a construct that it seems a priori—of course we perform gender, of course! What else could gender be if not an act? We are not born in dresses nor tuxedos! And to this I would have to wholeheartedly agree. We are not born in dresses, but we are raised to assign dresses a certain meaning. We are taught to see the adoption of femme artifice, as the term itself would suggest, as an artificial and somewhat superfluous choice. Ultimately, femmes, myself included, have had to overcome these lessons in whatever ways we can. Our trajectory may be uneven, our pubescence obvious to all, but the fight and pluck remains. It is for these reasons, and this struggle, that I have started a website that asserts to meld my deep appreciation for the aesthetics of femme performance as it intersects with queer femme desire, sexuality, and interiority. I may no longer be that silent femme in the corner, but I often still feel like a spectator to a world not quite my own. It is my strong belief that through articulation comes understanding; it is my hope that this understanding will happen for myself and for anyone else who may choose to learn with me in this journey.

Published in: on May 7, 2011 at 7:42 am  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I really agree with you on all points. There is a suppression of femininity in the queer community that needs to be addressed. Though there is some visibility it is limited and often sexualized. Why can’t there be more diversity? I don’t mean to trivialize or criticise the validity of the work that the community has done thus far. We are moving forward even though it’s at a slow pace. However, I do mean to criticize the lack of diversity and legitimacy of feminine gender in the queer community. Truth is, there is a lot to unpack from the word queer. This includes sexual orientation as well as gender. GLBT people are not intrinsically queer, yet we include them into the queer community almost naturally. It’s true that some GLBT people are knowinglt and willingly reinforcing the status quo around gender politics. Perhaps that is why this issue feels so personal; because some of the worst oppressive experiences have been perpetrated by GLBT people. Gender has been an oppressor to all of us at some point (as one of its main function is to identify privlage through gender expression covariant with heteronormitivity). The status quo isnt “best” for anyone. Meaning that if any portion of the gender spectrum is omitted from acceptance, validity, or visibility in the queer community, whatever shifts in the gender paradigm we have created have not been shifts that obviate the community’s acceptance of ANY gender, but rather, as articulated so well in this blog, legitimizes (possibly unintentionally and tragically ironically) the gender binary and specifically the construction of inferiority and submissiveness as parts of feminine gender. As for the queer community, I recognize that its less of a community and more of a network. My views are perhaps not valued by anyone else of my gender identity, or more realistically not all (i know of at least 10 of us exist), but I do see a benefit for all of us, regardless of our privlage or gender identity, if the community would address this issue from outside the “box”; true freedom of expression. I applaud this blog. This IS the diversity I have been craving. Keep it up!

  2. I like what you said about the ‘tom-boy conference’. I think it’s true that a lot of us deny certain parts of our past so that it all fits neatly into our idea of who we are now. This applies to all kinds of things but gender for sure, especially for gender queer people. The point is though, it doesn’t matter. Life is a learning experience. And shouldn’t we appreciate the days when we didn’t have all these constructions.. our freedom of self before society and ourselves imposed these ‘boxes’ upon us? Isn’t that what it’s all about?
    Anyway, great article. I love how you said gender is a performance. Yes! It’s a pallet! And it’s amazing to me that femmes so often feel invisible in the queer community. It was femme grrls who showed me the way to my queer castle, it’s the differences between us that can be oh so attractive… (before I go on too long here, let me just say..) I love and appreciate the femmes in our community!

  3. Renee, you know that I absolutely love this. and of course all our conversations regarding said matter, over the years. Thanks for this lovely gift.

    Two things tho: i think Butler’s point is less that there is an *untraceable origin* as you put it but rather that there is no origin (forgive me if this is what you meant, but i think this is a critical difference). this is an ontological myth. which leads me to my next observation, which is, we all feel like “spectators to a world not quite…” our own. such is the nature of being. and i don’t think that can be underestimated– not only as it applies to gender, but to all subjectivity; gender being but one lens to see.

    Looking forward to more from you on this.

  4. in the words of the immortal rupaul, “We are born naked. Everything else is drag.” you should submit this to Bitch!

  5. I also really enjoyed and appreciate this, Renee. Most of it really articulates my own views and experiences as well, as you know probably from our prior conversations. Especially the femme child experiences and the emphasis on range–I wore frilly, girly things and still terrorized the neighborhood, building forts, getting in rock fights with the gang of boys in the neighborhood, creating various “clubs” that were more like mock militaries and ruling them with an iron fist–but I also loved barbies and playing with dolls and practicing with make-up and clothes. I couldn’t wait for my first pair of heels.

    Where I kind of differ from you (possibly), however, is why coming into my femme identity through various ill-advised and somewhat hysterical attempts to butch-up my look. I began to realize that I may be really, really gay and not bisexual at the same time that I began to realize that there existed a community of hot homos in Portland. At the time, I only SAW those who were not performing there assigned gender the way I expected them too. To be clear, femmes were invisible to me, too. So I assumed that in order to be recognized, and, lez be honest, to get laid, I needed to incorporate more traditionally masculine into my performance. Now, I did it poorly, to say the least, and this phase was one of my most awkward and painful to look at in photographic evidence (there was a lot of rainbow accessorizing, shaved heads, and glittery “men’s” clothes). But I didn’t do it because the queer community didn’t accept me or see me unless I adopted a more masculine appearance, but because *I* didn’t see femmes. This is not to say that there isn’t or hasn’t been a rejection of femininity or femmes, just that in my experience, I think it was my own preconceived notions and ideas of what it meant to be queer that caused this shift, not necessarily or entirely pressure from outside. (One notable exception I can remember–the first time I went to the E-Room, the door person saw my group, looked at one of her friends and said, “You can always tell the straight girls, they always bring their purses.”)

    After I had made many homo and queer friends and began to feel more comfortable and less self-conscious about fitting in, I began to notice the femmes. In contrast to how I read how you experienced the femme revival, in particular the fat femmes, I didn’t find them to be affectedly simplistic of vacuous at all. In fact it was just the opposite. The femme voices I was hearing were the strongest, the smartest. Yes, they would unabashedly talk about fashion and designers, but in the next breath they would move on to deconstruct their own desires and consumerism in a refreshingly self-aware and articulate manner. It was these role models for me that allowed me to begin to once again embrace my own love of femme accoutrements. And once I did, I was not met with open arms…although yes, there is also a lot of fetishization and sexualization of femmes.

    I think I made the points I wanted to and now am beginning to ramble, so I’ll stop here. Thanks so much for posting! xoxo

  6. Renee, this entry was a treat to read on my birthday! I can’t say much, because my parents are here and I need to “put on my face,” before we get going. But, I wish we would have found each other just a little sooner. When I moved to Portland 10 years ago, I took in all the queer signifiers and began to signify. This means I kept my hair short, wore tshirts, hoodies and short jeans everyday and retired my extensive earring collection. That felt like drag to me, and I also wanted to be read, finally, as a viable queer woman. My eventual gravitation back towards my ever present femme expression so obviously felt like returning to myself.
    How I wish we could have had these discussions back then, connecting over shoes and earrings, yes, and also over the incredible sense of self engaged in simultaneously loving, challenging and subverting Femininity writ large. Coming back to my “femme identity,” to me, felt far more brave, clear and personally expressive than rejecting the enforced confines of makeup, heels and mini skirts. Then inject the ideals of body positive politics, and I no longer existed in self hate and denial. Renee, I love you and let’s talk!

  7. whoa! I am so happy to have read this. I too was a little girl in a frilly dress, climbing trees, getting dirty, playing with dolls with intensity and passion.

    I came out in a small northern Minnesota city of gender queers and felt alienated for being femme. Then, later, when the pendulum swung the other way I felt alienated for not being femme enough. However throughout those experiences I always tried to take a step back and realize that the pendulum inevitably swings and that I would eventually find acceptance, and dates!, which I did.

    Anyway, thanks again!

  8. This is so so great, Renee. What an intelligent, enjoyable and enlightening untangling of these fascinating and often murkily mingled subjects. I look forward to hearing more of your whip-smart analysis!

  9. Renee! I just discovered your blog. What a joy. And this in particular resonates with me. Like some of the other commenters, I came to Portland and tried to mirror what I saw in others, what looked most visibly queer, so tired of being mistaken for straight all my life, even in lesbian bars and even with my girlfriend and even when I’d told people outright. (Even when I looked like a little baby butch with short hair and nerd glasses and my army surplus jacket!) I was a tomboy kid and have always retained that streak, so I just magnified it ridiculously to try to signify to others. I didn’t SEE other femme types either. And masculinity is so prized, not surprisingly, among queers as much as it is in the culture at large.

    I still don’t know if I really feel the “femme” label fits me quite right, but it’s the true andros who make me weak in the knees and I sure do love to wear eyeliner and a short dress. And am delighted to have a partner who loves it as much as I do. (And, for the record, I am the one who gets the spiders out of the bedroom and wields the power drill.)

    Thanks for writing this.

  10. Thanks for this. I’m trans masculine and (don’t tell anyone but…) I fucking loved tights, make up, and unicorns as a kid. And pink. And snails and sports. And Monkeybars. You know, like kids do.

    I still like pink and unicorns.

    I think kids would like whatever they wanted if they weren’t told they were supposed to in either direction. The same goes for adults.

    I know old school queer femmes and new school fem* folks and all have different, and very passionate, ideas of what femme means and how to be visible. I try to listen and see.

    This Butch sees you. Thanks for writing. Shared.

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