The Feminine Pastiche

A few months ago, one of my friends, who possesses an uncanny skill for saying things with an understated and pointed accuracy, coined me a “femmedagger.” The term’s suffix obviously coming from the word “bulldagger,” a word historically used to talk about a certain type of ultra-stoic butch. I instantly identified with the term as it poignantly combines two of the extremes in my inward and outward gender expression. I also like the element of surprise in the term. It rightly suggests a gender presentation that cannot be easily pegged nor ascertained (arguably the ideal for all gender nomenclature). I started this website knowing that I have a complicated relationship to the trappings of the femme performance. Although I’ve long since worn skirts and lipstick, I’ve only recently felt as if I am learning the rules of the act. When I think about it, it makes sense that I’m late to the game given the woman I was raised by. It just may be that a lot of what I know about being a femmedagger, I learned from my mother. My dominant childhood memories of her involve her telling dirty jokes that made men blush, riding on the back of a motorcycle in a flowing wrap dress, and blotting her lipstick on the inside of her Vantage cigarette pack. She was never a dainty lady—there was always the air of badass around her.

Bulldagger Extraordinaire: Gladys Bentley

Lately, as I deliberate on my relationship to being a femme woman, I cannot help but think of what I learned, and just as significantly didn’t learn from my mom. There are times I can recall watching her get ready before a night out. I would sit unmoving on the edge of her bed, lest she notice me and swat me out of the room.  She raced from room-to-room—throwing a dress down here, and shoes over there. Her ritual was never calm—unlike the ones I had seen on TV—she had no perfectly planned dress laid upon the bed; no single strand of pearls and stud earrings resting poised upon the vanity alongside rows of neatly organized toiletries; she had nary a system nor organizational method that I could discern. Always she got ready in a whirling tornado. Much like a tornado that strikes down upon one house only to leave another unscathed, I was struck at the randomness in what outfits went sadly unworn and cast upon the floor and those others that gained her favor. I looked on in awe as she applied mascara to her eyes, her mouth forming a tiny “o” that contracted ever so slightly with each upwards and downwards stroke. She painted her nails slapdash-style over the sink while smoking a cigarette, blowing them dry for a second and walking around the house with her hands demonstrably and forcibly jutting out in front of her as if to say, “If any of you kids run up to me right now and ruin these nails there will be hell to pay.”


It astounds me today to think of how much of her whirling-dervish routine I’ve incorporated into my own getting ready process. It’s also funny to me how for years I felt like I wasn’t quite feminine enough because knowing how to wear makeup, jewelry and femme clothing seemed as if it originated from some secret society to which I had only been haphazardly introduced. When I mentioned, in my previous post, that I still feel like I am an outsider to a world that is not entirely my own, I wasn’t specific about what that means to me. Mostly, I’ve thought a lot lately about the ways we fail at gender performance. There occurs to me an entire schema related to how we act our gender, yet the algorithm remains unclear to me, and I have to assume I am not the only one. The rules and codes of gender are not unlike those of grammar: they appear at once arbitrary and prescriptive. Yet, we know that language, like our outward gender performance, has a meaning-making structure regardless our desire and power to skew it.

In my last post, I skirted disclosing all of the reasons that a certain brand of high-femme had helped to alienate me from coming to terms with my own identity. Although it is true that I recoiled from what I perceived as a falseness, or tendency to simplify one’s interiority through an exaggerated exteriority, there was another element at play that I’d like to dilate on today; namely, the low to high-femme continuum and the implicit level of failure and success therein. First, I ask you to bear with me as I extend a metaphor that I hope will make clearer the premise of this entry. In literary studies, when one author deliberately mimics, adopts, or employs key characteristics of another author’s style in their own writing we often deem it a pastiche. A pastiche is not the original and never asserts itself as such. It may be absolutely overt, going as far as to use a similar sentence structure and vocabulary as the primary inspiration; alternately, it may contain merely an essence, something by which only a reader familiar with the original may trace the corollaries. A pastiche is not plagiarism. It does not seek to steal, but rather it emulates and adapts the original. At times a pastiche is so convincing you feel as if your favorite author has been revived, their words brought forth from an entombed past to dance once more upon the page. At other times, the pastiche is designed to copy to a point and then veer from the original in such a way you are forced to recognize the mimicry at play.

Primarily, the feminine pastiche manifests itself within a continuum; this continuum allows for some to mimic with a seeming ease, while others feel they are unable to emulate with any real level of authenticity. In this post I want to be careful that my taxonomy is clear and therefore, I feel I must interrogate my own thesis. The first hitch in this statement: what exactly do I mean by a continuum? Put simply, I argue that the queer femme continuum, with its marked categories of low-femme on one end and high-femme on the other, reproduces a standard and familiar ranking system. Tied into this ranking system is an implied level of failure and success. That said, a second clarification begged by my thesis has to do with the seeming contradiction between the terms “emulation,” “mimic” and that of “authenticity.” We normally see these things as residing in different camps. Such is the problem with a culture bent on asserting its innate individuality even when faced with the stark reality that we all mimic. We all mimic, and this is not an inherently uncreative or negative process. This mimicry often evolves over time as we adapt those aspects that work for us and winnow out those that do not. Our emulation is rarely as faithful as, say, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who categorically copies her hair, clothing, and signature whispery vocals.  But similar to the Marilyn impersonator— although I don’t believe everyday gender pastiches to be even remotely this intentional or singular— despite our best efforts at mimesis, we often fall short or outside an ideal. To be sure, although I do believe we impersonate gender, I also aver that we have a host of gender models around which we create an external sense of self.

Complicating our sense of self is the fact that our gender presentations are public, and therefore, subject to the judgment and critique of others. We are all equal in the face of this vulnerability. Where we differ is in how we tend to those vulnerabilities in ourselves and those around us. I was inspired to write this post because I feel I’ve glimpsed the hurt, jealousy, and sense of failure that myself and others seem to feel when it comes to being femme. As much as we would like to think we are impervious to the dominant discourse, we queers are also inundated with images of feminine ideals. These ideals—though airbrushed, surgically-altered, and largely fictive—seek to pervade our psyches, hearts, and lives. If you need proof that the queer movement is deeply affected by mainstream beauty ideals, look around at the next house party. Spot the femmes who seem to typify Hollywood femininity, and then think carefully about what they make you feel. Perhaps you see them and instantly feel desire and appreciation, or just maybe you look at them and feel stabs of something you can only vaguely remember from junior high. This sensation discomfits you; in the nether reaches of your subconscious you associate them with feeling ostracized and excluded. Because you are grown and resolute that no one will make you feel that way ever again, you shun them. You ignore them and assume they get too much attention in the first place. You find yourself too sensitive to their voices, their height, their thinness, and their ease. Most of all, it is the ease that gets you because suddenly you feel like you’re wearing your  mother’s ill-fitting dress and too-big heels. Perhaps you feel your shoddy costumery is exposed next to such convincing performances.

In the past couple of weeks, as I’ve  grappled with how exactly to form this argument, I’ve initiated this conversation with a host of friends who exist somewhere in the femme continuum, and although there are no uniform experiences, what we share in common is a sense that a strong femme community must begin with femmes truly appreciating one another. On one hand, I want to assert that our current continuum says to some “you are not good enough unless you are high-femme;” but on the other hand, I also need to acknowledge that a lot of this judgment happens internally. Meaning, a great deal of the marginalization of queer femmes may have a lot to do with a perceived lack of self-worth coupled with a hyper sense of inter-femme competition. Perhaps the chief obstacles to creating a dialectical spectrum of queer femininities—over a limited continuum with low-femme on one end and high-femme on the other—are insecurities and self-doubts that inhibit our appreciation of our fellow femmes.  Admittedly,  there is an undeniable system in place that reinforces, manipulates, and preys upon just this fear of  failure and our insecurities about fitting into beauty ideals. As an alternative, I propose we think of femme as a wide range of identities. I argue for an ability to be generous to others, learn from those around us, and ultimately to possess the self-awareness to call ourselves out when we feel the hackles of femme competition rise up in us. Here is the thing, we must appreciate one another. I cannot emphasize this enough. Instead of cutting one another down for petty reasons, we should examine why we feel so threatened by one another, because chances are there are femme jealousies and insecurities at the root of a lot of the gossip in our community. Further, if we see a femme who appears to get a lot of attention from people we’d also like to date, keep in mind there are plenty of femme-lovers to go around—the scarcity myth is a tactic to keep us fighting. The real truth may be that cattiness and insecurity keep the numbers of femme-lovers down. One thing remains true above all others: confidence is sexy and nothing strikes me as more confident than the ability to earnestly say to someone else “You are beautiful. You are smart. And I want to learn from you.” If we build one another up rather than tearing down, if we assume the best of people and say the nice things in our head, we may continue to build all of our senses of self. Ultimately, and this is to be underscored, if we look at femmedom as a pastiche, we must remember that we are all learning the act—no matter the level of grace and seeming aplomb in which it is presented to the public. We are all equal in the face of our vulnerabilities and it is strength, not weakness, that provides compassion in light of such things.

Published in: on May 22, 2011 at 10:02 pm  Comments (12)  

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love this. Can’t wait to talk to you about stuff this summer.


    • Michelle! I can’t wait! Thank you so much for your comment on my previous blog. Your perspective, though different than mine, really added to my understanding of that moment in time. Love, Renee

  2. Renee! I am so glad to see this come to fruition, and so grateful for some critical dialogue. There was a time when I made it a priority to often check in with myself about my inner commentary around my sister femmes (“is this femme competition? Why do I feel this way? Am I feeling threatened?” etc). But I’ve got lazier about it the longer I act this gender. This post, as well as our conversations lately, are a very good reminder. When I first abandoned my attempts to signify as queer by presenting more andro (ie, put my earrings and lipstick back on), I was reviled by the term “femme,” because I didn’t want all of that cultural and linguistic baggage heaped on my body. I asked people not to call me femme, and was careful not to over sell my new/old expression. Simply, I didn’t want to be perceived as shallow or mean. Eventually I grew more comfortable and confident, and cared less about what people may think my style said about my personality characteristics. Really, though, I think I stopped feeling so charged and insecure about “femme,” so I stopped projecting interpretations. Well, I should say I became a *little* less consumed by that process, because those layers probably never truly disappear. Anyway, you are a tremendous writer and an asset to many communities. I look forward to posi-core/queer-core times! Girl on girl love, sister femme!

    • Erin, you are a smart, smart lady. But equally as important: your heart is HUGE! I have no doubt that your “lazy” is still incredibly connected and in touch with your own stuff. I’m sure of it, actually. Thank you for helping me, by inspiring me, and by engaging me on a level that forced me to make my thesis as clear as it could possibly be. Also, you’re real pretty. Have I told you that? Oh you are.

  3. Also, “got lazier” was a horrible accident. Heh heh.

  4. Beautiful and brilliant. I tend to bristle at distinctions within femme because they do have the effect of creating a hierarchy. It was the label of “high femme” that made it so hard for me to embrace femme because I was not (and am not) high femme and felt like anything less wasn’t “femme enough.” As you said, much of this was internalized but a great deal of it was also informed by the images I was seeing within the community. The stereotypical vintage beauty high femme, perfectly put together was what I saw as a reference for femme in general. When I finally started to see femmes who looked more like me, on the Fuck Yeah Femmes tumbler or via the Femme Family in NYC or the Austin, TX chapter of Femme Mafia, I was comforted. It felt good to see my version of femme mirrored in these people, a harder-edged femme with broken, unpolished nails, with short hair, with unshaven legs. That’s when femme felt like home for me.

    That’s not to say that I don’t still have my own issues to work out with inter-femme jealousy, but those are my own insecurities. We are all works in progress.

    • Thank you! I agree with you on so many counts. I think we have to play with the idea that femme means polished and perfect. Perhaps it should be our rough edges, our wild hair, and our glorious imperfections that nod to our spontaneity and unabashed sexuality.

  5. Dear Renee,

    Another smooth-flowing, extraordinary synthesis of wisdom, queer and gender theory, alongside personal experience.

    I definitely believe in saying the nice things in your head, and in reaching out, despite what inner fear-voices might nag and plead to reject for some illusion of control….women have been taught that “girls aren’t nice to one another,” “girls gossip and backstab” — the patriarchy/mainstream culture always seems to inject these poisonous messages into the subconscious of The Other, breeding mistrust and, from there, disintegration; the old “keep them fighting amongst themselves” strategy — yet my personal experience with women has been far, far more positive than these vicious stereotypes suggest.

    I am a sister-seeker, a sister-lover. I have always found that if you approach a sister as a sister, she will return in kind. Even if at first she may not. Personally, I find these initial rejections motivation to persist in wooing her trust, thinking first, not that she is a bitch, but that she has been wounded by some sister believing the lie of the patriarchy, that women are untrustworthy allies, even to one another. As a general rule, this could not be further from the truth, in my experience.

    We evolved sitting around the fire, mending and cooking and chatting and swapping wisdom, advice, support…I believe this, because if you get a group of open-minded, open-hearted women together, this is our natural way: to nourish, nurture and support, to emotionally connect.

    Why, there is an actual hormone released (damn my bad science retention, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s a soothing hormone, a nice one, enjoyable) which is released in the female system when positive interaction occurs with the same sex. This should be researched! Anyone who knows the name, or finds it, do pass it through this forum (yes, Renee, you’ve created a forum!!) I would like to know what it’s called. It symbolizes so much. :)


    • Oh Tai! This is so good! I happen to know firsthand that you demonstrate such courage and generosity to your fellow femmes. Your earnestness is contagious and powerful. I am really glad to know you! It is a certain kind of magic, possessed by few but needed by many, to be so genuine and attentive to the accomplishments of others. You definitely have this skill in spades. Thank you for your brilliant and validating responses!

      • Aw, shucks. Well, thank you! I almost always get back just as much as I give in those instances. Certainly did with you. ;-) I appreciate your sweet words!!

        A friend of mine has told me the word of that hormone released by positive female-female interactions, by the way: it is oxytocin! :)

        Good to know, right?

        Loving your examinations…keep them coming!

        On on!


  6. I love this post!
    I realized while reading it that part of the reason it was so easy for me to transition away from femmeness in my gender expression was because inter-femme competition was so painful to me in my life. It felt smothering and disabling and insidious. And it was a part of being feminine that I ran away from as I came more into a gender queer identity.
    But reading this made me realize that running away doesn’t mean i left it behind. And there is healing work that needs to be done there. And I am grateful to all the ways community has supported my work and brilliance without being competitive and all the ways others have let me support them earnestly and joyfully.
    Reading this = part of that healing work. Thanks for this Renee!
    You are beautiful. You are smart. I want to learn from you, again and again. Keep posting for us!

    • Corinne, this totally made me cry! I am so grateful to you for your kind words and honesty. I am honored to play a small part in whatever healing reparations occur between you and your femme history/present. You are a gem and your sincerity is an example I’m proud to model. You too are beautiful, tremendously brilliant, and I have so much to learn from you!

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