Straight, fat, and femme: reflections on femme identity and policing

This is my life: ponies hanging out with a cupcake and a fake flower on a rainbow tutu.

Lately, I’ve seen a bunch of people on Tumblr saying that straight women shouldn’t identify as femme because it’s an appropriation of queer culture.

I get that the concept of femme comes from the queer community. It’s important to recognize that: to understand the roots of femme, and not just use it as a trendy synonym for “feminine.” I also recognize that I have a lot of privilege as a straight, cis woman, and queer spaces–including those designed to celebrate femmes–don’t owe me access.

But at the same time, I don’t think that femme as an identity beongs to people of any one gender, sex, or sexual orientation. I see femme as a way of doing gender that is exclusive neither to queer-identified people nor to women.

My favorite definition of femme comes from Lesley Kinzel:

Femmeness…is interrogated femininity. Femmeness is femininity dragged through some mud, kicked in the stomach, given a good scrubbing, teased into a bouffant, doused in glitter, and pushed onstage in search of a spotlight.

I also really like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s quote, “Femme is any way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt,” which she expands upon more here.

This is the kind of femme I identify with, as a fat woman who’s always found myself excluded from traditional femininity.

Femme is, for me, a form of resistance. It’s about being over-the-top in a society that would rather I be invisible. It’s about doing femininity on my own terms–not the impossible terms that the beauty industrial complex and the weight cycling industry want to sell me.

It’s about proudly proclaiming my femininity in a society that devalues it. It’s about demanding to be taken just as seriously in a dress and flower crown as I would be in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s about dressing in the way that makes me feel comfortable in my own skin, no matter who thinks I look ridiculous.

And there are as many ways of doing femme as there are people who identify with the term. Femme can be a site of resistance for people who are marginalized in any number of ways, or combination of ways. For example, I really like Janine deManda’s description of the working-class femmes she has known (in the comments of this piece, for which I’m using the Google cache since the original page is currently down):

In case you haven’t put these concepts together before, queer women are not the only women who have ever been told they aren’t really women and who have labored to reclaim themselves from misogynist, femininity despising overcultural norms. The women I grew up around were poor, rural, working class women, some of whom were mixed bloods and/or gimps, too, who were told by almost every overcultural message that they were not real women because they didn’t qualify for the incredibly narrow, absurdly constrained category of “appropriately feminine”.

Their work was too rough; their hands were too rough; they almost never wore dresses; they swore; they stood up for themselves, their friends, their kids; they drank and smoked and drove pick ups; they knew how to track and hunt and fish; their sexuality was too loud, too loose, too autonomous, et cetera for them to be awarded the pink, glittery tiara of appropriate femininity. I’m sure that hurt and was hella difficult to get around in their own minds, but they did it. They said, “Fuck that noise!” and manifested their own versions of femme-ininity involving tight blue jeans and prowess with a pool cue and demanding what they wanted in bed and more amazingness than I can list here.

Femme is large, it contains multitudes.

Femme is radical.

Femme is beautiful.

Femme is for anyone–anyone–who claims it.


20 thoughts on “Straight, fat, and femme: reflections on femme identity and policing

  1. Your post was what lead me ask that question on tumblr. My immediate reaction was to be very wary, but that might be because straight people try to appropriate queer culture without supporting queer people, in fact they often stamp all over queer people while doing this. Even at that point I’d never identity police to the point of telling someone that they can’t be femme, especially as I do not ID as femme. After reading around the subject I can see there is a lot of power in the word for queer and straight women alike, but I would as with all matters strongly advise straight people in femme spaces to remember their straight privilege. Especially around some queer women who because of their femme presentation and perhaps because of femme straight women do not get ID’d as queer. I can see that being a sore point for some queer femmes, but I hope their is room for thoughts like these to be heard with positive ways forward and so teh community could be one where everyone heard instead of let down by in fighting.

    • Thanks, this makes a lot of sense, and I can see why you would be wary. I agree completely that straight people in femme spaces should remember their straight privilege, and not try to take over those spaces.

      I guess its just that…femme is the way of doing gender that makes the most sense to me. It fits who I am and how I live my life. And I want to be able to claim that term, which doesn’t mean running around in queer spaces saying “it’s all about meee!,” but does mean not being told that an important part of my identity doesn’t exist. (Which you’re not doing, obviously–but people who say “only queer ppl can be femme” are.)

      It’s definitely complicated! I agree, I hope that everyone can have their voices heard and be respectful to each other rather than in-fighting.

  2. In addition, the thing about femme that I also identify with is-it’s a femininity that isn’t about attracting men. Which is huge for me. I don’t dress for the pool of men that cosmo pulls together-romantic partners get an opinion(that doesn’t overrule mine, but does get heard) and that’s about it, other than obvious situational appropriateness. But, at least in the blogging world I can find, queer femmes are about their gender for themselves, all the straight femininity blogs I can find are about how to be properly feminine to compliment a man. and I just say that’s all straight women can be feminine for, even if I agree with you that it is important not to crap on queer people who were there first.

    • But, at least in the blogging world I can find, queer femmes are about their gender for themselves, all the straight femininity blogs I can find are about how to be properly feminine to compliment a man

      I think it’s really important to remember that femme =/ feminine. I’m not sure which straight femininity blogs you’re reading, but I doubt their authors would identify as femme. And not all straight women are “dressing for the pool of men that Cosmo puts together.” I’m straight, but my gender is for myself too. I’m not ok with the implication that all straight women are performing gender solely to attract men.

  3. Pingback: Friday Links, 6/14/13 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  4. I have no trouble conceptualizing a butch straight woman (and in fact I know several from going to an engineering school for college!), so it seems straightforward to me to think that straight women can be femme.

  5. There are a few concerns with this. These arguments are saying that femme is not a trendy synonym for feminine. Then these arguments express sentiments that imply that femme is a trendy sentiment for feminism. Intersectional feminism is feminity reclaimed for those who have experienced sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism, classism, etc. Another issue is amab people reclaiming femme. . Identifying as femme as an adult does nothing for little boys pushed to the ground and called sissy or nelly. Sissy and nelly both need to be reclaimed for those it has been used against but no one seems to care.

  6. Since queer fat femme came out with her rainbows and cupcakes- that’s what femme has become. Whoever has got the most glitter and rainbow shwag wins. What are we in kindergarten? Femme is not about being fat, having unicorn toys or eating a dozen cupcakes a day or even about tutus and tiny hats.

    Femme is a lesbian. Having queer women and now even straight women claiming their way to Femme erases lesbian history of Femme/Butch.

    As a Femme lesbian, it makes me invisible.

    • No, katecirque, femme is not lesbian. I’m femme, and I’m bisexual. As were oodles of women who were part of that “lesbian” history of Femme/Butch you mention. As are a supermajority of FABGLITTER folks today. You want to talk with me about invisibility?

    • Your part right. Femme has existed in lesbian culture. But it was and is also present in queer, trans, and gay mens culture as well. I also really hate how many hetero “femmes” are stealing queer words and talking about glitter. But, femme has a history in all lgbtq cultures, not just lesbian.

  7. Laura (dusty_rose), I’m glad my comments spoke to you. Your piece definitely speaks to me, and I applaud you for putting it out there.

    I learned resistant and transgressive femme-ininity from women who were not queer, and then disowned their contributions for too long in queer community contexts with long histories of erasure and elision when the contributions of poor and/or working class and/or of color and/or disabled folks are involved. I’ve been done with that for some time now.

    My queer and femme identities are, at least in part, about resisting sexuality and gender dogmas of the HeteroPatriarchy. In light of that, I see no sound reason why I should I accept Dogma 2.0 from the folks who have appointed themselves to the HomoNormativities Coalition.

  8. Pingback: Straight, fat, and femme: reflections on femme identity and policing | walkingthewalls

  9. Why not create your own word? Why do you have to take something from queer people when you don’t deal with the same oppression?

    We all have privilege. I am white. And I have to correct other white folks when they wanna appropriate stuff or not make space for people of color because they grew up poor or deal with some other oppression.

    If you deal with oppressions that are plenty valid as a fat woman, create your own word. Don’t appropriate one from women who have desperately dealt with invisibility an being assumed straight by straight people because of their appearance. Queer identities are for queer people. Straight folks can find other identities that they completely deserve based on their own unique oppressions. I know plenty of straight proud fat women and also queer fat femmes and they can comiserate and support each other without appropriation.

  10. As a straight cis person, you don’t get to decide to redefine who our queer words are for. You don’t get to change who uses them. You don’t get to change what they mean. That is appropriation. It is stealing. It is erasure. Please stop.

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