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.