Femme identities, cultures, and politics are critical to understandings of queerness in historical and contemporary US contexts, and yet they are too often rendered invisible in queer communities and discourses on queerness. When queer femme-ininity and femmes are acknowledged or represented, many are marginalized, dismissed, and/or deemed less queer (or not queer at all) because of their seemingly “straight” gender presentations. Other representations of queer femmes are overly simplistic and ignore the ways in which gender, sexuality, race, and other aspects of identity impact our unique constructions of femme-ininity.
Nevertheless, femme remains a powerful and meaningful identity category, gender presentation, politic, and community for many queer and trans* people today. Femmes of all sorts are working hard to fight invisibility and negative representations – through fashion, academic literature, art, political organizing, zines, music, personal narratives, and of course, in small, less visible parts of their daily lives.
In my queer femme archive project, I too attempt to challenge invisibility, negative assumptions, and overly simplistic representations of femme-ininity through an exploration and critical analysis of queer femme (and some feminine) identities, cultures, and politics in a contemporary U.S. context. By compiling and critically analyzing a variety of materials and media pertaining to queer femme-ininity, I attempt to provide a broad representation of queer femme in all of its complexities.
In my analysis, I briefly engage a number of specific issues pertaining to queer femme-ininity. I begin by providing a very short history of queer femme-ininity as an identity category – its initial construction as part of femme-butch culture and how it has more recently in some ways diverged from its initial meanings and associations. I use this as a jumping off point to then provide some basic definitions of queer femme-ininity that were common in my archival materials. Next, I talk about the intersections of femme-ininity, race, and other aspects of identity in relation to the Femme Shark Communique. I end my analysis by returning to the central issues addressed in my initial overview of queer femme-ininity: queer femme-inity’s relationship with traditional femininity. I discuss how queer femme-ininity is both rooted in and poses challenges to traditional femininity and how this relates to marginalization/invisibility within queer communities.
My ability to thoroughly engage all of these issues in a short paper is somewhat limited. Thus, although I can’t expect my archive to adequately (or accurately, for that matter) represent every single femme identity, experience, presentation, and community out there, my primary goal is to illustrate the diverse, complicated, and perhaps even contradictory nature of queer femme-ininity. Throughout my analysis, I seek to demonstrate that queer femme-ininity is not a static or homogenous identity category; it is constantly being renegotiated and reconstructed by individuals and communities, all of whom have unique identities and experiences that undoubtedly impact how they understand, engage, and perform femme-ininity.
Femme and butch lesbian identities date back to the early 20th century in the US, but it wasn’t until the 1940s and the rise of lesbian bar culture that butch-femme culture grew far more visible. By the 1950’s, the butch-femme model was so influential that lesbians felt compelled to identify as either femme or butch in order to participate in mainstream lesbian culture (Levitt et al. 99). Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, butch-femme dynamics remained prominent in lesbian communities and came to define popular understandings of lesbian identities and relationships in the U.S. Thus, for the majority of this time, femme-ininity was defined almost solely in relation to its counterpart and supposed opposite, butch.
Femme was (and for some, still is) considered to be a feminine lesbian identity and gender presentation marked by docility. According to Elizabeth Galewski in “Figuring the Feminist Femme,” “Where the butch came to be lauded as the ‘visible,’ ‘public,’ and hence ‘political’ face of same-sex desire, the femme was implicitly conflated with weakness, passivity, and even complicity in the face of oppression” (186). Thus, not only were femmes perceived to be butches’ weaker, less visible counterparts; they were seen as less queer, less of a threat to heteronormativity and patriarchy in the public sphere.
While some of these conceptions regarding femme-ininity certainly still exist within lesbian communities and popular culture, my archival materials illustrate that our understandings of femme identities, cultures, and politics have undoubtedly changed in recent years and are constantly being renegotiated; we are thinking about modern femme-ininity as a complex, distinct identity category, gender presentation, and political affiliation. Not to say that butch-femme cultures and dynamics no longer exist or that contemporary femme identities cultures and politics are in no way constructed through or connected to butch ones; my archive shows that butch-femme cultures, relationships, are still a pervasive and important part of lesbian and queer culture, but that they too are being renegotiated in new ways (Levitt et al. 100). Nevertheless, perhaps because of the rise of second and third-wave feminism, the prominence of queer/gender theory, and the decline of a certain kind of identity politics, we are now conceptualizing femme-ininity itself in new ways that incorporate feminist thought, reject gender essentialism, and engage race, sexuality, and other aspects of identity and community.
As I have stated repeatedly, contemporary queer femme-ininity cannot easily be defined because it is understood, experienced, and expressed in so many different ways. In a sense, it is most clearly defined by its heterogeneity and fluidity. Still, I feel it is important to address some common themes in the articulations of queer femme-ininity in my archive. The majority of my archival objects either explicitly or implicitly define queer femme-ininity (or, in a few cases queer femininity) as the combination of a feminine gender presentation and queer identity of some kind. Furthermore, though all of my archival objects present femme in different ways (as an identity category, gender presentation, sexual orientation, political affiliation, community affiliation, or some combination of these), most of them define femme, often through raced, classed, gendered terms, as a means of reclaiming and/or queering femininity.
The Femme Shark Communique #1, a zine created by the Femme Sharks – a movement of femmes of color, illustrates the unique ways in which femmes of color understand, construct, and perform femme-ininity in political terms unique to their identities and experiences. They seek to “reclaim the power of femmes as fierce, tough, hungry girls who are the leaders and defenders of [their] communities” but reject a femme-ininity that centers whiteness and neglects to challenge oppression in all its forms. They also acknowledge that femmes “many kinds of bodies,” and that femme itself is as complicated and heterogeneous as all those who identify with it. The Femme Sharks’ intersectional approach to femme-ininity reflects the ways in which “[s]cholarship by feminists of color and queers of color emphasizes that interconnections among sexuality, race, class, gender, nation and imperialism transform each category, necessitating new modes of theoretical engagement” (qtd. in Ferguson 111).
Albeit in different ways, the majority of femmes represented in my archive emphasize the distinction between traditional femininity and queer femme-ininity. They argue that queer femme-ininity seeks not to ape traditional femininity but rather to reclaim it, reimagine it, rework it in ways that have radical implications. For example, in a YouTube response to questions asked on their blog, femmes Jess and Majestic provide their own definitions of a powerful femme-ininity. Majestic says, “For me, femme is an identity politic, I guess. Anybody can be a femme… For me it just means, like, reclaiming or using femininity in ways that you find personally empowering or political.” Majestic’s definition of femininity reflects Judith Butler argument regarding the performance of gender in “The Question of Social Transformation.” Butler says, “One surely cites norms that already exist, but these norms can be significantly deterritorialized through the citation. They can also be exposed as non-natural and nonnecessary when they take place in a context and through a form of embodying that defies normative expectation…” (218).
My archive has a number of purposes, both personal and political.
I’ve been thinking a lot about connections between my own queer identity and femme/femininity as I compile and analyze this archive. As of now, I haven’t really come to any sort of definitive conclusions about my relationship with femme-ininity, but I think that I’m beginning to embrace the label for myself more so now than I was before I began compiling the archive. For this reason, I decided to include a childhood photo of myself and a few other personal items in it.
In relation to politics, I see my archive as a space in which queer femme-ininity, an oftentimes invisible and marginalized identity, can be represented, defined, and negotiated in a multitude of ways. By creating a space for both positive representations of femmes and critical analysis of what femme-ininity means, I hope that I am, in a way, combating negative stereotypes of femmes, challenging overly simplistic popular perceptions of femme identity (as something that belongs only to white, lesbian subjects), and fighting femme invisibility. Furthermore, I want my archive as a whole to present femme-ininity (in all of its forms) as a means of empowerment, self-definition, and social change.
Not only do the representations and ideas in my achieve help to achieve these goals; the types of objects and forms of media I choose to include in my archive are also incredibly important. In my archive, I include personal narratives, digitized zines, content from queer/femme blogs and online communities, photographs, performance (video), music, articles of clothing and accessories, and interviews. The archival objects themselves play active roles in constructing femme-ininity, building femme communities, and challenging femme-phobia. Furthermore, my decision to use a variety of sources stems from my desire to provide a broad a representation of femme-ininity.
In my analysis, I use the ideas, narratives, and thematic elements of the archive to demonstrate how femme-ininity is heterogeneous and constantly in flux, but I also believe that the types of media I choose to include further reflect how femme is broad, complex, and constantly changing. The blogs, websites, and YouTube videos in my archive are being edited, added to, and commented on a regular basis, and their changes illustrate the ways in which femme-ininity is being renegotiated and redefined. The objects and media in my archive that go unchanged (though interpretations of them may change over time) are equally important, as they provide a snapshot or articulation of queer femme-ininity at a particular point in time. Their relevance (or lack thereof) later on will, albeit in a different way, show how changes over time.
My archival objects also reflect the ways in which femme-ininity is defined both personally and collectively and how femme-ininity can facilitate community building and dialogue. Some of the objects, for example the YouTube video in which Majestic and Jess answer a commenter’s questions about queer femme-ininity, involve sharing ideas, constructing definitions collectively, and making connections in the process. All of my digitized archival objects, whether they were on the Internet before or became accessible when I uploaded them, are arguably now engaging in this process to an extent, as they will most likely have some impact on viewers’ definitions or perceptions of queer femme-ininity.
This archive doesn’t necessarily have an intended audience, though I think/hope it could useful and of interest for queer communities, queer theorists, and perhaps most importantly, femme-identified people. My own archive might not be thorough enough for this, but I believe that, if viewed and used correctly, a collection of positive, heterogeneous representations of femmes has the potential to educate, empower, and bring people together.
The process of creating my femme archive was overall a positive one, though it did become stressful at times.
Once I decided to focus on queer femme-ininity for my archive project, I began researching and compiling archival objects fairly early. I became pretty overwhelmed at the beginning of the process because I was finding more materials (mostly online) than I knew what to do with. I bookmarked a number of zines (in PDF format), websites, blogs, and videos, many of which led me to other useful femme resources. After a while, I felt as though I was focusing too much on Internet resources, and I decided to contact a group of friends and acquaintances I thought might be interested in contributing personal stories, ideas, etc. to the archive. I sent out a Facebook message and e-mail to a bunch of people and got quite a bit of positive reinforcement, but I received very few direct contributions. One friend sent me an essay she’d written on trans femininity, and we had a long chat via G-mail during which she shared some personal thoughts that I included in my archive. A few other friends directed me to some websites and essays from academic journals, and one friend e-mailed me a link to a YouTube video that had shown up on her Tumblr. After giving up on the internet, I digitized 2 archival objects (a photo of myself at age 3 and a photo from a book that Professor Hannabach lent me), In a final attempt to find more print sources, I went to the Carnegie Library to do some research, but I didn’t find much there. I did find a relevant zine in the zine library, but because I couldn’t remove it from the library, I decided not to include it in my archive. As a result of all this, most of my archival objects are from Internet sources.
The research process was longer than I anticipated, and in retrospect, I spent much more time researching and compiling materials than I probably should have. For example, I put a fair amount of time and effort into contacting people about getting involved and answering follow up questions, but I didn’t end up getting many contributions through that. This was disappointing both because it took up a lot of time and because I was hoping to have many more personal narratives and archival objects from people I know.
While compiling my archive, I came up with a list of questions relating to modern queer femme-ininity, most of which I hoped to engage through my analysis. In my analysis I tried to use these questions as a framework for thinking about femme-ininity, however, rather than as a series of questions with definitive answers. In doing so, it became much easier both to take an intersectional approach to the project and to embrace the multiple, sometimes conflicting representations of femme-ininity that I found. I ultimately developed an understanding of femme-ininity as fluid and heterogeneous, rather than static and monolithic – which is how I unfortunately feel is sometimes represented.
Though I’m happy with most of my essay, I had a difficult time writing the analysis portion of my essay, and I’m somewhat disappointed with the result. As hard as I tried, I didn’t feel like I could thoroughly address all of the complex issues related to queer femme-ininity that I thought about and noted during my research. The outline I made for the theorization/historicization portion of my essay ended up being far too detailed and long. Thus, rather than in-depth look at queer femme identities, cultures, and politics, I think my essay ended up being more of an overview.
Also, as much as I repeatedly emphasized the importance of femme diversity in my essay and tried to include a broad range of objects that reflect it in my archive, I think I could have done a better job of representing marginalized femme voices.
Overall, however, I think I’ve learned a lot from this project, and because of it, I’ve been thinking about femme-ininity in new ways – on both personal and political levels. Not only have I broadened understanding of femme identities, cultures, and politics in an abstract sense; I am thinking about the political implications of my own decision to apply bright red lipstick before heading out for the evening.
Butler, Judith. “The Question of Social Transformation.” Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. 204-31.
In “The Question of Social Transformation,” Judith Butler discusses theory’s transformative potential, putting an emphasis on gender performativity and the ways in which it can directly rework and challenge gender norms. Butler’s essay addresses a number of issues that pertain to queer femme-ininity as a means of subverting gender norms, and her analysis of nonnormative gender performance is particularly useful for examining queer femme-ininity’s relationship to traditional, heterosexual femininity. Though she directly mentions queer femme-ininity very briefly, Butler’s argument that gender norms can be occupied and then transformed from within (and/or reimagined in non-normative contexts) is undoubtedly applicable to queer femme-ininity, which appears to challenge traditional femininity in precisely this manner.
Cvetkovich, Ann. “Introduction” AND “In the Archive of Lesbian Feelings.” An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 1-14, 239-71.
In these excerpts from An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, Ann Cvetkovich outlines her approach to queerness, trauma, and lesbian public cultures and describes the deeply persona, emotional aspects of the archive. The texts are especially useful for analyzing queer femme-ininity and my queer femme archive itself as products of both personal and public constructions of queer identity and culture. Furthermore, the discussion of her own personal investment in her archive of feelings helps me to think about how I myself am engaging with my femme archive and putting myself into it.
Ferguson, Roderick A. “The Relevance of Race for the Study of Sexuality.” A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Eds. George E. Haggerty and Molly McGarry. Malden: Blackwell, 2007. 109-23.
As the title suggests, Roderick Ferguson’s “The Relevance of Race for the Study of Sexuality” discusses the ways in which race and sexuality are produced through each other and must therefore both be addressed through intersectional analysis. He cites examples of academic work that engages the multiple, intersecting experiences and identities of queer people of color and argues that the complexities of these stories are too often ignored and erased. Ferguson’s view of intersectionality (in particular the intersections of race and sexuality) is incredibly important for my analysis of this archive, as an intersectional approach is critical in understanding the complex, heterogeneous nature of queer femme-ininity.
Galewski, Elizabeth. “Figuring the Feminist Femme.” Women’s Studies in Communication 28.2
(2005): 183-206. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.
Galewski’s article analyzes the rhetoric of femme to understand femme-ininity’s feminist potential and fluid nature. Her discussion of how femme seems to occupy an in-between space between queerness and heterosexuality provides an interesting way of thinking about femme’s relationship to traditional femininity and the problem of femme invisibility.
Levitt, Heidi M., et al. “The Misunderstood Gender: A Model of Modern Femme Identity.” Sex Roles 48.3/4 (Feb. 2003): 99-113. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.
This study examines how femme-identified lesbians understand, develop, and experience their gender identities. The study is based on interviews with a group of femmes from a predominantly white lesbian community in Northern Florida, and it seeks to outline how these women view their own femme-ininity within their community, relationships, and American society at large. The study provides insight into many issues that I address in my archive, but it is especially helpful for thinking about what femme means (to a limited group of women) on a fundamental level (how it is constructed, performed, etc.) and how or why certain women adopt this label.
Lubhéid, Eithne. “Looking Like a Lesbian: Sexual Monitoring and the U.S. Border Patrol.” Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 77-102.
Eithne Lubhéid’s essay, “Looking Like a Lesbian: Sexual Monitoring and the U.S. Border Patrol” outlines and analyzes the implementation and enforcement of former U.S. immigration policies aimed at excluding lesbians. Lubhéid uses the story of Mexican immigrant Sara Harb Quiroz to examine, amongst other things, the ways in which these U.S. immigration policies relied on popular assumptions that lesbians were visually distinct from heterosexual women and could therefore be identified by their masculine traits. Though Lubhéid discusses mainstream understandings of lesbian identity and appearance in a historical context, her discussion of mainstream assumptions about lesbian appearance and how these assumptions were then used to police borders (literal and figurative) and construct understandings of proper citizenship is incredibly relevant to my archive. Her analysis is useful both for thinking about the connections between femme-ininity and heterosexual femininity and the issue of femme invisibility in queer communities, especially as these things relate to race and citizenship.
Stein, Arlene. 2010. “The Incredible Shrinking Lesbian World and other Queer Conundra.” Sexualities 13, 21-32.
Stein’s essay analyzes the current state of lesbian identity politics and a shift from rigid, static categories of gender and sexuality toward identity categories and affiliations that are more specific and reflect the intersectionality and diversity of gender and sexuality. This essay is relevant to my archive and useful for my analysis in that it provides a context for and explanation of shifts that gave rise to modern understandings of femme.