by: Elise Nagy
Female, feminine, femme—is there really a difference?
Look in any magazine selling femininity; the skin is light, the noses are slender, the hips are narrow, the clothing is decadent. It’s normalized, so we aren’t necessarily always aware of these things, but they’re omnipresent. Feminine ideals are all tangled up in racism, classism, ableism, YouNameIt-ism. Femininity has a lot of rules, and one of the overarching rules is that it’s nearly unattainable, that you will always be striving. It will keep you busy and keep your money and energy tied up in trying to reach some imaginary pinnacle of perfect femininity while you could be out doing magnificent things with your life, or exploring and constructing your own vision of femme that isn’t dictated to you from capitalism and sexism.
In many ways the difference between identifying as feminine or female and identifying as femme is one of intentionality and awareness. I have a ton of privilege: I’m white, I’m cis, I’m middle class. For me, female is default: it’s a definition made by someone else and ascribed to me in the womb because there was nothing to find between my bowed little frog legs on the sonogram. Femininity is what’s expected of you if you’re assigned female at birth. Femme exists between and around sex and gender assigned at birth. Femme opens up a space for people who weren’t necessarily assigned female at birth but also might not accept a strict and naturalized gender binary. Femme can be a space for people who reject that assignment as having any real personal meaning. Femme is embodied in trans women and cis women, trans men and cis men.
Femme rips open the rules and ideals and myths and codes of femininity and reconstructs them, stitching them back together with hot pink embroidery thread and silver tinsel. Femme identities have queer lineages. Femme/Butch is a binary even those totally foreign to queer communities are nominally familiar with, and these categories can be traced back through decades of queer histories. For much of the 20th century, femme and butch were used to classify supposedly opposing ends of the gender presentation spectrum. Today that binary has been questioned and scrambled in favor of understanding gender identity and expression and sexuality not so much as spectrums, but as magical swirling clouds of chaos, juxtapositions, convergences, and contradictions. Femme has grown to include all sorts of identity and communities.
Femme is what you do with yourself in the world, the way millennia of ideologies of femininity collide in the sway of your hips and swoop of your eyeliner. Femme is a vision as well as a way of presenting; Femme isn’t hierarchical or exclusionary. Femme isn’t necessarily straight and isn’t necessarily gay; femme can be asexual, femme can be kinky, femme can be fluid. Femme is by/for people of color. Femme is by/for people with disabilities. Femme is by/for people who can’t afford what Femininity is selling and wouldn’t want to buy it anyway.
“Femme” can be hairy; “femme” can be scarred and lumpy; “femme” can have body mods, “femme” can be fat; Every vision of femme is different. We’ve culled influences and ideas from our experiences, from our friends, from babes on the internet, from artwork, from reclaimed catcalling, from vintage ads, from grandmothers and mothers and aunts. Femme is something I constantly define and redefine for myself, in community with other people and other femmes.
Femme is additive and inclusive and messy and affirming. Femme means you don’t have to ignore or reject some parts of yourself in the service of gender coherence. Femme is about chosen community or cultivated isolation—about putting your energies where you think they help or flourish most.
Femme is thrifting pink satin dressing gowns that belong in a Victorian novel and then wearing them for fun alone in your apartment. Femme is walking around all day with a Disney princess band-aid on your face. Femme is using pastel colors to pencil in your eyebrows like Spock (google it!).
Femme is curiosity and perpetual destabilizing. Femme is playing up and picking apart and demolishing common, uncritical ideas of desirability. Femme can be tutus and turquoise hair. Femme can be purple lipstick and crocheting on the bus. Femme can be performance, can be slept in and smudged or carefully wiped clean at the end of the day, like a glittery cat eye.
Femme isn’t about policing, about just the right amount of peachy lip-gloss, or the perfect tan, or the right clothes, or the right walk, or the right taste, though it’s sometimes about that, too. It’s about pageantry. Femme is about gestures, mannerisms, affectations and performance. It’s about making the face you present to the world represent the self you feel most like in that moment. Sometimes it’s about allowing yourself to act the way that people have punished you for, it’s about resisting the idea that traditional masculinity should be a requirement of your embodiment. Femme is contradictory and chaotic. It’s unfixed, mutable, fluid, and heterogeneous.
Femme is toughness that’s a little different from the stoicism your female ancestors had—it’s not the kind that endures hard winters in silence. It’s knowing that survival is an art. It’s endurance with credit; it’s not demure. Our silence cuts, and our silence is definitely not required. Maggie Nelson wrote, “We have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it,” but I would argue she’s really talking about the femme gaze. A femme gaze is about simultaneously being the one who sees and the one who is seen, and it is scorching.
Femme is a personal identity, but it’s also a political one. It calls attention to the performativity of gender and sexuality. It questions the idea that there can be too much: too much blush, too much tulle, too many holes in your short shorts, too much calling out of racism, too many discussions about neocolonialism. Femme is resistance. Femme pushes back against the idea that people must act traditionally masculine to be powerful or traditionally feminine to be acceptable. Femme rejects white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Femme explores and explodes the limitations placed on people when they’re assigned female or male at birth.
Ultimately, femme is about priorities. “Female” reduces us to our anatomy in an arbitrary and often personally meaningless way, but “femme” opens up a space outside of the gender/sex binary. Femme gives us something sparkly and sharp to make our own and hand down in a way “female”—with all of its clinical prescriptivism—never will.
Elise Nagy lives in Chicago. She has a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, and hopes to get another one sometime soon. She spends an inordinate amount of time watching television, reading, and getting emotional on the internet. She used to be a poet and a painter, and would like to learn to fly small planes and write a whole book. You can find her sporadically updated blog at Redhead Bouquet and she can be reached at email@example.com. She really loathes talking about herself in the third person.