Monday, September 8, 2014

Excluded excerpt of the day: What makes femininity “femme”?

My most recent book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive came out a year ago this month! To celebrate this fact, throughout this month I will post a series of excerpts and essays related to the book.

So today’s excerpt comes from the Excluded chapter “Reclaiming Femininity.” This chapter of the book started out as my keynote talk for the Femme 2008 Conference. And this final passage of the piece is meant to challenge certain notions about “femme” that sometimes proliferate within queer circles.
If there is one thing that all of us femmes have in common, it is that we all have had to learn to embrace our own feminine expression while simultaneously rejecting other people’s expectations of us. What makes femininity “femme” is not the fact that it is queer, or transgressive, or ironic, or performative, or the complement of butch. No. What makes our femininity “femme” is the fact that we do it for ourselves. It is for that reason that it is so empowering. And that is what makes us so powerful.
As femmes, we can do one of two things with our power: We can celebrate it in secret within our own insular queer communities, pat ourselves on the back for being so much smarter and more subversive than our straight feminine sisters. Or we can share that power with them. We can teach them that there is more than one way to be feminine, and that no style or expression of femininity is necessarily any better than anyone else’s. We can teach them that the only thing fucked up about femininity is the dismissive connotations that other people project onto it. But in order to that, we have to give up the self-comfort of believing that our rendition of femme is more righteous, or more cool, or more subversive than anyone else’s.
I don’t think that my femme expression, or anyone else’s femme expressions, are in and of themselves subversive. But I do believe that the ideas that femmes have been forwarding for decades—about reclaiming femininity, about each person taking the parts of femininity that resonate with them and leaving behind the rest, about being femme for ourselves rather than for other people, about the ways in which feminine expression can be tough and active and bad-ass and so on—these ideas are powerful and transformative.
I think that it’s great to celebrate femme within our own queer communities, but we shouldn’t merely stop there. We need to share with the rest of the world the idea of self-determined and self-empowered feminine expression, and the idea that feminine expression is just as legitimate and powerful as masculine expression. The idea that femininity is inferior and subservient to masculinity intersects with all forms of oppression, and is (I feel) the single most overlooked issue in feminism. We need to change that, not only for those of us who are queer femmes, but for our straight cis sisters who have been disempowered by society’s unrealistic feminine ideals, for our gender-variant and gender-non-conforming siblings who face disdain for defying feminine expectations and/or who are victims of trans-misogyny, and also for our straight cis brothers, who’ve been socialized to avoid femininity like the plague, and whose misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and so on, are driven primarily by their fear of being seen as feminine. While I don’t think that my femme expression is subversive, I do believe that we together as femmes have the power to truly change the world.
More excerpts to come! And you can find out more about the book (including reviews, interviews, and more excerpts) at my Excluded webpage.

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]

(note: this piece originally appeared in Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, ed. Anne Enke, Temple University Press, 2012).


  1. I like this chapter :) and quoted a different (earlier) part of it here. I hope (belatedly) that's okay?

  2. I like this charter,I' am a femme and proud of being one!