Femme is a lesbian identity that was created in the working class lesbian bar culture of the 1950s. It is a term used to distinguish feminine lesbian and bisexual women from their butch/stud lesbian counterparts and partners. Although the term is still used in this way, in recent years, following the influence of queer theories, its meaning has been expanded to describe a queer-identified person who is feminine in their presentation regardless of their gender or sexuality.
- 1 Historical origins
- 2 1990s and 21st-century expansion of femme identity
- 3 References
Femme in 1950s and 60s butch femme culture
It is often assumed that the Femme identity was constructed purely as an adjunct to the more visible Stud/Butch presentation. Femme Lesbian scholar Joan Nestle describes the Femme lesbian identity as being underrepresented in historical records, with femme women having been often attacked for ‘passing’ as straight whilst also being accused of imitating heteronormativity for pairing with a Butch/Stud partner. In Nestle’s definitive text on Femme identity, 'The Femme Question', she challenges this commonly held belief by stating that Butch-Femme relationships are “filled with a deeply lesbian language of stance, dress, gesture, love, courage and autonomy". Through their subversive appropriation of heteronormative gender roles these identities were considered "complex erotic and social statements" rooted in "gendered erotic identities". They publicly declared same sex love between women at a time when there was no liberation movement to support or protect them. Nestle claims that “(i)n the 1950s particularly, butch-femme couples were the front-line warriors against sexual bigotry. Because they were so visible, they suffered the brunt of street violence. The irony of social change has made a radical, sexual, political statement of the 1950s appear today a reactionary, non feminist experience".
Rejection of femme during lesbian feminism of the 1970s and 80s
Lesbian feminism saw a rejection of the butch-femme dynamic and therefore femme identity. During the emergence of lesbian feminism, femme lesbians were accused by prominent lesbian feminist figures of aping patriarchal beauty standards for wearing traditional feminine clothing. Black lesbian feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote in Tar Beach that "butch and femme role playing was the very opposite of what we felt being gay was all about – the love of women". During this period, femme lesbians were often shamed for their appearance, whilst androgyny was seen as the favoured way to dismantle the gender binary by radical lesbian feminists. Much of the criticism towards femmes during this period was rooted in classism from middle-class feminist academics towards working-class lesbian women.
1990s and 21st-century expansion of femme identity
During the 1990s and the emergence of the "lipstick lesbian" into the mainstream, femme became a catch-all term to describe a feminine lesbian or bisexual woman. In 1994 Kate Bornstein chronicled their experience as a trans woman who is a femme lesbian in their book Gender Outlaw. Praising the publication of Ivan Coyote’s Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme in 2011 they said “The butch/femme dynamic is a conscious, loving binary of desire and trust … it’s a dance of love and outlawed romance. Butches and femmes share a sense of tribe, extended family and kinship—no matter what our genders might be”.
In 2011, Ivan Coyote published "To All the Beautiful, Kickass, Beautiful and Full-Bodied Femmes Out There", a poem which describes the challenges of invisibility experienced by femme women as witnessed through the butch gaze.
Since the late 2010s, influenced by the emergence of queer and trans culture on sites such as Tumblr, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle, femme has been expanded to describe feminine people across gender and sexuality categories including heterosexual women, cisgender men and transfeminine people. The postmodern queer conception of femme is a femme-identified person who does not always dress or act in a "traditionally feminine" (meaning a feminine aesthetic, such as wearing makeup, heels, and numerous accessories) way, but who expresses femme identity through feminine-associated behaviours, interactions and political views. Rather than an erotic identity rooted in lesbian women's culture, queer femme has been reframed into a political identity that is inclusive of all who wish to identify with it, feminine-presenting or not. As femme has moved into the mainstream, it has also been connected to notions of emotional labor, witchcraft and self-empowerment.
Based on the understanding of "femme" as describing a person (not necessarily a woman) who presents femininely, the expression "women and femmes" is sometimes used, but it has been criticized as conflating two different categories of identity.
Femme and modern feminism
Femme has also been used to describe a form of contemporary feminism which rejects the gender binary and acknowledges that individuals can fall anywhere within the gender spectrum, resulting in the possibility to be gender-less, gender-fluid, femme or masculine of center. Often using the phrase "women and femmes", adherents to this definition of femme believe that misogyny is used not only against women to inflict theoretical and physical violence but primarily against all feminine people. Connecting cisgendered male violence to toxic masculinity, they believe that patriarchy not only negatively affects female-identified people but men as well.
Use of fem/me by gay men
Constrained by character limitations on gay hookup apps such as Grindr and Scruff, "fem", "femm" and "femme" are used as an abbreviation for feminine. The ubiquitous phrase “No Fats, No Fems”, indicating that a user does not want to be contacted by men of size or feminine men, has been challenged by those in the gay community for perpetuating homonormative beauty ideals. "Fem" is used as a descriptor of one's appearance or mannerisms and not one's desire or identity as in the lesbian community.
Queer femme in the mainstream and lesbian femme erasure
In February 2017 UK high-street stores Topshop and H&M began to sell T-shirts with femme-related slogans including "Femme Forever" and "Femme Vibe", which sparked criticism from the LGBT community. Prominent femme-identified voices in mainstream media are no longer lesbian or bisexual women but tend to be transfeminine and genderqueer or nonbinary individuals. Uses of the queer concept of femme have been challenged by lesbians and bisexual women who still use the term based on its original meaning. With concern for the erasure of lesbian histories, it has been argued that taking a term from an already marginalised lesbian culture is a form of misogynist appropriation that undervalues lesbian identities, history and women's autonomy to self-identify outside patriarchal structures.
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