I’m No Lady, I’m a Femme
This feminist writer has always embraced the fiercer aspects of her femininity. And faced assumptions as bold as her bright-red lipstick as a result.
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When I was a kid, I thought “Killer Queen” was the coolest song ever. The heroine, brought to life in the lyrics sung by Queen’s inimitable Freddie Mercury, sounded like the ultimate lady badass:
Caviar and cigarettes
Well-versed in etiquette
She’s a Killer Queen
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Part assassin, part ambassadress, this Killer Queen struck me as utterly glamorous, fierce, independent—and feminine. I imagined she could call up any pleasure or endeavor she wanted with a snap of her perfectly manicured fingers. And nobody was going to cross that bitch, either. She knew how to take care of herself and take care of business. Swoon.
Then, many years later, I realized that this Killer Queen about whom Mercury sang was not a woman, but rather, a killer queen. Yeah, okay, got it. But still. My song-crush fantasy endured—a part of me aspired to be my idea of his killer queen.
There was never any doubt in my mind that I was a girly-girl, even in my youngest years. I loved reading about princesses and dressing up Barbie. As someone who was tall for her age, I hated playing house with my classmates because I always got stuck playing the guy. If you could’ve seen me tripping my way out of the local Payless-type shoe store when I finally convinced my mom to buy me a pair of white platform sandals. Still, the risk of twisting my ankle or splitting my chin open in the parking lot seemed a small price to pay for claiming my girly-girl destiny.
“Girly-girl” is the cheeky descriptor I use, but only due to the paucity of appealing options. “Lady” with its snooty class implications and prim moral overtone, has always made me bridle. Maybe “lady” has some utility as an ironic greeting (“Hey, lady! Want to get coffee?”), or sassy descriptor (“I like to read sci-fi fanfic and ladyblogs …”), but other than that? Meh. Vixen, by contrast, is too performative, too invested in sexual presentation, too … old-school Whitesnake video. Both Lady and Vixen have played perilously close to their respective sides of the phony Virgin/Whore dichotomy. Neither fits.
So if those don’t work for me, what does? Broad? Dame (magazine name check!)? Skirt? Full-Grown Grrrl?
Femme. It is perfect. But at this stage of life, I don’t really feel it’s my word to use. An iconic figure in queer culture, the “femme,” which sounds like just your typical feminine-presenting female, is a little more crookedy than that. Allow me to employ the Urban Dictionary to explain:
n.) A gender identity in which someone (female, male or other) has an awareness of cultural standards of femininity and actively embodies a feminine appearance, role, or archetype. It is usually—but not always—associated with a gay or queer sexual identity/sexuality. It is usually more accentuated and intentional than a straight female gender identity or gender presentation and often challenges standards of femininity through exaggeration, parody or transgression of gender norms.
n.) A person (male, female or other) who identifies and/or presents a femme gender identity.
v.) To actively embody a femme identity or gender presentation.
adj.) intentionally, cleverly feminine. Feminine in a non-traditional way—or referring to something/one male (or non-female) that/whom is related to or embodies a conscious femininity.
“Embodies a conscious femininity.” I love that. The super-powered feline façade is often deceiving—to the larger world, many a femme or girly-girl is mistaken as just another Basic shrieking “Whoooooo!” in patriarchal lockstep. But it’s more knowing. The defining element of femme-itude and its straighter cognate, girly-girl-itude, is ownership and self-definition. It is considering the influences of foreign culture, high fashion, street fashion, sex-worker culture, feminist history, and our own history, taking in all of it, then picking and choosing what works for us: Heels or not. Makeup—a little or a lot. Or none. Black leather jacket with a cocktail dress. Jeans and a “red lipstick is self-care” T-shirt under a vintage leopard trench, a wedding dress with combat boots, or head-to-toe couture styling that rivals anything you’d see in Vogue (or the knock-off version of same, because, really). And it’s not just styling. It’s lifestyle, too, considering the range of options—both traditional and non, and trying on whatever seems like it will fit: School or heading straight to work, career or children, or career and children, or toggling back and forth between both at different times, all with deep appreciation and respect for all that is womanly. It’s looking at all of femininity’s different feeder streams and saying, “Yes. That.”
But all is not rosy in the world of girly-girls and their femme comrades. The price one must pay for putting your femme-iest face forward is a particularly pernicious form of sexism. People assume, by turns, that you are an intellectual lightweight, a tart, or a traitor. I remember my closest friend, a badass girly-girl by any metric, being cornered by a gang of flannel-and-jeans wearing mohawked girls in a bathroom at an MDC show in San Francisco because she was wearing a black lace tanktop, black lacy tights, pointy-toed buckle boots, and a gold lame miniskirt. The gang was trying to back her into a stall for a beatdown, but she—all five feet of her—smashed open the stall door and stormed out into the club. Wish you could’ve seen her would-be attackers’ faces when she hopped on stage. They didn’t realize that she was the lead guitarist for one of the hard-core bands on the bill.
I can’t help remembering that moment over and over, how visceral the anger, how eager these other women were to assume that because of her feminine appearance, she was meek, purely ornamental, dismissible. Vulnerable. Disposable.
I wish things were more hospitable in the queer corners, but they aren’t always. In most of the world, femmes fly stealth, but in certain subculture circles, femmes stand out, and often have to contend with a strong current of anti-femme hostility that mirrors the garden-variety sexist dismissal of girly-girls in the mainstream. At my first-ever writers’ conference—OutWrite—more than one femme writer took the commenters’ microphone to say they had felt derided because of their femme-ness, as if femmes were, by their very presentation, fraudulent as activists, feminists, and artists. Sound familiar? I was seriously bummed: Is there NO escape from this particular strain of prejudice? This was in the 1990s and I’m still hearing the same sorts of complaints today. Like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, one of the dominant pitfalls of life as a femme is being discounted: Take a seat, FemmeBot.
Are femmes and girly-girls discounted because people think that favoring traditional accouterment is akin to tacitly accepting traditional gender limitations? Or is the assumption that when the going gets tough, a femmey girl can just bat her lashes and have the path cleared for her? There’s a suspicion around femmes and girly-girls that is unsettling. Because you can “pass” as conventional, you’re viewed as either a gender-advancement defector or potential turncoat. Benedict Arnold in a little black dress. As a feminist, I’m all for questioning norms—aesthetic and otherwise, but I’m somewhat baffled by the depth and relentlessness in bickering over and derision around women’s choices around appearance, particularly when those choices are hyper-feminine. I personally think that, as women, we’ve got more urgent matters before us, but maybe for some it’s easier to bitch about paint color when the house is on the verge of collapse. We choose our battles in this lifetime, and this is how I choose to suit up for mine. So be it. If you think femmes and girly-girls are lightweight based on their affection for feminine touches, I point you to Ruth Bader Ginsburg who is always rocking lipstick, classic earrings, and some kind of super-femmey lace collar with her Supreme Court Justice robes. Notorious RBG ascended to the one of most formidable posts on the planet with her femininity uncompromised.
Regardless of whether she is straight, straight-ish, or queer as can be, every member of Girly-Girl Nation connects to the eternal feminine with pride and gusto, and sometimes, a bit of a wink. What may seem culturally dictated and studied to detractors seems like pure magic to us. As with any other enchantment, femmes aren’t born, they are conjured. Our strength and adaptability are undeniable and our choices are above reproach. Underestimate us at your peril. If you’re a femme or girly-girl yourself, know that no matter what negative assumptions you may have to suffer for being true to yourself, you are killer, Queen.
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