Femme: Adjective or Noun?

September 12, 2016

I've always been a bit confused by the word "femme."


This might surprise people who know me. I'm a dyke who wears dresses and skirts 98% of the time, who almost never leaves the house without makeup, who has her shoe collection in a display case and her boot collection hanging from racks on her walls. But "femme" as an identity has always puzzled me. I don't object to it, I totally support people who use it -- it just doesn't resonate with me. I've often said that I'm "femmey, but not a femme." For me, femme is a description, not an identity; an adjective, not a noun. And part of the reason is that I don't really grasp, intellectually or instinctively, what that identity means. People who identify as femmes have a strong, clear sense of what this means to them, and how it shapes not only what they wear but how they think of themselves. I don't have that.


Selfie on my way to the atheist festival, boots are Jessica Simpson, dress is Ringspun, necklace is Buffalo Exchange.


But even people who do identify as femme, as a deeply personal identity-noun, sometimes struggle to define the term. Years ago I attended a femme conference: one of the panels was asked, "What does femme mean?" -- and almost all the panelists fumbled and stumbled. That's not to slam them: it's a hard concept to define. But the clearest definition, the one that's stuck with me over the years, was given by Susan Stryker:

Femme is adopting the trappings of femininity in a way that subverts them.


That stuck with me. And I think it explains why I'm happy to take on "femme" as an adjective but not a noun; as a description but not an identity. Sometimes I dress in the trappings of femininity in a way that subverts them. But most of the time, I don't. Or rather, I don't do that on purpose. I'm just... getting dressed, in clothes I'm comfortable with. The clothes are more feminine most of the time: that's not trivial, and it's not an accident. But those choices are shaped by a lot of things, and my personal sense of myself as a woman is only one of them.


When my weight was lower, I butched it up more often -- because jeans and pants were more comfortable. When my weight is up (as it has been lately -- hello, menopause), and when it's more elastic, pants are just not comfortable. They're binding, and it's hard to get a good fit. When my depression is bad, I often wear the softest, most comfortable clothing that meets the barest level of social acceptability, with no attention to appearance beyond not getting arrested. When I do historical costume dances, I often do it in male drag: there are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the main ones is that the historical/ fantasy ballroom scene is somewhat heteronormative, and dressing as male signals that I want to dance lead. Ironically, if the scene were more gender fluid, I'd probably femme it up more.



Steampunk outfit for a Dickens Fair, jacket is Steam Trunk, boots are Restricted.


Even things like the weather shape my femmey or not-so-femmey style choices. I wear knee boots 95% of the time, in large part because I live in San Francisco where the temperature is notoriously changeable and often really freaking chilly. As the summers keep getting warmer, femmey strappy sandals will almost certainly make more of an appearance. My places on the butch/femme fashion spectrums are non-trivially shaped by a lot of external factors. That seems to be less true for people who identify strongly as butches or femmes. Many of them are adamant about always dressing within their identity, even when it's physically or socially uncomfortable. For them, dressing outside their identity is uncomfortable, like wearing someone else's skin.


But there's an important way in which I am a femme, not just the description but the identity, not just the adjective but the noun. I am subverting the trappings of femininity -- simply by existing, by being who I am in an unapologetic way. I'm middle-aged (fifty-four), and I'm "overweight" by cultural standards. So according to my culture, I should have given up on fashion long ago. I'm not supposed to "let myself go," but I'm also not supposed to stand out.




Pretty sure I stand out in this outfit! Dress is Modcloth, shoes Issac Mizrahi, and hat is Gameday.


Giving a damn about style at my age and weight is, in itself, a subversion. When I put on makeup and a dress or a skirt, and pay attention to beauty and style and personal expression when I do, I'm being subversive. When I do this in a way that makes me stand out, I'm really being subversive. I am adopting the trappings of femininity in a way that subverts them, simply by not disappearing into the wallpaper.


I still don't identify as a femme. I still don't have that vivid, bone-deep resonance with the word. When I heard the word "bisexual," I instantly knew, "Oh -- that's me." The same thing happened when I learned that there were kinky people in the world. I heard these words, and I finally had language to describe something that had always been deeply and importantly true. I don't feel that way about femme. It's not an identity for me, and I doubt that it ever will be. But the adjective is important, and I'm happy to claim it.


by Greta Christina

Greta Christina is author of several books, including The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life; Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless; and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More. She blogs at Greta Christina's Blog, at The Orbit. She lives in San Francisco with her wife, Ingrid.

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