Description: Four of our femme readers discuss the term, its meaning, its significance within lesbian history, and its appropriation by people who are not lesbians.
Femme is a hard word to define, I think. We could just say “a lesbian who performs femininity,” but that doesn’t get at what it’s really about. For me, it’s more about shared history and culture. It’s not an aesthetic or a word that can be endlessly modified to describe someone’s fashion and actions. It’s a word that reminds me of where I come from: working class bar culture, police raids, women who were prostituted, fighting to survive, solidarity, standing with and loving our butch sisters, trying to be seen and recognized. It’s a word that reminds me of my fore-mothers and my sisters today. Femme is a community and a history, not dresses and flower crowns and winged eyeliner.
When someone who isn’t a part of that community or shared history tries to claim “femme,” be they a gender non-conforming male or a “queer” woman, it’s appropriation. It’s saying that this painful history of struggle, love, and hope belongs to people other than lesbians. In my experience, lesbians don’t ask non-lesbians for very much–just don’t use maybe 3 words (butch, femme, dyke). And yet, even that seems to be asking too much. No one tries to say that anyone can be an otter or a bear or a twink–gay men are allowed to keep those words for themselves.
When non-lesbians appropriate the word femme, they tend to set it in opposition to “butch” and to imply that masculine privilege is a thing. They steal our history and then tell us our sisters are our oppressors and that we should distrust them. The word “femmephobia” is used a lot in these discussions. I hate that word. It really only serves to separate femme women from our butch sisters and to shut down important critiques of femininity. The oppression I experience as a femme woman is because of patriarchy and homophobia, not because of femmephobia.
Often, concerns like this are dismissed as the worries of an older generation, who just don’t get it and insist on exclusivity. But specificity isn’t necessarily exclusivity. (and even if it is exclusive, is it so bad for a word to be exclusive to lesbians?) Femme is a specifically lesbian experience. It is the experience of being both a woman who performs femininity and a woman who is attracted exclusively to other women. Gender non-conforming males don’t have that experience and neither do women who are attracted to men (even if they also date women).
It is not evil for lesbians to want our own words to describe our life experiences. The desire to maintain the definitions of our community terms is not gatekeeping. Since when did lesbians become a privileged group? Claiming a word that wasn’t meant for you is boundary-breaking, but not in a good way. It’s appropriation.
I don’t know how to have this conversation devoid of femaleness. As much as I hate to define myself in relation to men, a huge part of my material experience as femme is men’s violent entitlement to my body. I know that’s something that all women experience to some degree, but for us it comes with the added resentment that we will never be claimed by a man. Then comes the violence and disdain for our female partners for succeeding where they cannot and will not. A woman should never be able to have something (someone) that a man cannot. That’s just not something that someone who isn’t female and isn’t a lesbian can experience in the same way. Femme is a female-exclusive femininity and sexuality.
Femme is not some sort of exclusive club. It describes a specific social position. This position was named in a deep and well-documented lesbian historical context. I believe that should be honored, not dismissed or erased. There are women and girls coming of age now who don’t know this. The only definition they have is from queer culture, which attempts to divorce the term from lesbians entirely. It was painful to see how retaining (or even acknowledging) “femme” as lesbian-specific has been spun into a generational divide. We are not more enlightened than our foremothers. Femme as a lesbian term is still relevant to those of us who occupy that social position now–or at least it should be. People seem to be hellbent on changing that. The ever expanding definition of “femme” renders it meaningless. It removes the language that lesbians have to talk about our lives.
A phrase I hate: “Women and femmes.” Femmes are lesbians. Lesbians are women. End of story. Human beings who perform femininity do not make up a specific class. To imply otherwise sets males up to disavow their privilege; it pushes unfeminine females out of womanhood.
For me, femme has very little to do with aesthetic or gender roles. I think a small part is “feminine aesthetic” but I know many femmes who do not wear makeup or dresses or anything of the sort. Femmes to me are the lesbians who, while sometimes read as straight, are still fiercely lesbian. They take up space, they are powerful, they speak up, they make eye contact, and they love women. They challenge the concept of feminine straight women and the gender roles that follow.
Femme appropriation to me is when I see women who do not identify as lesbian using this word for themselves. It is when males use this word. It is when this word changes from lesbian history to just meaning “feminine traits,” because to be femme is to challenge these traits.
There is a rising problem with femme and lesbian erasure. Part of this is due to the growing shame around being open about being a lesbian. We are being pushed by some in the LGBT community to question our gender and our sexuality. This makes many of us unable to be critical or honest. I have seen a large number of women who would be lesbians decide to identify as a number of ambiguous terms that mean nothing instead. Self-identifying this way might feel nice, but it ignores how society has constructed barriers around us. We are just females and males attracted to females and males. What we wear and how we act are just personality traits, they aren’t a concrete label. These labels, however, have changed how people view sexuality. It is viewed as attraction to gender instead of sex, which puts lesbians (and gay men and straight people) in the wrong.
I have seen people in the “queer community” use the term femme to define an aesthetic style. It ignores lesbian history and they do not like when you tell them that. They say that “if we don’t allow femme to be inclusive the word will disappear,” but this would not be the case if they weren’t teaching lesbians to be ashamed. I am sick of people stealing our word and changing its definition. I shy away from using the term femme lately, because the word has been changed so drastically by this trend. It erases years of history, it erases current lesbians, it invades our spaces, it shames us, it limits us. Femme was once a strong word, now it has no meaning.
There are forms of conflict in the lesbian community surrounding femmes. These include discussions about adhering to some patriarchal practices, experiencing erasure and privilege simultaneously in certain spaces, being invisible in some lesbian communities, and weird dating politics. But those are all lesbian problems which lesbians should have the ability to discuss on our own.
Phrase I hate: _____ femme. There’s not multiple “femmes” there are just femme lesbians. There’s not “growing my hair out femme” or “bruja femme.” Femme is not a trend. It’s a part of who we are.
One of the big problems with the “queer femme” outlook is that it turns femme into a performance rather than an authentic expression of self. When we say that femme is all about makeup and dresses and glitter, and divorce it from its lesbian history, it becomes something that really resembles the performance of femininity that goes along with being straight and trying to please men. And it’s all too easy to go from there to a place that says that anyone can be a femme, hell, anyone can be a lesbian, because lesbianism is just a performance anyway. I think the appropriation of femme is inextricable from the appropriation of lesbian.
I’m relatively new to thinking of myself as femme, because I’m young and I came of age in this environment saturated with queer-glitter-makeup-hot-pink-eyeliner-sharp-enough-to-kill-a-man-femme ideas, and I just did not fit into that framework at all. It felt way too much like the heterosexual world that tells you that womanhood is a set of behaviors and there’s a certain way you need to do them. That’s the opposite of what femme is supposed to be about. It wasn’t until I found a community of lesbians that didn’t push the idea that your clothes define who you are, that I was able to claim the term for myself. To me, being femme doesn’t mean that I try to empower myself through high heels or whatever. It’s a term that fits my very specifically lesbian experiences based on moving through the world as my own true self. It’s a term that I can use to talk about that experience with other lesbians, that we can use to frame our ideas in a way that accounts for our shared history.
Phrase I hate: “Queer Femme.” It turns femme into a performance rather than an authentic expression of self, suggesting that lesbianism is performance.
Some Resources on femmes and our history:
Herstories: Lesbian Herstory Archives Audio-Visual Collections
Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony has many interviews that talk about butch/femme history, unfortunately there is no tagging system so it might be hard to find them.
Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993) by Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis
The Persistent Desire: a Butch/Femme Reader (1992) by Joan Nestle
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (2012) by Lillian Faderman
Femme/Butch: New Considerations of the Way We Want to Go (2002) by Michelle Gibson and Barbara Neem
July 22, 2016 at 9:32 am
Thank you. More lesbians need to be having these important conversations. Femme has become completely void of same-sex attraction, it’s just femininity dressed up in a more “radical” package. Performing femininity in a special or “radical” way subverts absolutely nothing, and slapping femme on it doesn’t legitimate anyone’s unique brand of feminine identity.
July 22, 2016 at 7:00 pm
“Femmes to me are the lesbians who, while sometimes read as straight, are still fiercely lesbian.”
I’ve always struggled with defining femme-ness and I think this is a great way to do so. People label me as a femme based on, it seems, wearing a dress once or twice, but that completely misses the point.
January 25, 2018 at 12:21 am
I agree; this is such an apt articulation
August 18, 2016 at 3:06 pm
Oh my god, I love this so much. Thank you for posting. You guys should have a meeting up in LA sometime, build a physical community around your digital one! I would show up 🙂
December 21, 2016 at 9:05 am
Thank you for this post. I keep seeing “femme” pop up everywhere in organizing spaces, and- as an old school femme whose wife is butch- I have found it very confusing. I wondered if I was imagining the appropriation. I appreciate this validation.
January 13, 2017 at 8:08 am
Oh my goodness, thank you for writing this. More and more in the past year or so, I have been seeing the word “femme” being appropriated. Often the people who are claiming it for themselves are non-binary or genderqueer. In other words, not only are they not lesbians, they also do not identify as female. So why is it okay for them to claim this word? Why is this seen as progress instead of appropriation? Isn’t it ironic that in this moment when people are becoming more aware of cultural appropriation, this specific appropriation gets a thumbs-up?
I also loathe the phrase “women and femmes.” Thank you for voicing that!
This is all about lesbian erasure, and throwing out lesbian feminist history. Young people see lesbian history as antiquated and inherently transphobic. Even the word “lesbian” seems antiquated to a lot of people. Even the word “woman” seems limiting to a lot of women.
January 26, 2017 at 2:43 am
As a 72 year old lesbian I always thought femmes were lesbians who are mostly attracted to butch lesbians for sexual relationships. Clothes and other superficial appearance stuff is mostly irrelevant although femmes enjoy some types of traditional “feminine” decorations occasionally and butches likewise may enjoy some traditional “masculine” attire. But the main defining characteristic is who we are attracted to. For many of us, our appearance does not necessarily identify us as femme except when we make a point of “dressing up.”