So, quite some while ago – actually, a whole year ago, give or take a week or two – I was in Toronto for a conference that included a workshop on exploring gender through visual art. It was a grand old time, and I was surprised to see how much of my sense of gender was rooted specifically in femme rather than woman and, additionally, how much teary, shaking, rage was built into it.
I don’t know why that is.
I mean, I have theories. The little voice at the back of my brain singing girl, girl, girl was never told to shut up, never silenced. Whereas femme was something I had to find and, to some extent, fight for. I’m cissexual, so any time I gravitated towards a thing that was culturally coded as “girly” or “feminine” I got a big old “YES YOU ARE DOING GENDER RIGHT” from everyone around me (and, yeah, backwards much? But there it is) and, because I tended not to gravitate towards “boyish”/“masculine” things I didn’t get much “Yer Doing It Rong”. Except when I did what I now think of as “femme stuff”.
Which I guess means I need to offer up a personal working definition of Femme, how I was introduced to the word, and what it means for me.
I started finding femme – the word, the possibility that it might fit me – during my first marriage. I was shaping up to be a whole lot gayer (and kinky, and probably non-monogamous) than I’d originally thought, and the social expectations around being a hetero(normative) wife – with all the stuff that goes along with that[1], the expectations of modest-but-not-too-modest officially vanilla (but unofficial/unspoken submissive) heterosexuality, desire for kids & motherhood, even religious/political views and career aspirations (which starts digging into class stuff, but it’s tied up with the idea of “wife”, too), of not rocking the boat, of knowing when to keep quiet – was really, really uncomfortable. I spent a lot of time at family functions escaping to the bathroom so that I could let my shoulders come down from around my ears.
So finding femme – a word that is intimately tied, for me at least, to (a) being Girl, (b) being feminine rather than masculine, (c) being openly sensual & sexual, but also and very importantly (d) owning my own body & having physical & sexual autonomy beyond a Yes/No switch that could only be flicked once – was kind of a massive big deal. Like “Wait, that’s an option??”
I’ve heard Femme described as “broken femininity” and also – frequently – as a femininity that is “too much”.
I’ve always been “too much”. Too big. Too loud. Having been hearing the Social Disapproval version of STFU about things like my voice and my body and my sensuality since I was about ten, maybe a little younger.
So finding Femme was like “Wait, I don’t have to be masculine on some level to be all of myself at once? And not get punished for it? ZOMG!”
I wrote a poem, years ago now, where I talked about how becoming femme had been a process of unraveling the strictures of Mandatory Femininity that had been knit around me from birth so that I could be the feminine person that I am without having to squeeze myself into a garment that had always been too small, too constricting. Yes, it was a total metaphor-fest. Welcome to Poetry. 😉
It’s not that woman isn’t a significant part of my identity. It’s is, very much so. But what I am, this galaxy-sized creature that I am, bombastic that I am, can hold “woman” in its core and still be too big, too much, to be contained by it. Femme can stretch and mould to the whole of me. Femme actually fits.
Ms Syren.
[1] The day we went out to buy wedding dress fabric, my mom took one look at my tattered and patched army boots and told me I should replace them specifically because “[…] You’re gonna be a bride”. Brides, apparently, do not wear army boots[2].
[2] Tell that to my wife, who wore them on our wedding day. ❤ 🙂