Monday, 7 March 2011

Not woman, but femme.

Helen Boyd's My Husband Betty is one of my favourite trans-related books, in particular for the way she elucidates the difficulties faced by female partners of male cross-dressers. But on rereading it (yet again) a few passages have already (I'm up to page 51) stuck out:

(p14) how insulting it could be when your husband, in professing a desire to "feel like a woman," dressed in clothes that to you made him resemble someone you'd call a slut.

(p44) I don't really buy the argument that men who crossdress are getting in touch with their "inner woman" because they so rarely have any interest in the actual lives of women. What they are interested in is their own expression of their own version of femininity, which is a whole different thing altogether. What I see and experience and hear about is closer to that idea than any other, that crossdressers are men, with men's notions of what women are, who then choose to express those male-centered ideas about femininity in a very masculine way. They don't help with the laundry or make dinner, they don't train themselves to make more room for others' needs than for their own. They continue to be the same guys they always were, in dresses.

(p45) men understand their own "femininity" as men, and they know women through their own men's eyes. That may be why some crossdressers portray such a sexualized image of women when they dress as them. It may also be why their notions of femininity seem a little absurd and outdated.

The trouble arises, I think, from the use (by cross-dressers themselves) of "woman/women" in those passages: "inner woman", "feel like a woman" – what do those statements even mean? They imply that "woman" is some unifying category, that every woman has the same feelings, experiences, needs, desires, etc, which is blatantly silly. Rather than "feel like a woman", it would be far more meaningful to say: "gain access to certain feelings that our society restricts to women".

And those feelings are femme feelings. Thus we can rephrase the above accordingly: "inner femme", "feel like a femme", "portray such a femme image", and so forth.

The correlation of "femme" with "woman" is familiar but false – clearly, because a lot of women are not femme. I'd guess that, as a woman with tomboy leanings, Helen herself is not femme. So she wrote (p14): "dressed in clothes that to you made him resemble someone you'd call a slut". Correction please: not a slut – femme. And quite likely high femme – often a cross-dresser's needs and feelings have to be relieved in only occasional outbursts, leading him to (over)compensate by upping his femme.

Incidentally, this also explains why (cf p25) the cross-dresser "devot[es] endless hours to ritualized crossdressing" instead of "taking care of children or cleaning the house". That is, because the cross-dresser's need is not to "be a woman" (whatever that might mean) but to express his femme. And taking care of children, cleaning the house – helping with the laundry, making dinner – have nothing to do with being femme. Indeed, they have nothing as such to do with being a woman either. They're merely gendered tasks imposed on women by the prevailing (male-dominated) culture.

The point is that the word "woman" is misplaced, I think, in a lot of explanations about male cross-dressing. Change it to "femme" and the explanations make much more sense – at least to me.


  1. They don't help with the laundry or make dinner...

    So those that do are what? Husbands? Parents? :)

  2. Hi Lynn :)

    No, Statistical Anomalies ;)

  3. Reading your back catalogue, to celebrate your anniversary, I've found several interesting posts. I do like your use of the term 'femme'. I particularly like this post - may I link to it elsewhere?

    D xx

  4. Sure, Deborah, please feel free. And thanks for saying (in another comment) that my blog is one of your favourites :)