Saturday 25 June 2011

So, what is femme? (2)

Right, here it is — a definition of femme that's inclusive, incisive and intelligible. I doubt I'll ever be able to put it better than this:

femme is dispossessed femininity. It's the femininity of those who aren't allowed to be real women and who have to roll their own feminine gender.

Rolling their own is what cis-femme lesbians did in the fifties. By class and by sexual preference, they were dispossessed of real womanhood. For what woman is complete without money or a man? So they learned how to improvise, how to sew; how to turn a thrift-store sow's ear into a vintage silk purse.

Rolling their own is what contemporary femme dykes do. Invisible in straight spaces and frequently trivialized in queer ones, they must voice their own femininity in a way that does not get shouted down or ignored. No easy task.

Rolling their own is what drag queens and trannies do and have always done. For what woman is complete without hairless skin and a cunt? We too learned how to improvise, and when we were mocked as caricatures of real women, we often became skilled caricaturists, owning the insult, engulfing it.

And this is what femme gay men do, too. Dangerously visible in straight space and often ridiculed in gay male space, femme gay men take the shit from all sides. The straights dish it to them because they're visible. Second-wave feminists dish it to them because they're both feminine and male, and have thus sinned twice. Other gay men dish it to them for acting like, well, chicks.

What these groups share, aside from a fondness for eyeliner, is the illegitimacy of their femininity. That's how I understand femme: badass, rogue, illegitimate femininity. It's the femininity of those who aren't supposed to be feminine, who aren't allowed to be, but are anyway.

— Elizabeth Marston; from her piece Rogue Femininity in the fabulous 2011 anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, compiled and edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman.

The contributors include – okay, I'll just list them all in order (I like lists): Anna Camilleri, Kimberly Dark, Miriam Zoila Pérez, Anne Fleming, Karleen Pendleton Jiménez, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Jewelle Gomez, romham padraig gallacher, Zena Sharman, Ivan E. Coyote, Amber Dawn, S.Bear Bergman, Brenda Barnes, Nairne Holtz, Laiwan, Stacey Milbern, B.Cole, Victoria A. Brownworth, Sasha T. Goldberg, Chandra Mayor, Donnelly Black, Redwolf Painter, Sinclair Sexsmith, Belinda Carroll, Zoe Whittall, Elizabeth Marston, Amy Fox, Jeanne Córdova, Rae Spoon, Elaine Miller, Thea Hillman, Bevin Branlandingham, Sailor Holladay, Melissa Sky, Prince Jei and Misster Raju Rage, Ben McCoy, Michael V. Smith, and Debra Anderson, with a foreword by Joan Nestle.

If any of those names mean anything to you at all, you should go and order the book right now!

Friday 24 June 2011

Femme clothes, women's clothes.

To begin with, an axiom and a statement:

Axiom: There are no areas of human endeavour (apart from those related to procreation), no facets of human intellect or human personality that are inherently male or female. Society may attempt to designate them as such, but all such designations are false.

Statement: Women's clothes are the prime signifiers of femme.

The axiom I hold to be definitely true. The statement comes with several provisos, not least that its truth is somewhat complicated by the axiom. Because if most aspects of human behaviour are not inherently gendered, why should inanimate objects attached to humans be gendered? Why should the majority of human clothing be designated either as male or female? What in fact are women's clothes?

Recently, I've become quite intrigued by the idea of de-gendering or re-gendering clothing. That is since reading another thread on the mHB forum and the online archives of Graham Holmes, former leading light in the Total Clothing Rights group. (Okay, I have some problems with the apparent assumptions of TCR, in particular as regards women's own clothing rights, but that's a topic for another time.)

When I read Graham's articles I immediately thought "this guy is femme". And I thought the same about Jon-Jon Goulian, the author of a new book: The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt. And I may well be right. Or not. That would be for them to say. But in any case, that's not the question right now. The question is...

What are we (Jon-Jon, Graham and I) all doing? We're wearing women's clothes as men. Why? — and here, rather than reaching for complex, loaded explanations such as "transvestite" or "cross-dresser" (Jon-Jon says specifically he is not a cross-dresser; Graham says he is, but challenges what that means) or even "femme" (my favoured descriptor), let's apply Occam's Razor and take the one that makes the fewest assumptions — Because we want to wear prettier clothes.

Do men have pretty clothes? Not really, no. (Alright, the 1980's New Romantics had ruffles and stuff, but that was a particular look, not a general one.) So we have to wear women's clothes. But ultimately these clothes are just things: certain fabrics in certain colours and certain designs, which society has designated as women's clothes.

So let's not do that. Let's de-gender and re-gender. Pretty clothes de-gendered are now just pretty clothes. Pretty clothes re-gendered are now just men's clothes (literally: clothes worn by men). Using this logic (which, I have to say, is not originally mine) we are not cross-dressers, whatever anyone else might think. We are just men wearing clothes that society has arbitrarily designated as female. And as a corollary (rewriting my initial statement): rather than women's clothes being the prime signifiers of femme, it is simply that femme clothes are primarily designated as female.

Okay, I'll confess: I'm not totally convinced by that logic. But I want it to be correct. The sheer subversive audacity of it fills me with glee :)