Sunday, 17 November 2013

So, what is femme? (4)

Another day, another definition of femme. This one comes from Julia Serano in a piece, Reclaiming Femininity, from her new book 'Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive' (Seal Press 2013).

[I]t is common for people to have somewhat varied opinions regarding what the word “femme” actually means. For me, having a holistic view of gender and sexuality, I would suggest that most of us who are femme share two things in common. First, we find that, for whatever reason, feminine gender expression resonates with us on a deep, profound level, in an inexplicable way that isn't easy to put into words. The second thing that we share is a sense of being different, perhaps because we are lesbian or bisexual. Perhaps because we are trans women or feminine men, or we fall somewhere else along the transgender spectrum. Or perhaps because our bodies fall outside the norm in some way, because we are fat, or disabled, or intersex. Or perhaps we experience some combination of these, or maybe we are different in some other way. Because of our difference, we each have to make sense of what it means to be feminine in a world where we can never achieve the conventional feminine ideal, and in a world where feminine gender expression and sexualities are plagued by misogynistic connotations. For me, that's what femme is. It's a puzzle we each have to solve. And because we are all different, we will each come up with a different solution, a different way of making sense of, and expressing, our femme selves.

This definition I like because it's open-ended. It's a non-definition (“we cannot begin with a definition; we cannot offer assurances of any kind” – Duggan & McHugh), allowing each of us to define – or, more accurately, realize – femme for ourselves.

Actually I like Serano's writing in general; it's just the right blend of (gender) theoretical, political and personal material that appeals to me. I've quoted a bit more from Reclaiming Femininity – in which Serano talks about essentialism and difference – on my tumblog. And there's another (shorter) quote here – about MTF crossdressing and effemimania – from her previous book, 'Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity' (Seal Press 2007).

You should probably go and buy those books right now :)


  1. Good definition. Serano does write well. xx

  2. I've just started reading Whipping Girl and am impressed. I also like Serano's critique of 'autogynephilia' in an academic article she's put up on her website - the best such critique I've read.

  3. I feel like I've been reading this kind of stuff all my life, yet I've barely scratched the surface, let alone read a book on it. Why is that, I wonder? I can't quite get my head around it. Sure I find the content accessible and digestible easily, which makes me question my own femininity. I don't think I am a "femme" man really - besides wearing pink shirts, having a ring on my small finger and having a liking for female jewellery - but essentially, these are all superficial, material extrapolations. They go nowhere near as far as Serano's critique of body and sex. Hmm :)

  4. Hello Mick :)

    The whole point of my blog is that femininity doesn't equate to female. Serano isn't implying anything different. She just happens to be both female and femme; whereas my identity is male and femme.

    The various trappings of femininity are (in my opinion) arbitrarily designated as such and (as you say) superficial. As "symbols" they're dependent on time and place, and thus variable rather than fixed. Nevertheless, they have resonance and meaning (within the local culture that has defined them), so we can use them (and sometimes need to use them) to express aspects of ourselves – be that "female", "feminine", "femme" or whatever. Check this post for four different forms of expression (utilizing what Jasper has called “the female social imaginary”): trans female, transvestite, femme, and... nothing much at all (i.e. someone who just likes the clothes).

    What exactly we're each expressing, what we each mean, is only for ourselves to say – supposing we can figure it out anyway. Reaching a personal understanding is often more of a journey than an epiphany (though epiphanies can be part of a journey too). It took me 40+ years to reach where I am now, and there's no guarantee I'm going to stay here ;)