Femme Friday — Keridwen Luis: Femme Coming Out and the Power of Camp

My butch and I had a blast watching “Rocky Horror” recently, introduced with femme vim and vigor and serious brain power by Keridwen Luis. What a fun date!! And how fabulous that Keridwen responded positively and graciously to both my questions: Do you identify as femme? and Would you consider being featured on Femme Friday?

Deep gratitude to Keridwen for performing femme with such pizazz and bringing us along with her! And abject apologies that I am such a luddite femme that I couldn’t get the gifs to work, at least not in the allotted time. Maybe I can fix it later, and in the meantime, enjoy, sweet sisters!

Femme Coming Out and the Power of Camp

Coming out and the closet remain fraught topics even in a world that is much more aware of the existence of queer people.  Eve Sedgwick suggested that coming out is never a singular act — we all have to come out over and over again, in different ways and to different audiences, in response to a world that continues to assume heteronormativity.  After all, everyone is straight unless we signal otherwise, right? (Invisible sarcasm tag here.)

Maru demonstrates endless coming out, courtesy of Know Your Meme

This is particularly so for femmes/fems, I think, because so much of the world still assumes that you can tell sexuality by looking.

This cute anime cat demonstrates the massive side-eye I have for this idea

Coming out is complicated: it’s political and personal, and as Sedgwick noted, it’s both public and private.  It’s treated as something the audience both has a “right” to know (especially in the case of celebrities) and simultaneously “too private” to discuss — “why did you think we needed to know that?”  Sedgwick memorably calls it “a disclosure at once compulsory and forbidden” (2008, 70). Therefore, we often finesse coming out, tossing off a casual reference to “my girlfriend” (worrying, “could that be misunderstood?”) or “my wife” (“was that too blunt?”), making a joke, a side note, and then shifting the conversation on to something else.  It’s so important, after all, not to make people uncomfortable.


Why is it so important not to make people uncomfortable?

Queer femmes trouble the whole narrative of sexuality, and I’m really okay with that.  In fact, some early activists noted that while butch/androgynous/visibly queer women were “marked” queer, it was the very “unmarked” quality of femme women that made us dangerous — we signified the fact that queerness can exist anywhere, that “any woman might be a lesbian.”  Kath Weston, in her lovely essay “The Lady Vanishes,” notes that this same elusive quality applies to all sexuality — when you try to define who or what is (for example) a “lesbian” as a researcher, you discover that the term means different things to different people — indeed, cannot quite be known or pinned down.  (If you define us by our haircuts, you’re going to have a bad time.)

“Suppose, instead, we zero in for a moment on the ‘quite’ in ‘never knowing, quite, who is a lesbian.’ In this formulation, the never-quite-known (or knowable) lesbian is not a stable, bounded person or a thing but a category of convenience for describing a process of constant re-worlding that now here, now there, works a little something called ‘tomboi,’ ‘femme,’ ‘Two Spirit,’ ‘best friend,’ ‘gay marriage,’ ‘tortillera,’ ‘workplace discrimination,’ ‘bading,’ ‘roommate,’ or ‘sexuality’ into the flow. Knowledge becomes a limit that a researcher can use these terms to approach but not attain” (Weston 2009, 144).

This elusive quality makes the eternal coming-out process necessary for queer femme women (queer femme men, on the other hand, may find their queerness assumed by the general audience).  Femme women have not always been considered “really queer:” there is a lot of literature, scholarly and personal, on “having to cut your hair” before you can date another woman. [Studies from as late as 2013 in the U.K. reported that women said that lesbian and queer spaces were mainly welcome to “dykey,” “butch” and “androgynous” women (Clarke & Spence 2013, 27).]  Butch-femme pairings have been scrutinized in the Global North since the second wave of feminism as “regressive” and “replicating heterosexual roles.” Femmes’ use of femininity itself has been criticized as part of the patriarchical bargain. At the same time, female masculinity has been of great scholarly and erotic interest. (For a good overview of these debates, see Melanie Maltry and Kristin Tucker’s “Female Fem(me)ininities”).

“This thing in particular” is the heteronormative thing; I take great pleasure in chewing up normativity and spitting it out.

One of the most persistent problems with how femme women have been characterized (in both political and scholarly ways) is the assumption that femme women have a simple, untroubled, and natural relationship with their gender.  (This underlies a lot of the criticisms of femme gender previously made — “not really queer;” “just imitating heterosexuality.”)  This assumption is problematic on many levels — the first is that gender is itself not “natural”– certainly not in the sense that it’s “inevitably” linked to a precultural, “raw” bodily self (the relationship between gender and the body is always complex, whether or not one subscribes to Butler’s ideas of gender as a performance all the way down).  The second is the assumption that femme women don’t think about their gender.

I’m filing my nails while I wait for the chance to eviscerate your gender arguments.

I cannot speak for all femme women, of course, but I think about my gender a lot.

In fact, like my butch and masculine-femme compatriots, I often think about my gender in terms of drag and camp.

Esther Newton notes that camp is dependent on the “creation of incongruous juxtapositions” (1979, 106).  A gender performance, on the other hand, is often supposed to seem natural, smooth, as though it springs from the innermost being of a person without thought or effort.  In camp “Importance tends to shift from what a thing is to how a thing looks, from what is done to how it is done” (Newton 1979, 107).  It’s not what a dress signifies, it’s how the dress is worn, it what you wear the dress with.  Camp constantly points to its own performativity and thus the performative nature of what it is imitating — as Butler points out, when we perform gender, we are imitating the performances of people who are imitating the performances they have seen, and so on and so forth all the way back.  It’s gender turtles all the way down.

Gender cats!  Except with gender, every iteration does get modified.

When I think about my own gender performance as camp, it makes it more fun, and gives me permission to gently mock expectations.  I feel it gives me back a little subversive power. As an adjunct — excuse me, contingent — professor on two fairly conservative University campuses, I have to dress a certain way in order to make sure I continue to get contracts so I can pay my bills.  But I can exaggerate a little, I can see what I am doing as drag, as cosplay; I can play and to my mind, playing with gender is queer.

Sontag notes that “the way of Camp is not in terms of beauty but in terms of style” (517).  To be a femme woman who is thinking about style rather than beauty is immensely liberating. (To really get into beauty — which I think is a way of seeing rather than a form of performance — is another essay entirely!) Furthermore, camp style is forgiving, fun, and always queer.

To wear attention grabbing lipstick, or too many rings.  To always dress by the drag queen mantra of “put on another piece of jewelry.”  To purchase items because they look like mid-century librarian wear. To wear my hair long, but in a Victorian bun.  To wear the wrong shoes, or printed tights with a brightly patterned dress. To dress like Endora from Bewitched. To have Goth days over 40.

This cat is cuter than me, but you get the idea.  She is Sophie, a fashion model, and you can read more about her here: https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/meet-sophie-a-fashion-model-and-ambassador-for-black-cats

I am sure other femmes have their own ways of doing queer femme-inity.

Camp playing with gender can be subtle and it can be flamboyant.  Moreover, camp has given me a relationship to my gender that feels, ironically, more comfortable and more “natural” the less natural I make it.  It helps me come out with a wink and a smile, not caring if I maybe made some people a little uncomfortable along the way.

After all, I’m not here to make you comfortable.  I’m here to teach about gender. That’s my job.

Maniacal feminist laughter optional, but recommended.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith.  1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Clarke, Victoria, and Katherine Spence.  2013. “‘I Am Who I Am?’ Navigating Norms and the Importance of Authenticity in Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Accounts of Their Appearance Practices.”  Psychology & Sexuality 4(1): 25-33.

Sedgwick, Eve.  2008. Epistemology of the Closet.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Maltry, Melanie, and  Kristin Tucker. 2002. “Female Fem(me)ininities.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 6(2): 89-102, DOI: 10.1300/J155v06n02_12

Newton, Esther.  1979 (1972). Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sontag, Susan.  1965. “Notes on Camp.” Partisan Review 31(4): 515-530

Weston, Kath. 2009. “The Lady Vanishes: On Never Knowing, Quite, Who Is a Lesbian.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 13:136–148.

Every Friday, I showcase a queer femme goddess. I want to feature you! Write to me at thetotalfemme@gmail.com and let me shine a spotlight on your beautiful, unique, femme story!

At the Total Femme, my intention is to post three times a week: Meditations for Queer Femmes on Monday, Pingy-Dingy Wednesday on Wednesday and Femme Friday on Friday. Rather than play catch-up in a stressful fashion on those weeks when life prevents posting, I have decided to just move gaily forward: if I miss a Monday, the next post will be on Wednesday, and so on. Thank you, little bottle of antibiotics for inspiring me in this! (“…if it’s almost time for the next dose, skip the missed dose and continue your regular dosing schedule. Don’t take a double dose to make up for a missed one.”)


Published in: on July 27, 2018 at 8:52 PM  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,