Femme Friday — The Word “Femme”

Along with many of you, I’ve been tracking the way the word “femme” has changed in meaning since lo these many years ago when I read Joan Nestle’s The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader and realized with a delicious, shocking, soul-shaking thrill that I am a femme who loves butches. Back then, my understanding was that femme was utterly queer, and kind of a niche identity, often maligned, within the queer world. Although gay men sometimes used the term about other gay men, usually in a derogatory fashion, femme mostly meant a lesbian like me: more than ok with being a girl – and I got to define what “being a girl” means for me – but romantically and sexually completely off limits to men, completely queer and queering all kinds of gender and sexuality stereotypes.

Lately, though, the word “femme” has been roaming around all over the place, and I haven’t been able to see myself in some of the new usages, which has been disconcerting. For some time, I thought that this was because the usage had been expanded to include all kinds of folx other than lesbians, and I was rather stern with myself, a former linguistics student, for being so grumpy about this prime example of changing language.

Last night, I was reading an article in Boston Spirit magazine about a new show by KAIROS Dance Theater exploring the objectification of women, and came to the following paragraph:

The playful and provocative experience starts when the audience walks through the doors. They’ll see a ‘Garden of Femme,’ three performers in the BCA lobby. One is dressed as a femme fatale; another a nonbinary drag queen; the third, a beauty pageant contestant, all ‘moving statues’ weaving around that challenge gender notions, says Pellecchia (the choreographer). *

The missing piece fell into place for me: my discomfort with the new usage of the word “femme” is less about its expanded umbrella and much, much more about how “femme” seems to now be used exclusively to refer to gender. That’s why it feels so upsetting to me: it’s like “femme” no longer encompasses my own, beautiful, utterly queer, utterly exciting sexuality.

Well, of course I still have my sexuality. But the changing meaning of the word “femme” has ironically taken away, rather than expand. I expect that if I say “I’m femme,” to folx these days, they’ll assume nothing other than that femme is how I express myself, rather than how I’m wired romantically and sexually. And that’s a loss for me.

This is a really good example of why it’s incredibly important for queers of all kinds to make an effort to come together in community, the old and the young and the in-between; the super old school and the super new. Concepts such as nonbinary are saving lives today, just the way my understanding of femme saved mine back in the day. If we don’t talk with each other, listen to each other, communicate about our histories and personal stories, we will lose nuances and sources of knowledge. The status quo is more than happy for us to rumble with each other, disappear each other in a desperate scrabble for resources, when the reality is there is so much room. Room for all of us, and room for all of us to learn from each other.

I’ve never stopped being femme, and I don’t suppose I ever will. Think you know what I mean when I say that? Well, you might and you might not. But I’m happy to talk, so ask me a question. I might have a question or two for you, as well. The most important thing is that we not shut out or down each other’s vibrant, beautiful, true and lovely queer identities.

*Boston Spirit, Nov./Dec. 2019, “Backwards and in High Heels: KAIROS Dance Theater tackles objectification of women in new show” by Loren King

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! If you’ve written a femme story or poem or song, oh, please let me post it! New Femme Friday feature starting fall 2018: Books from which queer femmes can draw inspiration. What are your trusted sources of light and love? Please share!

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.”)