Women and Femmes Unite!
A Structural and Political Analysis of Femininity
I need to start this article with a clear declaration:
I am a Black non-binary femme, and I’m proud of that.
Lately there has been some confusion around what the phrase “women and femmes” does — what it clarifies analytically and what work it does to build solidarity in our activist/organizing spaces. In particular, this article responds directly to critiques leveled by Kesiena Boom in a recently popular Slate article making it’s way through the queer community. I’d like to break down the term femme, it’s contested meanings, and it’s use in activist spaces today.
As a fellow Black scholar and sociologist of gender and sexuality I’d like to invite a deeper and more nuanced discussion of linguistics and gender than simply calling my gender presentation (and solidarity across femininity) “incoherent nonsense.”
As a historical sociologist, the first place to start in any analysis is with the origins and transformations of the category we’re talking about. Often times “femme” is reduced to a term used by working class lesbians to connote a feminine gender expression, often seen in contrast to the masculine lesbian construction of “butch.” It was a performance of femininity which subverted and rejected standards of heteronormativity and patriarchy — with an explicit focus on the ways femininity (often understood as excessive, artificial, and criminal) could be understood outside of a masculine/feminine dichotomy in which femininity is only defined as it’s opposite.
Interestingly, the claim that working class lesbians “owned” the word femme fails to take into account concurrent trans histories. During this time period — in the same book suggested by Boom (Stone Butch Blues) — we can see that trans identities are named through expressions of gender rather than identity. The book itself troubles the categories so necessary to Boom’s analysis, as the main character Jessie moves back and forth between the categories of trans and butch. This is also certainly true of the feminine presenting people throughout the book — including and especially the “drag queens.” We can see this blurred nature historically as well — particularly within queer of color spaces like the balls which proliferated throughout American cities since the 1930s. When one walks in the ball category of “femme queen realness” it’s not about sexed bodies, nor identity, but the ability to demonstrate and perform femininity. Without the creation and dispersal of words like “transgender” people often identified as drag queens, femmes, and other labels which upset cis-normative standards and expectations. In fact, the difference between gender expression and identity is a product of the historical construction of the categories of sexuality and gender.
This construction is also racialized. C. Riley Snorton’s “Black On Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity” also points out the fact that whiteness was (and continues to be) the standard for maintaining the dichotomy between cis and trans bodies. Black bodies, Brown bodies, Indigenous bodies are all constructed as less biologically differentiated than the white standard — in essence that means that non-white bodies have always already been constructed as trans. Taking into account both of these histories, demanding the analytic distinction between gender expression and identity is a shaky claim to make considering current scholarship. To take an analytic category and construct it as timeless is anachronistic at best, and erasure at worst.
Once we’ve conducted a trans and queer of color critique on the history of the term “femme” we have to turn to what role it plays in describing structural realities today. Boom works in the language of identity, but I’d like to exchange that language for the language of gender structures instead. Femininity, as a form of expression, is denigrated and devalued on all bodies; no matter an individual’s self-identification. Fighting back against the neoliberal and modern understanding of a coherent and authentic self, I argue instead that identity is produced through structures and these structures exceed any one individual’s claim on the gender order. Butches and trans men, because of the gender order are seen as inherently or “really” feminine — in opposition to their self-identification — and the violence that emerges from that structural ascription is tied to disciplining them back into the proper gender order.
Femmes aren’t constructed as femmes because of self-identification either, but about the connotation of difference and lesser status which marks all feminine performance. In this way, terms like “femmephobia” encapsulate how femininity, as a gendered way of existing, is systemically uncoupled from respect or humanity. This term is specific, and not reducible to sexism (which identifies the root form of power imbalance as based in the sexes and not in masculinity or femininity).
Patriarchy often does not distinguish between identity and performance because both are considered natural and co-terminous.
This is an important point, as the debate around the terms “women and femmes” has often ignored the historical fact that these distinctions are constructions. Boom nods to the existence of non-binary people in her article, but a more substantive examination of non-binary experiences of gender unveil the issues of sex/gender distinctions and the way that relying on “womanhood” or “manhood” as your frame for understanding gender violence is inherently binarist and cis-centric. While binary trans people claim womanhood or manhood, that is rarely the case for non-binary people. So without relying on these categories how are we supposed to talk about our experiences of gender oppression?
We cannot get around this question. If our goal is to produce solidarity and a society which is anti-patriarchal there has to be some frame for talking about gender violence which extends beyond sexed bodies into the realm of gender performance. If the distinction between sex and gender is shaky, and identity is structurally produced and not simply self-identified, then we have to ask in what ways the system does different kinds of violence to populations it produces and names all the while maintaining patriarchy and masculine gender orders. Without such an analysis it’s impossible to build coalitions or achieve liberation, neither will happen without non-binary femmes.
Which brings me to the question of solidarity. Women, regardless of their gender performance, experience sexism and patriarchy because the gender order hopes to discipline them into “proper” subordinate versions of femininity. Femmes experience femmephobia and patriarchy because they do not perform proper forms of femininity and because femininity is devalued — no matter the sexed bodies performing femininity. Femmes who are assigned male at birth are not just disciplined because they represent failures of masculinity; they’re also disciplined because their sexed bodies are seen as contrary to “real womanhood” — echoed in the controversy around Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement,“When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.” “Real womanhood” continues to be a term which again aligns gender identity with some claims grounded in essential biological difference.
Women and femmes are not the same, but they are intertwined, and its exactly that mutual oppression and shared experience under patriarchy that has led activists today to identify “women and femmes” in their organizing spaces. Women, whether they be butch or not, and femmes (including people assigned male at birth) share overlapping space; and we need to care for each other and rally for each other recognizing that fact. It’s for this reason that you’ll see organizing space making room for both — recognizing their different histories and deployments. Not all women are femme, and not all femmes are women, but they are all subjected to the violence of the patriarchal gender order.
For a final echo, because it seems to get confused by so many — Femme is a performance which subverts and rejects standards of heteronormativity, patriarchy and cis-sexism— with an explicit focus on the ways femininity (often understood as excessive, artificial, and criminal) must be understood outside of a masculine/feminine and male/female dichotomy in which femininity is only defined as it’s biological or performative opposite.
We are brilliant.
We are here.
And we’re a political force to be reckoned with.