“But how do I tell what is oppressive sexist junk laid on me by social expectations and what is powerful femme expression that comes from my core?” a young woman asked me after Jill Barkley’s FemmeGender session at Translating Identities Conference at University of Vermont. She had appreciated my contributions to the discussion and wanted my view.
“That’s the whole point of femme,” I told her, “the process of figuring that out. That’s how you claim your own personal gender identity past stereotypes and unconsidered assumptions.”
It turns out though, that the one thing femmes share is the challenge of stereotypes and unconsidered assumptions. I noted that the words “complex” and “invisible” were next to each other on the board of words that people held about “femme.” I suggested that it was exactly that complexity that was invisible to people who couldn’t read the nuance we express, and it was the erasure of that complex self that was the hardest thing.
“Oh, yes,” the gal said. “I go and express something and all people see is my necktie or my fishnet stockings, missing all the meaning between them.” Jill agreed, saying “It’s not gender normative when I wear a dress, and you will know that well if you know what I do in that dress!”
Jill told the story of a child afraid to admit their love for shiny & sparkling things, who had to sneak into a bedroom, lock the door and pull down the shades before trying on pretty skating dresses, twirling in the mirror. That child, though, was Jill, and the skating dresses were bought by Mom for figure skating exhibitions. It was just that Jill didn’t feel safe in admitting how much she loved pretty, how much that expression engaged her. Jill continues to navigate the road between power and femme, now moving beyond being defined by her partner, and in fact, taking pride in redfining partners. “There are lots of trans men now, but when they go out with me, they can’t hide as straight — I queer them good!” she told us.
The notion of femme as process, as the process of creating & claiming a powerful self who embraces her own receptivity and learns to express herself as strong & unique in the world seemed to lie behind most comments. Partners wondered why femmes needed self expression when they were treated like princesses, or why any femme woman would object to a partner who went trans and wanted to see her as a straight woman. Femmes wondered why it was so hard to find a way to be in the world without being erased by the assumptions of others.
Of course, this mirrors the challenges of straight women, who, as Deborah Tannen has noted, are more “linguistically marked” than men, using more, more diverse and more complex expression of self, though words, actions and symbols. The difference is that femmes need to express their differences from straight women, in how they choose to take power, in how they assemble both conventional and extra conventional woman components, and in who they desire & love.
Femmes must do this in ways that both venerates objects of inner power — style — while resisting the objects of normativity — fashion. We have to be willing to be objects of desire, but also be clear that when that objectification becomes non-consentual it must change.
That means, I suspect, that femmes need to help each other see and understand our own inner landcape and help each other create powerful expressions of that landscape. That means encouraging and affirming process.
TIC is full of college age people, or those who recently left college. I was surprised that a number of young femmes — and one transwoman — wanted to affirm me for what I shared, wanted to know my take on things. It’s my hope that we can share the femmestruggle through the age groups, each of us sharing our own femmestruggle to illuminate the path of and for all.
It’s good to know that the femmestruggle goes on, and that what I blog here reflects the challenge of understanding and expressing complexity in a way that it is not made invisible by the assumptions & expectations of others.
And that includes shopping well, which is why I love the $6 VickiVi top and $5 Notations skirt I picked up in Glens Falls.
Objects and meanings, symbols and content. I guess we just keep on expressing, and being the mothers who help others express. What else is there?