Archive for the ‘femme’ Category

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on femme invisibility and street harassment

July 21, 2007

There’s been a great deal of fantastic blogging about street harassment (SH) over at Feministe – first, a post on SH with a focus on queers and one about SH and race/class, both courtesy of Jack, who is guest blogging this week. I don’t usually read the comments underneath the posts – mostly I don’t have the time or the energy. My ears perk up, though, when I see nuanced writing about an issue that is not explicitly queer that includes queer perspectives on it. Jack asks towards the end of her post:

And then I always think – how do visually feminine women, who get way more of this than me, deal? How do femmes and other feminine queer women handle that on the daily?

While I can wax theoretical for hours and hours around other queers about my experience as a femme, I haven’t had much experience doing it with straight women. (sidenote: the vast majority of the women who comment at Feministe are straight – case in point, Jack gives her queer perspective, asks for others to give theirs, but with a few exceptions, the thread ends up being dominated by a discussion of whether a man should be allowed to give a polite compliment on the street – as in, is it a man’s tone or the mere fact that he’s talking to a strange woman that makes me feel degraded and violated?).

Maybe I’m just exercising caution. The differences between straight femininity and queer femininity are pretty huge but nuanced, especially to the naked (i.e. straight) eye. Hell, the differences between how white women and WOC experience femininity are also huge and complicated and I wouldn’t even know how to touch that. I can only talk about my own experiences as a white femme and admit that I share some of those experiences with white straight women. I fear that when I talk about empowerment or “reclamations” of femininity or especially about how I relate to masculine partners, I will hear the dreaded “why is your experience any different than a straight one?”

This is actually exactly what happened at Feministe. I posted this and then got this response. Read it if you like, the gist is that I wrote something about invisibility and about the complications of queer femininity becoming lost on the street and that catcalling further invisibilizes the queerness. The responder rightfully asks, how is your experience any different from a straight one?

I can’t speak for straight women. I don’t know what makes up their personal reaction to catcalling. I would guess that if you are normatively gendered, you don’t necessarily think and obsess about your gender presentation the way queers do and you certainly don’t feel your gender being erased in the same way. After all, I experience my gender as mostly synthetic and unnatural and in that way, it is pretty fragile.

I am not saying that straight women do not obsess about appearance. I’m saying that as a queer feminist, I’ve gone through phases and thought long and hard about what femininity means in the world and the ways that it’s been oppressive and powerful and sometimes both and the ways that I, personally, have experienced it as both. I’ve also obsessed over what it means to have a queer perspective on the world, looking out from inside a body that often passes as straight. And the answer, over and over again, is about invisibility. My answer about SH was not about straight women, it had nothing to do with straight women. And maybe I just need to make peace with the fact that straight women can and do relate to some of my words. (And blah blah identity politics we can have overlapping experiences and still be different people.)

At the same time, queer femmes walk around all day long being taken for something we are not. We’re misread as straight, and of course enjoy the privileges that come along with that, and also are included in the joys of SH. This asshole comes along, “hey baby, hey sexy,” and it’s like boom, again, hit me when I’m already down and already feel like I don’t exist. If the femme experiences of femininity is “empowerment,” there’s nothing more disempowering than a strange man telling you you’re sexy. (And for the record, I hate the word empowerment but I can’t think of anything better. I wouldn’t hate it so much if the fucking Pussycat Dolls and white middle-class pole dancers hadn’t co-opted it.)

And now the navel-gazing must come to an end, please go read and take part in the discussion about SH and race/class issues – namely about why sites like HollaBack seem to be dominated by stories of white women being harassed by men of color.

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fems take over the blogosphere

June 25, 2007

Joan Nestle has a blog! Rejoice! The first entry is about her first trip to Israel/Palestine and in true Joan Nestle fashion, it is a complicated and well-written piece. I can’t wait to see what’s to come. A snippet:

What finally pushed me to blog was my reading on my computer my daily New York Times–I now live in Melbourne, Australia with my lover–my reading of Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, these men of power who make huge pronouncements about how things should be in the world. I am not in their league, but I have stood with the Women in Black peace demonstrators in Haifa and Jerusalem, I have visited with women who run the Nazareth Women’s Center and its sister, the Haifa Women’s Center, I have met the women who founded ASWAT, the first human rights organization for Palestinian lesbians. I have seen Palestinian, Mizrachi and Ashkenazi Jewish, Christian and Ethiopian women meeting together in the same building. I have sat late into a Jerusalem night talking with a young butch-fem community, most of whom are peace activists, about how the body and its desires live in such a place at such a time. That night, our last in Jerusalem, one young woman said, “Come back to us when the occupation is over.”

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a salty primer on surfing the third wave

March 22, 2007

Salty, why are you so defensive about your femininity? Why must you always be talking identity politics? Just shut up about this femme stuff, alright, and get on with the HPV vaccine and the Jewish feminism and the social justice!

So here’s the deal. I was/am a youngest child, also the only girl. Feeling small, unsure of myself, and defensive feel as natural to me as my own skin. On the flip side, I’ve learned to hone my arguments, to know what I’m talking about. I can’t afford a weak stance.

That’s why I’m defensive. Now if we want to talk about femininity specifically, it’s because I am such a feminist that I follow blogs that, if I didn’t know blogs were a phenomenon of the recent few years, I would have thought came straight out of the 1970’s. IBTP has a great many active readers in comparison to many other feminist blogs. (edited 3/26) Also, essentialize much? Now, if I stopped being so controlling about feminism, I would retract my hand from the mainstream feminist cookie jar and tell myself that those stale cookies are NOT the kind that I bake here in my third-wave queer femme kitchen. I always hope for more. Always, always hoping. And then my hopeful feminist wants to die a sad death. I knew as soon as I saw “I’m asking you to answer the question, “What is femininity?” that I would be disappointed if I read the responses. And posts like that, friends, explain why the salty is so defensive.

Here’s my secret: feminism is where it’s at for me. I really believe that. I also believe that feminism exists at the intersection of about 8 million other “isms” that we also need to pay attention to, without which a discussion of feminism would make absolutely no sense at all. I cannot discuss men, high heels, patriarchy (i.e. the BOOGIEMAN), footbinding, or lesbian identity without a) specificity and b) context. Open-ended questions can only get you someplace bad, and in feminist blogland, to me that means a place where you define yourself in written words, yet you have not used those words to their full potential: to actually describe what you’re really talking about.

If second-wavers are all “Damn the Man!” why and how do they express this by pitting women against one another and simultaneously assuming that somewhere deep down, all women just get each other? I don’t mind women talking about their own horrible and painful experiences with femininity – I think they should, in fact. I’ve had some of those myself. It’s the nonspecific ones that get me. Femininity is learned helplessness. Femininity is pain. Femininity is a pack of lies that the world tells about women. So here’s what I take from all this universalizing.

The beauty of consciousness-raising groups in the 1970’s was that (mostly white, mostly middle class) women who experienced their lives in isolation began to learn that others shared their experiences, and that power came from finding commonalities. I think there’s a lot to learn from that, I think we form our human relationships and communities based on this same notion. The danger, though, is in talking in categories like “women” and “Americans” – depending on the context, I can be talking “queer femmes this” or “progressive Jewish Brooklynites in our mid-20’s that” and then continue with my sentence. After all, if you’re sitting in CR group, chances are that the women around you are from your community and likely live in your neighborhood, putting you in the same social class and probably race as you – also in the same age bracket. Suddenly you have more in common than just being women. So let’s back off the universalizing for just a little bit. And forget about defining yourself according to this mystery man called “patriarchy.” I hear he has bad taste.

(this post, BTW, was inspired by Ren’s personal words on femininity. So thanks.).

tags: feminism, femme

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you got real big brains, but I’m looking at your…

March 6, 2007

This is why I like to live in feminist blogland.

Jill at Feministe has a great post up about pop culture’s watered-down and totally distorted understanding of feminism. Apparently the Pussycat Dolls are the next wave of feminism. What’s this? Another case of female empowerment, ah yes. Nice ass, by the way.

Third-wave feminists have enough trouble trying to explain that “sex-positive” doesn’t always mean “totally ok with all pornography and traditional female subjugation.” The backlash is in full swing, and part of it involves using feminism to suit your own, non-feminist aims: Selling sexist shit as “empowerful,” fear-mongering about Femi-Nazis, arguing that feminism created the mainstreaming of pornography, or deciding that a woman is a real feminist if she embraces every requirement of traditional femininity.

This is the nuance I was going for in that femininity post. This also explains why Intentional Feminist Femininity (the femme thing, you know what I’m talking about) is one of the hardest things to explain to a non- or pre-feminist or to a *gasp* second-wave egalitarian feminist. Because femininity is still so steeped in patriarchy and because pop culture got the ridiculous idea somewhere (from many brands of egalitarian feminism, perhaps?) that choice trumps all. As if free choice is somehow exempt from the rest of our lives as women and came into existence completely independent of this patriarchal culture.

This discussion is a vicious cycle, natch, and if you know me at all you know I’m no nihilist. I understand that my own relationship with femininity is love-hate – I know that it has some pretty dreadful roots and is fairy steeped in all things patriarchal. I also know that I don’t believe that “free choice” actually exists anywhere in our lives. I dare you to name a decision in our lives that isn’t somehow affected by our gender (a key one to mention here), community and family standards, financial situation, race, sexual orientation, what high school you went to, etc. Jill continues on this point.

Younger women may have more choices today than ever before, but we still don’t have a full array. Younger women are presented with an image of male-defined “sexiness” as the best way for them to be attractive, fun and desirable. Dancing on the bar or flashing their breasts secures them the positive attention that they probably wouldn’t get from being the smartest girl in class. It’s the new way to prove that you’re “fun” and “independent” if you’re “doing it for me.” And while men are fully permitted to be both sexual and serious, and otherwise possessive of complex identities, women who seek male attention are pushed into the sexbot role.

We can understand “free choice” to be the messiah of feminism, in that we work towards this theoretical utopia with the understanding that we will likely not experience it in our lifetimes. Which, to me, isn’t so much depressing as it is realistic and should rid us of the “weight of the world on our shoulders” thing that feminists often experience. At this point in time, men still have many more choices about who they are and what their lives can and should mean. In other words, the Pussycat Dolls are welcome to call it sexy and fun and girl power, whatever. Just don’t call it feminism. Please.

P.S. The title of this post if from the Pussycat Doll’s Beep (a song about feminist empowerment if I ever knew one. Ha.)

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sexuality and social change movements (part 1)

March 2, 2007

Tonight I attended a panel called Desiring Change: Sexuality in Multi-Issue Organizing at Barnard College, my alma mater. Like most thought-provoking and star-studded events there, it was put on by the Center for Research on Women. On the panel were Amber Hollibaugh, Surina Khan, & Scot Nakagawa (you can read their bios in that first link). I’m going to focus on the words of queer femme activist Amber Hollibaugh, who wrote one of my favorite books and has proved to be an inspiring and thought-provoking teacher every time I hear her speak.

The issue at hand is incredibly complex and fraught and yet so basic to organizing and movement building. How do we integrate parts of our lives that are so fragmented? More specifically, why is sexuality (especially queer sexuality) such an untouchable and detached issue in our social change movements? This question is especially poignant when we think about how many activists across the board are queer, and how many of us are forced to separate who we are as sexual beings from who we are in the rest of our lives – even in the most progressive/radical of movements.

I can’t summarize the whole panel, as much as I’d like to. A number of points resonated with me that I’d like to share. Amber talked about her own identity, how she grew up poor and mixed-race, how she entered social movements with multiple identities that she struggled to keep separate. She was a lesbian and a sex-worker and was very active in both the civil rights and feminist movements (among others). She spoke about feminist discussions about sex work, discussions had with the assumption that no feminist had had any experience as a sex worker.

This is a continuing problem of a feminist movement that imagines “woman” only as white and middle-class. Self-hatred joins together with racism and classism to create a catch-22 scenario, where the white feminists are unfamiliar with the identities of a group that they are taking part in silencing, and the silenced group is too freaked out about being “out” to make their own needs and struggles heard. In the Jewish community, where the assumption is that you are Ashkenazi and middle-class, making yourself heard as Mizrahi or Sephardi or working-class is an uphill battle.

What’s amazing, though, is that we all have complicated lives and identities. Even middle-class white women don’t live up to the standard against which everyone else is judged. Once the silence is broken, we realize that this so-called “minority” is no minority at all. This whole notion that any single-issue movement can actually speak for everyone is kind of a farce. And this also goes for the mainstream LGBT movement that is pouring resources and energy into “Marriage Equality.” (if that doesn’t define them as single-issue movement, I don’t know what does).

Thank goodness for Beyond Marriage and its signatories – a list that includes all three panelists. It was getting pretty exhausting trying to explain my opposition to the current same-sex marriage movement without being allied with the Christian right. It’s a pretty perfect example of this multi-issue thing put into practice. And again, as with many of the issues the panelists discussed, it’s not about a minority pushing its views in. The fact is, most queer people (and some would argue that most straight people) do not fit into the narrow configuration of “family” that the same-sex marriage movement puts forward. It doesn’t account for our complicated, messy lives. All of our lives and identities and problems are multi-issue – why should our social change movements not follow through?

Postscript: as usual, I finish my discussion with more questions than I started with. In part 2 – coming this weekend – I’ll try to flesh out some of the questions this panel brought up for me, specifically around sex. Specifically, what is it about queer sexual identity that makes even the most progressive activists so twitchy?

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changing the context

February 11, 2007

A warm welcome to visitors from Fetch Me My Axe and especially to visitors from the Carnival of Feminists. I am especially honored to be featured on the carnival among so many fabulous feminist bloggers. After the flood of visitors to my post about femininity, I felt compelled to return to my femme roots, at least the literary ones. Joan Nestle is a hero of mine, and her article about femme identity in the Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (published 1992, edited by Nestle, and out of print, unbelievable – you can buy it used though) has been a source of learning and growth for me for as long as I have known the word femme. I don’t know why I was so shocked to learn that I learned so many of my notions (not to mention my confidence) about femme identity and femininity from Nestle.

Nestle writes at length about femme identity in relation to butch – and she pulls this off in a way that does not take away from either identity existing and resisting on its own. Regarding the subversion vs. rejection discussion, which I mentioned in that post, Nestle writes:

Colonization and the battle against it always pose a contradiction between appearances and deeper survivals. There is a need to reflect the colonizer’s image back at hi yet at the same time to keep alive what is a deep part of one’s culture, even if it can be misunderstood by the oppressor, who omnipotently thinks he knows what he is seeing. Butch-femme carries all this cultural warfare with it. It appears to incorporate elements of the heterosexual culture in power; it is disowned by some who want to make a statement against the pervasiveness of this power; yet it is a valid style, matured in years of struggle and harboring some of our bravest women. (emphasis mine)

It’s kind of an amazing thing to be able to trace own’s own thought process to a particular article or school of thought. I trace mine to the article from which the above is quoted – “The Femme Question.” Nestle explains that not only are we subverting the ‘colonizing’ power, (and here she is speaking about pervasive heterosexuality and hetero gender norms) she is bravely stating that we are socialized in this pervasive culture, yet we can use the very tools that it has given us to resist it.

More on resistance and on reading the nuance of queer feminine gender:

Femmes are women who have made choices, but we need to be able to read between the cultural lines to appreciate their strength. Lesbians should be mistresses of discrepancies, knowing that resistance lies in the change of context. (emphasis mine)

As a femme, I strive to be a mistress of discrepancy. This begs the question though, how do we do that? If “resistance lies in the change of context,” how do we change the context? I believe Nestle would respond that we change the context by subverting the mainstream (what she writes about in the first paragraph I quoted). For Nestle, the struggle for sexual freedom was and is inherently tied to other resistance movements: racial, economic, religious. (for more on this see my favorite Joan Nestle book, A Restricted Country). Our conversations about gender representation and queer identity are incomplete unless they include the racial, economic, and religious contexts in which they exist.

I think that is precisely what is seriously lacking in all these hypothetical conversations about “the end of gender,” as if our gender identities existed in some kind of bubble. “Changing the context,” then, is about figuring out how gender resistance is inextricably linked those other resistance movements. This, for me, is queer identity. It’s what pushes me to hold on to femme, to butch/femme lesbian history: learning resistance and figuring out how to resist in this violence-ridden, xenophobic culture of ours. Change the context.

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playing the gender game

January 26, 2007

So I wrote that post about femme and femininity. It felt revealing and very personal, and I also had that sinking feeling that I was saying something that is really obvious. So a few weeks passed, and I didn’t get too much feedback (blogs allow people to be passive and disengaged, as much as I personally happen to be a pretty engaged blog reader). And I figured that for the most part, I didn’t ask any questions that hadn’t been asked before.

Apparently, I was wrong. There are many feminists who still hate femininity, and still attribute it entirely to patriarchy, and who don’t really want to think about it with any kind of nuance. That post is from I Blame the Patriarchy, which I just started reading, but I guess I was still surprised that the name of the blog is taken so literally in the posts, almost to a fault. The author is clear to define femininity as the term is used on that specific blog. However, the definition is itself so patriarchal (taking away all agency re: femininity from women themselves) that I wanted to scream. An excerpt:

Femininity is a set of practices and behaviors (boob jobs, FGM, ‘beauty’, the ‘veil’, the flirty head-tilt, pornaliciousness, BDSM, fashion, compulsory pregnancy, marriage, et al) that are dangerous, painful, pink, or otherwise destructive; that compel female subordination; that exist only to benefit Dude Nation; that are overwhelmingly represented by ‘girly’ feminists as a ‘choice’; and that are overwhelmingly represented by godbags and other irritating conservatives as ‘natural instincts’.

I should also point out that in my handy mozilla wordsearch, neither the word ‘femme’ nor ‘queer’ exists anywhere in the post itself or the ensuing discussion (58 long comments). Interesting how the queer femme position complicates both sides of this debate: that femininity is inherently a tool of the patriarchy, and that femininity can be reclaimed without questioning and struggling with the ways that femininity is patriarchal. Also interesting that the queer femme is nowhere to be found in this thread. And I realize that my questions are novel. Stuck between these two positions is a hard place to be. But it helps to read why some feminists hate femininity so much – it helps me clarify why I agree to some extent, and why agreeing that femininity has been a tool of the patriarchy pushes me to own femininity and struggle with it instead of reject it. It’s the murky place of figuring out exactly how to do that that seems to really fuck people up.

And so I ask again, what does it mean to be a feminist and claim femininity, and not in the girly “I can’t get out of my comfort zone so I have to shave my legs and wear makeup but call it feminism to justify it” kind of way. In the way that my femininity belongs to me. Not to patriarchy. Seriously. Because I get to pick and choose; because I can control the way others respond to the gender I perform; because I still sport body hair with a sexy tank top and mascara and declare it as hot and mine and others respond in kind; because I don’t perform femininity for any man or even for any woman. I like femininity because I choose it, and not because I’ve been co-opted as a tool of the patriarchy. And I do it all as a feminist.

I also wonder what gender the femininity-hating feminists perform and how they make sense of it. Gender is a part of our world (a part that I actually enjoy) so I am genuinely curious as to how they see themselves and how they think others perceive them.

So how does being a queer femme give me special privilege to talk about femininity? Granted, I exist in this world and was socialized into the same one as straight women. At the same time, I imagine and seek out a world outside of the mainstream. In my attempts to stray from the mainstream, I realize also that the best way to fuck with patriarchy is to subvert it and not to reject it outright. Rejecting something means that you acknowledge its authority, power, and importance. It is completely exhausting and when it comes to gender, and to femininity more specifically, it doesn’t work. Queer femme means subverting femininity – gender is never meant to be taken at face value. It’s a game. The trick is figuring out the rules.