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Reclaiming Femme: A Practice in Radical Vulnerability

person in red heels standing on sidewalk
flickr/Mo Riza

In a world that wants me to see strength as rigid, being femme allows me to find it in vulnerability and community.

I feel my most queer in a skirt. Dresses feel like drag, like a performance I learned a long time ago, and am now reprising. Not quite a reenactment, but rather, a gender reckoning.

I do not remember the first time I was taught to demean the feminine. Maybe it was when my play was restricted by well-meaning adults telling me to keep my legs together—though they were the ones who put me in dresses. Maybe it was when I was a pre-teen and was told that girls should be good at school, but not too good, for fear of scaring off men. I began to see, as many see, the feminine as less important, frivolous, false, an act performed for the benefit of men.

But the feminine was also my community (which at the time was all cis, straight women). It was daiquiri mix in the fridge and all girl nacho nights with my friends and their moms and my single mom. We bonded over mandatory pedicures and Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts. We asked each other for makeup tips and knew that men were no good, but should be pursued nevertheless. It was Jude Law and Hugh Grant and finding the sensitive, but not too sensitive, men. It was not judging each other for crying at the end of sad movies, and giggling at other women’s bad haircuts. It was letting ourselves be joyous when the makeup bag came in pink, and promising to never “let ourselves go.” And it was the power of being vulnerable with one another when we found out my mother wasn’t going to live out the year. It was the way she held me and let me cry.

When I was young, I would watch my mother get ready in the mornings. She was a project manager at Ford, which, she was reminded daily, was a good job for a woman with only a high school diploma. It was my job to pick out the shoes she was going to wear for the day. I knew when she had meetings with the mostly male higher ups, because she would wear red, her power color. She rarely wore pants to work, preferring skirts and dresses. These were her armor.

There’s a certain type of femininity for the white, middle class below the Mason-Dixon. It’s blonde and perfect foundation and blush. It’s pretending to be upper class. It’s fake pearls and hot pink dresses. It’s monogrammed towels and a perfect wreath on the door, appropriate to the season. It’s also a passive femininity. It’s gossip and prayer groups and PTA meetings, but it definitely did not include the assertiveness needed to manage a team or go after that promotion. It was not the power femininity of the self-help books on my mother’s shelf: How to Succeed in Business without a Penis, and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When my mother called her makeup her “war paint,” I knew that on some level she was not joking or being metaphorical. She defied the femininity of her surroundings, and wore it into corporate battle, weaponized it. I remember her power. I remember her joy. I also remember her frustration.

To be a woman with ambition meant sacrificing the social training of woman. It was learning to look down on previous iterations of yourself. This was a lesson my mother never truly learned, or perhaps refused to, always keeping a small sense of play in her wardrobe. But when I moved in with my dad and crossed a class boundary, the pearls were replaced with leather bands, the pink with neutrals. A different kind of femininity was enforced here, in the upper middle class. This was a femininity that played a man’s game: its colors darker, its lines neater. This femininity was less social and more capitalistic. The bonding rituals stayed the same: The Notebook, blonde highlights, men. But the consequences for violating that femininity shifted. Where once I only had to fear the loss of community, I now had to fear the loss of status. Qualifications are irrelevant if you violate the social order. To be an outsider also meant being a failure. Success equaled wealth; there were no other barometers.

I began to see, as many see, the feminine as less important, frivolous, false, an act performed for the benefit of men. Click To Tweet

After my mother’s death and cut off from my main feminine role model, I also became cut off from the community of women she had introduced me to. Sure, by the age of thirteen, I had gleaned a little of how to perform woman. I knew how to put on a little makeup, and I knew what cut of pants was most flattering to my emerging pear shape, the same shape as my mother. I could quote Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde, and I knew which Titans players had the best asses. But I had very little language for this new brand of femininity, and it was becoming and harder to allow myself to remain vulnerable and open to it. Grief has a way of making a person insular, of making emotion inaccessible to others. PTSD deepens the divide between you and others, and, the protection of others gone, you learn that it is necessary to protect yourself.

Women’s clothing exposes. At best it is supposed to empower. At worst, it objectifies. I could not afford to be an object. My senses on high alert, I already felt outside my skin, outside of time, moving back and forth between the past and present jarringly. I began having flashbacks of my mother’s last moments and trouble sleeping. It became important to fortify myself. Often, that meant layers. That meant stoicism. It was James Dean, who knows how to be sad, but artfully. It was John Wayne, un-phased by massacre. It was denim, no makeup. Bravado.

And those men, the stoics. They always got the girl. And that was something, I was just figuring out, I might want too. And if my femininity was not solely to be performed for men, then what was its purpose? I discarded it, figuring it could no longer serve me.

The dictionary defines femme as “a lesbian whose appearance and behavior are seen as traditionally feminine.” However, that’s what makes it subversive. To be “femme” is to capture femininity on your own terms, reclaiming it from the heterosexual gaze and performing it instead for a queer community. Moving to New York at age eighteen, my ideas of femme possibility expanded: no makeup, unshaven armpits, shaved heads, not just lesbians but queer and bisexual women, too. These women exuded the same type of strength my mother had, but without the fake pearls. And, somehow, they still displayed traits of what we traditionally assign as feminine. They could allow themselves to be vulnerable, to take care of others while also allowing themselves to be taken care of. They prioritized intuition, not necessarily over logic, but alongside it. There’s a generosity in femininity, and an honoring of the role emotions play in our lives. In the feminine, they can be embraced; in the (toxic) masculine, they are something to be done away with. There’s a practicality to this femininity in the way that I imagine it. The feminine rolls up her sleeves and gets shit done.

But there is also a danger to femininity. How many gendered insults can be thrown against us without a few sticking? How many times can I be called a cunt or a pussy or a bitch and still maintain that there is strength in my womanhood. How many times can I be harassed? Raped? Walking down the streets of New York after I was assaulted my freshman year of college, it was hard to differentiate between annoying catcalls and threatening men. In some ways, I imagined the feminine as a victim.

The stats vary, but something close to one in six women will be raped in her lifetime. Hate crimes against trans women are on the rise. Femme gay men are often the targeted victims of hate crimes for threatening the masculine’s sense of world order. So I told myself a story. Masculine does not get told to smile on the street. Masculine does not get catcalled. Masculine is not raped. I understood that to be masculine meant being safer walking home at night. And it was that safety that I craved. This is of course, not true. The masculine is also policed and is sometimes the victim of violence. I knew that the more masculine my appearance, the more likely I was to be identified as gay by passersby, which presented new dangers. But I also knew that it was my femme and feminine sisters who had been taught to walk with our car keys tucked between our knuckles.

To surrender to the feminine began to feel like surrendering to pain. It seemed easier, safer, to hold myself at some remove. Withholding brought stability. The masculine myth of self-sufficiency made it less painful to acknowledge a lack of familial connection. But, for me, this remove was not sustainable. Stoicism meant isolation. Masculinity made me feel shored up against something. But though it was scarier, femininity meant healing, meant community. My femme identity exists in direct opposition to toxic, cisgender masculinity that would have me fear for my life no matter how I expressed my gender. Femme identity is my letting the guard down.

To be “femme” is to capture femininity on your own terms, reclaiming it from the heterosexual gaze and performing it instead for a queer community. Click To Tweet

Over the last several years, as I have begun my slow, femme re-education, I have found a new type of community. It is a sisterhood of queer femme-ininity. It includes cis, femme, queer women, trans women, femme trans boys, gay men in nail polish, and lipstick with beards. What I have learned is that there is no one way to be femme. Some wear their fierceness on their sleeves like a weapon, and others hide it beneath pastels. I have found power in many different avenues of the feminine, reclaimed.

Sometimes, it can be easy to let myself regress into the trappings of Southern femininity, especially since I’ve moved back to Tennessee. And it can be especially easy when I am rewarded with the mixed privilege of passing as straight. My queerness is routinely erased in the workplace, and it can be difficult to decide to out yourself when Tennessee currently does not have laws on the books protecting queer people from discrimination. So passing can start to feel, not only like a social mandate, but also an economic one. In what class does my femininity sit? In which class do I wish to sit?

But that’s when I decide that it is time to play, just like my mother taught me. I sit in a chair with my legs spread, just like I was told not to. To be femme is not just to be feminine, but to allow myself to practice femininity in ways that empower me. Most days, I choose not to wear makeup, but I also choose to center the personal in my writing, and to ask for care when I need it. I let myself take care of others because I know my community needs to be strong for each other. I allow myself to be vulnerable because it grants me power to take what I want. I now find myself reenacting the rituals, but I choose to go in sans war paint.