Can Straight Women Be Femme? Visibility and the Mainstreaming of Femme

Zooey Deschanel has been an unabashedly femme role model of mine for years.

Exhibit A: I ripped a page out of a magazine, framed it, and hung it on my wall because it was emblazoned with her quote: “I want to be a fucking feminist and wear a fucking Peter Pan collar. So fucking what?”

Exhibit B: She tackled femmephobia on New Girl, the show she stars in and produces:

Exhibit C: This month as Cosmo’s cover girl, Zooey’s femmespirational quotes continue. When asked about the “Ask Her More” campaign, Zooey replied: “I’m all for people asking actresses more intelligent questions. Just because you’re wearing a nice dress doesn’t mean you don’t have any ideas. It’s a shame to reduce smart, talented women to clothes models. But you can be a feminist and femme. I don’t see how those things contradict each other.”

My heart skipped a beat. She used the word femme. I have never seen the word femme used in a mainstream publication or by a mainstream celebrity. What does this mean? Could this indicate the mainstreaming of femme? Is that a good thing?

Visibility is a tricky issue for femmes. Many of us don’t have it, but we want it. We want to be recognized as queer by both queer and straight communities, without giving up the ways of dressing and acting that make us feel powerful and authentic. We want our femininity to be recognized as queer and meaningful by those communities, too; we want them to know that it is chosen, that it is on purpose. Zooey is not queer-identified, but her insistence that femininity is valuable is in line with the politics associated with queer femininity.

Many femmes argue that femme is a strictly queer term, even a strictly lesbian term. And they have a point: the word “femme” signals butch/femme lesbian history.

Tumblr blogger prairiefemme says:

“Femme is, quite simply, about defiance. It’s about embracing traditional femininity but ignoring the male gaze.

The thing is, femme is historically an identity for lesbians only. I would suggest reading a bit into lesbian history, because you’ll find that that is really the truth. If you identify as femme but you’re dating men, what’s to stop straight women from taking that label, too? What does femme become? Femme doesn’t simply mean “feminine”. Just because you’re a woman who wears mascara and heels, you’re not a femme. That’s just gender conformity. Women are conditioned to dress that way! Femme goes beyond personal style and becomes a firm statement of identity: I’m a lesbian, I don’t do anything for men. My clothes, my hair, my makeup – none of this is for men. This is for me, this is for other women. This is for my female partner.”

In the context of lesbian history, butch and femme identities did signal sexual dynamics — and it likely still does for many people — but this wasn’t its only meaning, nor is it femme’s only meaning today. What femme means is different for every femme, and there are several anthologies, blogs, and more that illustrate this point.

While I agree with prairiefemme that femme is about defiance, I disagree that femme style is for any partner, regardless of gender. I disagree that the only reason women, of any sexual orientation, wear makeup or heels is to conform to gender expectations or impress their partner. My understanding of femme has always been a political one; femme is about politicizing femininity. Femme means identifying and presenting as feminine in an intentional and deliberate way. It’s about knowing that choosing femininity in a misogynist and sexist world is inherently political, and it is harder than it looks. It means choosing femininity knowing full well you are going to face catcalls, sexism, invisibility, violence, and suspicion. It means knowing you deserve respect, to take up space, and to be yourself no matter how you dress or act — and demanding that others acknowledge this and act accordingly.

Following this definition, anyone can be femme. It is not an identity reserved for women or lesbians, or any other group of stakeholders. Any time femininity is taken up with a political awareness, that’s femme. And this is precisely what Zooey Deschanel does in Exhibits A through C.

Zooey Deschanel’s comments are extremely important because femme visibility is extremely important. She brings politicized femininity and the notion that femininity is not a natural state but rather a chosen one, into the mainstream. This is significant in a culture that covertly airbrushes and photoshops all manner of celebrities to meet the feminine ideal; talking about femininity as unnatural or a performance debunks the myths that these ideals are achievable, and that femininity is a natural and normal state. Zooey’s contributions are significant, too, because they suggest that femininity is more than a style or aesthetic. She tackles this specifically in the New Girl scene. This point has been taken up by many bloggers, and is critical to challenging sexist beauty standards, and the idea that women are only valuable based on their looks.

However, the most significant contribution Zooey makes is bringing these ideas into the mainstream world of Hollywood celebrities. She introduces this set of politics to many people who may have never considered how femininity and feminine people are treated in our society. This can go a long way in shifting mainstream perceptions of femininity, making a significant impact for feminine people. But, as is the risk when things go mainstream, we get a watered down, less nuanced version of these politics. Zooey is the only mainstream celebrity I’ve seen use this term and even talk about femininity in this socially and politically aware way. It is always dangerous when only voice out of many has a far-reaching platform. At best, Zooey can only represent one perspective on femme, and many of us won’t even consider Zooey a femme because she hasn’t identified as queer.

While I believe that heterosexual women like Zooey can be femme (even Autostraddle says she counts, and they’re like… experts), we do lose something when queerness is taken out of the conversation. When Zooey talks about femme, it doesn’t necessarily evoke the history of butch/femme: the role femmes played in caring for and protecting butch and masculine-of-centre folks and fighting for lesbian rights and recognition, the safety butch/femme style offered in a highly homophobic society, or the pain of fighting for a sexuality and gender that was fulfilling and authentic. Nor does it reflect the reality that our femininity often compromises our place in queer circles: that we are ignored, overlooked, taken less seriously, and continue to face violence and sexist treatment. These experiences aren’t far off from what all women and many other feminine people face on a daily basis, but it is important to recognize that queer femmes are doubly subjected to this treatment.

However, there is more to femme politics than (just?) sexism and homophobia. Any politic that interrogates beauty standards and ideals of femininity must necessarily take up gender, sexuality, and race, body size, ability, and class, too. Laura from Tutus and Tiny Hats writes about the intersections of fat and femme: “Femme is, for me, a form of resistance. It’s about being over-the-top in a society that would rather I be invisible. It’s about doing femininity on my own terms–not the impossible terms that the beauty industrial complex and the weight cycling industry want to sell me.”

Laura also quotes Janine deManda’s take on working class femmes: “In case you haven’t put these concepts together before, queer women are not the only women who have ever been told they aren’t really women and who have labored to reclaim themselves from misogynist, femininity despising overcultural norms. The women I grew up around were poor, rural, working class women, some of whom were mixed bloods and/or gimps, too, who were told by almost every overcultural message that they were not real women because they didn’t qualify for the incredibly narrow, absurdly constrained category of “appropriately feminine”.

Femme doesn’t belong to one group of people because femininity isn’t used to oppress only one group of people. This is what I mean when I say femme is about defiance. Femme is the word we have for reclaiming femininity, challenging beauty standards and the ideals of womanhood. Femme is the word we have for remixing femininity and womanhood and reshaping these things so it can hold all of our sexualities, genders, races, cultures, abilities, and bodies. Femme is the word we have for defying expectations and making femininity our own. This work is done by many people using many different approaches. Straight celebrities challenging the devaluation of femininity in mainstream publications and culture is one approach among many.

The mainstreaming of femme politics is valuable in many ways. I nearly screamed for joy when I saw the word “femme” in Cosmo. Every time Zooey Deschanel confronts the critics of her feminine or “girly” style, I think YESSSSSS and share it any way I can. It feels so damn good to see some semblance of myself reflected and defended in mainstream society and in pop culture. I just hope this dialogue keeps going and that more people join in. I will never stop admiring Zooey Deschanel for spearheading this conversation in the mainstream, but it would be, you know, nice if queer femmes had as much reach as she does, or even if other feminine folks would use their own platforms to similarly talk about sexism and femmephobia. Dare I say, I might even want to hear a little something more about the power, joy, and freedom people find in femininity.

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