Sometimes when I talk about softness, emotions, earnestness, and vulnerability I’m talking about them as a reaction to what I see as the privileging of hardness, irony, and lack of emotion. Softness is part of femme for me, so sometimes I talk about soft femme in relation to hard femme. I have been asked if I think this creates a binary between hard femme and soft femme. I don’t think hard and soft femme exist on a binary. Hard femme and soft femme are different, but they are not opposite. They overlap. We can’t talk about femme without talking about both hardness and softness. Currently, there is a growing emphasis on softness, and I think this marks a departure from the past emphasis on hardness.
Much of the celebration and writing about femme so far has been about the femme’s ability to mess with binaries. Femme is subversive because femme is feminine, but sexually and romantically attracted to women (but not only/always women). Femme is subversive because femme looks feminine, but doesn’t act it: femmes are loud, brash, and tough. Femme is subversive when performed by racialized, working class, disabled, nonbinary or male people because femininity is reserved for white, middle/upper class, able bodied white women. There are many ways to be femme. All of these ways of being femme are true, and all of them are amazing and important.
In the 1990s, Kathleen McHugh and Lisa Duggan’s The Fem(me)inist Manifesto was published in the academic journal Women and Performance. They wrote: “Fem(me) science considers femininity a debased and fallen form of itself — a (pre)historic faux pas, an inexplicable lapse into a morass, a swamp of sincerity and sentimentality.” Contemporary feminist and femme philosophies have a difference take on sincerity and sentimentality. CyberTwee is an art collective first imagined as a twee antidote to the cyberpunk movement. Riffing off VNS Matrix’s 90’s cyberfeminist manifesto, the CyberTwee collective members wrote this:
far too long have we succumb to the bitter edge of the idea that power is lost in the sweet and tender. romantic is not weak. feminine is not weak. cute is not weak. we are fragmented and multifaceted bbs.
lack of emotion is oft favored because success is defined as the ability to be mechanical and efficient. but sentimentality, empathy, and being too soft should not be seen as weaknesses.
we see the limitations of corporeality, as solipsists, we know the body is the original prosthesis for operating in this universe, we know the body illusory, we curate our candy. our sucre sickly sweet is intentional and not just a lure or a trap for passing flies, but a self-indulgent intrapersonal biofeedback mechanism spelled in emoji and gentle selfies.
There are obvious differences and obvious nods between the CyberTwee manifesto and the Fem(me)inist Manifesto, here most notably the valuation of sentimentality. I draw these comparisons not to pit two versions of fem(me)inism against each other but to historicize femme and point out the dialogical capabilities of various iterations of femme theory.
I don’t think it’s possible to completely differentiate between hard and soft femme. All of femme is at once hard and soft. What do we mean when we say hard? Political? Difficult? Tough? Mean? What do we mean when we say soft? Emotional? Feminine? Tender? All reclamation and revaluation of femininity is political, difficult, and tough in a patriarchal society. All femmes are hard femmes, even when they are soft (I have written a little more about this here). This combination of hardness and softness is well documented in the femme community. NYC femme educator, writer, and artist Kim Milan conducted a workshop at the 2012 FemmeCon deconstructing femmephobia titled “In Fierceness and Vulnerability” (the prezi is online here). Toronto femme artist Dainty Smith regularly uses the hashtag #toughtendergirls on Instagram, and Jessica Luxery and others use #hardlooks4softgirls. So, I compare hard and soft femme not to create a binary where there is not one, but to show growth, movement, and multiplicity in our theories of femme. Femme theory doesn’t emerge fully formed from a vacuum, it is referential and contextual. The femme theory produced by McHugh and Duggan emerged from its own context, a product of postmodernist thought and a response to queer theory’s (and queer culture’s) celebration of other gender benders. The femme theory being produced now refers to the existing body of femme theory and its own social and cultural context.
My interest in softness and soft femme is not an attempt to create a hierarchy of femme wherein soft femme reigns for being “new” and “progressive,” and hard femme is passé. Hard femme is dope. Hard femme theory is relevant and has moved femininity and queerness in ways that are extraordinarily valuable. There are still hard femmes, just as there have always been soft femmes — this concept isn’t necessarily new, just building new momentum. My interest is to dislodge a dominant or singular definition of femme. Soft femme won’t fit everyone, and hard femme doesn’t fit me. Hard femme and soft femme are capable of doing different things for gender and queer theory, and folding different people into the conversation.
There are many critiques of femme theory, and these critiques open up new places in femme theory, culture, and community. One major critique of femme theory is the tendency to create a binary between queer and straight femininity. Lisa Walker problematized hard/high femme ideal of queer fem(me)ininity in her 2012 article “The Future of Femme: Notes on Aging, Femininity, and Gender Theory.” She is critical of femme theory for constructing a binary between “radicalized bad girls” and “debased good girls” (a binary which is politically grounded in the sex wars of 1980s feminism). This not only excludes some femmes (like soft or low femmes) but contributes to the construction of heterosexual femininity as victimization (p. 798). This construction is necessary in order for femme to seem subversive in these postmodern times. Biddy Martin, too, is critical of how gender and sexuality have been theorized in postmodern theory. She is critical of the “evacuation of the interior” in postmodern queer theories, and the privileging of sexuality over gender. She writes: “I am particularly interested, here, in a resistance to something called “the feminine,” played straight, and in a tendency to assume that when it is not camped up or disavowed, it constitutes a capitulation, a swamp, something maternal, ensnared and ensnaring” (p. 73). Robbin VanNewkirk also writes of queering femininity as a curiosity, “as if femininity is manifested in a fixed and natural state that must then be modified or ruptured by the abnormal and therefore defiant queer impact” (p. 76).
Another critique of femme theory is the tendency to privilege a performative, or highly visible/visual, version of high/hard femme. Walker writes: “Lately, the playground of consumer culture was becoming a minefield: shimmery eye shadows emphasized fine lines; matte red lipstick suddenly looked too brash; vintage clothes looked suspiciously like I might have bought them new. I had always been a conservative dresser, but now it seemed less a choice than a requirement. What, I wondered, was a middle-aged femme to do? What, indeed, did a middle-aged femme look like?” (p. 796). VanNewkirk also has anxieties about a performative femme: “I resist the label of femme sometimes for the same reasons a quilter might resist the label of artist. This is particularly true when people start talking about high femme; versus what? Thankfully, you don’t hear people talk too much about low femmes, but it still leaves me wondering if I can truly manage this identity. I can’t help but feel like femmes are supposed to be confident and legendary creatures, not awkward and skeptical. […] Frankly, I don’t glide through space so much as teeter unless I am concentrating hard on something, and then I inevitably end up tripping over some obstacle in my path” (p. 76-77). Mia Mingus has also been critical of “femme” for being inaccessible.
Reading these critiques has been very nourishing for me. I have been thinking and writing about low femme and soft femme for a few years, and I think these ideas have been on many femmes’ minds. I see low and soft femme identities gaining more popularity and attention, due, in part, to our collective efforts to challenge a singular conception of femme and talk about our lives. So many femmes and artists are talking about softness, and it’s worth listening to.
Heidi Cho is a Toronto artist whose Low Femme Weirdo design I first saw at the Toronto Queer Zine Fair in October 2016.
L. Mathis is an artist and poet whose work on radical softness has been incredibly influential on my thinking around softness and femme (and has fielded criticism of softness here: http://loramathis.com/post/140474165618/on-radical-softness).
Alok Vaid-Menon is a non binary writer, performer and “fashionist@!” whose Instagram posts alone transform how I think about femme all the time.
Duggan, L. & McHugh, K. (1996). A Fem(me)inist Manifesto. Women & Performance, 8(2), pp. 153-159.
VanNewkirk, R. (2006). Gee, I Didn’t Get That Vibe From You’: Articulating My Own Version of a Femme Lesbian Existence. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 10(1-2), pp. 73-85.
Walker, L. (2012). The Future of Femme: Notes on Femininity, Aging, and Gender Theory. Sexualities, 15(7), pp. 795-814.