In Kathleen McHugh and Lisa Duggan’s 1996 Femme-inist Manifesto, they wrote: “Fem(me) science questions the dignity and wisdom of anyone who would wear pink without irony, or a floral print without murderous or seditious designs.”
Of course, some of us unironically wear pink and/or floral — an arguably “soft” aesthetic. Does this mean we are not femme? Does this mean that we are not critical?
The Third Wave of feminism introduced the idea that feminism and feminist movements could be diverse, hold multiple perspectives, and be individually-determined. There was encouragement to understand what feminism meant to you. In her book The Beauty Myth, feminist writer Naomi Wolf suggested that looking how one wants to look is a feminist act; self-determination, choice, and agency are key. But does this mean that all our choices, aesthetic or otherwise, are feminist because we choose them?
The trouble is, the Third Wave is sometimes difficult to discern from Postfeminism, the co-optation of feminist feelings and language to fuel consumer culture. The Onion wrote an article that aptly describes saturation of feminist language to describe mundane activities called “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does.” The title alone is almost enough to get the picture. I’ve read articles online that claim the feminist merits of both weddings and cosmetic surgery — both of which have been critiqued by feminists for decades. It is hard to parse out the nuances of choice in these instances: how can we lay legitimate claim to the idea that we choose an appearance or role that, for women, as always already been chosen for us by the white supremacist heteropatriarchy?
This is a question that femmes have wrestled with for decades. The second wave feminist argument against femininity can be summarized as 1) a feminine appearance is the design of men and designed for their pleasure 2) the maintenance of a feminine appearance is a tool of the patriarchy that directs women’s attention to the trivial and frivolous, actively slowing them down and wasting their potential and 3) choosing and maintaining a feminine appearance is evidence of internalized misogyny and deferring to patriarchal rule.
“The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behaviour that that period considers desirable: The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance.”— Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth
“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.”— Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth
This feminist argument meant the femme on her own was suspect, and also when paired with a butch lesbian because butch/femme was seen as 1) mimicking heteropatriarchal gender and sexual roles and therefore 2) replicating an unequal balance of power.Femmes rejected this interpretation on their own expressions and experiences. Queer femmes defy the the logic that femininity is for male consumption, since their aim is to attract women. This argument has been taken a step further by those that claim they are dressing for themselves, regardless of who they may want to attract. The notion of choice has been integral to the assertion of femme identity: many claim to be “femme on purpose.”
“While femininity is in many ways influenced, shaped, and enforced by society, to say that is is entirely ‘artificial’ or merely a ‘performance’ is patronizing toward those for whom femininity simply feels right. Indeed, on would have to have a rather grim view of the female population to believe that a majority of us could so easily be ‘brainwashed’ or ‘coerced’ into enthusiastically adopting an entirely contrived or wholly artificial set of gender expressions. In fact, it seems incomprehensible that so many women could so actively gravitate toward femininity unless there was something about it that resonated with them on a profound level. This becomes even ore obvious when considering feminine folks who exhibit no desire whatsoever to fit into straight society, such as femme dykes (who proudly express their femininity despite being historically marginalized within the lesbian movement because of it) and ‘nelly queens’ (who remain fiercely feminine despite the gay male obsessions with praising butchness and deriding ‘effeminacy’).” — Julia Serano in Whipping Girl
The question of choice remains a tricky one, however. Even if we choose to look feminine, get married, or have cosmetic surgery, the reasons behind this choice ought to be examined. Some arguments for the validation and celebration of femme identity do examine femme motivations: some insist that choosing femininity in a patriarchal society is inherently radical and political. Even as looking feminine can make life easier for some women by making them appear more gender normative according to patriarchal rules, we must remember that patriarchy still comes at a price. Even if femmes defy patriarchy by trying to attract women rather than men, femmes are still sexualized and consumed by the male gaze without their consent. Femininity means catcalls, sexual harassment and assault, being stereotyped as stupid, slutty, and unprofessional. All of these things happen to non-femmes, too, but being femme certainly exacerbates these negative reactions. By calling it “femme” rather than “femininity,” we are acknowledging the patriarchal interest in women’s femininity, but insisting that our femininity won’t make us less feminist or queer. We know how we are seen and treated because of our femininity, but we show up in heels and lipstick anyway.
“Being femme for me means risking violence and sexism to be who I am. It means being mistaken for a straight woman and saying I’m not. It means fighting for the right for myself and my butch lover to dress the way we please and play the way we like.”— Paula Austin, “Femme-inism” in The Persistent Desire
Some work on femme identity, like that of Duggan and McHugh, allows for “femme” to be a radical identity, but only if femininity is performed in a specific way. Many femmes from this generation insist on an ironic, over-the-top, hard, or fierce performance of femininity. Other femme theorists have argued that this actually reinforces the dominance of masculinity, rather than empowers femininity.
“By insisting only on the loud, visible, political, and public nature of femmes, we are in danger of enacting precisely that which we sought at the outset to question – the centering of masculinity.”— Elizabeth Galewski in “Figuring the Feminist Femme”
If the dominant femme perspective remains that femininity is acceptable only when shrouded in a cloud of irony or accompanied by a hard edge, then a sincere performance of femininity and an insistence on softness is a critical performance of femininity, and a critical form of femme. Just as femmes decades ago challenged what a feminist ought to look and act like, soft femmes now challenge what a femme ought to look and act like.
“Much of what has historically been called misogyny – a hatred of women – has clearly gone underground, disguising itself as the less reprehensible derision of femininity. This new version of misogyny, which focuses more on maligning femininity than femaleness, can be found everywhere. It can be seen in our political discourse, where advocates for the environment, gun control, and welfare are undermined via ‘guilt by association’ with feminine imagery as seen in phrases such as ‘tree huggers,’ ‘soft on crime,’ and pro- ‘dependency’ – where male politicians who exhibit anything other than a two-dimensional facade of hypermasculinity are invariably dismissed by political cartoonists who depict them donning dresses.”— Julia Serano in Whipping Girl
Perhaps the emphasis on softness is not any less ironic than the previous emphasis on hardness, but even playing at being soft and sincere works to reclaim the parts of femininity that even femme theory has rejected. Softness as a feminine form carries femme theory deeper to examine our discomfort with a femininity that encompasses softness, vulnerability, and sincerity. Not only are soft femmes critical of feminist insistence that femininity is patriarchal, soft femmes are critical of femme theory’s insistence that only certain “enlightened” forms of femininity are valuable.
“Here’s the thing about being a girlie girl. I think there was a generation before us that felt like they needed to act like men to be taken seriously, like they had to use their sexuality to take control of people. I don’t judge people for that. But I don’t want to take all my clothes off and use myself as an object. It’s part of the machine and I don’t think that necessarily pushes us forward as women. I think you can still be girlie and maintain your power. The fact that you associate being girlie with being non-threatening, that is I mean, I can’t think of more blatant example of playing into exactly the thing that we’re trying to fight against. I can’t be girlie? Why do I need to be defined aesthetically by someone else’s perceptions of what makes me seem like someone who should be taken seriously? I’m going to wear whatever I want to wear, because I’m expressing myself, and I deserve that right. And I like the way that looks. You’re not demeaning yourself by acting girlie. I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined. Not me dressing girlie. I don’t think that undermines my power at all.”— Zooey Deschanel