Morgan and I met in grad school, but our bond really solidified when we wrote an academic book chapter together about Carly Rae Jepsen. Through the process, we discovered we have so much more in common than just our
love for intellectual curiosity about Carly Rae Jepsen: we graduated from the same journalism program, rocked the same baby bangs, and even lived on the same street (at numbers 246 & 247, no less) just a few years apart. This is without mentioning our shared hairdresser and catastrophic weakness for water signs. But she’s a Sagittarius, I’m a Scorpio, and sometimes we just have to roll our eyes at the other’s choices.
As Co-Star puts it, “This can be a challenging pairing, as you live your lives in very different ways,” “You don’t really understand how each other thinks,” and “You find it difficult to express love for each other, and have to do some work to make the other feel loved.” So we do. We do the work. Because we’re femmes, and that’s what femmes do. We conspire to stay in each other’s lives because we know — really, when it comes down to it — that we’re all we’ve got. We are our own best allies, best support network, and best friends. When I sit with it, I am deeply touched by how dedicated we are to showing up and finding ways of caring that resonate with the other. (I am talking about me and Morgan, but really, I am talking about all of us.)
And this is the beauty of femme: despite being so similar, Morgan and I also have some stark differences. Like, I’m rarely seen without a floral print, and I think I’d faint if I saw her in a colour. Of course, there are more nuances to femme — and to us — than that. Perhaps they can be summarized by saying I’m a soft femme and she’s a dirtbag femme. I’ve already written a lot about what softness and soft femme mean to me, and so I decided to find out more about what it means to be a dirtbag femme.
Andi Schwartz: What is dirtbag femme to you?
Morgan Bimm: I mean it started last year around this time. I had been out, I had been teaching or whatever, and — you and I have talked about this before — there’s definitely a certain degree of performativity that goes into teaching outfits. And I made some sassy post on Instagram like, “Yeah, I’m back home again, reverted to my true form of dirtbag femme. Back to the grind.” So I think it has something to do with this idea that femme is a constant. It’s detached from those really intentional times when you are performing a certain gender or certain kind of aesthetic. If you’re femme, you’re femme all the time. And you can play with that.
AS: What are the aesthetic elements of dirtbag femme? What’s the difference between the performance of teaching that you’re talking about, and what’s the reverted state? What does it look like?
MB: Whenever I thought of femme I thought of what I guess we would call high femme: more kind of like pink, traditionally feminine aesthetics. And like, I have too much metal in my face for that. There’s a lot of my own preferences that I never saw lining up with that. I think over the past few years, getting to know you more and getting to know femme literature more led me to this idea that femme can be an all-the-time thing, and there can be subcategories to that, or you can make it work for you. And then I think that sort of lined up with my growing acceptance of my inner dirtbag and some newfound outdoorsy hobbies.
AS: I guess I’m trying to push you to say what does a dirtbag femme look like, but maybe it doesn’t look any sort of way. What are some of the things about you that make you feel like a dirtbag femme?
MB: I don’t know, the shag has helped a lot. We joke, but it’s not a joke. I think you and I have similar feelings about our tattoos in that they just make us feel so much more at home in our flesh prisons. I basically lived in the same secondhand pair of black platform Tevas last summer; I feel like that’s maybe some big dirtbag femme energy. I remember showing my mom photos from a canoe trip I went on and she couldn’t believe those were the shoes I wore all weekend. It was like, “Fuck yeah, I did three portages in these!”
AS: Talk about your armpit hair!
MB: That’s just laziness! Which I think is part of it, too, though. I think a big part of it is deciding what things serve you and what things you just don’t care to invest time or energy or thought into and just lettin’ ‘er grow. I think I was in undergrad when I stopped caring about my ‘pits. I was bleaching them and dying them purple for a while — I dyed my ‘pits and my pubes purple for a while and now they’re just free.
AS: It sounds like dirtbag femme is negotiating some already existing forms of femme or iterations. Would you say dirtbag femme is like a critique or a response, or how does it negotiate its place in relation to other femme forms?
MB: I don’t know if I would articulate it as a critique. I think femme in general is about being aware of those boundaries and expectations and constructions, so I think it’s just another way of playing with that. But it’s a way of playing with it that feels comfier for me. I think it’s maybe doing something quite similar.
AS: I wonder if there’s other femme qualifiers, like high femme or low femme or hard femme, that you use? And how do they differ from dirtbag femme?
MB: As a queer or bisexual woman with a history of dating mostly dudes, you’re kind of always second-guessing your place in queer space or queer community. And so I think that hearing about low femme was the first time I was like, “Oh, maybe I don’t have to work super hard to perform or mark myself as this thing, maybe I can just be. And maybe we can come up with some fun words for it, and that place will still be waiting for me.”
AS: I really like low femme too, and the first place I encountered that language was Heidi Cho. I think you have the t-shirt, too, the low femme weirdo shirt. When I wrote the paper “Low Femme,” I kind of wrote about it terms of low feelings, like thinking about depression and anxiety and how those things sometimes shape our gender presentation in the moment. Like maybe not having the energy to do the whole bit, like put on all that teaching drag, or whatever. So I think that in some ways that kind of attaches to that point that you made that when you’re femme, you’re femme all the time and also to the point I think you’re getting at that — well, you say it as “aspirationally femme” which is very positive, but I might say it or code it for myself as “femme inadequacy.”
MB: First of all, I’m a Sagittarius so I’m going to phrase it the most optimistic way possible. And then secondly I think the main gap between those two pieces of language is with “aspirational,” you want to get there, whereas with “inadequacy,” there’s something powerful in being like, “No, this is where I am. I’m not going to strive for that thing. This is where I’m at.” Does that make sense?
AS: Totally. I feel like you’re talking back to that sense of failure or feeling of inadequacy where you’re like, “No, dirtbag femme is legit already.”
MB: Yeah, it’s like femme imposter syndrome. But also recognizing that multiplicity. So I think the other piece of this I want to bring in is the really interesting relationship to masculinities and hegemonic masculinities. As soon as you use words like “dirtbag,” it invokes that side of things. I have made so many jokes, and continue to make so many jokes, about my inner bro. It’s there. So what does it mean to go into these spaces like climbing gyms, which have traditionally been taken up by dirtbag bros, and stake your femme claim, you know? That’s a big part of it for me as well. Feeling really unapologetic about taking up space and taking it up in a way that’s not, like, ceding or catering to the straight dude gaze, you know?
AS: I’m wondering how that might connect with you talking about last summer where you realized your outdoorsy aspirations, and even thinking specifically of that hike you did on the west coast. I think you said something like it felt like an achievement or felt significant to do that hike by yourself.
MB: Yeah! I did the West Coast Trail last year and I also did the loop up in Killarney [Provincial Park] which is called the La Cloche Silhouette with my friend Emily. And I also organized that canoe trip up in Algonquin [Provincial Park] with a few of my roommates and friends. And I had this moment where I sat down at the end of the summer and realized I hadn’t done a single camping/hiking thing that year that was not either by myself — like the WCT was by myself — or with other queer women, and that felt really dope. I think a lot of the time the places where we get our knowledge about how to do those things or how to be in those situations come from male sources. Like when I went on a canoe trip with an ex-boyfriend there was an expectation that, “Oh, you’re doing this to impress him.” And it’s like, “No, this was my idea; he doesn’t even know how to fucking steer a canoe!” So something about doing all those things last summer felt really cool, just the fact that I was able to make those choices and make those adventures happen under femme steam.
AS: So what I’m learning is that a dirtbag femme is equal parts super lazy and super physically active?
MB: So lazy.
AS: Is there something particularly appealing about the language of “dirtbag?”
MB: Yeah! It’s fun! It’s dirty. I don’t know, I’ve never tried to articulate it before. It’s a little sexy, you know?
AS: How so?
MB: I think it has to do with autonomy at the end of the day. Because when you think of a dirtbag you think of someone who’s really focused on… it’s a really individualist logic, right. You’re not curating your personal aesthetic based on anybody’s preferences but your own. But it’s also not about community care, it’s not about all of these things that we see happening in queer and femme community. So I think pairing that with a word like femme does something interesting that still allows for the fun and the sexy and the playfulness of the word.
AS: Where do you think that language comes from? What are your touchstones for a dirtbag femme?
MB: I don’t know exactly why I chose that word, I think it just sounded fun to me. Honestly, I think the first time I heard someone described as a dirtbag was back in the Tumblr days when I was like neck-deep in One Direction fandom and everyone was really into Louis Tomlinson and he was just this dirty little ratboy who shuffled into gas stations in his sock feet and everyone was like, “He’s so hot, he’s such a dirtbag.” And I was like, “Interesting.” But it terms of specific folks who I think of now as sort of embodying that, I ended up following a lot of folks on Instagram who are really invested in amplifying feminist and BIPOC and queer voices in the outdoor industry and pushing back against all this toxic masculinity stuff that happens in these spaces. So things like, being really aware of whose land you’re hiking on. I don’t think that’s a conversation that happens a lot of the time in mainstream dirtbag culture, if you will. One person in particular I follow, Muffy J. Davis, she did a hike of the San Diego Trans-County Trail back in the fall with like a group of ten femmes and they were raising money for Border Angels and selling zines and doing all this rad stuff. I guess I just see people like that doing things and bringing in these aspects of community care and a certain kind of self-reflexivity that’s really missing from a lot of mainstream toxic bro culture. But there are still parts of toxic bro culture that I love!
AS: Right, as a Sagittarius, thrill-seeker…
AS: As a very indoorsy person, dirtbag culture… I don’t know what that is. It actually sounds like you’re talking about literal dirt: the dirt of the trail, the sweat of the climbing gym, the grease of fixing the motorcycle. There’s all of this very real, physical, filth going on. Like it’s femmes that can get dirty and don’t mind getting dirty and sweaty. Because they’re bro-ing out?
MB: I think that’s a huge part of it. I think maybe another way to kind of get at that question is like, I think a lot of femme critique is basically saying, “This body is not for you, straight dudes!” So I think as someone who has definitely bought into that before, who has struggled with things like disordered eating and stuff like that, there’s a certain power in refocusing it as like, “I’m going to start thinking about what my body can actually do. Like how far she can walk in a day, and what she can climb.” And still look really cute doing it. Because things like that dirt and sweat and grease don’t make me any less femme or any less hot, you know? The dirt enhances the femme.
AS: In a lot of ways, femme is fundamentally about pleasure. And you’re talking about finding pleasure in your body, not necessarily in a way that’s tied to sexuality or sexual expression but pleasure in your own body that centres you. What I’m hearing in what you’re saying is it’s about finding pleasure and joy and thrill in what your body can do and not just being ornamental.
MB: Yeah, exactly.
AS: Something I’ve been thinking about as I’m thinking about the ties between femme and dirt is that a lot of the titles of the books I have on my shelf bring in literal metaphors and language and symbolism of dirt. Like I’m thinking of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book called Dirty River; I’m thinking of Raechel Anne Jolie’s book called Rust Belt Femme. And there’s this other femme anthology I have called Glitter and Grit. I also have this Femme Filth zine. And I think dirtbag femme fits in there, too. It’s talking about the tangible, tactile, gritty, dirty, stuff. And femme. Which I think is really interesting that there’s this lineage of combining these things.
MB: That’s fascinating. I knew all of those books existed but I hadn’t connected the dots there.
AS: I don’t know if they would talk about it in the same way. Because I think some of them are about growing up in working-class spaces.
MB: I was going to say, I think sometimes it can stand in as code for class versus a literal experience of dirt.
AS: Which is interesting because I think in the outdoor industry that you’re talking about, stuff like camping or rock climbing or adventure tourism, that kind of stuff, that’s probably for people who have leisure time. That’s not a very working-class thing. But even within that class category, men are allowed this kind of dirtiness that it sounds like women have to kind of claw their way into or be invited into.
MB: We didn’t even talk about the motorcycle dirtbaggery of it all! The motorcycle thing is interesting because if we’re talking about class, a classed understanding of motorcycles is on a whole other level than hiking or indoor rock climbing. Fixing up my own bike and learning that from my dad, who grew up on dirt bikes in small town Ontario, that’s not exactly a super middle/upper class thing.
AS: I guess I’m thinking about the stigma of dirt that doesn’t really exist outside of a classed understanding of dirt. But within femme, there is a bit of a stigma or hierarchy with femininities or within femme. High femme is like at the top.
MB: I think there is a way to think of it as a hierarchy, but I think we can almost think of it as the way to be femme, like the femme-iest way to be femme, and there’s other categories. It’s not a straightforward spectrum. I feel like all these other categories are playing with the same thing just in different ways. There’s a way to be especially legible [as femme], but there are so many other ways of pushing against that.
AS: I had some pretty strong resistance to someone I was collaborating who was writing about us and said that we were straight-passing. And I had like a “Ew, I disagree” thing about it. And I’m also thinking about, as a bisexual femme who’s often in relationships with dudes, I guess being high femme would make you even more invisible in those cases. So how does being dirtbag femme, especially in relation to your sexuality, code you as queer in a way that makes you feel more visible?
MB: Oh! I’ve never thought of that, but that feels really on the nose.
AS: I don’t think a straight guy who’s interested in you can look at you and be like, “You’re straight.”
MB: I mean it does bring me so much joy every time I’ve been on a date with a dude and I’ve told them I’m queer and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I figured.” They can never name why, it’s just a vibe.
AS: It’s the dirtbaggy-ness! So maybe to wrap up, you could tell me what does dirtbag femme feel like?
MB: Oh no, that’s a big question. I mean it’s tricky because I just finished saying all this stuff about it being about community and connection, and I think that’s there, but whenever I try to distill it down to a feeling I think it comes back to this feeling of being absolutely… capable? Feeling capable. Like you can do shit. Like last year, waking up on the WCT knowing that I literally had everything I needed and I could stop for lunch any time, I didn’t have to wait for anyone else to take a vote or whatever, I could just do whatever I wanted. That was cool. Or any time I’ve hopped on my motorcycle and like gone camping, just knowing that you have the skills, you don’t need anyone else showing you the way, you’re just doing your thing. Those moments that you know that your body can do it, you can get through it, it’s going to be great. Well, not great. You might suffer a lot, you might get horrible blisters. But you’re just like, capable. Which is a nice feeling because as a femme person there’s almost always situations where we haven’t felt super capable, or safe, or strong. So it’s reclaiming some of that, maybe.
AS: I think the image of you hopping on your motorcycle is just the perfect place to end.
MB: It’s just me trying to be as disgustingly stereotypical Sag as possible.
AS: Let the record show she’s drinking from a motorcycle-emblazoned mug.
MB: And wearing a shirt with no sleeves.