The Femme Politics of Legally Blonde: An Interview with Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Legally Blonde, the quintessential femme cult classic – or at least the closest we’ve got so far. I’ve already used this blog to parse out what Legally Blonde can teach us about femme theory, but for the 20th anniversary I wanted to hear from other femmes: surely it isn’t just me for whom this film was a shining beacon of femme joy and possibility? According to my very rigorous research (ie. a poll on @acafemmeic’s Insta stories): not at all. I summarized those “findings” for Xtra, but one conversation I had deserves more space than a 1200-word-count can offer: my interview with Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin.

Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin is a prolific femme scholar and researcher whose work is so ubiquitous in the field of femme theory that I cannot remember my first encounter with it. (Truly – her list of publications and awards is so long it hurts my feelings.) Unsurprisingly, among her list of many accolades and titles is this: an Elle Woods enthusiast.

Andi Schwartz: First, I would love to hear more about Legally Blonde‘s impact on you personally! I had a hunch other femmes felt this way, so I would love to hear more.

Rhea Ashley Hoskin: As I’ve talked about before, from a very young age my femininity felt “different” from the assumptions people made – assumptions that designated femininity as trivial, unimportant, done to attract the attention of men, anti-feminist, dumb, and weak. I also experienced femininity as something very important to me, which felt different from the dominant narrative telling me it’s trivial. I grew up in a feminist household and together we frequented feminist spaces. So, I also learned early on about misogyny and sexism, and to identify discrimination based on gender/sex (woman/female). My experiences as a feminine person did not perfectly map onto my experiences of prejudice based on sex. I would compare my experiences as a feminine woman, to those of my androgynous or masculine friends. I realized that I wasn’t being written off for being a woman, but for my femininity. Legally Blonde helped to crystalize the way I was experiencing femininity and womanhood differently in terms of prejudice.

The assumptions that resulted in these experiences were all around me – especially in pop culture. Legally Blonde was among the first representations I saw that portrayed femininity as something more complex; that identified the “assumptions” I had experienced, and “turned them on their head” – a quintessential femme manoeuvre. Watching Legally Blonde validated my personal experiences of femininity being used to write me off, undermine my intelligence, worth, and competence. Of course, there are numerous examples of empowered femininity that help us to think femininity anew – but this was not just hardened femininity which, of course, is still an important part of challenging femmephobia.

“To me, Legally Blonde was among the first to value femininity in and of itself, without having to “harden” or toughen up.”

Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin

I see the goal of femme theory as twofold: simultaneously challenging the idea that femininity is inherently weak, frail, and vulnerable while also challenging the imperative that softer qualities are not valuable without “hardening” (which some interpret as masculinized). I think both are integral to revaluing femininity and challenging femmephobic discourses, but representation tends to fall on the former approach. Brazen femininity is important, but both approaches are needed to dislodge femmephobia. To me, Legally Blonde was among the first to do the latter – to value femininity in and of itself, without having to “harden” or toughen up.

AS: To me, Legally Blonde is a rare example of femininity being celebrated and seen as useful in a Hollywood film – I still don’t think we have anything like it. In your view, how was femininity treated/portrayed in Legally Blonde? Is there something significant about the way femininity was represented here?

RAH: I love your point and completely agree that Legally Blonde is pretty unique in its portrayal of femininity (and feminine knowledge) as being “useful.” As I mentioned, we have some representations of femininity that challenge other femmephobic assumptions (e.g., that femininity is weak) but I cannot think of another example where femininity is portrayed as useful. Of course, we have portrayals of femininity as serving a purpose, such as in the context of 1950s heteronormative gender roles, like June Cleaver, but I question the extent to which that labour is valued or seen as “useful” and not just servitude that’s taken for granted as “women’s work.”

Legally Blonde uniquely sets up the audience’s assumptions (e.g., femininity as useless) to knock them down. The movie starts by playing into common femmephobic assumptions: that Elle Woods (i.e., feminine people) is ditzy, trivial and that her femininity serves the exclusive purpose of catering to a male gaze. The movie ends with Elle (again, symbolizing feminine people) recognized as competent, uniquely skilled, and relentlessly kind. I’m not sure another example exists where femmephobic assumptions are mobilized as a plot device that ultimately functions to challenge the idea that feminine people, feminine knowledge, and femininity are useless.

AS: Do you think what Elle experiences in the film is femmephobia, or something like it? And if so, how is it possible that a straight woman can experience femmephobia?

RAH: In short, yes, but I think this question is a bit fraught within femme communities, as I’ll explain. The narrative sets up the assumption that hyper-feminine women like Elle Woods are less intelligent than “serious” women like Vivian Kensington. That divide – between hyper-feminine and “serious” women – is one example of the distinction between sexism/misogyny and femmephobia. It isn’t necessarily women who are trivialized (though, there are scenes where Vivian and Elle encounter blatant sexism from Professor Callahan), but more accurately feminine women. To me, that is femmephobia. In my work I define femmephobia as the systematic way that society upholds and regulates the norms of femininity while also devaluing all that is feminine.

“I see the application of femmephobia and femme theory outside of LGBTQ+ communities as radical and paradigm shifting.”

Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin

At the same time, I recognize how this question makes many folks in the femme community uncomfortable. There’s a lot of tension regarding who can identify as femme and allegations of appropriation have surfaced surrounding the co-optation of femme by dominant culture. Of course, these allegations also apply to femmephobia. Within my work I see the application of femmephobia and femme theory outside of LGBTQ+ communities as radical and paradigm shifting. Typically, scholarly frameworks take the shape of “dominant culture looking outward” at the margins. With Femme Theory, we have a great example of the “margins looking in” at dominant culture – of marginal communities cultivating their lived experiences to analyze and make sense of the world at large. Marginalized communities already do this at the individual level – we make sense of our world through our experiences – and Femme Theory does this systematically as a field of study. The concept of femmephobia is driven by marginalized communities and provides a unifying framework to understand and identify how femininity is systematically devalued and regulated. Because femmephobia is so deeply entrenched – even within LGBTQ+ communities themselves – femme perspectives are of utmost importance to achieve the goal of reducing prejudice based in femininity.  Femme perspectives and experiences have helped to make visible what would otherwise be taken for granted as the norm or natural.

AS: How does femmephobia impact folks who do not identify as femme? And why is that important to recognize?

RAH: In answering this question, I frequently reflect on how cisgender heterosexual men can be the targets of homophobia, or how cisgender people can be the targets of transphobia. Prejudicial attitudes are not bound by identity categories, that’s just not how they work. Prejudice operates on social cues, behaviours, signifiers, norms, power, perceptions, and assumptions, to name a few. Femmephobia emerges from femme communities and these communities have enabled us to better understand gender-based prejudices rooted in femininity that apply to the culture at large – including Elle Woods.

“Femmephobia limits access to the full gender spectrum.”

Dr. rhea ashley hoskin

I’m commonly asked who is impacted by femmephobia. I feel like the real question is “who is not impacted by femmephobia?” The way society devalues and regulates femininity is not unique nor specific to a femme identification – but femme identities help to make the norms and assumptions surrounding femininity visible. Even masculine-of-centre people are impacted by femmephobia. I think everyone, regardless of sex assigned at birth or any other social designation, should be able to access a full spectrum of gender expression. Femmephobia functions to limit access to the full gender spectrum, whether it’s through norms or through femininity’s designation as inferior. The way that femininity is devalued also impacts how we treat the Earth, the political leaders we elect, as well as the types of labour and qualities we deem valuable. The impacts of femmephobia are far reaching – beyond femme identification, and even human identification – it’s woven throughout the fabrics of society.

AS: Though it isn’t a movie about queer folks or queer relationships, what might be the significance of it for femmes, both personally and in a broader, structural sense?

RAH: Many queer people deviate from what’s said to be a “norm” – whether that be gender’s relationship to the body, or sexuality, or the configuration of assigned sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. Because of that, I think we are not only attuned to representations of gender that “deviate” in some way from the norm, but we also gravitate toward it. So, for that reason, we notice ruptures or moments of “discord” in representation – where there’s a subtle or overt challenge to prescriptive norms, rules, and assumptions surrounding gender. To me, Legally Blonde posed a rupture by giving us discordance in normative understandings of femininity. And, it wasn’t all aesthetic, though I think that’s often assumed to be the case. We see discord in how feminine people are not pitted against each other, but instead hold each other up. We see discord in how someone so highly feminine can be equally as intelligent. We see “mean girl aesthetic” paired with kindness and empathy. Through Legally Blonde, we see discord in what we’ve trivialized as “useless information” (i.e., hair care) being instrumental to “winning the case”. We also see a clear example of someone being underestimated and trivialized on the basis of femininity (i.e., femmephobia), distinct from sexism.

You can follow Dr. Hoskin’s work on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.

Taking Sodom Road Exit Home

To me, Fort Erie will always be a place of bootlegged 60oz-bottles, ladies’ nights, and pink vomit coloured by too many half-price vodka crans; and Crystal Beach, just a sandy bank riddled with fish carcasses. But to my mother Crystal Beach was the place she long ago spent her summers, training her white skin to soak up the sun with ease and witnessing the town’s heyday through the big, wondering eyes of a child. 

Those are the stories she likes to tell. And the stories I ask her to tell again when I pick up Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn, ready to climb up into her ribcage where she keeps them — close to her heart.

When I text my mom a picture of the book’s title page she texts back excitedly, “that’s a real place!” According to Amber Dawn, the name “Sodom Road” is a remnant of Crystal Beach’s early days as a religious colony. Later, it became known for the Crystal Beach Amusement Park — the Coney Island of Canada — that stayed open from 1888 to 1989, the year I was born. 

My mom, born in 1960, was part of a family of 15 kids who spent their summers running The Store in Crystal Beach (actually, a little east in Silver Bay, she’ll correct me). Every morning was a race to see which kid would wake up first and beat the others in the rush to clean up after the Yankee teens that hung out on the store steps at night, drinking pop and, hopefully, dropping quarters. Those were the gems my mother’s brave little hands would grope for underneath the steps; collecting five pop bottles meant you could buy an ice cream cone (ten cents) and finding a lucky quarter meant you could buy your own bottle of pop — plus a bag of Hostess salt and vinegar chips or some Fritos. Nothing was free at The Store, not even for its proprietors. 

My mother’s step-dad worked for Atlas Steel and their family was among the “union picnickers” Amber Dawn describes in Sodom Road Exit. In the novel, a ghost named Etta pulls the image of the steel plant’s annual picnic from a man’s memory: “Remember how excited you got every year on that fateful evening when your pop came home with Park tickets? Like winning the children’s lottery. You could ride the swings or bumper cars all day while the adults played beach volleyball or sunbathed.” 

I send my mom this passage and she tells me, “that’s exactly what it was like!” She remembers it vividly: there were races, free ride tickets, and coolers full of fried chicken and potato salad. But still, to afford extra trips to the amusement park my mom delivered groceries on her one-speed bike with the big wicker basket, and ran two newspaper routes all summer long. She spent her earnings on tickets to ride The Comet, the famed wooden rollercoaster that hugged the edge of Lake Erie, offering views of swimming fish if you were foolish enough to look down. As the coaster ripped along the tracks, my mom’s tiny body would lift off the seat, terrifying her that she’d fall into the water below — a tragedy that did befall one young woman in Amber Dawn’s novel. It was Etta, the young woman whose ghost goes on to haunt the main character, Starla, in the year 1990, after the park and its famous coaster have been torn down. 

In the first few pages of Sodom Road Exit, I sit with Starla, a young woman born sometime between me and mother, on the drive away from her failed urban life in Toronto and back to her mother’s house in Crystal Beach — taking the Sodom Road exit home, of course. I already feel a kinship with her; Starla’s is a trip I’ve taken many times myself: driving away from my new life in Toronto to reluctantly return to my mother’s home in the Niagara region. 

When, like Starla, I fled to bigger cities in my late teens and early twenties, I also resisted coming home. I told myself the drive was too long, the bus ticket too expensive, the town —too lame

As Starla returns home and remembers her old self, I remember mine, too. I was a rebellious, punk rock Starla of a different generation: it wasn’t Siouxsie and the Banshees but The Distillers who watched over me in poster form as I slept in my teenage bedroom. Through high school I crowded the all-ages shows at the L3 in St. Catharines, too chickenshit to try to scam underage drinks, and still buzzed off the five-dollar 40oz of Max Ice I had chugged in the alley. 

I turn the pages of Sodom Road Exit and remember how easy it is to turn on your hometown, perhaps especially for queers, feminists, and other misfits; these are often the first places where we learn to hate ourselves, often the first places that hate us back. We hear it’s different in the city. I hear we get different in the city, too. 

I don’t remember when my mom first called me City Slicker Andi, or told me that I — thank God — hadn’t picked up the Toronto accent yet. She laughed and I laughed a little, too, and start to notice for the first time the space slowly expanding between us. Starla knows this city-girl-guilt well: she bites back the facts she learned in university, hides her Barbara Krueger prints in her suitcase, but even her thrifted designer shoes seem to communicate an air of superiority. 

“You think I don’t know who Barbara Krueger is?” Starla’s mother asks. “You think you’re so much smarter than your hick mother?”

Coming home is painful. For everyone. 

My mom — like Starla, like me — ran at first, too. She found other, bigger cities to call home before settling nearby with my dad and, soon, all of us. I remember the ways she kept finding back. I remember looking out the car window at the cottage-style homes lining the Niagara streets as we visited old family friends, or chugged around looking for a reasonably-priced beach getaway. After a rough divorce, my mom managed to save enough money for a down payment on her own house, right on the beach. Her friend Susan beamed and said, “Connie, you’re going home.”

Starla’s return is less triumphant. She has grown disillusioned with city life, the friends who didn’t help her pack, and her fancy education — now cheapened by realizations like 1) the woman who taught the Aboriginal Studies course was whiter than herself and 2) none of it means shit around here anyway. Here, Starla has bigger problems. She’s being haunted, both by an actual ghost and the sexual abuse she endured as a child. As both hauntings grow stronger in proximity to her childhood bedroom, it becomes clear that she can’t reckon with one without also reckoning with the other.

My mom is dying to read the book, but I warn her, “it’s a bit … gritty.” I brief her on some of the other themes: alcoholism, suicide, custody battles with Child and Family Services. She reminds me she grew up there, and bore witness to it all. Those are the stories she doesn’t like to tell, but ones she has told me anyway. They are the same stories you can almost hear swirling behind her eyes before she tells you, “I really had a charmed childhood, in spite of it all.”

For all the grit imprinted in the stories of my mom’s hometown, there are equal measures of beauty, love, and compassion. It may have taken a ghost to exorcise Starla of her snobby city girl dreams, but when she finally wrestles herself free she finds it wasn’t only something supernatural keeping her bound to the place she grew up. She looks around at the hodgepodge of people that have become her unlikely family and feels love: “I love this place, these people. I want wholeness for them,” she thinks. “I’m never going back to Toronto or moving to New York or Montréal. I’m going to quit chasing the dummy’s dream, or whatever it was that made me think I was too good for this place,” she realizes. “I belong here.” 

Us wannabe city kids try to inflate the space between ourselves and the places we come from until it grows almost too big to traverse. But I didn’t know I’d never really be a city slicker if I will still fix a bike chain with my bare hands. I didn’t know I had a rural heart until it broke when I found out city kids never felt grass between their toes. I didn’t know I was raised working-class until I rode the train beside women with sleek hair and sleeker dresses. I don’t know, is it too late to walk back? It’s not really that the drive is too long, the bus ticket too expensive, or the town too lame. What does it really take to go home? 

In the city, we can lose ourselves if we burrow deeply into the crowds. We can avoid certain parties, friend groups, and entire city blocks if we want to. There’s no place like that back home. So, do we avoid our hometowns because we are afraid of seeing the person we once were reflected in its faces and places? Because we are afraid of the work that awaits us if we return? Are we afraid that we, too, will be haunted? 

What’s more terrifying: the pain of the exorcism, or what we might excise?

The fantasy of a safe and loved queer/feminist/misfit is itself safe in the city. Our past pain is frozen by the city’s coldness. But thinking about my mom, and thinking about Starla, makes me think that, maybe, it’s worth it to thaw. 

Crying in December

It is December and Mr. Dressup is making Christmas stockings out of construction paper on the CBC. The rise and fall of his vowels — remnants of that ‘Canadian dainty’ lilt. I hear my grandfather’s voice, “at all, a-tall, ah-Tall.”

Mr. Dressup writes names on the stockings in perfect cursive, the kind my grandmother wrote my piano lesson transcripts in. The kind I see written across the lone, loose lesson sheet I still have tucked away in a treasure box.

At some point during the years after my grandmother’s death and before my grandfather’s, we started writing letters — me, by hand and him, by typewriter. The message delivered via Courier read: My Handwriting Has Deteriorated Over The Years. I was already too late. 

My tears obscure the little window of my phone screen where Mr. Dressup is confined, crafting in his plaid Canadiana, pseudo-country grandeur that stirs something sharper in me than nostalgia. My grandparents, that perfect cursive, the lilt that I’m told still tinges my own voice are gone, or going. I cry because I miss them — them, their voices, their penmanship. I cry because I don’t know any old people anymore. 

It is December and hours away M.C. is thinking the same thing, as aging — alone, and living — alone, start to hit harder in the pandemic than the glasses of whisky and Frangelico she drinks one after another. She makes more drinks and more outrageous plays for my attention. 

I spend hours on eBay, ThriftBooks, AbeBooks, even Amazon, looking for the hymnal she asks me to get her to make it all better. The 1972 edition, a tattered one, just like we used to hold. I resent myself. I go to therapy. Breathe On Me, Breath Of God.

Shauna talks me through tolerating the discomfort of not responding to her manic, or just desperate, requests. How Are You Tolerating That Discomfort In This Moment? they ask, as my cat audibly screeches on the other side of the closed door. 

It is December and I go to the dentist. She traces the ridges on the inside of my cheeks with her gloved finger. See? You’re A Clencher. 

Nobody can touch me. The gentlest kisses feel like cold and slimy intruders. I burn the dinner. I curse my own body. I break down. I go back to therapy. I am still learning how to put two and two together and not get five. 

It is December and I step onto the ice. Kids crowd my vision, the puck clatters against the boards and the sound bounces loudly between the panes of plexiglass. But I don’t clap my hands over my ears. I tolerate discomfort. 

My partner takes my hand and our blades cut across the ridges and grooves. We trace the same path, but it’s rougher this year. This Is Some Serious Pond Ice, he says, even though it’s not. 

Every Christmas I used to skate on the pond down the hill behind my grandparents’ house. Many Christmases later I sat beside my grandfather as he wept, missing Grandma. I/We tolerate discomfort. 

Months ago I dreamed of him at a party, drunk and happy at Christmas — far from the stern, Scorpio man I knew in real life. Far from the stern, Scorpio, Christian man who reproached my queerness in a dream I had, much after he died. I Do Not Approve ah-Tall. 

Beside him, though, my grandmother beamed. She has come to me often, once as a pure pink light as I floated in the dark, in water weighted with 900 pounds of epsom salts. I watch her flit around my field of vision and realize the point of being human is the body, is the touch. 

When my mother’s mom died, she dreamed of bathing the kids together. She plucked one of us out of the tub and offered the wrapped babe to Nanny to hold. But Nanny shook her head and said I Can’t Hold Them Anymore, I Can Only See Them Now. 

The touch
The body
The voice 
The penmanship

It is December and this is why I’m crying. 

35 Things Carly Rae Jepsen Taught Us About Scorp/Sag Intimacies

co-written with Morgan Bimm

Morgan and I inhabit our own world in which Carly Rae Jepsen reigns as queen (other inhabitants include an unlikely combination of gay men and noise musicians), and November 21st is our highest of holidays: the day when our seasons overlap (Scorpio season becomes Sagittarius season), and the very day our Cusp Queen was born. In honour of her 35th trip around the sun, here are 35 things she has taught us about Sag/Scorp intimacies. Cue the music.

  1. Scorp/Sag intimacies are the ultimate game of chicken.
    Every single friendship milestone, overly ambitious project, and night to be remembered that we’ve shared over the past five years has started with one of us turning to the other and going, “What if…?” We wrote a paper about CRJ that we somehow presented at NYU that turned into a book chapter that somehow turned into buying VIP concert tickets and pressing the book into Carly’s assistant’s hands, being assured that they’d get it to her pronto. As Andi puts it, “the Mars and Jupiter energies mingle in a vaguely threatening way,” and then it’s already happening. We wouldn’t have it any other way. 

    SOUNDTRACK: Too Much

  2. Friendships can be formed over a mutual love of baby bangs.
    Experiencing an entire friendship in five minutes because someone complimented your bangs in the bar bathroom, but make it permanent. Once Morgan was only Andi’s very complimentary Instagram mutual, now she’s on the contemporary equivalent of her speed dial.

    SOUNDTRACK: Call Me Maybe
    B-SIDE: Automatically In Love

  3. Best friends dress alike.
    The bangs, the band tees, the bi power outfit of 2018.

    SOUNDTRACK: I Really Like You

  4. You never know where the night may take a Scorp/Sag duo
    When the Pisces leaves to catch the last train and the Libra complains of an inappropriate outfit, the Scorp/Sag duo soldier on into the wee hours of the morning (and inevitably end up at Emo Night). Anyone who’s ever been to a Carly concert knows just how committed she is to making the most of a night (mid-set outfit changes! Extended sax solos! Band-wide dance choreography!), and we wouldn’t have it any other way.    

    SOUNDTRACK: Making the Most of the Night 

  5. Chaos respects chaos. 
    Morgan and Andi had been friendly but respectful colleagues until a night that we now refer to as our Chaos-iversary, when we became friends for real and (let’s be honest) forever. After an evening of festivities that included kissing someone questionable (Morgan) and getting into a light bar fight (Andi) set to a backdrop of rock music, Morgan followed Andi outside, where she stood crying on the street. In a rare moment of lucidity amid the night’s chaos, Andi apologized to her for being such a mess and that Morgan had to see her in such a state. But you know what? Morgan KISSED her on the forehead before heading for the streetcar, unfazed, and boom. A Scorp/Sag power duo was born. Carly, too, has had many a messy night on the dance floor — dancing the way you are, and you dancing the way she is, you’re taking it way too far… 

    SOUNDTRACK: This Kiss

  6. There is no room for judgement within Scorp/Sag intimacies
    Close friends tend to have front row seats to your entire life. They know all the messy details of your relationship with your mom, your cat, your last date. When Morgan had a Grade A moral crisis earlier this year over the prospect of giving someone a second chance after they’d hurt her (a prospect the stubborn Sag had previously never considered), Andi just shrugged and said, “That’s just what you need to do sometimes.” Carly has written repeatedly on second chances and forgiveness, enthusiastically co-signing this idea that the choices you make around who deserves an open window back into your life are yours and yours alone.  

    SOUNDTRACK: Window

  7. A Scorpio will teach a Sagittarius that sometimes you just need to go deep
    Neither of our sun signs are particularly known for subtlety, for faking it, or for small talk (thank god). Andi once looked Morgan dead in the eye across a pub table at 1 AM and said, “You really loved him, didn’t you?” Rather than feel like crawling under the table and dying (i.e. a normal person’s reaction to being called out for messy ex feelings), Morgan felt affirmed. And then we laughed. Because that’s just the kind of Carly-loving freaks we are for emotional honesty and directness.

    SOUNDTRACK: Cut to the Feeling

  8. Crying is always encouraged.
    We have cried together at concerts (thanks Mitski). We have cried together after too much wine (thanks boxed wine). We have cried together this summer holding freshly sanitized hands and wearing masks and feeling so, so grateful to be touching after too long apart (thanks, COVID-induced touch starvation). If Carly’s taught us anything, it’s that being able to cry with and in front of someone is a type of intimacy that you just can’t force. But god, do we recommend it.  


  9. Idealistic is just what you call people you can’t keep up with.
    High standards? Yes. Fierce boundaries? You bet. We are dedicated to the dreams and visions for our world and yours. We believe in real (real) love, and we won’t settle for less.

    SOUNDTRACK: Real Love

  10. A Sagittarius will teach a Scorpio that eternal optimism feels foolish, but is necessary.
    Whether in our careers or our dating lives or in these wild COVID times, feeling hopeful and entitled to joy of any kind can feel selfish and absurd. Carly has never shied away from naming exactly what she wants and deserves, and she inspires us to do the same. 

    SOUNDTRACK: Gimmie Love

  11. It might not be so bad if you have a wingman/Try saying yes.
    A Sagittarius bestie is the perfect antidote for Scorpio’s natural misery and anti-social tendencies. Do you know how many things Andi has asked Morgan to do with her that she’s simply said yes to? Do you know, at Andi’s own birthday party, how relieved she was when Morgan walked in and she could stop pretending to be the life of the party? About a dozen and VERY.

    SOUNDTRACK: I’ll Be Your Girl
    B-SIDE: Now I Don’t Hate California Anymore

  12. Concerts are a love language
    There’s something that feels indelibly sacred about attending a concert with somebody. Maybe it’s the fact that all of your memories of that night and that artist will forever be tangled up with that person. Maybe it has to do with how vulnerable it feels to lose yourself in the moment and scream/sing the lyrics to all of your favourites. Either way, we figured out early on that we trust each other with those moments. And better yet, have the same need to start rehashing shows the minute we leave them (we’re still talking about the Dedicated tour). 

    SOUNDTRACK: Now That I Found You
    B-SIDE: Guitar String / Wedding Ring

  13. Your weirdness is noted, and appreciated
    Oh, the thrill of seeing Morgan throw her head back and laugh when Andi gets into her weird, crowd-dispersing (for safety) dancing, insists on a Romi & Michelle pose in the middle of a photoshoot, or makes an impassioned speech about Emo Night, or the narrative arc of Carly Rae Jepsen’s third studio release… Listen, it is a masterpiece, and she is a much weirder artist than most people realize.

    SOUNDTRACK: Higher

  14. Knowledge is power, and power makes our hair grow
    A blunt question gets a blunt answer, and we are afraid of speaking neither. Once, Morgan’s answer to a very personal question Andi asked was, “You already know too much.” Hey, she tried.

    SOUNDTRACK: Curiosity

  15. Dream big. No, bigger.
    Doing the thing is absolutely easier with a co-conspirator but, in the absence of that, having someone who believes in your brilliance and your work ethic and your fundamental goodness as a person goes a long, long way. To quote our queen, “You make me feel like/I could be driving you all night.” Even when we’re not collaborating on something directly, we’re always stuck in each other’s heads and on each other’s hearts, and — most of the time — that’s more than enough.  

    SOUNDTRACK: Run Away With Me

    We are not emotional vegans. Does Morgan sing in the shower? YES, ANDI HAS SHARED A BATHROOM WITH HER. Does Andi cry because pop punk means best friends forever? FREQUENTLY. Did we write 35 line items on friendship and CRJ? ALMOST. We’re alive, goddammit. It’s about unlearning shame. It’s about embracing pleasure. It’s about feeling it all. It’s about making out like it’s the end of the world.

    SOUNDTRACK: Favourite Colour
    BONUS TRACK: Bad Friend by Rina Sawayama (you’ll see why)

  17. Scorp/Sag intimacies lie at the intersection of honesty and bravery.
    Sometimes you have to be the person that can see through the glitter and question (and sometimes curb) your bestie’s true motivations, and sometimes you have to be the person who goes along with a bad idea just to see what happens. In other words, you gotta be all “If you just give me a chance, you’d see what I see.” If you know what I mean, do you know what I mean? Cue dance beats.

    SOUNDTRACK: I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance
    B-SIDE: L.A. Hallucinations

  18. We all have a type. 
    Sometimes, you need someone to take you by the hand and tell you to stop dating Irishmen… the ultimate Irish goodbye, if you will (we won’t name names). We’re still not sure if it’s possible to validate the everloving heck out of someone while also questioning their life (Tinder) choices, but oh my god have we tried.

    SOUNDTRACK: Julien
    B-SIDE: Your Type

  19. No one moves through heartbreak better than a Sag with a Scorp by her side.
    And no one springs into action like a Scorp whose bestie has been wronged. Andi has waded into the wreckage of all of Morgan’s worst breakups, looked around, and immediately set to work. She’s written tirades about men taking up too much space at concerts after running into one of Morgan’s exes at a show. She’s sat Morgan down at her favourite pizza place less than a week out and reassured Morgan over and over again that she’s lovable until a tiny part of her believed it again. And, of course, has always prescribed a heavy dose of Carly.

    SOUNDTRACK: Boy Problems

  20. Block them.
    Sometimes you need someone who’s been through it before to pry your cold, (emotionally) dead hands off a relationship. Sagittarius go-with-the-flow energy, meet Scorpio’s firm boundary-setting. Blocking and ghosting are allowed, nay, encouraged in the face of bad — dare we say, Cancerian — behaviour. We invoke the “you know me and I’m not that good at goodbyes” clause.


  21. Dancing will solve a lot of problems. Aggressive dancing will solve them faster. 
    Look, we know it’s contradictory that the music we love spans everything from early Carly to early PUP, but what can we say — we’ve never met a problem that a good old-fashioned mosh pit can’t help.   

    SOUNDTRACK: Good Time (ft. Owl City) 
    B-SIDE: Hurt So Good

  22. The messier the party, the more memorable the holiday.
    Sometimes you’re the one who vomits, sometimes you’re the one who wipes the vomit off the other’s hands (see: chaos respects chaos). Long live Vom-entine’s Day 2018.

    SOUNDTRACK: It’s Not Christmas ‘Til Somebody Cries

  23. When a Scorpio moves across a city the size of Toronto for love, it’s good to have a Sagittarius friend who loves to travel.
    Especially one who stole [her dad’s] bike, and rode all [across town] to deliver a freshly-baked loaf of sourdough in the middle of a pandemic.


  24. Likewise, when you’re saving all your money for your next bout of adventure tourism, it’s good to have a friend who over-shops.
    Dressing Morgan in her overstock is a fun way for Andi to keep her excess clothing close, but in someone else’s closet. Morgan has never met a piece of pseudo-stolen clothing she doesn’t love. 

    SOUNDTRACK: The One (but mostly just that one line “I wear your socks as slippers”)

  25. Sometimes, love means rolling your eyes.

    Morgan has lost count of the quips Andi has made about her fleeting Sagittarius hobbies. [DO YOU HAVE AN EXAMPLE THAT’S NOT TOO MEAN] [NO, I AM MEAN] Sometimes, being in someone’s life for long enough means that you can anticipate their patterns before they can. Luckily, that also comes with a clause where calling each other on our shit is mandatory.  

    SOUNDTRACK: Wrong Feels So Right

  26. Scorp/Sag intimacies just need a little glue sometimes.
    Andi has already written beautifully about this elsewhere on the blog, but there have definitely been times when we’ve needed to work through the fact that we communicate and love each other in wildly different ways sometimes. In Carly’s music, these miscommunications and blunders usually end in heartbreak (and occasionally having one’s bicycle stolen), but every once in a while you find someone who’s so worth it that you take the time to grow… together. 

    SOUNDTRACK: Let’s Sort the Whole Thing Out

  27. Co-Star calls us star-crossed friends, but here we are.
    SOUNDTRACK: This Love Isn’t Crazy

  28. Scorp/Sag intimacy is a free range creature.

    Luckily, we both hold mutual respect for privacy and personal space, and know that some things are better kept secret…

  29. Scorp/Sag egos are built on the fiction that we want to be alone; Scorp/Sag intimacy is built on the truth that we’re going to show up for each other.
    Scorpios trust no one. Sagittariuses are flaky. But we know one Sagittarius who would never flake on a Scorpio, and one Scorpio who has learned over and over again that she can trust a Sag. Can Scorp/Sag intimacy heal our respective anxieties? ??? ? ? Can Andi describe the bloom in her heart when Morgan always shows up to her birthday party, to her talk — even at 8 a.m., even in a pandemic — when she thought nobody would? No, she cannot. But it might be purple.

    SOUNDTRACK: Your Heart Is A Muscle

  30. Timing is everything. 
    Do you know how hard it is to get a Sagittarius to admit that fate might actually exist? We were already over a year into our friendship when we started figuring out weird parallels in our lives, from attending the same undergrad institution to similar dating histories to literally living across the street from each other years before we ever met. It seems like the universe really, really, really, really, really, really wanted us to be friends, though. And, as Carly has written about extensively, while there is absolutely such thing as the wrong time, life has a funny way of working out anyway.     

    SOUNDTRACK: Feels Right 

  31. Some actions speak louder than words.
    Another overlap in the Scorp/Sag Venn diagram is undoubtedly our sun signs’ absolute horror at asking for help from anyone ever. To date, Andi is the only person Morgan has ever called from the ER. And to date, Andi is exactly the person it turns out Morgan needed that night (she showed up with a clean t-shirt, a stack of Bitch magazines, and two different kinds of Clif bar — dedicated doesn’t even begin to cover it).  

    SOUNDTRACK: When I Needed You 
    B-SIDE: The Sound 

  32. The cat always knows. 
    There comes a time in every millennial’s life where they realize that if they can’t win over the pet of a potential new pal, Tinder date, etc. then they might as well just hit the bricks. Morgan doesn’t want to brag, but Zooey (Andi’s perfect, shouty tortoiseshell) has been obsessed with her from their very first tentative ear scritch. She’s never felt more smug than when Andi finally asked her to catsit, and is happy to report that she and Zooey spent a blissful August long weekend hanging out and serenading one another (Morgan sang Carly; Zooey just wanted dinner an hour early).   

    SOUNDTRACK: OMG (ft. Gryffin)

  33. If we’re being honest, one pillar of Scorp/Sag intimacy is the dream that Morgan will, one day, let Andi ride on the back of her motorcycle.
    The motorcycle is the perfect symbol of moody/dark/romantic/escapist/adventurous Scorp/Sag tropes. It is as much the centre of our Venn Diagram as CRJ herself, who is similarly thrilled by a romantic jaunt on a fast vehicle. (Note: Andi is like one of like two and a half people Morgan would ever even consider for the gig. She’s tiny and grabby and looks cute in leather.)


  34. It’s nice to have your E•MO•TIONs validated.
    Sometimes you just need someone to appreciate the magnitude of the feelings coursing through your body, regardless of how insignificant the cause may be. True, it might be the fact that we’re both in therapy and have done a lot of work to get better at holding space for the people we love, but we like to think at least a little bit of this is Carly’s doing.  

    SOUNDTRACK: E•mo•tion

  35. Always commit to the bit. 
    Is it fair or in any way accurate to compare the relatively tiny task of compiling this list to the genius that is releasing full length B-side albums a year after each of your generation-defining EPs? Not even a little bit. But we’re still going to, because if there’s anything Carly has taught us it’s this: when you have a great idea, friends worth having will encourage you to run with it as far as it will take you. And then some.   

    SOUNDTRACK: Comeback (ft. Bleachers) 

On Being an Indoor Femme

When we got the stay home order, my acrylic nails hadn’t been filled for over two weeks. The layer of shellac had already inched up far enough to reveal the half moons rising above my cuticles. And by then it was too late. There would be no nail fills for the foreseeable future. 

I looked down at my teal, coffin-shaped, acrylic tips in dismay. Our days together were numbered. 

They started to become unmanageably long. I lost the first one by jamming it in the door. (The right index is always the first to go.) As the fakes grew halfway up my nail bed I had no choice: I cut them off to avoid further injury. My partner slipped a string of dental floss underneath each sawed-off acrylic layer and slid it back and forth until the false top popped off like a dandelion head. 

I held up my hands and examined my newly stumpy fingers. Declawed, like an indoor cat. 

We declaw because a cat’s desire to scratch is trumped by the human desire for an orderly interior, a room so pristine that it betrays no sign of its inhabitants: no marks on the leather chair, no pilling on the tweed sofa. The declawed cat becomes another ornament for the perfect still life, a soft, purring pillow in the fantasy of a human who has its shit together. Plus, as long as you keep the cat inside it doesn’t need its claws, right? Who’s it going to fight, anyway? 

A declawed cat: just another docile body. 

As I spend my twentieth week indoors, I wonder if a domesticated femme will turn docile.

Some of us do seem to be getting softer — and by that I guess I mean more feminine. Genderqueer author Ivan E. Coyote tweeted about growing out their bangs. My non-femme editor at the gay paper tweeted about doing face masks and wearing her hair up, even to meetings. Have we just coded the private sphere as “feminine” for so long that it’s the only place our femininity can unfold?

Scholars have worried for years about what would happen to queers when we were made to cede public space. Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant wrote about this in the late 1990s, from the context of NYC Mayor Rudolph Giulani’s rezoning laws. The bylaws that displaced so-called “adult businesses” worked to reify “the family” as a heteronormative fantasy, they said, by ushering queer sex out of public view. The famed Christopher Street would no longer be a cruising zone, or a commons on which the queer and curious could gather and connect. No, queer sex would be once again pushed into dangerous shadows — or into the virtual public of phone and internet sex. 

More than twenty years later, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems our entire lives take place in cyberspace (see above, my compulsive hanging out on Twitter). But the internet has already been my queer roadmap for years. 

I learned about femme on Tumblr (R.I.P.). When I first moved to Toronto I would gasp and grab my partner’s arm as we walked down the street, certain that was Clementine Morrigan skating by — you know, Clementine from Tumblr. I couldn’t believe it. We were living in the simulation. 

Within my first few years in this city, all the remaining dyke bars closed down — often before I could ever wriggle my way inside to stand nervously apart from the crush of hot queers so I could feel like I was part of something. 

For my generation, it seems that queer space is not so much an actual place as it is a layer of ephemera that descends on the city in monthly instalments, rotating between west- and east-end venues. And we still need the internet to trace it. But more often than not, my sense of queer community comes directly from the internet, itself a gathering place of sorts. First it was Tumblr, then Instagram, and now apparently you can catch me fav-ing the queers’ hair updates on Twitter. But this isn’t exactly the type of queer life that reading all five of Michelle Tea’s memoirs prepared me for. I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the kind of femme community that seemed to crystallize in the Gay (Nineteen-)Nineties, one that I can only read about. (Amber Dawn really got my number when she wrote “We wrote the books that queerlings now read in college.”)

Femme was different, it seems, in the 1990s: more public, less soft. The hard femme reigned. One of my femme mentors has told me that then femmes would never wear pumps to the function: it was boots or bust. She also told me they used to all hang out all the time. If by “hang out” you mean “send memes back and forth until someone falls asleep” then, you know, same.

Our femme has gotten softer since the 1990s. We can wear pumps, although these days I’m mostly just wearing bunny slippers, and I wrote my damn dissertation on the soft femme takeover of Instagram. Online, we wear pastels without irony (sorry, Duggan & McHugh [1996]), we cry, we post about our feelings, our therapists. We affirm the shit out of each other because we know we need it. We were already raising plants, now quarantine’s even got us baking bread. Is it because we’ve been pushed inside, and online, like Warner and Berlant feared? Is femme, like the rest of the world, becoming privatized?

The internet was only invented halfway through the 1990s, and before that queerness was fundamentally about a relationship to the public. The Stonewall riot and the gay liberation movement emphasized the need for gays and lesbians to “come out of the closet,” meaning: Publicly declare your sexual orientation! This movement understood taking up public space and creating queer spectacles as a political imperative. It gave us Pride — which is, woefully, becoming privatized, too.  

Historian John D’Emilio says that gay identity and community only exists because capitalism, and waged labour specifically, created the conditions in which it could thrive. The shift to individualized waged labour meant a couple of things: 1) the family was no longer a unit of production, but a rather an affective unit, or the place where we experience intimacy, pleasure, happiness/general warm and fuzzy stuff; 2) your private life, in the family and the home, became differentiated from your public life, at work; and 3) people moved to urban centres and queers developed ways to find each other (read: boned down everywhere like the YMCA, women-only barracks, and bathhouses). Of course, there was always queer sex (or “unnatural attractions” and “lewdness,” if you’re *not* nasty), but these shifts meant that you could organize a private life around intimacy and eroticism, and thus have a gay identity at all. Without a relationship to the public, are we still queer? I mean, if a femme breaks a nail and no one hears her (me) scream, is she still a femme? 

Before Stonewall, camp was the dominant queer mode of being. We understand camp as a wacky, ironic, and referential sensibility, but before Stonewall it was also the coded language of queerness that let those in *the know* know that yes, you were. After Stonewall, queer scholars say, the irony of camp that traded on double entendres was equated with secrecy and shame. That style of queerness was discarded and the preference for the out and proud gay was born. So it makes sense that the queers that cut their teeth after Stonewall worry about losing public space, worry about the queerlings going soft, protected by their hashtags. Amber Dawn writes:

“Quiet, you whippersnappers. You were born in the eighties
and I must school you. Our foremamas and papas
Didn’t have the luxury of safe assembly, much less
Facebook. Think Stonewall had a hashtag?”

They’re worried about the political efficacy of staying indoors, in shadows, and, yes, In-stagram.

In some ways, it’s been previous generations of queers that gave us the luxurious gift of softness. It’s something like how avoidant attachment styles are said to develop in hostile environments, and secure ones in peaceful environments. Thank you for creating this peaceful(er/ish) environment.

We can’t have the same queer experiences or political strategies as our foremamas and papas because the conditions aren’t the same. The bars are closed, so we’re online. There’s a global pandemic, so we’re inside. Our relationship to public space is changing. Maybe we are losing our identities. We’re definitely losing our claws. 

But a public, confrontational type of queer politics isn’t necessarily the only way to go. D’Emilio wrote, “Although lesbians and gay men won significant victories in the 1970s and opened up some safe social space in which to exist, we can hardly claim to have dealt a fatal blow to heterosexism and homophobia.” D’Emilio is critical of what he calls an “overreliance” on coming out that developed through mythologizing a queer history full of silence, invisibility and isolation. This isn’t true! he says, and proceeds to tell us about all the queer activity enabled by waged labour from the nineteenth century right up to Stonewall. So, queerness can exist without its public face — it may just go by a different name. It may change entirely.

What the human learns too late is that declawing is much more than just a trim. It involves chopping off the tips of toe bones. A declawed cat is a fundamentally different animal. And, it turns out, not so docile; unable to scratch, a declawed cat is prone to bite. 

On Being a Dirtbag Femme: An Interview with Morgan Bimm

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… 

MB: Yeah. 

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. 

You can read more about dirtbag femme in my zine, Soft Femme II: Summer Camp. If you want to find out more about Morgan you can visit her website.

What We Can Learn About Femme Theory from Legally Blonde

We may never agree on what femme means, except to agree that femme’s meaning is boundless. Indeed, much of femme writing so far has bounded beyond our previous understandings, has written into the space around femme. This writing has been important interjections, slicing in to the word and carving out a space to insert ourselves.

This is how I initially thought of femme theory — as a theory of femme, or theorizing what it is to be femme. But I want to begin to think about femme theory as something other than accounts of individual femmes’ lives or descriptions of what counts as doing/being femme. Femme is an identity and embodiment, yes, but it is also a perspective, and a critique.

Feminist theory is not only theories about feminists or women, and queer theory is not simply theories about queer folk. Neither are either merely ruminations on what it means to be a woman, feminist, or queer. Rather, these are attempts to think feminist, to think queerly. We have longed for a more capacious understanding of femme, and now I long for a more capacious understanding of femme theory.

I am inspired by scholars like Ulrika Dahl and Hannah McCann, whose work on femme bounds beyond our previous understanding of femme as femininity’s rival. Femme has often been heralded for its failure to achieve idealized patriarchal femininity, for subverting femininity and resisting it. But femme’s sole political achievement is not failing at femininity; it is actually not very hard to fail at femininity — most of us do without trying. I can’t help but wonder if femme resists femininity as much as it embraces it, warts (of feminist critique) and all, and drags it onward, refusing to give up on its potential. Perhaps femme actually remains committed to recuperating the feminine. Perhaps it is not femininity that femme resists, but something else.

I want to start thinking less about studying femme (n.), and more about studying femme (adj.). What does it mean to use a femme lens of analysis?

To move toward a femme theory, I am again inspired by other theorists who have introduced critical modes of theorizing into the academy based on the perspectives of women, queers, and racialized folks. These modes of theorizing at once question and resist the dominant modes of theorizing, and introduce new perspectives. I think of femme theory as aligned with some of these modes, as akin to “low theory” and “women’s ways of knowing.”

Femme theory does not resist femininity per se, but rather the dominant ways of thinking about femininity, the cultural codes that say that femininity is weak, passive, superficial, frivolous, and intended for the consumption of men. In other words, femme theory resists masculinist and patriarchal modes of thinking — without selling femininity down the river, too.

Femme theory is capacious enough to hold both feminist critiques of femininity, and attend to the pleasures of and attachments to femininity.

Femme theory knows that ‘femme’ is not entirely subversive, or outside of the norms of femininity; it does participate in, benefit from, and perpetuate some norms that are oppressive.

Femme theory uses femininity, it does not resist it.

Femme theory resists all kinds of masculinist thinking.

Femme theory is another way of thinking, of strategizing.

Femme theory resists individualism and embraces collaboration.

Femme theory emphasizes relational and embodied ways of knowing.

Femme theory uses feminized knowledge to inform solutions and, in doing so, elevates that very feminized knowledge to a higher status.

To move toward a femme theory, I am also inspired, as ever, by Elle Woods.

Elle Woods shows us, if not how to think like a femme (n.), then how to think femme (adj.): she accesses uniquely feminized knowledge gained from her lived experience as a feminine person, she works collaboratively and never forgets the importance of citational practice, and she succeeds in thwarting patriarchal rule without placing herself in opposition to or in competition with other feminized folks.

Elle stands in contrast to the men and the masculine forces in the film that would have her sell out her allies to benefit herself, that doubt and dismiss her feminized, collaborative perspective,  and expect her to surrender herself and her femininity to both individual men and the entrenched masculinist, Old-Boys’-Club structures of the law and the university. But Elle does things another way, a femme way.

One of Elle’s first shining moments happens when a sales clerk tries to push a discounted dress at full price. The clerk tells her coworker, “There’s nothing I love more than a dumb blonde with Daddy’s plastic.”

Elle sees through the attempt and counters, “It’s impossible to use a half loop top stitching on low viscosity rayon, it would snag the fabric. And you didn’t just get it in yesterday — I saw it in June Vogue a year ago. So if you’re trying to sell it to me at full price, you picked the wrong girl.”

And of course Elle’s brightest moment happens in the courtroom where she wins a murder trial using feminized knowledge: “Because isn’t it the first cardinal rule of perm maintenance that you are forbidden to wet your hair for a least 24 hours after getting a perm at the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate?”

Elle resists the individualism that could come with this triumph, attributing this knowledge and victory to a wider women’s culture. When asked how she cracked the case she says, “The rules of haircare are simple and finite — any Cosmo girl would have known.”

This follows a broader trend of collaboration and valuing interpersonal skills and relationships in the film, as Elle refuses to divulge her client’s alibi, even when it could mean personal and professional gain; draws on her community to help her with everything from getting ready for her dream date to studying for the LSATs; counts her role as sorority president and homecoming queen among her most notable achievements; and shares her skills, shown through memorable moments like learning the bend… and snap! Elle demonstrates a commitment to relationships and solidarity. Rather than forfeiting information in service of the patriarch(y), Elle’s femininity orients toward other feminized people (in this film, all women), and is utilized for their collective benefit.


A femme analysis of the film Legally Blonde reveals that femme is much more than a failing of femininity. Femme is actually the success of femininity, the potential femininity can achieve when pushed beyond an orientation to men, patriarchy, and masculinist ways of thinking. Thinking femme requires the use of our feminized knowledge, it requires that we rely on our community of femme thinkers, and it requires we suspect and subvert the dominant or trusted thinkers and ways of thinking.

If femme is femininity’s rival, it is the kind of rival that one-ups femininity, that pushes it, antagonizes it into transformation. Femme theory can do the same: it rivals the existing ways of thinking, pushing them aside, pushing past binary logics and the complicit/subversive binary, and transforming what we thought we knew.

Dad’s House

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My dad’s house was first built as a summer cottage along the U.S-Canadian border. Long before we moved in, someone hoisted it onto a flatbed truck and carried it north to a place called Puslinch, Ontario. In 1968, they built an addition off the north side but you wouldn’t know it to look at it—it remained a tiny, little bungalow.

My dad bought the house in late 1990, and it kept changing. The new kitchen formed where the bedrooms used to be, the new stairs descended under what used to be the bathtub. Over time, he built new doors, kitchen counters, bathroom vanities, railings, and baseboards. My mom sewed curtains, painted the front door green, wallpapered the kitchen with apples, my room with fairies, my brothers’ with rollerskates and hockey sticks. The house changed as we changed, grew as we grew.

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The house developed scars, too, like all living things. Our changing heights left marks on the wall. Spilled nail polish remover took the varnish off the hardwood floor. Our games left crayon pictures on the wall here, a caved-in section of drywall there. In other places the drywall bore holes crumbling in the shape of a fist. A hand-made door was ripped from its hinges and spray-painted with the taunting words, “Drink More.” The house hurt as we hurt, too.

In 2001, we left my dad and the house behind in a hurry. When my mom returned with a small team of close friends to gather our things, she could only wander around stunned and distraught as they hastily put everything in boxes. When they drove away the house stood in their wake, gutted. Stripped of the parts that made it a home. What was left was allowed to remain strewn on the floor for the next 17 years that my dad lived there alone. The house became a relic of an old life. Layers of dust and smoke settled on the wallpaper apples, fairies, and rollerskates that lined the rooms that no one went into anymore. The house began to grow piles of Levi’s jeans, empty beer cans, retro porno mags. Eventually, the backyard amassed so many water tanks, toilets, copper pipes, and Ford Thunderbirds that the township ordered it cleaned up. A few years later they came back, this time with an offer to buy the house to make room for a bigger highway. A good offer. Perhaps the only offer for a home that now only housed piles of abandoned junk and old scars and a little man shuffling around it all.

dads house 3dads house 2

My dad tried packing on his own but could only wander around stunned and distraught at the sight of every old toy and piece of garbage that had been left untouched for almost two decades. A long-time friend stepped in, packing load after load onto his truck long after my dad peeled out of the driveway. The house had been still for so long. But the unused rooms that were avoided like old wounds got ripped open again as another small team of close friends cleaned and packed as fast as they could to hold an emotional disaster at bay.

It took my dad and his friends two months to hollow out the house. They scrapped what they could for cash and burned the rest. On the last day before the township returned, they sat at the back of the empty house—on the porch my dad had built years ago—and cracked a beer. We Did It, they said, and bumped fists. Surveyed the empty lot, the last load strapped to the trailer, the grass pressed down in the shape of things that weren’t there anymore. They looked at the riding lawn mower. Talked about how to fix it, debated if the issue was mechanical. After all, some insides are easier than others.

When they drove away for the last time that day the house was still standing, and still will be, for a while. But no one who walks through it again will notice its carefully chosen wallpaper, or remember how those holes got there, or trace either with their fingers. No one will pay attention to these little stories a house has to tell. Soon, it will be over for my dad’s house that was once a cottage in southern Ontario, that was hoisted onto a flatbed truck and carried north, that grew with us and hurt with us. There will be no starting over this time, no ninth life waiting in the ranks. Soon the house will fall, relieved from its duty, and rest in ruins. A mess of rubble and reminiscence. And soon the town will pave over it, and the commuters will speed into the city, where the little man will live—on the outskirts, in a tiny, little bungalow.

dads house 9

Boys to the Back: On the Subtleties of Male Entitlement

I’ve been writing love letters to mosh pits since I was in high school. But this is not a love letter.

There are few things I love more than thrashing around at shows with my friends. This feels like the whole point of having a body, the best part of being material. We all become new best friends, dancing so close and so strange that we slam into each other.We fall down, we get scooped up by strangers’ arms and strong hands. We check in on people we haven’t met yet to make sure their injuries are minor, that they are hydrated, that they can breathe. A punk dance party (you can call it a mosh pit if you want) is a lesson in how to build community.

Me at Homesick, a weekly emo and pop punk dance party in Toronto. Photo by Kieran Meyn

Darn, I said this wasn’t going to be a love letter.

My point is: it’s all fun and games until someone takes their shirt off. And by that I mean, it’s a wholesome, reciprocal community experience until a bunch of sweaty white dudes rip their shirts off and remind everyone that this space is theirs and theirs alone.

So there I was, at a show, bopping along with my friends, when three white dudes at the front coordinated this very display of male entitlement.

Men exposing their naked bodies in public is a total power move, an unflinching assertion of power and dominance. Ripping your shirt off at a show or whipping your dick out to take a piss on the street betrays the deep sense of entitlement men have to public spaces. It’s the semi-nude version of manspreading, the word for the well-documented phenomenon of men taking up too much space on the train.

It betrays a stake in the belief that men’s bodies are natural, neutral, and completely inoffensive in a way women’s bodies can never be. My friend at the show said, “I hate when guys just take over like that.” We agreed that, as women, we couldn’t whip our shirts off to the same effect. Our bodies would be objectified and sexualized against our will, subjected to leers, grabs, and, undoubtedly, a sneaky pic some creep would save for later. No, we agreed that to have the same space-staking effect as dudes discarding their shirts, we would need to drop our pants and piss everywhere. Like dogs. This was the equivalent we agreed on. Let that sink in.

Men exposing their bodies in public also betrays their complete lack of awareness of how they take up space, and the effect that this has on the other people sharing that space. One day this summer I was walking down a residential street with my boyfriend and he noticed his shirt was on inside out. No problem, he took it off, inside-right-ed it, and put it back on as we walked. As he did this, a woman walking toward us on the sidewalk crossed the street. I don’t think he even noticed. Most men, especially the white, cis, and straight among them, are not familiar with the practice of sizing up someone approaching them on the street. How uncomfortable will this be? Will he leer at me? Will he make a comment about my body? Will he interrupt my day to try to flirt with me? Will he grab me? These are experiences we typically try to avoid, so we take a literal detour and cross the street if they seem imminent. A half-naked man signals entitlement, and male entitlement has led to so much violence and discomfort for women, so we cross the street. We physically give up space, scoot to the *literal margins* of public space, so men can take up more. We shrink so they may grow.

It’s like these dudes have never heard of riot grrrl. And maybe they haven’t, perhaps they are only like 23 have actually never heard of riot grrrl. So let’s review some of its key principles.

My feminism came out of punk rock ethos. When I was 15, my genius Sagittarius friend Justine confided to me that she didn’t “get” the punks who were misogynist or homophobic because punk rock is all about equality. She showed me Bikini Kill, beautifully illustrating her point with their demands for “revolution, girl style now!” and “girls to the front!”

Girls to the Front became a slogan for a political movement that came out of young women’s frustrations with the sexism and male entitlement in 90s punk culture known as riot grrrl. Mosh pits were extremely aggro and had a tendency to get violent. This made it terrifying and dangerous for girls to dance to their favourite bands at a live show (see above: one of the best parts of being alive). Girls to the Front was a way of organizing riot grrrl shows so that girls could participate safely and actively in the subculture they loved and helped build. You can still find grainy videos of Kathleen Hanna, who fronted Bikini Kill, saying,

“All girls to the front! I’m not kidding. All boys be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back. Back!”

The literalization of this riot grrrl ethos was extremely necessary, but at its core, Girls to the Front can be understood as simply an invitation to consider how you take up space. Look around. Whose space are you taking? Who are you sidelining? Is everyone having fun, or just the boys? And possibly more pressing, aren’t you cold without your shirt?

Girls have spent so much time on the sidelines of subcultures, it has sparked the development of entirely new subcultures, political movements, and academic fields of study. But girls and women can’t be the only ones talking and thinking about these dynamics. Women can only take up space if men stop occupying all of it. Girls can only get to the front if boys will move to the back. And what is one small way that, as a man, you can show that you are conscious of the gendered power dynamics at play in public spaces, and can demonstrate a willingness to right this imbalance rather than uphold it? Keep your fucking shirt on.

Two Mantras for 28

Twenty-seven was a bad year for me. There’s no way around it, it’s quantifiable. Twenty-eight was also hard, but it was the year I started to make sense out of twenty-seven. It’s been a slog, and I know I am not done yet. I wrote these two mantras, named after tarot cards I pulled over and over throughout the year, to reflect on the lessons I’ve started to learn.

One: Eight of Swords

The institution you work for or in isn’t shit.

But you will survive and your work will survive, even if it looks different. We are feminists and queers, we do things different.

These institutions were never made for us anyway, so fuck it.

You will learn the art of the stern email. You will learn to say, “please advise” instead of, “what the fuck is going on?” You will learn to say, “All the Best” instead of, “We Are Fucking Done Here.”

You will build alliances. Strategic alliances. You will benefit from the small network built by the generation that hacked it before you. They will help you or you will find your own way or you will find a way out.

Your work will survive. You will survive. Institutions ain’t shit.

Two: Wheel of Fortune 

You can do whatever you want. That’s important to remember.

It’s going to be hard. That’s important to remember.

It’s going to be hard, but you can do it. That’s important to remember.

There’s going to be good days and there’s going to be bad days. Anxiety makes these more extreme.

On the good days, lean into it. Feel loved, give love, laugh, feel lightness in your heart, feel your ribs open up, cry because everything is beautiful.

Take pictures.

The bad days will seem impossible: your relationship will feel doomed, you will feel foolish. You will believe all of this to be true.

You will question every happy moment. You will want to rescind your trust. You will regret every sweetness you extended; indeed, you will regret extending yourself. Your finger will hover over the little trash can icon.

But don’t delete your pictures.