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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Death Drive Toward Life? Or, Fun Fact: All My Planets Are In the 6th and 8th Houses

I almost flunked grade four because I couldn’t finish Tuck Everlasting. The book terrified me. The main character Winnie (later played by Alexis Bledel—I heard, I couldn’t watch the movie) was given the choice to live forever, or continue to age, live a human life of growth, love and loss, and, yes, eventually die. Winnie chose the latter. My 10-year-old self was like, nope, not mature enough for this discussion. And I stuffed the book deep in the back of my desk, hoping all thoughts of death would stay buried with it. My book report dead(gasp!)line came and went, and I acted like Mariah Carey in 2014:

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Fuck you, Ms. Nelles, and, while we’re at it, fuck you too, Natalie Babbitt. I had always been an excellent student, and I never ‘fessed up to why I really fell behind.

Even before grade four, I was a kid for whom thoughts about death triggered panic attacks (but back then they were called “tantrums”). I once screamed at my older brother for bringing up death, something I could never un-know because I have “a good remembering brain!!!”

I remember another particularly vivid episode taking place on the kitchen floor. My dad tried to interrupt my crying and screaming with, “can I tell you one good thing about death?” What? “You get to be with God and Jesus!”

In no way did I find this comforting.

Twenty-some years later I attended a conference in the graduate program of English Literature at Dalhousie University called “(De)composing Death.” I spent most of it thinking aw, what a quaint discipline English Literature is, but came away having had some deeply stirring conversations, most of which I contribute to performance artist lo bil (http://lo-bil.tumblr.com/). As lo bil philosophized at Dalhousie, “if we won’t think about our death, then we can’t think about our life.”

My fear of death has always been with me. It is the root of my anxiety. It drives my to-do list, my need to set and accomplish goals. It’s what gets me up in the morning and what keeps me awake all through November, crying. It might be why the sight of blood petrifies me, why I’ve considered the viability of wearing a helmet everywhere I go.

My discomfort with death, or perhaps more accurately, with the briefness of life, also drives me to stop and check in with myself once in a while: is this really how I want to be spending my time? It’s what moved me to tears thinking about the miracle of bodies, of touch, and of language as I floated in a salty decompression tank around my last birthday, in a room so dark my eyes reinvented colours. It is what has made me fall in love so deeply since I was 18 and in love for the first time with a Sagittarius. It is what made me realize the only thing that matters is our relationships with each other; that the miracle of being human is that we can touch and feel: when we are only stardust, how will you know that I love you?

My fear of death makes me realize what a miracle existence is, what inspires me to walk around rainy parks in the fall, tearing up in awe of how lush and beautiful the world can be. It’s what makes me take a deep breath with my eyes closed like I’m John Travolta in Michael, the 90’s movie about the archangel’s last visit to earth that deeply disturbed my childhood death-phobia. “I’m going to miss everything so much,” he says.

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It is what’s made my hungover ass cry on New Year’s Day watching Hook (okay, I shouldn’t be allowed to watch 90’s movies), thinking about how wise the lost boy sounds when he concludes, “that was a great game.” What a great metaphor for life! I would have said, if I wasn’t sobbing too hard to make words. I hope that is what I, too, am saying at the end.

My fear of death drives me towards life, actually, more like sends me hurdling, nay, catapulting toward it with open arms, chasing it like, I’m going to live the shit out of you! Although I’d like to wear a helmet while doing it! It’s what makes me want to surround myself with people who feel the most, too—why I don’t think I’ll ever live with a “life natural” again, why my Tinder bio says “preference for water signs.” Like Winnie, I have found I’d rather take the unforeseen messiness and unknown pain of living and dying than hum along forever. As much terror as it brought me as a child, I can understand her choice now—what it feels like to be afraid of death, but still want to die.

Bisexual and Ambivalent!: A Queer Worrier and her Queer Worries

My friend once called me out for posting a spate of ~misandrist~ content. She said she was trying to determine whether I had recently killed a man, or if was really happy with one.

I was really happy with one.

She assured me that she, too, “flexed her misandry muscles” the most when she was in a happy relationship with a dude. 

My friend’s commentary on the discrepancy between my online and offline lives made me wonder about the need to emphasize my queer, feminist criticality of men and masculinity.  Were my sass posts meant to compensate for my utter adoration of a particular man? Were they meant to disguise the reality that there was a dude in the picture? There is something about dating a straight dude that makes you feel really queer, but alone, so maybe I was searching for an outlet to express or assert my queerness? Only my therapist could tell you. Though this line of questioning is specific to a particular kind of relationship formation, it’s certainly not the first time my relationships have raised questions about my intentions and personal ontology. Here is a short summary of my worries.

When I’ve dated women, I’ve wondered if I was *really* gay. Now, happy with a dude, I wonder if that means I’m *really* straight? These questions seem to gather urgency the longer the relationships last, the latter of which could be particularly devastating for someone like me, whose career feels premised on being a queer femme.

I’ve dated, loved, crushed on, and hooked up with both women and men, so it should be categorically obvious that I am neither straight nor gay. I also came up (and out—ha!) under the perspective that we are the experts on our sexual and romantic identities—they are intrinsic to us and are valid regardless of who we are dating, crushing on, or sleeping with. Despite my own history of dating people of a variety of genders, and despite being equipped with the ideology that says my identity is true if I say it is, I find myself measuring my experiences against other queer/pan/bi people I know. Have I dated as many same-sex people as they have? Who are their long term relationships with? Who do they date short term? Who are mine? How do we compare? Does that mean anything? Are they queer-er than me? I am constantly on a quest to figure them out, hoping that means I would get a clear-cut answer about myself.

Anecdotal evidence tells me I’m not the only queer worrier. Even armed with our own varied and sometimes vast experiences and feelings, we still internalize the monosexist norms that circulate in our society. It doesn’t help that we often notice these norms circulating in a very visceral way, like hearing a friend remind your girlfriend, “straight girls are always straight” or another ask if you’re “going back to dudes.” No wonder we are pushed to question the authenticity of our experiences and feelings.

I was on a date once—with a dude (omg why do I think it matters?!)—and I started telling him about my recent fascination about seeing pregnant people in public. Seeing them made me wonder what it felt like to feel sure about something. Though I’m quite certain now that pregnant people are filled with doubts and anxieties, I would see them and think “wow, you made a decision and you’re prepared to stick with it for 40 weeks and then also the rest of your life. What does it feel like to be sure? Calm? Content? Is that what being a monosexual feels like?”

All of these worries leave me to wonder if anxiety is an inherent part of bisexual identity. If bisexuality had an affective state, would it be an anxious one? When bisexual people are construed as “greedy,” double-dipping,” “confused,” or simply just “sluts,” are we really just overwhelmed with anxiety, worried about what our relationships say about our true selves, and looking to other possibilities as some sort of litmus test, or verification? Does anxiety structure bisexual orientations and affections? Is there such a thing as bisexual certainty? What is its shape? How does it feel?

Being bisexual feels like wondering; discovering; shrugging. I would love to say I am bisexual and proud, but the truth is more like “bisexual and ambivalent,” or even “bisexual and lol ok.” You could say that being bisexual worries me, in that it gives me lots to think about, to worry about. This is not to say I don’t like it, being bisexual is really cool; you get to say things like “no thanks, I’m gay AND I have a boyfriend,” and it feels true. Being bisexual feels like living multiple truths at once; occupying multiple planes—but that can be a hard place to get comfy in. Theorists will tell you queer is a destabilizing category, and I have to wonder, destabilizing for whom? Queers are just as destabilized by our queerness as the straights; I would even suggest that we are even more destabilized by it.

Perhaps being bisexual only feels uncomfortable and curious because monosexuality is treated as the norm (even though I really, really don’t think it is, but I digress), and bisexual people are treated as cute little oddities (if not the aforementioned confused sluts) by our monosexual partners and peers. Perhaps it is actually not bisexuality that makes me anxious, but rather the pressure to be monosexual that does it. What’s more, perhaps it is the fear of being monosexual that makes me nervous; because, really, who would want to leave behind their flighty, quirky essence, flitting around out there on its alternate plane of existence?

“She may, structurally at least, have abandoned her butch, but this cannot be reconceived as a return to heterosexuality. And, possibly more threatening still, should her and her lover go their separate ways, there is now no way of knowing which gendered gaze [she] might return next.” Clare Hemmings, Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Theorizing Femme Narrative

Feminine Appetites (2017)

“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.”
— Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth

 

“Let us break the tie with food and look at the metaphor: hungering… voracious… extravagantly and excessively needful… without restraint… always wanting… always wanting too much affection, reassurance, emotional and sexual contact, and attention. This is how many women frequently experience themselves.”
— Susan Bordo in Unbearable Weight

Dating Men is a Public Service That Men Don’t Deserve, But Women Do

This is a post about rape.

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I keep in casual contact with a dude I dated a year ago. A few weeks ago he revealed that he was having a “terrible” week. He said he wanted to tell me what was going on with him because he wasn’t sure I would take his side. I immediately wrote back, “If it’s about a girl, I’m already on her side lol.”

A few nights later, he called me in the middle of the night. I didn’t pick up, because that’s the type of call you ignore. I messaged him in the morning asking what was up. He told me some “dumb girl” accused him of rape and he had been arrested and was in talks with lawyers. I froze. I was stuck between two impulses. The first was to block him immediately and vomit. That felt like the right thing to do, both physically and politically. But I also knew I had an opportunity. I could spend a few minutes talking to him about what he had done and try to get him to take some responsibility. That also felt right politically, if not physically. So that’s what I did.

I was more generous than he deserved. I asked him to consider the possibility that he had crossed a line, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. I told him it would serve everyone better if he listened to what she had to say. Inevitably, he told me to fuck off and deleted me from his friends list.

It was a pretty sickening exchange. It wiped me out emotionally and frankly it scared me. I spent the rest of the day crying and asking male friends to send me pizza to soften the impact of this misogynist world. (I got two pizzas.) I don’t know if I did the right thing in trying to talk to this guy. I wondered if I had said something else if it would have made a difference. I thought back to the time I spent dating him. This was a guy who I asked to use condoms when we slept together, but he never did. This was a guy who I told not to cum inside me, but who did anyway. This was a guy who regularly crossed my sexual boundaries and thought nothing of it. Though I had told him his behaviour was not okay, I couldn’t help wondering if I had said something else, had a stronger response, gotten through to him somehow, would some other woman not be going through hell right now? Or was I a fool for trying at all?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year defending women I don’t know to men who supposedly used to care about them, who supposedly cared about me. This includes explaining why they should believe the women who say they’ve assaulted them. This includes explaining why agreeing with some dude that their ex-girlfriend of over six years is a “cunt” for disliking Arrested Development is a misogynist thing to do. I have sat with men who I know are rapists, with men who have assaulted me, and still carefully explained consent and rape culture. I have made more than one personalized Power Point presentation explaining male privilege. These men don’t deserve my time, my careful explanations, my patience, my creativity, my experiences, my tears, my expertise, or my generosity. But women do.

These things shouldn’t be happening. But they are. Men should be better. But they aren’t. It shouldn’t be my job. But who else is doing it? As long as I have the capacity, and as long as men call women “dumb” or “cunts” for disagreeing with them, I will be there with my years of feminist study and my sassy jokes and my “this-is-unacceptable” voice. I will use anything at my disposal, from Star Wars analogies to Power Point, and I will be more tender than they deserve. Does this make me a fool? Maybe. But I don’t do it for them. I do it for you, the legions of women I have never met, but still love and will always believe.