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:

giphy

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.

1-michael-1996

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.

*

*

*

*

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.

How Many Generations Does It Take to Escape Abuse?

“A man could, feasibly, sacrifice his coffee break raping a woman.
That woman would then spend her entire life dealing with it.
So would her daughters.
So would theirs.
This distribution of power is not acceptable.”

— Inga Muscio, Cunt: A Declaration of Independence

I think about my mother’s mother. First married at 18 to a man that deserted her when she had six children and was pregnant with a seventh. Shortly after she married a man with eight children of his own, who sexually abused at least one of them. My mother. Then there was a third husband, who outlived my grandmother.

There was always a husband.

My mother grew up as one of 15 children. In that family, she went on long camping trips, operated a convenience store, survived childhood sexual abuse. I know vaguely of the tensions between her and her mother. My mom: wondering why she had been left alone with that man. Getting kicked out at 15 for having birth control pills. Eating leftovers snuck over by her brother on family holidays.

Later, there was a man she hid in a closet from while she called her mom. There was my dad, from whom she endured over a decade of abuse. There was her boyfriend after the divorce, who left her with bruises, who she had to pull a knife on, who she had to call the cops on, just to get him to stop.

Early in my mom’s marriage, her mother visited from out of province. My dad was off drinking and my mom, embarrassed, tried every number she could think of to try to track him down. Her mother said, “you’re looking for a punch in the mouth. He’s a good-time Charlie.” My mom tells me how betrayed she felt in that moment, knowing this is what her mother thought of her husband and yet encouraged her to marry him. 

I have this photo of my mom from her wedding day back in ‘87. She’s all done up, in the car, traveling to the ceremony. Her eyes are shifted to the side and downcast, her mouth in a neutral expression. I remember being told when my dad proposed she said “I’ll think about it.” She was pregnant. His parents really wanted them to get married. Her mother said it would give her security. In this photo, it looks like she was still “thinking about it.”

We lived in a small, rural community. My mom had no money of her own. She helped run my dad’s plumbing business for 13 years. She found out in a church pew that what she was experiencing was abuse. When pregnant with her fourth child, her sister had asked “what are you going to do?”

So, eventually, she left. We left. Us two older kids helped pack a few bags and snuck them in the trunk while dad was at work. We told the two younger ones we were driving into town for McDonalds. We passed my dad’s worksite on the way. We went to a women’s shelter in the city I learned about in a school presentation.

She goes back and forth between reflecting on the good things in her life and telling me her life has been a shit show. Telling me “don’t be like me, don’t believe in fairytales, don’t follow the dream.”

So then here I am. I grew up surrounded by abuse. I experienced it, I witnessed it, I inherited it. My siblings and I barely speak; I think it is too painful, too fraught. My relationship with my mother is probably the most painful. We have been at odds since I can remember. After all, I am a Scorpio like her mother — not to be trusted. I think abuse became part of her coping mechanism for surviving abuse.

I’ve had a few coercive experiences, experienced an assault or two, had my front door kicked in by an ex-boyfriend. My boyfriend now asks to move in together, but I keep saying no. I am afraid. I don’t want to live in fear, in isolation. Honestly, I don’t want to get killed. Together we watched “True Story” and I said, “see?”

I remember being eight years old floating in my grandmother’s pool, thinking about what a risk it was to get married, how dangerous.

Sometimes it seems that the reasonable thing to do, the responsible thing to do, is stop this lineage of abuse with me, the easy way. Don’t have kids, don’t make the same mistakes, don’t pass on the trauma. After all, I suspect abuse is part of my coping mechanism for surviving abuse, too.

Other times I think there is another way to get free. My grandmother told my mother “you will have security.” My mother tells me “don’t believe in fairytales.” I wonder what my grandmother’s mother told her. I wonder what I will tell my daughter. How many generations does it take to escape abuse? How long until we outlive it? Will the men get better, or do we just have to get smarter, craftier, queerer?

In a lot of ways, my mother took the first step. She left. And she kept leaving. And she survived. And because of that, we survived. It’s messy, and flawed, and continually disappointing, but her whole life is an experiment in how to survive; a badly-drawn, thrown-together blueprint of how to get out alive. And because of that, maybe I’ll be a little bit better. Compared to my mother, I had a head-start on feminism, and on healing. Maybe that means I’ll avoid bad partners better, check my language and its impact better, listen better, trust better. Maybe that means I’ll be able to tell my daughter something more nuanced, more hopeful than “don’t be like me, don’t believe in fairytales, don’t chase the dream.”

Is Softness a Critical (per)Form(ance) of Femininity?

In Kathleen McHugh and Lisa Duggan’s 1996 Femme-inist Manifesto, they wrote: “Fem(me) science questions the dignity and wisdom of anyone who would wear pink without irony, or a floral print without murderous or seditious designs.”

Of course, some of us unironically wear pink and/or floral — an arguably “soft” aesthetic. Does this mean we are not femme? Does this mean that we are not critical?

The Third Wave of feminism introduced the idea that feminism and feminist movements could be diverse, hold multiple perspectives, and be individually-determined. There was encouragement to understand what feminism meant to you. In her book The Beauty Myth, feminist writer Naomi Wolf suggested that looking how one wants to look is a feminist act; self-determination, choice, and agency are key. But does this mean that all our choices, aesthetic or otherwise, are feminist because we choose them?

I-choose-my-choice

The trouble is, the Third Wave is sometimes difficult to discern from Postfeminism, the co-optation of feminist feelings and language to fuel consumer culture. The Onion wrote an article that aptly describes saturation of feminist language to describe mundane activities called “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does.” The title alone is almost enough to get the picture. I’ve read articles online that claim the feminist merits of both weddings and cosmetic surgery — both of which have been critiqued by feminists for decades. It is hard to parse out the nuances of choice in these instances: how can we lay legitimate claim to the idea that we choose an appearance or role that, for women, as always already been chosen for us by the white supremacist heteropatriarchy?

This is a question that femmes have wrestled with for decades. The second wave feminist argument against femininity can be summarized as 1) a feminine appearance is the design of men and designed for their pleasure 2) the maintenance of a feminine appearance is a tool of the patriarchy that directs women’s attention to the trivial and frivolous, actively slowing them down and wasting their potential and 3) choosing and maintaining a feminine appearance is evidence of internalized misogyny and deferring to patriarchal rule.

 

“The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behaviour that that period considers desirable: The beauty myth is always actually prescribing  behaviour and not appearance.”
— Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth
“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.”
— Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth

 

This feminist argument meant the femme on her own was suspect, and also when paired with a butch lesbian because butch/femme was seen as 1) mimicking heteropatriarchal gender and sexual roles and therefore 2) replicating an unequal balance of power.Femmes rejected this interpretation on their own expressions and experiences. Queer femmes defy the the logic that femininity is for male consumption, since their aim is to attract women. This argument has been taken a step further by those that claim they are dressing for themselves, regardless of who they may want to attract. The notion of choice has been integral to the assertion of femme identity: many claim to be “femme on purpose.”

“While femininity is in many ways influenced, shaped, and enforced by society, to say that is is entirely ‘artificial’ or merely a ‘performance’ is patronizing toward those for whom femininity simply feels right. Indeed, on would have to have a rather grim view of the female population to believe that a majority of us could so easily be ‘brainwashed’ or ‘coerced’ into enthusiastically adopting an entirely contrived or wholly artificial set of gender expressions. In fact, it seems incomprehensible that so many women could so actively gravitate toward femininity unless there was something about it that resonated with them on a profound level. This becomes even ore obvious when considering feminine folks who exhibit no desire whatsoever to fit into straight society, such as femme dykes (who proudly express their femininity despite being historically marginalized within the lesbian movement because of it) and ‘nelly queens’ (who remain fiercely feminine despite the gay male obsessions with praising butchness and deriding ‘effeminacy’).” — Julia Serano in Whipping Girl

The question of choice remains a tricky one, however. Even if we choose to look tumblr_m1b6ebv8pe1rod9g8o1_500feminine, get married, or have cosmetic surgery, the reasons behind this choice ought to be examined. Some arguments for the validation and celebration of femme identity do examine femme motivations: some insist that choosing femininity in a patriarchal society is inherently radical and political. Even as looking feminine can make life easier for some women by making them appear more gender normative according to patriarchal rules, we must remember that patriarchy still comes at a price. Even if femmes defy patriarchy by trying to attract women rather than men, femmes are still sexualized and consumed by the male gaze without their consent. Femininity means catcalls, sexual harassment and assault, being stereotyped as stupid, slutty, and unprofessional. All of these things happen to non-femmes, too, but being femme certainly exacerbates these negative reactions. By calling it “femme” rather than “femininity,” we are acknowledging the patriarchal interest in women’s femininity, but insisting that our femininity won’t make us less feminist or queer. We know how we are seen and treated because of our femininity, but we show up in heels and lipstick anyway.

“Being femme for me means risking violence and sexism to be who I am. It means being mistaken for a straight woman and saying I’m not. It means fighting for the right for myself and my butch lover to dress the way we please and play the way we like.”
— Paula Austin, “Femme-inism” in The Persistent Desire

 

Some work on femme identity, like that of Duggan and McHugh, allows for “femme” to be a radical identity, but only if femininity is performed in a specific way. Many femmes from this generation insist on an ironic, over-the-top, hard, or fierce performance of femininity. Other femme theorists have argued that this actually reinforces the dominance of masculinity, rather than empowers femininity.

“By insisting only on the loud, visible, political, and public nature of femmes, we are in danger of enacting precisely that which we sought at the outset to question – the centering of masculinity.”
— Elizabeth Galewski in “Figuring the Feminist Femme”

 

If the dominant femme perspective remains that femininity is acceptable only when shrouded in a cloud of irony or accompanied by a hard edge, then a sincere performance of femininity and an insistence on softness is a critical performance of femininity, and a critical form of femme. Just as femmes decades ago challenged what a feminist ought to look and act like, soft femmes now challenge what a femme ought to look and act like.

“Much of what has historically been called misogyny – a hatred of women – has clearly gone underground, disguising itself as the less reprehensible derision of femininity. This new version of misogyny, which focuses more on maligning femininity than femaleness, can be found everywhere. It can be seen in our political discourse, where advocates for the environment, gun control, and welfare are undermined via ‘guilt by association’ with feminine imagery as seen in phrases such as ‘tree huggers,’ ‘soft on crime,’ and pro- ‘dependency’ – where male politicians who exhibit anything other than a two-dimensional facade of hypermasculinity are invariably dismissed by political cartoonists who depict them donning dresses.”
— Julia Serano in Whipping Girl 

 

Perhaps the emphasis on softness is not any less ironic than the previous emphasis on hardness, but even playing at being soft and sincere works to reclaim the parts of femininity that even femme theory has rejected. Softness as a feminine form carries femme theory deeper to examine our discomfort with a femininity that encompasses softness, vulnerability, and sincerity. Not only are soft femmes critical of feminist insistence that femininity is patriarchal, soft femmes are critical of femme theory’s insistence that only certain “enlightened” forms of femininity are valuable. 

“Here’s the thing about being a girlie girl. I think there was a generation before us that felt like they needed to act like men to be taken seriously, like they had to use their sexuality to take control of people. I don’t judge people for that. But I don’t want to take all my clothes off and use myself as an object. It’s part of the machine and I don’t think that necessarily pushes us forward as women. I think you can still be girlie and maintain your power. The fact that you associate being girlie with being non-threatening, that is I mean, I can’t think of more blatant example of playing into exactly the thing that we’re trying to fight against. I can’t be girlie? Why do I need to be defined aesthetically by someone else’s perceptions of what makes me seem like someone who should be taken seriously? I’m going to wear whatever I want to wear, because I’m expressing myself, and I deserve that right. And I like the way that looks. You’re not demeaning yourself by acting girlie. I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined. Not me dressing girlie. I don’t think that undermines my power at all.”
— Zooey Deschanel

The Future is Soft: On Soft Femme, Hard Femme, and Femme Theory

Sometimes when I talk about softness, emotions, earnestness, and vulnerability I’m talking about them as a reaction to what I see as the privileging of hardness, irony, and lack of emotion. Softness is part of femme for me, so sometimes I talk about soft femme in relation to hard femme. I have been asked if I think this creates a binary between hard femme and soft femme. I don’t think hard and soft femme exist on a binary. Hard femme and soft femme are different, but they are not opposite. They overlap. We can’t talk about femme without talking about both hardness and softness. Currently, there is a growing emphasis on softness, and I think this marks a departure from the past emphasis on hardness.

Much of the celebration and writing about femme so far has been about the femme’s ability to mess with binaries. Femme is subversive because femme is feminine, but sexually and romantically attracted to women (but not only/always women). Femme is subversive because femme looks feminine, but doesn’t act it: femmes are loud, brash, and tough. Femme is subversive when performed by racialized, working class, disabled, nonbinary or male people because femininity is reserved for white, middle/upper class, able bodied white women. There are many ways to be femme. All of these ways of being femme are true, and all of them are amazing and important.

In the 1990s, Kathleen McHugh and Lisa Duggan’s The Fem(me)inist Manifesto was published in the academic journal Women and Performance. They wrote: “Fem(me) science considers femininity a debased and fallen form of itself — a (pre)historic faux pas, an inexplicable lapse into a morass, a swamp of sincerity and sentimentality.” Contemporary feminist and femme philosophies have a difference take on sincerity and sentimentality. CyberTwee is an art collective first imagined as a twee antidote to the cyberpunk movement. Riffing off VNS Matrix’s 90’s cyberfeminist manifesto, the CyberTwee collective members wrote this:

far too long have we succumb to the bitter edge of the idea that power is lost in the sweet and tender. romantic is not weak. feminine is not weak. cute is not weak. we are fragmented and multifaceted bbs.

lack of emotion is oft favored because success is defined as the ability to be mechanical and efficient. but sentimentality, empathy, and being too soft should not be seen as weaknesses.

we see the limitations of corporeality, as solipsists, we know the body is the original prosthesis for operating in this universe, we know the body illusory, we curate our candy. our sucre sickly sweet is intentional and not just a lure or a trap for passing flies, but a self-indulgent intrapersonal biofeedback mechanism spelled in emoji and gentle selfies.

There are obvious differences and obvious nods between the CyberTwee manifesto and the Fem(me)inist Manifesto, here most notably the valuation of sentimentality. I draw these comparisons not to pit two versions of fem(me)inism against each other but to historicize femme and point out the dialogical capabilities of various iterations of femme theory.

tumblr_n9g656srer1t61h7ao1_500I don’t think it’s possible to completely differentiate between hard and soft femme. All of femme is at once hard and soft. What do we mean when we say hard? Political? Difficult? Tough? Mean? What do we mean when we say soft? Emotional? Feminine? Tender? All reclamation and revaluation of femininity is political, difficult, and tough in a patriarchal society. All femmes are hard femmes, even when they are soft (I have written a little more about this here). This combination of hardness and softness is well documented in the femme community. NYC femme educator, writer, and artist Kim Milan conducted a workshop at the 2012 FemmeCon deconstructing femmephobia titled “In Fierceness and Vulnerability” (the prezi is online here). Toronto femme artist Dainty Smith regularly uses the hashtag #toughtendergirls on Instagram, and Jessica Luxery and others use #hardlooks4softgirls. So, I compare hard and soft femme not to create a binary where there is not one, but to show growth, movement, and multiplicity in our theories of femme. Femme theory doesn’t emerge fully formed from a vacuum, it is referential and contextual. The femme theory produced by McHugh and Duggan emerged from its own context, a product of postmodernist thought and a response to queer theory’s (and queer culture’s) celebration of other gender benders. The femme theory being produced now refers to the existing body of femme theory and its own social and cultural context.

My interest in softness and soft femme is not an attempt to create a hierarchy of femme wherein soft femme reigns for being “new” and “progressive,” and hard femme is passé. Hard femme is dope. Hard femme theory is relevant and has moved femininity and queerness in ways that are extraordinarily valuable. There are still hard femmes, just as there have always been soft femmes — this concept isn’t necessarily new, just building new momentum. My interest is to dislodge a dominant or singular definition of femme. Soft femme won’t fit everyone, and hard femme doesn’t fit me. Hard femme and soft femme are capable of doing different things for gender and queer theory, and folding different people into the conversation.

There are many critiques of femme theory, and these critiques open up new places in femme theory, culture, and community. One major critique of femme theory is the tendency to create a binary between queer and straight femininity. Lisa Walker problematized hard/high femme ideal of queer fem(me)ininity in her 2012 article “The Future of Femme: Notes on Aging, Femininity, and Gender Theory.” She is critical of femme theory for constructing a binary between “radicalized bad girls” and “debased good girls” (a binary which is politically grounded in the sex wars of 1980s feminism). This not only excludes some femmes (like soft or low femmes) but contributes to the construction of heterosexual femininity as victimization (p. 798). This construction is necessary in order for femme to seem subversive in these postmodern times. Biddy Martin, too, is critical of how gender and sexuality have been theorized in postmodern theory. She is critical of the “evacuation of the interior” in postmodern queer theories, and the privileging of sexuality over gender. She writes: “I am particularly interested, here, in a resistance to something called “the feminine,” played straight, and in a tendency to assume that when it is not camped up or disavowed, it constitutes a capitulation, a swamp, something maternal, ensnared and ensnaring” (p. 73). Robbin VanNewkirk also writes of queering femininity as a curiosity, “as if femininity is manifested in a fixed and natural state that must then be modified or ruptured by the abnormal and therefore defiant queer impact” (p. 76).

Another critique of femme theory is the tendency to privilege a performative, or highly visible/visual, version of high/hard femme. Walker writes: “Lately, the playground of consumer culture was becoming a minefield: shimmery eye shadows emphasized fine lines; matte red lipstick suddenly looked too brash; vintage clothes looked suspiciously like I might have bought them new. I had always been a conservative dresser, but now it seemed less a choice than a requirement. What, I wondered, was a middle-aged femme to do? What, indeed, did a middle-aged femme look like?” (p. 796). VanNewkirk also has anxieties about a performative femme: “I resist the label of femme sometimes for the same reasons a quilter might resist the label of artist. This is particularly true when people start talking about high femme; versus what? Thankfully, you don’t hear people talk too much about low femmes, but it still leaves me wondering if I can truly manage this identity. I can’t help but feel like femmes are supposed to be confident and legendary creatures, not awkward and skeptical. […] Frankly, I don’t glide through space so much as teeter unless I am concentrating hard on something, and then I inevitably end up tripping over some obstacle in my path” (p. 76-77). Mia Mingus has also been critical of “femme” for being inaccessible. 

Reading these critiques has been very nourishing for me. I have been thinking and writing about low femme and soft femme for a few years, and I think these ideas have been on many femmes’ minds. I see low and soft femme identities gaining more popularity and attention, due, in part, to our collective efforts to challenge a singular conception of femme and talk about our lives. So many femmes and artists are talking about softness, and it’s worth listening to.

Heidi Cho is a Toronto artist whose Low Femme Weirdo design I first saw at the Toronto Queer Zine Fair in October 2016.

heidi 

L. Mathis is an artist and poet whose work on radical softness has been incredibly influential on my thinking around softness and femme (and has fielded criticism of softness here: http://loramathis.com/post/140474165618/on-radical-softness).

6689587_orig

Alok Vaid-Menon is a non binary writer, performer and “fashionist@!” whose Instagram posts alone transform how I think about femme all the time.

NOT GAY. NOT STRAIGHT. JUST, SOFT. 📸 @zarathustra_lives for @unlabelledmag (link in bio)

A post shared by Alok Vaid-Menon (@alokvmenon) on Apr 18, 2017 at 4:31pm PDT

 

References

Duggan, L. & McHugh, K. (1996). A Fem(me)inist Manifesto. Women & Performance, 8(2), pp. 153-159.

VanNewkirk, R. (2006). Gee, I Didn’t Get That Vibe From You’: Articulating My Own Version of a Femme Lesbian Existence. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 10(1-2), pp. 73-85.

Walker, L. (2012). The Future of Femme: Notes on Femininity, Aging, and Gender Theory. Sexualities, 15(7), pp. 795-814.

What I Mean When I Talk About Softness

When I talk about softness I’m talking about vulnerability, openness, and flexibility. I mean soft like breathable fabric in summer. I mean soft like ripples on the lake. I mean noticing your reaction, how you feel. I mean acknowledging emotions. I mean admitting when you are hurt and that things hurt you. I mean using this hurt and vulnerability as a strategy to motivate change.

I prefer this to the alternative of being hard, unfeeling, unmovable and unmoved; of showing a stone face. Denying my softness and my pain does not work for me. Denial means I build walls instead of bridges. Denial means I assign blame and refuse to reflect and examine my pain. Denial means I cause myself anguish. Denial means I isolate myself. Denial means I feel unresolved.

18843677205_9b3d863aaf_z
Photo by Raven Murders, found on Tumblr

Trying my god damn best to sit with my feelings is uncomfortable and painful, and maybe it lasts longer than the hot rage and steely coldness that comes when I try to brush past conflict, but it feels better. It feels more productive and it feels more honest. I’m trying to stay vulnerable, stay generous, stay honest. I’m trying to not respond to hurt by turning cold, by shutting off, by becoming mean. I’m trying to keep my heart open and give love easily, to not shut off how I feel because it would be easier. 

Masking pain as indifference has not prevented someone from hurting me. Telling someone they are trash because they have oppressive opinions has not changed their mind (even though sometimes it is not about getting an apology or changing someone’s mind. Sometimes this isn’t our responsibility). The temporary vindication I feel after cutting off a once-close connection or ripping into a once-dear friend grows cold, and eventually feels empty and lonely. This does not heal me. When I ask someone to try harder because they are hurting me, I feel more nourished — even if they won’t try. I feel like I am honouring my pain instead of masking it, and it is important that someone honours it, isn’t it?

This is what I mean when I talk about softness. This is a lesson I am learning from femmes and femme artists. I am grateful for lessons on the power of softness and vulnerability. This is also a lesson that, when I am open, I realize I am learning from my exes (who have never been femmes btw). I’m grateful to them for asking me to be vulnerable and trying so hard to get me to soften. I am grateful to them for showing me that giving love when you’re hurt and sad is possible, and it is beautiful.

These lessons have not been easy for me. Vulnerability, honesty, and being emotional have long felt dangerous and scary. I am afraid of my feelings and my honest words being used against me (which they have). I am afraid of my heart breaking (which it has). I want to protect myself from pain and from harm, and I have used hardness as a shield. This did not make things better, and it has not prevented me from being afraid or feeling pain. This has made me a liar. It is a strange thing to try to distance yourself from yourself. There is no protection from pain or harm. Instead of using hardness to resist these totally normal human experiences I want to use softness as a way to let them do what they should: make me stronger and teach me lessons.

Broken Pencil Death Match: Louisa

femme book club 6

“Tonight we’re going to a party, and by ‘we’ I mean everyone. I know because I’ve been tracking the Facebook guest list. And maybe a few individual profiles.

It’s going to be fun, I silently assure myself that night, when I’m back in front of the mirror applying my make-up. I wonder what boring hipster clothes she’ll be wearing.

Out loud, I try to sound casual as I ask my roommate, “Ugh, do you think Louisa is going to be there?”

“I’m sure she will,” she replies absently as she scrolls intently through my iTunes searching for the right song.

“God, I bet she’ll be so drunk and inappropriate,” I continue. I glance at my roommate. Still focussed on the computer screen she barely murmurs a reply.

“What a mess,” I say, and smear my lipstick thickly between my lips.

“Mhm,” my roommate mumbles. “Oh here it is. This is the song I was telling you about.” She bops her head as the beat starts.

I smooth down the front of my black sweater dress and flick my bangs back and forth across my forehead, a nervous habit I developed when I first cut them years ago. My stomach flutters and I swallow hard. It’s only a few strands of hair, but the side pony suddenly weighs heavily on my shoulder. And perhaps a little on my conscience. But I pull myself away from the mirror and bop along with my roommate.

Adequately boozey, I use the last few minutes before we leave to scour the internet for any pre-game photos and steady myself for the night ahead.

“Good to go?” my roommate asks. I snap my laptop closed and we head down the stairs to the street and out into the night.

I don’t even care that she’s going to be there. I probably wouldn’t notice, it’s just that she’s so annoying and rude. Oh well, it’s going to be fun, I tell myself, once again. I push the thought out of my mind and return to laughing with my roommate as we charge against the cold wind.

And it is fun. We’re sitting at a sticky, round table. I’m drinking my favourite beer with a little citrus taste. But my eye is trained on the door half the time. I know my stomach won’t settle until I know where she is. Since we’re early, we get a few rounds on the dance floor before it becomes a sweaty mass of bodies. All warmed up and laughing, I finally see her come in, side pony and all. I raise my eyebrow and turn my head away, but the air deflates from my lungs and I remember the fluttery feeling in my stomach. I don’t feel much like dancing anymore. I falter, but I’m trying not to lose momentum, so:

“Shots?” I shout my proposal over the music. My roommate’s eyebrows raise excitedly and she nods, still to the beat, as we dance over to the bar where a few of our other friends are already leaning.

As the bartender pours our drinks, I see Louisa out of the corner of my eye. Her outfit choices never fail to amaze me. Pink, really? A pink collared shirt. That is so weird. I refocus on my friends as we tap our tiny glasses together and pour the burning liquid down our throats as fast as possible.

We order another round of beers and my friends are straining to hear me over the music. I can tell by the polite smiles and offbeat laughter that some of them can’t really hear me at all. I take a sip and try to swallow my frustration with beer.

A burst of laughter and chorus of voices pierces the din of dance beats and I snap my head around to see the source. Louisa’s surrounded by bodies covered in plaid, denim, asymmetrical haircuts, and ironic glasses, some doubled over and others jostling each other. With gesturing arms outstretched and an animated face leaning in close, she’s apparently telling the funniest story any of them have ever heard.

She’s only been here for five minutes, I fume. Her friends can obviously hear her just fine. I sink down onto a barstool like my body is caving in on me and tug at my ponytail.”

You know that girl hate-y feeling? When you feel insecure and jealous and anxious, but you’re in denial about being all those things? When you concentrate all your feelings of self-loathing onto another person? A person that you maybe, probably, actually secretly wanna hang out with? Yeah. I know that feeling.

You know that femme invisibility feeling? When you’re coming out into or hanging around a community of cool queers, but nobody seems to get your style or what makes you cool? When feeling misunderstood makes you feel like kind of a loser but also, like, kind of angry? When you don’t know what parts of yourself to hang onto and what parts of new things to pick up? Yeah. I know that feeling.

I wrote a story about it called “Louisa.” “Louisa” was selected to compete in the 2016 Broken Pencil Indie Writers’ Death Match, an intense competition based on votes! Voting for the first round, the lightning elimination round, is happening now, until 11:59 p.m. EST, and I need your votes! Visit http://www.deathmatch.ca for full rules and, most importantly, the VOTE button!

 

Colour Coding: Creating Queer Bonds with Nail Art

IMG_2302
My article in Shameless magazine. Winter 2015, Issue 31.

**The following is a longer version of a femme flagging article I wrote for Shameless magazine. Check out the Shameless version, “Flag ‘Em Down” (and another story of mine!) in the Alternative Beauty issue, Winter 2015.**

 Through history, queer folks have had come up with creative ways to communicate their desires. In the 1970s, gay men developed the “hanky code,” a system that required individuals to hang coloured bandanas in either their left or right back pocket. The colours or prints of the bandanas and their placement indicated which sexual acts the person was seeking.

The hanky code was a way to cruise under the radar, according to the blog Stuff Queer People Need to Know. Many queer people started flagging their desires, but some met certain obstacles.

“I used to be a no-pants femme, so tucking a hanky in my pocket wasn’t an option,” says Toronto femme-about-town Carly Boyce.

Femmes had to remix the hanky code to come up with their own system of flagging that could work with any outfit. Femmes flag with nail polish, fascinators or brooches made out of bandanas, or with bandanas tied around their wrists, necks, or purses, according to Boyce.

“For years I only flagged with my nails, and I still do that a lot,” adds Boyce.

Flagging with nail polish usually looks like one or two fingers painted a different colour. The accent nail is used to signal queerness generally, but sometimes the accent colour correspond to the hanky code or holds another specific meaning.

Julia Caron was part of a loose collective of femmes that started the Tumblr Femme Flagging in 2012. The blog was a place to share tips on where to buy cheap nail polish, discuss the politics of flagging, and, of course, show off their nails.

Caron recalls users submitting photos of their nails with flags like “iridescent gold for strength through vanity,” “survivor stripes” or “consent always.” Some flags stuck closer to the original hanky code, like hunter green for “daddy top.”

“I don’t wear nail polish very often, but when I did I wanted to be flagging because it was fun! It felt like a club,” says Caron. “It was kind of our antidote, a way to be visible as queer women that wasn’t as dramatic as an asymmetrical haircut or dressing a certain way.”

Caron is referring to the invisibility many femmes experiences in queer and mainstream circles. She attributes her experiences of invisibility to coming out in a queer community that was grappling with biphobia and dominated by a butch aesthetic.

“The places I have been encouraged and felt the most accepted have been in online spaces,” she says.

The Tumblr was based around the idea of creating an accessible way of flagging your identity or desire to people “in the know.”

This gets complicated considering the “accent finger” in manicures went mainstream. Though Caron isn’t sure which came first, Boyce is confident that femme flagging was co-opted.

“Which is, like, so par for the course of how innovations get consumed and decontextualized by mainstream culture,” says Boyce, noting that even within queer circles the original sex-radical meaning behind flagging gets a little lost.

Part of the desire to keep up with the tradition of flagging, at least for Boyce, is to connect to that history of queer revolution, when queers often had to literally fight for their lives and desires. Flagging was one way to find pleasure in a time of deep repression and violence, says Boyce.

For Toronto artist Alize Zorlutuna, flagging is about femme solidarity.

“It’s not about necessarily using them to attracting dates. The only person who’s going to notice my wicked awesome nails is another femme,” she says.

This past summer, Boyce and Zorlutuna hosted Femme Futures in Toronto, an event combining manicures, a way femmes often connect and care for each other, and tarot readings, a therapeutic practice, to create a femme-centered public space.

“A piece of it is around femme visibility because so many queer femmes, not exclusively all, but so many can go unseen in public space, it feels valuable to create space specifically for femmes to be visible,” says Zorlutuna.

The readings inspired the manicures, so healing symbols often made their way onto femmes’ nails, she says. 

“When they looked down on their hands there was a reminder of that exchange and whatever came out of it,” says Zorlutuna, noting femmes said the experience stuck with them for weeks.

“That was so moving for me. There’s this intimacy created in this exchange that can be quite vulnerable.”

Despite going mainstream, nail flagging can still get you noticed in certain circles, and is a good way to start a conversation about queerness or kink.

“I love to ask people if they’re flagging, and I love it when people ask me if I am,” says Boyce. 

Caron remembers starting a conversation with a girl in bar just because of her nails.

“I wouldn’t have approached her if I hadn’t seen that manicure,” she says. 

Starting the conversation doesn’t have to lead anywhere. Flagging does have basic ground rules, which are outlined on the blog Flagging Opinicus Rampant. The first two are: “Flagging is not consent” and “Flagging means being cool with being propositioned, being rejected, and having the capacity to reject.”

Nail art is a creative way to signal queerness and desire, combat femme invisibility, build community, and start important conversations about sexuality and consent. Can your manicure do that?