March 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


7.9/9.2: Reading about Femme

7.9/9.2. That’s what Jon rated my face and my body in high school, when I was sixteen years old. Jon had silky hair and smelled like patchouli. We made out twice and I never saw him naked, or even shirtless. We weren’t really friends. I was probably someone’s 10, but that 7.9/9.2 was the same as a 6 to me, or a 4, or a 1. When people told me I was beautiful back then, I ignored it and carried around any negative comments like a little sac of kidney stones. These days, I’m a real-life traveler, but I’m an armchair beauty, reading about prettiness instead of doing it. I sit around alone in an old wifebeater reading nonfiction about glamour and seduction and desire and John Galliano and courtesans and tantric sex and the history of lipstick and Brigitte Bardot and femme fatales, and I live out gorgeous adventures where I imagine myself being brave and spectacular enough to be out in the world with all of my wattage turned on and all of my plumage displayed.

The truth is that there’s a world out there crawling with rapists and street harassers and porn-addicted stockbrokers and frat boys who always do one too many bong hits before they get drunk, and even though they won’t leave you alone, even though their dearest wish is to paw at you with their stubby fingers while avoiding your eyes, it’s almost impossible to be pretty and alluring enough to get, say, Benoît Magimel into bed. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, like an Iowan reading Paul Theroux and Isak Dinesen in between trips to the state fair, I’ve been staying in my comfort zone, and I’m getting a tiny bit unhappy there. It’s a complicated mess of a world out there, with visa delays and dengue fever and strange languages and “Homeland Security,” but then it’s a complicated mess of a world in here, too.

Enter Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities. It’s a glossy book of photos by Del LaGrace Volcano, of The Drag King Book fame, with interviews and love letters to featured femmes (including Kate Bornstein, Pratibha Parmar, and Michelle Tea) by Swedish ethnographer Ulrika Dahl. While images of drag kings seem to automatically subvert or “explode” gender norms, pictures of femmes are trickier. At first, Volcano says, “I didn’t actually know how to queer femininity, photographically speaking, without providing more fuel for heterosexist fantasies of feminine lesbians waiting for a real man. I also asked myself if the world actually needed any more images of ‘pretty women,’ since proud, powerful images or portrayals of masculine women are still so rare onscreen or in print.” And Dahl writes, “In a heterosexist world that continues to tell us that femininity is the ultimate available object for universal consumption and contempt, taking a stand on and through (queer) femininity, as we all do and know, is both intense pleasure and clear and present danger… To us, femininity is neither phallic fantasy nor default, it’s beyond surface and it certainly does not passively wait to come alive through a (male) gaze. Fiercely intentional, neither objects nor objective, we have stuff to get off our chests.”

It turns out, reading this book as a whole, that Dahl and Volcano’s celebration of femme is not limited by the gender you were assigned at birth, the gender you identify as now, your sexuality as you or others define it, whether you’re feminine, whether you dress like a girl, whether you’re pretty (and in whose eyes), your class, your race, or any other category that can be pinned on you. All are welcome! Can someone like me, who identifies as a straight woman, be a femme? Absolutely. There’s enormous variety in these images and ideas. Academ-ese usually bugs me, but Dahl’s exuberance is contagious, and both the prose and images in Femmes of Power reflect complicated layers of experience.

“Femme is not always pretty or beautiful,” says Chicana slam poet Meliza Banales, “to me it’s dirty, ugly, funny, and complex.” Atlanta femme Marla Stewart, a PhD student, talks openly and refreshingly about being pretty, and the way that the validation she gets from outside bolsters her confidence. “I feel like there is and there isn’t control over my objectification…” she says. “When I present myself as sexy, I make sure that everyone in the room can see just how sexy I am. So in this sense, I really do feel like I control their looks.” Danish “pillow queen” femme Signe Flysk is pictured in a supermarket wearing pink hotpants, fishnets, kitten heels with yellow anklets, and an eighties visor. “It’s a commentary on being both consumer and consumed. My outfit’s me… It’s also my working-class roots. You can aspire to be middle class, but if you’re a proletarian you’ll never quite pass, just like as a woman you’ll never fit into a man’s world. We can play around with stereotypes and think we’re in control of what we do, but we never fully are. It’s never simply a performance.”

It’s never simply a performance, but the idea that there’s performance involved at all -- the Butlerian idea that an element of performance is compulsory or inevitable in embodying gender roles -- is relatively radical. In her introduction, Dahl quotes Tara Hardy: “I want to liberate femininity from its history -- in my mind, in my body, and in my communities.” In the intro, femme is described as “an umbrella under which we find solace,” “visible and invisible,” and “a queer and feminist figuration”: “Like eternal tricksters straddling impossible dichotomies, we continue to take up space with our desires, sincere ironies and refusals to be either/or.”

Desires. It’s interesting that desires get all mucked up with class, race, gender, beauty images, and the wrong idea of hetero and homosexuality as two poles, with bi in the middle. In The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, a book of case studies of a pedophile, a dominatrix, a foot fetishist, and a guy who’s attracted to amputees, Daniel Bergner describes a study that shows how men looking at erotic images get turned on -- a rush of blood to the penis -- at the same time they think they’re getting turned on. A gay man will look at pics of men fucking, for instance, and the number he punches in response to the question, “How sexually aroused do you feel right now?” reflects his relative arousal level. His mind and his penis are aligned. In contrast, women will get equally hot and wet looking at pictures of anything even vaguely sexual -- gay sex, straight sex, pics of naked women, humping bonobos. And, instead of accurately reporting their arousal level, they dutifully, and inaccurately, report being turned on by the expected, and turned off by the bonobos. It’s all a “muddle,” according to psychologist Meredith Chivers. “I do think that for women preferences exist,” she tells Bergner, “Women do choose to have sex with men or with women or with both. But I don’t know if it happens for the same reasons men seek out partners. I don’t know that it’s driven by a sexually motivated system, by sexual desire in and of itself. Is there a basic sexual rudder for women?”

I won’t go into all of the many reasons I dislike this kind of “science” here (although Ulrika Dahl has a good discussion in Femmes of why that urge to “discover, reduce, label, and patent” is an imperialist fantasy), but there’s one thing that really strikes me. The process of looking at images is framed as identical to the experience of looking at real live human beings. When, in fact, my response (intellectual, clitoral, or whatever) to seeing a video of humping bonobos might be radically different from my response to touching, smelling, making eye contact with, fellating, or caressing a real live bonobo (which, incidentally, I choose not to do, for some reason, rudderless though I may be.) Is the world so awash in porn, in celluloid, in Twitter and MySpace and just, things that suck, that we honestly can’t tell the difference between pictures and people?

Meanwhile, Femmes of Power is a picture book, and I see why Del LaGrace Volcano struggled with the idea at first, trying to figure out how to convey the femmes’ power at all, given the role that images play in women’s lives, the way we are expected to trot out into the world to get stared at, consumed, reviled, rather than to live. I admire the book -- the pictures, the collaboration between artist, ethnographer, and subject, the fine theory, the appealing ideas, the femmes within. I really do.

The other night I was thinking about femmes and femininity and desire and images. I was rereading Susan Griffin’s The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues, a femme manifesto which is all about how beauty was an act that many of these women performed, just one of many acts and gifts that made them alluring, irresistible, powerful, poignant. I was restless and I couldn’t write. My friend came over just after midnight and we watched The Wild One, a surprisingly bad movie that’s mostly about Marlon Brando looking like Marlon Brando and riding his Triumph Thunderbird 6T. It has an unsatisfying love story and hilarious vintage dialogue. After the movie, my friend -- who is straight, white, male, tall, 25, and probably never has to have his headshots airbrushed -- was flipping through Femmes of Power. He said, “This is just a bunch of normal people trying to look sexy.” And I thought, Yes.

The problem with Femmes of Power is perhaps the problem with all gender theory, with all theory about anything maybe, with all nonfiction that’s designed to empower us or be explosive or transgressive or subversive. The complexities and prejudices of the human social world are so entrenched, that often exploding or subverting them is the fantasy part.

Bearded male-born women dressed in shiny pink blouses with large breasts, women dressed as giant, hairy vulvas, a black dyke Marilyn with a heart-shaped guitar, fat, tattooed diesel dykes, vampire queens, and midgets -- they’re all “normal people.” Versus, beautiful people. And, it’s true. It’s not just femmes who risk invisibility -- it’s all human beings. There’s a dirty mess of gender and sexuality norms and racist ideas at the core of our society, and it’s all tangled up, in an impossible knot, with beauty ideals, and my friend said out loud the secret thing that I was thinking, the thing I didn’t want to think. There’s the secret possibility that it doesn’t help to be out, loud, proud, brilliant, or dressed as a vulva. There’s the secret possibility that it doesn’t even help to be conventionally beautiful, to be a Victoria’s Secret model or an over-hyped young actress. It’s such a rotten system that maybe nothing helps. Maybe being “fiercely intentional” doesn’t help. Maybe there aren’t images or ideas that are explosive enough to save us.

Then again, just as femme isn’t a fixed thing, maybe the solace femme lit can provide is un-fixed, too, something we can return to in order to spring ourselves from the rottenness. Maybe it’s like training for a marathon, and then running a marathon, and then training and running all over again. Maybe there is something beautiful, and brave, in the effort. Reading Femmes, I keep thinking of Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. Since I’ve admired Kate’s work for over fifteen years, I was heartened to learn that she, at one point, wanted nothing more than to be a thin, pretty, teenage girl. So did I. Even though I was one. I want to come to a place of radicalism, subversion, transgression, celebration, because of my convictions, because I’m so inspired -- not because I secretly feel like a failure. But maybe Kate Bornstein and Ulrika Dahl and Del LaGrace Volcano feel that “impossible paradox” too, and they brazen it out anyway.

Sometimes trying to be radical, trying to change things, trying to be brave, feels like the part that’s pure fantasy. Literature can help us by grappling with the rot, but does writing, performing, teaching really do much to change the raw experience of walking out into the streets, untheorized and unlabeled, to be met with countless judgments? Does it change the way that we, ourselves, accept or reject others, the way we rate or label them, the way we turn them invisible just by looking through them?

There’s a character in Nawal El Saadawi’s new novel, The Novel, who transcends gender and beauty ideals by being a great poet. Her name is Miriam. Each of the characters in The Novel inhabits shifting identities and desires and sources of power, but, beyond even that, we are never sure who exists in real life and who is merely an invented character in The Novel within The Novel. In a novel we can play with space and time, we can be “fiercely intentional,” we can shape a world by pure force. Or can we?

The intersection between life and reading, between life and images, is so treacherous that there’s a new thirty-car pile up every day. A book like Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities is superb armchair reading, especially if I actually stay alone in my apartment with it. But can it change my life outside of my head, outside of my fantasy trips to Madagascar or Benin? Can it change the way I maneuver around in the world? I hope so.

These days sometimes I’m ashamed that I’m not pretty enough, and other times I’m limp with relief about it. Other times still, I am beautiful beyond measure, so beautiful that it’s terrifying. I break your heart. I light up the room like every femme can, like every butch can, like every living human being does, if you really look at us.