Femme is about pleasure, not about suffering. Femme is about healing.
Femme is about taking the time to be present with the body, to make time to care for your self. Femme is about quiet moments waiting for your nail polish to dry, the hair dye to develop, the moisturiser to soak in.
Femme is not needing to apologize.
Femme is about subjecthood, not objectification. Femme is about self-making, about magic. Femme is a little bit of a mess. Femmes don’t give a shit if you can tell they didn’t wake up looking like that, if their hair color isn’t natural, if they have a run in their stockings.
Femme is about politics, about power, about play.
— “What is femme anyway?” BossyFemme.com
‘Third wave’ feminists of the late 80s and 90s rejected the gender binary and identity as natural. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s articulation of intersectionality – which describes systems of oppression and domination as interlocking – continues to be the primary framework for exploring our feminisms. The third wave destabilized the concept of universal womanhood. In response to third wave discourse, trans activists advocated for the right to define their own identity. Throughout all of this activism and gender talk, there had been little exploration of femininity and femmeness outside of the cisgender butch/femme dichotomy of second wave lesbians. The queer femme remained in the shadows, taken for granted as shallow and subordinate.
Speaking to many of my femme friends, the overarching sentiment across difference seems to be that femmeness is still disregarded as vapid and that femmes are somehow more performative than our masculine and androgynous counterparts. And they’re not the only ones. In the past decade, there’s been a lot of theorizing about the femme away from the man and the butch. In 2008, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha penned the Femme Shark Manifesto– a poetic communiqué critiquing scarcity models in femme circles, and a vision for anti-capitalist femme solidarity centering disabled, trans, and femmes of color. Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl critiqued second wave feminist prescriptions for women to become more androgynous, claiming that this continues to privilege cis and trans masculinity, and continues to marginalize femmes and trans women. Girl-on-girl blogs debated whether “femme privilege” exists a little, or whether it is rooted in misguided misogyny and doesn’t exist at all. These texts and the communities that inspired them have worked to expand our conception of “femme”.
Beyond these critiques of stereotypical notions of femmeness, I’m interested in how femme artists navigate the world. Not just femme, but femme artists, invokes multiple layers of performativity – whether projected onto us or self-prescribed. What does it mean to both identify as femme, and also mobilize femmeness as a form of performance that can be liberating?
Queer Artists Redefining Femme
In the living room of her Brooklyn apartment, Suzy X – front-singer for the feminist revengecore band Shady Hawkins, music writer for MTV Iggy, and comic artist for Rookie – spoke about being a hard femme at punk shows and in anarchist organizing spaces.
Late night after work, I reconnected with my old friend Khrys Jackson – who I met via statewide student organizing – over a fuzzy Google Hangout. Khrys is a musician and performance artist, and she discussed her role as a trans feminine person who mentors youth growing up in the fourth poorest city in the country: Buffalo, New York.
Skyping with me from rural California, Luna Merbruja – poet, organizer, sex worker, healer, and author of Trauma Queen – talked about the potential for a trans women art movement, her experience as a femme writer and emphasized femmeness as science, art, and magic.
Even though these interviews took place on three separate occasions, they turned out to very much be in dialogue with each other. Instead of generating three separate pieces, or turning this into a series, I wove their words together into one conversation in hopes of adding to and addressing some holes in existing discussions on femme culture.
What was your entry point into the work you’re doing?
LUNA: I started doing organizing in high school at a really early age, when I was 13 years old. I had a lot of connections in activist communities on a national level. But I came into art later, in my college years, because that was when I really stopped doubting myself.
I’ve taken a step back from organizing recently. The last big thing I did was to help organize the International Trans Women of Color Network Gathering at the Allied Media Conference that took place this past summer. That was a huge accomplishment because we somehow managed to raise twenty thousand dollars. It was amazing! Five trans women put it together and it was all community groundwork. It was incredible to be able to cover people’s flights, hotels, and registration for the AMC. We really were able to provide space for trans women of color. That was a huge deal for us.
Since then, I’ve stepped back from organizing and I’ve been focusing on doing interpersonal community work instead. So now when people need advice or emotional support I’ve been able to put myself out there, to be like: “Hey, if you need to talk about violence, I’m here for you.” I’m like a community therapist that doesn’t charge money for my time. This year, I’ve also been touring the country and doing different events with a group called Mangos With Chili.
KHRYS: My main art practice has tended towards music since I was young. Up until the time I started sixth grade, I studied vocals. So, for eight whole years, I was mostly into the classical choral opera realm which is a world away from the stuff I do now.
Since I came out as trans, I’ve been reorienting myself and pursuing my most recent incarnation. I’ve been experimenting with electronic music. I’ve been influenced by drag, and have engaged in that scene in the past. Most recently, I worked at the Pride Center in Buffalo and was treated terribly by my employer – I lost my health insurance which I relied on for my HRT and experienced horrible withdrawal from the hormones. As a response to that happening, I wrote several articles about my experience and posted a lot on Tumblr and Instagram featuring photos and graphics of all the empty HRT prescription bottles I had used up until that point. It was a really violent experience and basically forced me to de-transition – and it happened at the hands of an institution that claims to be for LGBT people in Buffalo!
Since then, I’ve been flirting with the idea of performance art as political activism. I’m most fascinated by performance that breaks down the relationship between audience and performer – that breaks the mold of classical stiff interaction between the two groups. I want to get away from classical performance – I want to do something where we start a conversation about Buffalo, where I live, which is the fourth poorest and one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Young people in this city are tired and I want to make art that expresses that.
Khrys Jackson’s electronic music project.
SUZY: I grew up in the boonies in Florida, surrounded by Republicans, but went to a private art school in New York City. I went through a really sad time in college at Parsons, where people were telling me that art and any kind of creative expression doesn’t have the potential to be political or to mobilize anybody. I think there is a lot of “political art” that’s specifically self-serving, or is a little bit vacuous depending on where you are coming from and who looks at it. But I also think there is a whole lot of art about solidarity, love, and friendship and things that I wish I could will into reality.
A lot of my art has always been about alienation and isolation. In some ways, it’s actually made me feel less alienated to put it out there in that I always had people coming back and saying that my art about alienation made them feel a little less alienated, which is kind of funny!
I think art and culture that is specifically geared towards young women is almost always disregarded or disrespected because it is for young women. So, I consider the work I do a political intervention. The comics I started drawing when I was 18 encapsulated some of the anxieties I felt as somebody who wasn’t white, and as a woman. The project I’ve been working on the longest is The Best Song Ever, which is a comic for Rookie. I draw a comic about four girls of color that play in a band. It’s very simple. They are friends. Sometimes they piss one another off and have complicated relationships. That comic in particular was a political intervention.
My music is all about being angry and feeling alienated or completely repulsed by things or feeling sad and disappointed and being okay with that.
One of Suzy's illustrations in the latest Rookie yearbook.
How do you think your femmeness affects how people perceive your work and the work of other femmes?
KHRYS: People have a misconception of [trans women] as threatening, and violent. It’s been weird for me to try to strip it of its colonial origins. What does femme mean in the context of this capitalist world, this world that is the child of imperialism and colonialism and all the issues that came from that history? It’s something I wish to have as a conversation about with other femmes. Such conversations rarely happen in Buffalo amongst people within marginalized communities who identify as femme.
I’ve been trying to figure out for myself how to get rid of the shame attached to femmeness, and I’ve been fighting the internalization of this shame. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not to claim femme identity. I’m still on the journey of figuring out what it means to me and right now it’s whatever it means at the time. Because it’s an identity that I’ve ascribed to myself, it’s complex.
Everywhere we go, femmes are hated and killed. Part of the education work I do as a mentor for youth and the performance art I am starting to play around with is getting people to understand that this is a real thing. We see it everyday: a trans woman killed or a femme killed. I would argue that this kind of killing is caused by transmisogyny – a deep hatred for trans women. We need to figure out how to get back to existing within our communities and returning the love, because we need a lot of love.
SUZY: Art can be treated as a very threatening thing, especially when it comes from a femme of color like myself.
Femmeness is especially vilified because it’s seen as being connected to decadence and class-privilege. I know this from experience: if you bring five bucks to the thrift store, you can walk out with a total gem and look really good. It takes a good eye but you cultivate that from being without, like I did. You have to cultivate that skill, and you earn it by being able to feel really confident. It’s a problematic notion because it also allows men and masculine people to put on a working class aesthetic: “Look at the one flannel I wear over and over again!” This isn’t seen as performance, it’s seen as more authentic.
I experienced really fucked-up mean-girl dynamics in anarchist spaces, because there was a vying for social capital. There was really shitty and weird behavior. I’m more focused on surviving and creating a sustainable lifestyle that’s not just me crying at the end of every meeting. People were emotionally terrorizing, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it happened to femme women more often. In political spaces, the Left demonizes femininity because it is associated with excess – as though all of these heterosexist men would listen to us if we came into meetings looking like shit. They wouldn’t even hear us out if we didn’t look fucking fierce.
LUNA: It took me a while to embrace myself as a writer and artist. Specifically, to start speaking about my writing as an art form. What constitutes creative writing isn’t really centered on femmeness. On top of that, writing as an artform isn’t really embraced so much – it’s kind of seen as literature or English or academic, it’s not coded as being creative. When people write about love or sex or write creatively about self-care – it’s not viewed as art, it’s viewed as self-indulgence or selfishness. But when men and masculine people write science fiction, all of a sudden it’s the most creative thing ever. There’s a double standard where what women and femmes write about isn’t seen as valid art versus what is deemed masculine.
Luna Merbruja speaks about thriving as a trans woman of color and performs her poetry at MWC Oakland.
So many layers of performance come with inhabiting femmeness as an identity. How do you navigate this notion as someone whose art work involves performance – be it through performance art, playing in a band, or poetry?
SUZY: I didn't think femininity was very important or radical for most of my life. It wasn’t until after college and after processing a lot of toxic shit that I took up femme with a lot more enthusiasm. But during school, I listened all too much to feminists I respected. They were antagonistic to particularly feminine women, telling us that we cater to the male gaze. Now, I’m thinking about it like: Do I put on make-up for men, though? Nope, never.
I very much identify as hard femme, but sometimes I’m just a lazy femme. Despite that, I question my role as white-passing, straight-passing cis woman claiming femmeness. Is this identity really important to me? Maybe it just makes my life easier.
When I go to a punk show, I put on make-up because it makes me feel more threatening. And I think that’s the thing: weaponized femininity is real and great.
I like that I can put on make-up and feel more confident and powerful – just because I look so fucking good. Nobody better fuck with me right now because my eyeliner is on point.
I think it depends on the time and the place. On stage, I’m really scrappy; I’m not high-femme at all. When I’m in femme spaces where people are all about makeup and nails, I go back to the way I felt when I was in middle school. Then, I felt like I wasn’t feminine enough because I was queer. In the same vein, I think my femmeness makes me more accessible as a queer artist.
There’s also this other layer where, when my comics get passed around, my queerness gets erased from the equation a lot. People often approach my work like I’ve never had sex with women before. They approach my comics with a very sanitized, straight gaze. Especially because my female characters, even some of the queer ones, are feminine more often than not, and they may not all be sexually active. But just because I don't draw women getting it on all the time doesn't mean that my comics aren't queer. My comics are queer because I draw them. This reminds me why many femmes have to constantly affirm that we are queer enough, and by that I mean gay enough. I feel caught in the cross-fire.
LUNA: Femmeness is seen as performance – especially trans women’s femmeness – but femmeness is not viewed as an artwork. For me, I started viewing make-up as a huge art-work. People paint their faces, do contouring. It is art, I mean, think about the way people do simple eyeliner and are so intentional, they are literally using brushes on their face. So, why isn’t someone painting their face seen as being a legit artist? To me, that’s my favorite art form because it changes every single day.
For real, though: femmes are the future. Recently, I went with my friend, Morgan Robyn Collado who is a trans Latina poet, to her nail artist. There was a moment when her nail artist was using all these tools on my fingernails.
As I was watching my hand become claws, I thought, we are in the future. They had fans and lightbulbs and all of these chemical formulas. It was like femme fucking science.
Luna sees make-up as art.
KHRYS: There’s a question of where the line is drawn across our performances: as a femme, as a trans person, as an artist. My experience with drag made me realize that my femmeness was something more than this thing I took off downstairs at the show and put away in a backpack.
So, there’s an idea: how do we live and exist – for those of us who are artists or performers or activists – in a world where our femininity and our existence is seen as performance?
When I think about how drag has sort of commodified femininity, it makes me feel as if drag has contributed more to the idea that femininity is a thing that can be performed. I found it devalued my own femininity. Based on my past experience doing drag, dealing with that idea of femininity as actual performance on stage – it’s something that I knew I wanted to get away from. I wanted to celebrate my femininity but also explore and problematize femmeness in the context of capitalism.
Now, I want to do performance art that critiques ideas and institutions that devalue femmeness. I really want people in Buffalo to think about femme identity away from drag as well. Unfortunately, I live in an area where drag queens are more appreciated then actual trans women. That dynamic has made life – in the context of creating art – very, very challenging.
With so many femmes – specifically trans women of color – being criminalized and murdered, celebrating femme life and femme-centered work seems especially urgent. Pushing for a resurgence in conversations surrounding femmeness in the context of building movements and culture-making could be life-saving work. What do you think is next for us in terms of building femme solidarity across disciplines, identities and experiences?
LUNA: I think a new art movement could be created that really celebrates trans femininity. I’ve been thinking: what if I started something about trans women appreciating their penises, and viewing that as the epitome of femmeness. What if I started doing smegma art on canvas, and sold it for $5000 because you mother-f-ers can do it with your vagina blood. That transphobia and transmisogyny that stops us from embracing our bodies – what if we smashed it with art that allowed us to view our bodies as feminine and womanly?
I have been thinking about how to incorporate penises as feminine. Moving forward, that’s going to be the next central point of my art work. Extravagant images of penises and scrotum, presenting them in feminine ways, taking something about trans women’s bodies that people see as inherently masculine, reverting that and representing it as feminine.
SUZY: Ultimately, I would rather have a politics that was more defensive of all women – not just femme women. There are women – cis and trans – who are not very girly. Not just butch women but women who don’t identify with the binary. I acknowledge the need for femme solidarity because feminine people get the shit end of the stick in a society that worships masculinity. I don’t think femininity has anything to do with masculinity. I think it’s masculine people that antagonize femmeness to affirm their masculinity, and I don’t think it’s the fault of feminine people. I want to be there for all women though – I wouldn’t want anybody to feel less of woman because they don’t wear make-up. I feel like a lot of femme and butch culture leaves out those who feel like they don’t fit into those identities or roles. So, I have to wonder, how do we decide what femme is? How do femmes decide who we are in solidarity with?
Suzy X draws revolutionary femmespirations like Zapatista women, Angela Davis and Sylvia Rivera for her comic “Punk is not just for straight white guys.”
I think there’s also something to be said about the way some pre-teen and teenage girls don’t want to be associated with girly things. I was one of them – girls who have an aversion to femininity because they don’t want to be thrown under the bus. And then have a serious problem when people associate femininity with the people being thrown under the bus or with constantly being a victim, which is the reality. When Tumblr people say ‘Stop Girl Hate’, we aren’t just talking about mean girls bullying one another in school. We are talking about a hatred of femininity that creates a world where people are killed because they are feminine and where that’s justified.
When I see girls who hate feminine things, I think: you’re just trying to survive. Eventually, I want a culture where we don’t have to denounce femininity to survive.
KHRYS: @Tgirlinterruptd on Twitter says: “The makings of my gender are scattered across the Atlantic.” Through my art, I’ve been trying to understand what my femmeness and my non-binary gender means in the context of decolonization, outside the confines of capitalism. For instance, what would it look like to be in a society where femmes are loved and revered?
To get there, we have to do the double work of convincing other people that we are worthy and convincing ourselves that we are worthy as well. Where do we go from here? Let’s fix this shit. We will have to do it for us, by us – on our own terms.
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