There are two commonly held beliefs about femmes, and both of them are wrong. The first is that real lesbians aren’t femmes (with the pernicious corollary that all bisexual women are). The second is that all lesbians should be pretty, meek, and gender-conforming in the way our culture expects feminine women to be. It’s a frustrating paradox: Somehow, femmes manage to be invisible and overrepresented in our popular culture. Fortunately, stereotypes of feminine women are transcended by a flourishing and explicitly feminist femme culture within the queer community, which is as much about subverting feminine stereotypes as it is about celebrating femininity.
The butch/femme subculture goes back at least as far as the early 20th century, when women dressed as men so they could escort their female partners out in public. Butch/femme was often maligned for re-creating the worst aspects of traditional gender roles between men and women, a charge that was arguably never the full story and is certainly not true of butches and femmes today. Today, femme has come to mean more than simply a conventionally feminine lesbian or a lesbian who is attracted to or partnered with a butch.
To understand how femme identities have changed, I spoke with Wendi Kali, a photographer who traveled the United States speaking to and photographing butches and femmes for the Butch Femme Photo Project. She told me: “Femme has gone from the idea of a binary, from being the opposite of butch, to being an identity in itself. Now, it’s a very solid identity, not just about someone who may or may not be attracted to butches.”
Like other identity groups, femme is a broad category that is claimed by individuals who then interpret and express it in different ways. Madeleine, the frontwoman of the band Unstraight, is a femme who rides her bike through the streets of Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the dead of winter while wearing her trademark frills and bows. My wife, Cassie, is a femme who can identify the species of 60 or 70 mosquitos in an hour and often wears dresses, though not on field-work days, when she wears jeans treated with permethrin, to keep the ticks off. Esther Pounds, a friend of ours who also identifies as femme, resembles a sassy librarian from the 1950s, if 1950s librarians also kept chickens and had a taste for whiskey.
“The whole point of [being femme], for me, is to break people away from their assumptions. I don’t like the strict rules of traditional femininity, but I don’t want that to mean that I can’t be feminine at all,” is how my wife described her femme-ness. This idea of making room for femininity without giving up independence or self-sufficiency is a common thread in the modern femme subculture, which is often strongly and self-consciously feminist.
Femme culture today is also increasingly inclusive, which marks a change from a traditional butch/femme culture that was once known for being rigid and intolerant of differences. Today, femme can include trans women, bi and pansexual women, non-binary folks, and just about anyone else who plays intentionally with femininity and feminine presentation. As Wendi Kali put it, “Some people feel more femme, but that doesn’t mean that they conform to stereotypes. They can build stuff, they can mow the lawn in skirts and rainboots. They’re very strong, very in control of their own lives and strong in their identities.”
Intentionality is the key to distinguishing a femme identity from a traditionally feminine one. As Madeleine puts it: “The queer world is about breaking away from stereotypical gender roles. Anyone who is girly/feminine is not necessarily femme. Femme is an identity; feminine and girly are descriptors.” Femmes aren’t women who go along with femininity out of duty or because others expect it of them, they are people who display their femininity proudly, often—though not always—to an excess that draws attention to it, without allowing their femininity to define them or constrain their choices or activities. (If you’re unsure about the ways that works in practice, this article, written by a feminine software engineer, captures some of the femme consciousness perfectly.)
Above all, being femme today is about reclaiming femininity from stereotypes about womanly weakness or subordination. These stereotypes live everywhere, including in the lesbian community itself, which can value gender-nonconformity, androgyny, and masculinity above more feminine, less visibly queer presentations.
Madeleine explained: “There’s a view in society that has trickled in to the queer community that femmes and femininity is somehow weak, lesser, not as good, or not as queer. I’m very proud of being femme. I do not see being femme as lesser, or less queer. I’m totally femme and totally queer.”
Many of the femme women I talked with for this story told me they went through a more androgynous phase in high school or college, a guise they adopted in order to be more recognizable as lesbians. Becoming more feminine was a rejection of the norms and standards the queer community had set up for them, in favor of a look that fully expressed the femininity they felt inside.
“Being femme is about being authentic to what I actually like and how I actually want to appear, in spite of what my sexuality leads people to expect,” was the way my friend Esther explained her shift toward a more feminine appearance.
Above all, being femme is about embracing and expressing femininity without apology, and without compromise. While it’s primarily a term used by, for, and about queer women, a femme aesthetic and political consciousness could theoretically be adopted by anyone who wishes to both express the aesthetic and challenge the ideals of traditional femininity. Even straight people. Even men. For too long, the masculine ideal has been raised above the feminine, denying feminine people the dignity of being thought strong, independent, serious, or competent. Queer femmes exist in opposition to this, and for that they should be celebrated.