Post-Femme (But Not Post-Feminist) Part I: The Gaze

In the wake of my piece on “femme flight,” and in the world at large when I tell people I’m not a femm

In the wake of my piece on “femme flight,” and in the world at large when I tell people I’m not a femme, just a dyke, I frequently meet with the following type of response: It’s all well and good to say you’re just a dyke, but as long as you look the way you do and desire who you desire, there’s no escaping being a femme. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…

This is interesting, because it opens the question of what use the word “femme” has, what meaning it can retain. It’s true that while I don’t identify myself as femme, others still see me that way, and so I still have a stake in what becomes of that word. And while I no longer hold a femme identity for myself, it once meant something to me. But what it meant to me it likely never meant to you.

Yes, it was a useful shorthand way to describe my physicality and energy (which would be called “feminine” by most standards) as well as describing my ideal objects of attraction (women more “masculine” than me). (As an aside, I know that not every femme has this same ideal; it is just the dominant assumption.) Deeper than this, it was a way to say to butches and to other more easily identifiable dykes, I am someone who knows how to see you and recognizes your beauty. Yours is the beauty that most moves me. It was in this knowing-how-to-see that the power resided for me.

In the straight world, there’s a different assumed relationship between “femininity” and the gaze: strictly the role of the object. In my experience of identifying as a femme, there was a direct link between not being “masculine” enough to read as a dyke and developing a role which was foundationally about the power of my gaze.

This foundation was laid when I was quite young. In the journals I kept as a girl, I wrote about the girls I longed for as “secret girls.” I watched the world intently, looking for these girls. “Girls you might not notice, might not recognize,” I wrote. Girls you might mistake for boys unless you knew how to see them; girls you might see as plain or ugly unless you knew how to appreciate them.

I’ve remained attached to the idea of a girl it takes some work, some nuanced looking, to really see, to fully appreciate. Being let in on a secret by virtue of caring enough to notice is always very precious and exciting. I recently met a woman who wears herself in a way that most people don’t read as butch. “I don’t read boy enough,” she told me, to be recognized by the women she wants. She’s more passable than some dykes in terms of acceptable gender presentation in straight society, but in my eyes, only an idiot wouldn’t see her. It was, for me, an adult encounter with the childhood thrill of seeing a secret girl. A secret butch. A butch you might not recognize unless you knew how to look. This woman would easily be considered beautiful by any standard, and though the most particular and erotic power of her beauty—the “masculinity” of it—may not fully legible to everyone, it is very clear to those who know how to see. It pleased me to see it as clearly as I did—as though this beauty were more intended for me because I have cultivated the gaze that lets me recognize it.

Knowing how to look is so much of the point. I believe this is one of the most powerful meanings that the word femme can hold.

However, this is not, in my experience, the focus of its meaning in a larger cultural context. For a further exploration of these other meanings, stay tuned for Part II…

* A note on the quote marks around “masculinity” and “femininity”: I am interested in Sarah Schulman’s assertion that she considers butch to be the height of femininity. I use the words “masculine” and “feminine” in the conventional way for convenient communication, but I actually distrust their assigned meanings and tell you so with my attitudinal air quotes.