Fabulous Femmes

Leanne Dawson previews our Fabulous Femmes event at SQIFF this weekend, which includes a screening of documentary FtF: Female to Femme plus a number of short films alongside an intro and discussion from Leanne and performance from feminist artiste Bird La Bird.

The term ‘femme,’ from the French for ‘woman,’ was first used in a lesbian context in 1940s working-class US bar culture, where it described feminine women who partnered with masculine of centre women. The Black counterparts of butches and femmes were termed stud and fish with the former – still in use today – conflating masculinity with sexual prowess and the latter reducing feminine women to their genitalia and the notion the vagina has an unpleasant odour. Within these butch-femme and stud-fish communities of the 40s and 50s, butches and studs were considered true lesbians whilst suspect femmes might turn to heterosexuality at the first opportunity.

Decades later, those assigned female at birth who embraced a strong gendered appearance were considered outdated, uneducated, and an embarrassment to the androgynous, primarily middle-class and white, lesbians of the second-wave women’s movement, who argued that femininity panders to patriarchy. Femme Joan Nestle rejected these ideas during the infamous ‘Sex Wars’ of 1982. Eight years previously, Nestle had co-created the Lesbian Herstory Archives in her Manhattan apartment in order to promote inclusivity and create a space for all lesbian history, including silenced femmes. Cherries in the Snow (Melissa Levin, 2002), one of our Fabulous Femme shorts, is subtitled An Ode to Joan Nestle in recognition of the work Nestle has done for both femme visibility and lesbian history.

In 1992, Nestle declared that ‘the decade of the fem’ was upon us, although she later admitted to her naivety in not predicting the focus – in and outside of academia – on female masculinity. The queer movement and queer theory from the 90s onwards frequently overlooked the femme, who was considered conservative and, because of her sometime ability to pass, privileged at a time when a supposed misalignment between sex and gender was being foregrounded. Our main feature FtF: Female to Femme (Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark, 2006) combats this through creating a parodic world in which the journey towards a femme identity is as radical as other gender transgressive identities.

Although femmes have fought to be seen and heard throughout the years, there has been an especially strong effort to rehabilitate the femme subject over the past decade including, since 2006, a series of Femme conferences in the US, which promote femme visibility. These argue for a femme spectrum, so the femme has the option of being part of a butch-femme binary but isn’t confined to it, and push for the acceptance of a range of femme identities, including straight femmes and male femmes. We explore the latter with filmmaker Matthew Kennedy vis his short, What is Femme Anyway? (2013), which will help to open up discussion about who can claim a femme identity. Matthew will join Leanne Dawson and Bird la Bird in discussion after the films, with audience members welcome to share their thoughts on femme reality and representation.

Femme artiste Bird la Bird’s performance and talk will examine the femme in relation to space and class while offering an overview of her career thus far. She was the cover star of Ulrika Dahl and Del LaGrace Volcano’s book, Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities (2008), part of the aforementioned rehabilitation of femme subjectivity, which opens up the butch-femme idea to consider femme as an umbrella term for a whole spectrum of identities, including trans femmes and those who do not adhere to heteronormative standards of femininity and beauty. Both the Femme conferences in the USA and Dahl and Volcano’s book show a sustained interest in fat femmes, an identity foregrounded in another of the Fabulous Femme shorts, Being Seen Being Home (Lylliam Posadas, 2014), in which a queer femme discusses the complex intersections of her identity as femme, fat, and a woman of colour.

The femme, as the supposedly unthreatening face of lesbianism that fits standard beauty ideals, is often invisible or used to titillate in mainstream films. Fabulous Femmes will show that femmes can titillate whilst challenging patriarchy’s definition of femininity as passive and the cookie-cutter types of femininity presented to us in the media, as well as some of our own ideas regarding who and what is femme.

Leanne is currently making a documentary on femme and lesbian representation alongside socio-political reality and, as part of this, Fabulous Femmes will be filmed (back of audience members’ heads only). There will be an opportunity to contribute more substantially to the documentary at both the Fabulous Femmes event at Glasgow Women’s Library and at the main Scottish Queer International Film Festival hub, the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA). If you would like to contribute at another time, please contact leanne.dawson@ed.ac.uk.