When it comes to gender and sexual expression, millennials don’t “do” labels. According to a GLAAD report from earlier this year, while 20 percent of millennials openly identify as LGBTQ, they’re less likely than older queer generations to align themselves with binary terms like “gay” and “lesbian.” Which figures. As lines between genders, sexualities and queer identities blur, so does the language used to describe them—and as that language evolves, battle lines are drawn around its political implications. Take the term “queer,” which found its way into a since-retitled New York Times column this October, written by a straight woman, that asked “Is There Something Queer About Being Single?” Queer critics replied near-instantaneously: no.
Similarly contentious, the word “femme”—an identity that’s historically been erased, ignored, and undervalued in queer and heterosexual communities alike—has made its way into non-queer circles. And that’s a place some queer critics argue “femme” doesn’t belong. It matters who calls themselves femme, they assert, and there is something distinctly queer about femme identity.
“Femme,” like “queer,” means different things to different people depending on their experience, background, and identity. But as Gina Tonic writes for Bustle, “all femmes hit upon two key aesthetic and identity-related traits: Being feminine and falling somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum.”
Generally, the term can be used as a noun or adjective to describe a queer person with an outwardly feminine gender expression. Femmes are usually queer women, though any queer person who embraces traditionally feminine speech, mannerisms, and dress might identify as femme. That said, “femme” describes something beyond one’s gender presentation or aesthetic. It’s a term loaded with political significance for a host of different queer communities. And that’s why it’s often controversial and somewhat jarring when it’s used outside those queer communities, like when Zooey Deschanel did it in a 2015 interview with Cosmo, or when stores like Topshop, H&M, or Urban Outfitters turn it into a fashion statement.
Femme, as an identity and term, originates from “a history of people at the margins who offer an in-your-face challenge to the idea that femininity is natural and compliant,” said Heather Berg, a Gender Studies professor at USC. “It's often connected to other sorts of rule-breaking,” she continued, much of which emerged from “the working class lesbian bar scene in the early-mid 20th century US.”
More specifically, it’s “an identity deeply tied to communities who struggle against heterosexism,” said Macarena Gomez-Barris, chair of the Social Sciences and Cultural Studies department at Pratt Institute. Its origins, Gomez-Barris explains, were heavily influenced by the work of Latinx and Chicanx activists as well as working-class communities of color in the 60s and 70s, and in some communities, femme identity also symbolizes a rejection of whiteness, a term used to represent decolonized womanhood. That political connection is partly why the term is inextricably tied to queerness, and proves so controversial when used outside queer contexts.
“Our identities [as femmes] have been taken by straight (white) women who want cool points,” argued writer Alaina Monts in a roundtable on femme identity for Autostraddle last year. That claim—that straight people who identify as femme are appropriating the identity—was echoed in a separate roundtable on the identity on the blog Lesbians Over Everything. Redditors agonize over it; a meme depicts John Everett Millais’ tragic Ophelia, drowned by the thought of straight women calling themselves “femme.”
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While not everyone in queer circles believes “femme” should be a term used exclusively by queer people, to some, using it outside queer contexts feels like an erasure of contributions femmes have made to queer liberation movements. “To use the term without resonating with that longer history could be seen as […] potentially doing a disservice to queer identified people,” said Gomez-Barris. Others contend that when the term is used by straight people, they contribute to femme invisibility—the idea that femme queer women are often mistaken as straight by society, thus perpetuating an erasure of their identities. “Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us,” said Monts in the Autostraddle roundtable.
“While it's true that straight women's use of ‘femme’ can be appropriative, middle class lesbians who simply subscribe to traditional gender norms can't claim ownership of the term either,” said Berg. It’s possible that femme’s resonance may be partly due to our current political climate, and the resistance it represents to the toxicity of masculinity. “Representational politics are at an all time high right now,” said Gomez-Barris, “which is why some people might be searching for an identity […] for ways of seeing each other way outside of ‘Trump Land.’”
Gomez-Barris said “femme” can certainly be misappropriated when it’s applied to “a kind of capitalist logic about femininities”—when it’s used to sell T-shirts, for example—but the term still holds meaning as long as it “questions and troubles” existing power dynamics. At the core of femme identity is a desire to “lift femininities,” she said, especially at a time when “the leader of the nation has been constructing female bodies as […] abject and disgusting.”
Though the debate over its use within queer circles is unlikely to cease anytime soon, it’s undeniable that identifying as “femme” can be a source of power for many people, a symbol of solidarity in resistance. “Femme” can be for anyone who pushes against gender norms and sexist policies that serve to further oppress those who are historically marginalized. The term is loaded with political meaning and significance, a power in language that can challenge the way people think and act, and hopefully spur more meaningful thought about the way we all identify. “As long as normative gender roles exist,” Berg said, “there will be an urgent need for people, femmes included, to push at their boundaries.”