I was scrolling through Instagram the other day, trying and failing to distract myself from all my quarantine dread, when an absolutely baffling advertisement captured my attention. It was a sponsored post for a pair of Richer Poorer underwear that the clothing brand had dubbed “Femme Boxers.” Femme boxers… Femme… Boxers? The more I thought about it, the less sense it all seemed to make.
It was Richer Poorer’s use of the word “femme” that broke me, particularly as the brand used it to describe a pair of boxers—well, boxer briefs, to be more accurate. The only queers I’ve ever known to be partial to that cut of underwear have been mascs, men, and butches, individuals I’d label as femme’s polar opposite. Perhaps the company is calling them “femme” because they recall a traditionally masculine style of underwear. But then, what about these shorts are supposed to be femme, exactly?
From the androgynous boyshort cut to the basic, muted fabric color, nothing about them struck me as particularly femme, at least not based on any definition I’m familiar with. Perhaps these undergarments were supposed to be for femmes—but then, which femmes? The feminine lesbians who date butches? The non-binary individuals who eschew binary womanhood? The fem queens of the ballroom world? French women in general? I sent a screenshot of the ad to Alex V. Green, a journalist who has written extensively about the commodification of nonbinary identities. “I don’t understand the product, let alone what makes it a femme product,” they said. “This is a futch boxer, if anything.”
The brand didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment asking for clarity on their use of “femme” and how it pertained to their deeply androgynous line of underwear. But there is widely-available information and context for the term that only makes its use related to a pair of boxer briefs more confusing.
As model and trans rights advocate Munroe Bergdorf explains in a them. video, working-class lesbians in New York and other cities started using the word in the mid-20th century to refer to feminine lesbians, distinguishing them from their complementary butch counterparts. That usage lives on, but it’s not the only one used in LGBTQ circles. These days, “femme,” as well as “fem” with no “-me” at the end, can also refer to trans women in ballroom, feminine people who don’t identify with binary womanhood, feminine gay men (a reclamation of the “no fats, no fems” disclaimer found in gay personals of the ‘80s and ‘90s), and transfeminine individuals more broadly.
More recently, femme means a lot of different, often very specific and only sometimes overlapping things, to a lot of different people. Those very specific meanings have also changed over time, something I can attest to from personal experience; over the past 17 years of identifying as some kind of letter under the LGBTQ umbrella, I’ve heard people use the word femme to refer to everyone from Tumblr babes in pink silk and marabou to gay guys who sometimes wear nail polish.
“The word ‘femme’ mirrors the evolution of the queer community into a more inclusive and diverse place, able to hold an increasingly broader range of identities and realities,” Bergdorf says in the video, noting that it “means different things to different people.”
Just as the evolution of the word “femme” has mirrored change and tumult within the greater queer community itself, Richer Poorer’s co-option of “femme” into a buzzy marketing term mirrors the ways in which brand have appropriated all sorts of queer identities over the past few decades in order to court LGBTQ consumers. Absolut first began advertising directly to gay men in the ‘80s, buying full-page ads boasting rainbow-striped bottles in The Advocate and After Dark, and Ikea brought that commercial representation to the small-screen with the first-ever televised ads featuring a same-sex couple in 1994. The gay people featured in these ads were largely “white, male, buff, and wealthy,” per writer Sarah Schulman’s description in 1998’s Stagestruck, but brands have occasionally, though hesitantly, targeted lesbian audiences, as well.
Richer Poorer’s baffling use of “femme” is part of a wave in recent years of clothing companies using trans labels and gender-nonconforming aesthetics to repackage and sell their usual wares with little to no change to the garments themselves. Last year, for example, Harry’s razors erected billboard ads during Pride season starring well-known nonbinary influencers, yet their website continues to say that their products are “for men.” Fossil also paid nonbinary talent to be the face of its brand, while still dividing their online store in two along clear, binary lines.
Labels, particularly those that target women, seem to have caught on to femme’s profitability as a marketing strategy. Parade, the direct-to-consumer underwear brand with the bright colors and sheer panels you’ve probably seen ads for while watching your friends’ Instagram stories, has been pandering to femmes since its launch late last year, with founder Cami Tellez telling Fashionista that the company’s target demo are “women and femme-identifying people,” apparently unaware that she could’ve just said “women and femmes.” Then, bizarrely, she invoked the concept intersectionality in order to describe Parade’s garments, explaining that they’re “telling a new kind of underwear story at the intersection of bold color, dynamic design, and sustainable fabric innovation.”
So, what does the word “femme” mean to the people at Richer Poorer who decided to brand a line of boxer briefs with it? Well, I didn’t see anything explicitly referencing queer women on the brand’s website or social media. It appears the company didn’t intend to signal nonbinary femmes specifically, or else it probably wouldn’t continue to divide their minimalist, muted, thoroughly heterosexual-looking online store between men’s and women’s clothing.
Then again, that’s what H&M did when it created its “gender neutral” fashion line in 2018, commodifying lived gendered experiences without meaningfully changing the way that their clothes were made or sold. To properly accommodate trans and nonbinary shoppers, H&M might have considered altering the sizing on pre-eixisting styles so that its dresses might fit over broader shoulders or its chinos might clear wider hips. Instead, the store debuted a mix of wide-legged denim and baggy tops and jackets in unassuming neutral tones that explored the idea of gender-neutral fashion through a narrow, androgynous lens.
In all likelihood, Richer Poorer probably made the mistake that a lot of cis people do: It used the word “femme” when it really just meant to say “women.”
“It’s just a bunch of word mush, throwing words together to capture the attention of the progressive millennial female consumer without having to actually do anything political,” Green told me. “The company is just trying to expand its market by changing the way it sells products ordinarily marketed to women without changing the product substantially itself. It probably saw that their millennial female demo is reading Teen Vogue and Refinery29 and have progressive ideas about gender, so calling your women’s boyshorts ‘femme boxers’ is a way to appeal to that.”
Is this wave of femme-branding nefarious? Are Richer Poorer’s femme boxers truly, truly evil? Well… Yes. These are companies taking the language of our lived experiences and then slapping them on a product that they then plan to sell back to us. If radical critique were capable of shaming brands into no longer commodifying queer identities for profit, they would have stopped decades ago. But while they might take our “femme” and slap it onto a dull pair of boyshorts, they’ll never take our derision.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.