Panelists: The Rotund (m), Jackie Gross, Lillian, Katherine Olson, Courtney Stanton, Trisha J. Wooldridge
Panel Description: Let’s talk about femmes and feminism. Does identifying or presenting as femme make one less of a feminist? Is there a perception that femmes can’t really be feminist? What can we do about that perception? Who are the feminist femmes of the past or present?
Normal disclaimer: This is not verbatim. sophy
also did a write-up of this panel here
One panelist is late!
This is a continuation of a panel last year, with some different panelists.
CS: I very much id as femme. Even before I knew what that was. My parents called me high maintenance? There’s a certain way that I need things to be, and I can’t control anything else, but I can control this. Making myself as much of myself as possible is wroth that. So yeah, I’m femme. I wanted to be on this panel b/c I was on the audience last year. I was real sharply enthusiastic about wanting to be on the panel this year for a variety of reasons. I don’t have like, credentials so I’ll pass on to Lillian.
Lillian: I came to femme as a word/identity through queer activism. I never stopped playing dress-up. When I started going through puberty, my body needed to be this thing that was hidden/contained, something that was horrible for everyone around me. Femme and dressup and adornment in privacy of my bedroom because this outlet for me. Now, I’m able to take out into the public & present myself that way. I was not able to do that for a very long time.
TW: I loved the title of this panel, then I read the description. I like having a freedom in my expression, but I like being on this bridge of femme/girly & sticking in things that are not. I do find I get taken more seriously the more feminine/femme I present. I read books, and the books tend to have books like that. Tomboys that love ruffles and sparkles.
JG: I came of a context. I came out as a lesbian and as a femme in short order in the mid 1990s. Lesbian context of butches and femmes. I was lucky b/c I had example of Joan Nestle, I love that book. Exp that none of women in my collective except one particular white woman had a problem with me being femme.
Adornment, whether that was okay. That does not mean that I did not battle with my mother about what I was going to look like. Mother - alcoholism. I couldn’t fit in the cute clothes. Seventeen magazines. I was shopping at Lane Bryant, which meant I was skewing early. Women were the first to tell me I was beautiful. In the collective, they told me I could wear nail polish.
In California, felt I wasn’t femme ENOUGH, not good enough anymore.
KO: I don’t specifically identify as femme or not-femme, not something I generally think about as far as putting a label on myself. I did go a v. conservative Christian school for 12 years. V. specific ideas about the role of women, I’m sure you can guess what those are. First few years of school, girls weren’t even allowed to wear pants.
Became this thing of in order to not be part of what I was supposed to be/according to rules, I had to put anything girly away, and push against it. It became, it is okay to be feminine. Doesn’t mean you’re giving into this particular set of ideals. You can wear a skirt and also not be submissive. It was an interesting journey.
MAK: I do identify as femme. I came to it through fatness, and to queerness through feminist. There’s a through-line for me. From the panel last year, came away with definition of terms.
Problem have with a shorthand. “Girly” is not necessarily “femme.” Femme is not tied to gender. Would like to define these terms that have come out.
JG: femme when I came out - there were butch women who kind of skewed. I hate using the word masculine. Butch weren’t masculine, but a different type of woman. They also had these other things that they liked to do. Kind of woman I liked fell into a specific thing, like oh, that’s what this is.
I brought a button with me I’ve had like 30 years. It says butchy femme. And I was like, that more describes me, athletic. We talk about high femme. If I talk to other black women, there are specific ways we talk about other femme women. I don’t have a specific way to define femme because there’s so many contexts.
TW: Hard time defining terms in general. First learned the term in HS. Part of GLBT alliance. I was a straight femme. In our group, we were throwing around words, we wanted to make all our own definitions.
As I went through HS and college, I lost track of the term. I’d go with butchy femme idea, I do a lot of athletics and hiking and all there, but I like camo that I can bedazzle. Sense of expression - playing with things that are generally attributed to girls and female wardrobe, female style and fashion. Mixing that and playing with it, and enjoying and celebrating that are markers of femme. I’ve always had a hard time finding clothes. I like swishy type stuff. I like riding horses. Plus-size riding clothes is a nightmare. You have specific things and rules if you’re going to show. You’re limited.
What feminism is, that years of unpacking. Idea that all genders, shouldn’t be one better than other. Equal pay regardless of how you identify. Equal advertising, promotion, chance at awards, things like that. That’s where I come for idea of panel.
MAK: Lillian, before you introduce yourself, please tell us about your nail polish, it’s a great color.
Lillian: Fellow fat femme from Southern California have company called Plump Polish. First line named after California fat bloggers. This is not one of them, I was at her house last weekend. Nice wall of nail polishes.
First encountered term in school, let’s learn how to write a research paper about Bibo Binker series, 1950s lesbian pulp series. Very old school breakup of butch and femme in it. I had this little book that said queer theory primer, and I got everything in there. I thought butch and femme were terrible - why imitate heterosexuality?! Coming out when I was 14, I had progressively started dressing, also as I got fatter, more and more masculine. Not butch, though. Butch is also really valuable in the same way femme is valuable in terms of gender expression. Taking markers away from gender, which I guess is how I think of femme, taking skirts and lipsticks and making them not about being a woman. Femme is for anyone. In terms of feminism, v. specific - I mean big umbrella, mostly having problems in terms of being dominated by white cis western mostly straight feminism.
CS: For me, femme is not a performance thing, I actually am not super on board with idea of femme as a performance thing. Once performing, possible to perform it wrong. Also, means you’re performing it for other people. Frenchie from Grease, Frenchie messes up her hair at the end, I realized in dying my hair, I did it that color (her mistaken color). It’s part of who I am. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s not my nail polish. But when I’m not wearing nail polish, I am slightly less comfortable than when I am.
I was definitely raised in a household where you do femininity b/c I was raised by an ex-model. It was a thing you did correctly, or not. With a very second wave, judge the sinner/hate the sin. There was a wrong way to be a woman, etc. Finding third wave in college, also has a lot of problems, but one of them isn’t hating your body if it’s exposed. For me, part of femme is more in line with acceptance movement. Like in kink community, I connected with an old friend from high school, and we went to a leather dungeon. I’m in pink satin everything, comfortable. And he said, you’re like a princess top. Same way with fat acceptance, so many other things, it’s part of an identity layer.
Not a thing as starting at naked & adding layers to GET to femme. I’m femme all the time. I’m femme while changing car battery, while cleaning the house, while doing everything.
Other people do interpret it as performance sometimes. Hair gives dudes on the street a thing to comment on all the time. In college, threatened to be kicked out when with my girlfriend, accused of being a breeder because I didn’t look queer.
Feminism is a thing like specifically, so many, mainstream Lean-In style, white heterosexual very US-centric.
MAK: I don’t want to refer to that as feminism. Problematic to short-hand feminism as that. Be specific, but let’s be careful to not make that be the default.
KO: defining femme is a moving target. Louis XIV not considered feminine. High heels and satin, that’s what men wore. Today, wearing that would read as femme. It’s very hard to define, and yet people are defining it quite well.
MAK: In that example, conflate femme and femininity? Unpack that?
KO: I guess. I see femme as coming from the feminine. It does not mean it is female. But, I see femme as straight up as a shortening of feminine. So I don’t see a conflict in putting the two together. To me, femme is a shortening of the word. Not that way for everybody. Don’t see it as necessarily gender based.
If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism. Rise in the tide, bring up all the boats. Not just about cis, about any particular race. About all of it working together. Particularly how these things interact.
MAK: Lots of different definitions of femme. You said it’s a moving target, yes. How you came to femme & at what point, is important. There’s historical context for it, but doesn’t seem to be historical acknowledgment particularly within context of feminism as a conversation. Want to throw out idea that in early days of feminist movement, the reaction against the appearance of femme was the reaction against the limiting of the gender roles. Feminist movement in America. We’ll say, the 1950s moving forward.
JG: People riff on now, on WOC, etc. Still 2nd wave women speaking to other 2nd wave women. I grit my teeth and grind really hard at erasing a lot of work that was done by other women who fought with another. I remember sitting in meetings, talking about butch women and femme women not in the room, having them condemned, somehow being less-than because the new world had come.
I rarely caution people now - third wave wouldn’t have happened without those people.
MAK: Resistant about saying feminism about everybody. Historically, it has not been. I reluctantly identify as a feminism, significant problems with movement. Not with concept of important conversations about gender.
Feminism doesn’t own gender conversations even though a lot of feminists do sort of argue that.
I’m just throwing out that we need to be careful with that definition, distracted from reality.
Things we label as second wave. There are historical roots to women being resistant to femme as a presentation. We can’t have conversation about whether feminists can be girly without talking about that. How we have that conversation impacts how we fix it now.
Everyone on panel agrees no, it doesn’t make you less of a feminist.
More to talk about: Well, what do we do about that?
TW: I want to ask a question. I have a hard time distinguishing between femme and feminine. More clarification on that.
JG: For me as a lesbian, v. specific gender presentation within lesbianism. Other people say femme is for everybody - yeah, there are men who present as femme, but v. different set of experiences of how they live in the world, where me - I went to Catholic schools with all girl. Never known women to be people I would hate. I came out as femme, I could do this stuff, & it was okay.
We had a benefit, I said I’d dress up and go on a date with somebody. I had a dress, etc. Katherine lost her mind, said she’s a pawn of the patriarchy.
JG said if I get felt up in a bar, okay. I was doing this for other women, not for men.
How you come to it is coloring 99% of this. Can make the case for coming at it from a grammarian. So much scholarship that people haven’t talked about that actually is about femme women.
Still comes up in cycles. 80s, early 90s: Big things. Suddenly, physical scholarship, could say, “Read this.”
Then died down in mid-1990s, then folks came back as presentation to me, but to THEM it was not.
Now we’re bumping into different things. You’re coming from a queer context as well, religious context is very important. We have decades, different places you’re from. It’s nesting boxes, inside each other & beside each other. Hearing “queer” erases lots of specific history about women, for me.
It all fits, we’re still figuring out where it all fits, together.
MAK: We have to talk about it in order to fit together. Ppl who regard femme as presentation, those who regard it as identity. When you’re involved with different feminists, and people respond negatively, there’s no telling which “femme” they’re responding to. Sometimes it all looks the same. Hair, nail polish, etc. That influences the conversation.
Lillian: My big resistance to making conversation about femmes about women is that I’m not going to speak for people b/c I’m not non-binary, but half of the femmes of my friends are non-binary and don’t want to erase that. I think that’s really important. I should also name that I’m the baby on this panel. I was a child in the third wave.
JG: That is very specific, that’s a full generational shift.
MAK: You don’t get a lot of panels - part of the conversation last year was bounderied by everybody being in the same general age group. Range of age is helpful. Can’t talk about femme in the context of feminism without the age range.
CS: Where “girly” can come in - girly is weird cultural ghetto where society throws things for women and young girls. Women’s history and history of lesbians, anything to do that, just throw it on the heap over there where nobody will look at it. It doesn’t enter into our consciousness. A good language about things that happen. 1977, and then, Bill Clinton? It just jumps. They keep it invisible so they can sell you what they want to sell you. It creates more friction - arguing about who’s doing it correctly, right/wrong way to do it, what’s proper, what’s good, then you end up with in-fighting, and none of it’s supposed to be as valid as activities that guys do.
MAK: Question that what can we do about that perception? When we all come to it from such different places & reacting to it from their own places? What is the practical take-away when we talk about being femme within the feminist context?
KO: Part of it, talking about nail polish line, is there’s a marketing thing. Pink stuff marketed to women with male CEOs, maybe sparkles, sell it to women, b/c they like that shit. Always for a higher price.
MAK: Sometimes I like that pink sparkly shit.
KO: Difference is thrust at us as a marketing thing is an external very cynical, but I kind of looking at the independent businesses starting to own it, what we’re actually excited about. Selling nail polish. This makeup line. Jewelry, or clothing, or whatever it is, from a place of people behind it/selling it aren’t just marketing to you. They’re producing something that means something to them. Commerce based.
As we take it back from the corporate marketing categories, there is some strength to that. It’s not necessarily the most revolutionary thing to suggest, but there is power in turning away from corporate overlord version of girly to what feels genuine and from people who are producing from the heart.
JG: Shopping black-owned businesses. I don’t like pink girly crap. I’d rather buy it from a woman producing it in her own backyard. You’re doing it by yourself, on your own. I like to shop local - Etsy, or near my house. Pinkification of Barbie is fairly recent, happened in the mid-1990s. Pink Barbies, and collector ones. Pink ones are cheaper. Woman in Toys-R-Us - one to play with, and one to collect. Packaging - not this pink less than 5 years ago! Now, it is a solid pink. The AISLE is pink. It’s an ugly pink. The sparkle is higher, not a good sparkle. I had previous version of Barbie for President. Her suit was red, and now it’s a pink suit. How pink is pushed, how girliness is pushed. Then a commercial for Goldilocks - little girls in engineers. They’re cute and girly, and they’re about to build a bomb!
Can we shop/buy for and from one another? I’d like to see us do that. We can have the commerce, that’s awesome. They’re controlling it, it’s theirs.
MAK: Femme supporting femme business kind of situation.
CS: I work in tech sector. When Goldilocks came out, lots of women didn’t like it because, what’s wrong with normal erector set stuff?
I use to nanny and babysit. I’m an only child, but every girl who had brothers, it was important her stuff looked different from her siblings’ stuff. Being able to say, these are MY toys, those are YOURS, etc.
Only issue with Goldilocks - cool to get them for a little boy, too, right? That to me is the thing. I want to celebrate any little kid who wants to get an easy-bake oven, and all that, whatever is not TMNT. It’s easy to find tough little girl outfits and activities. Pipeline that’s encouraged. Women going into STEM. Hard to get the pipeline going the other way. Look at your kid, your kid is really into dressing up and makeup.
TW: Negative perception of feminine/girly. In mainstream, something girly is negative. Work to get rid of negative perception. Not using girly/feminine to denote something negative. Not something less. Conversation needs to be had in the mainstream.
JG: Negative of girly means you don’t like girls at all, whether tomboys or princesses or etc.
MAK: Calling little boys “girls” is as bad as it gets.
JG: Saying “Hey ladies” to boys on a field, etc.
MAK: White women gate keeping feminism. Whether feminine is being performed in the right way. Haven’t talked about femme and class influence your relationship with feminism. We have enough time for questions, but not to have these specific conversations.raanve
: on notion of class and femme. Dolly Parton has a new record out. Dolly’s amazing, I love her. I find it really interesting when talking about somebody like DP, there’s weird blow-back around the way she’s always chosen to visually present herself. From what I understand, the way she’s talked about it in interviews, it’s what she thought was beautiful.
JG: She acknowledges 99% is a constructed image, but that’s natural for her.raanve
: I think she gets, you’ll find people wanting to label that as bimbo, trashy.
KO: She identifies as trashy.
MAK: Want recent Jezebel post about how she’s secretly covered in tattoos. Now she’s a tough badass because there’s another thing associated with her. But her presentation has not changed one bit.
JG: Wife and dad both like Dolly Parton. In all these winching, she provides books for every kid that needs one. She’s a badass. She’s looked like this for years.raanve
: Recent interview: people want to use this to discount me. I know this, and I aim to use it against them and use it to get what I want. She utilizes her trashy bimbo you know….
MAK: Hails back to right way to present as femme. Only certain people allowed to present as femme.
JA: Is that on the class line?
MAK: I think so. Unachievable standards applied to trans women. Women of color beat with stick of, “Well, you can’t meet this beauty standard and you never will.” I think yes, a lot of response to DP is absolutely about that. Reba McIntire as well. Present as femme, come from working class background. Tanya Tucker. They’re pretty but trashy. Why people have to step in and reclaim the whole concept of trashy.
Cynthia G: Lillian: In third iteration, we should have at least one trans woman on the panel. Need to start bringing that in.
MAK: Need to frontload this panel next year.
CG: I have my own feeling about dressing. Back in the eighties/early nineties, Nordstrom was like Cheers for me, everybody knew my name. But I ended up getting out of practice of being/doing that because my job required me not to wear makeup or a dress, not a lot of frilly things. I’m a chemist, shouldn’t wear anything I can’t afford to replace. Now, my job is shifting, I get to do this again, but I’m out of practice. Just saying, even white middle class women like me…
MAK: Skills are required, conversation to be had about the devaluation of those skills. Putting on makeup is hard. Take off glasses to put makeup on?!
JG: Thankful for everyone who does the map training, put the stuff on for you.
CS: I decided I was going to teach my spouse how to do my hair b/c I didn’t want to find a salon. So I thought, I’d teach him. He doesn’t have decades of messing around with friends’ hair. He had a panic attack the first time. There’s bleach, there’s a timer, he’s like, ahhhhhh. He’s fine now. But at the time, he was like, “It’s really hard!” And I was like, “It’s almost like it’s a skillset that people charge money for!”
JG: Elizabeth asked if black guys go to salon with black women. You spend an entire day in a black women’s salon. There’s television, possibly bedding. My father never touched my hair. Most men don’t touch black women’s hair. Almost hyper-active. Even my wife. It’s visceral. Only my stylist can touch it.
Aud/green shirt: Conversation about generational femmes/feminism, class/presentation. Blog post at bookviewcafe.com called “Miley and Sinnead and Amanda and Me.” WisCon 70s feminists versus WisCon 90s feminists. Standing on the shoulders of giants.”
[Here is that post
Aud: Lots on the table for next year. What would it be like to have a presentation of male femme on the panel? I have never actually where there’s a cross-section - gay men, whole conversation within gay male culture, I know. Men who probably identify as femme. It’d be fascinating. Maybe too ambitious for here. Never seen it explicitly addressed.
Aud: Girly has connotation of girls & infantalization of women, but need enormous skillset. Patriarchy takes this thing and assigns them to children.
JG: Have you ever seen Legally Blonde? Elle Woods has knowledge over a lifetime. She knew this knowledge, could tell quality of clothes. Native knowledge that some women build up over time. See it sometimes now in fashion. Things like hair salons, nail polish. Where women gather with each other, it’s very valuable. Women who could do a perm at home without frying their hair.
MAK: Femme apprenticeship. When you grow up outside girly female culture, likely to have missed that.
AUD: That’s what YouTube’s for!
MAK: Yes, have to build those relationships. Feedback for makeup party were from all genders: I never learned this as a child, can you show me?
Anxiety: Can you actually go to the party if you don’t know those things?
CS: My experience. My mom/doing theater as a kid, having people at my house, that’s what it was. My mom, explaining blush, etc. For girls who didn’t have moms in it, showing them to hot roll their hair, etc. If you didn’t have older sisters, or a mom really invested in the Lancome counter like mine was, where else would you learn it?
MAK: Specific references - your mom, Lancome. Cynthia, it was Nordstrom. People have incredibly powerful asscoiations.
AUD: I’m femme curious? As a kid, I was not anti-feminine. I felt pressure, watched commercials for baby dolls, I’d say, “That shit’s dumb.” If I didn’t reject it…
It wasn’t until people read me as a guy, until people stopped expecting me to enjoy femme things.
Now that I’m trying to explore some of these things. Maybe I want to wear eye makeup, I don’t know. I need a magical femme godmother. Not until queer component - didn’t want to be femme just b/c not butch.
Now that pressures’ gone.
JG: Don’t ever be a butch lesbian who wears makeup. They caught so much shit from other lesbians.
AUD: How hard it is to obtain knowledge - it really is true.
JG: If it’s not passed on… I shaved my eyebrows, had to go to my brother.
MAK: I want you to know, I was goth. I shaved my eyebrows off and then shaved them back on with a sharpie.
CS: Used clear nail polish to fix a run. Then went to shave.
AUD: Organic nail polish. Have moms spending half an hour arguing with husbands on the phone who were saying that sons couldn’t wear b/c toxic.
AUD: Addendum: Do nails of straight male brother.
Elizabeth: How many pieces of luggage did you come to WisCon with?
JG: Oh shit. We call it traveling with femmes. Between the two of us, we have enough product to cover the counter. Naamen had a tiny thing for the counter & walked back out of the bathroom. “I don’t know what happened.” Tanya: “I need some makeup,” & we were like, okay!!
MAK: I have like the femme survival kit. Coordinate all of these separates. Having the one eye shadow palette I can’t live without.
Feminism discounts the self-care in femme. That’s a whole panel right there.
CS: My femme inspiration is Lois Lane. Five cute dresses, carry-on, didn’t check luggage.
MAK: Last year, I brought ten changes of dresses. Day clothes, and night clothes.