Content warnings: mentions of misogyny, suicidal ideation, sexual harassment and assault, alcoholism, child abuse
Not long ago, Gale* got into a fight with someone from the queer student group at her school. She voiced her discomfort when the group tried to host an event that was “femmes only.” She got promptly shut down. One of the organizers referred publicly to her concerns as “masc tears” and subsequently joked about flirting with a butch barista in a “self-callout.”
Gale recently got out of an abusive relationship with another woman. Traumatized and dysphoric, she finally found comfort by cutting her hair, getting rid of her feminine clothes, and presenting herself as butch. “Icing on the damn cake,” she said, referring to the organizer’s story about flirting with a butch woman. “[They made] it clear they were referring to butch lesbians as basically men, and so it was hilarious that they were attracted to them. [It’s] straight up objectifying.”
Like Gale, I spent most of my undergrad moving in and out of different activist circles. I am a feminine-presenting person of colour who was designated female at birth, and I’ve been using ‘they’ pronouns exclusively for the past couple of years. I’ve met some of my closest friends while organizing, and I have a great deal of attachment to activist culture. However, I’ve become disillusioned with the gender politics that run rampant within rad queer circles. It’s a politics that is unsubstantiated, ahistorical, and not at all ‘radical.’
At the centre of this politics is the concept of ‘femmephobia.’ An article from good ol’ Everyday Feminism defines it as “the fear or hatred of all people [who] are perceived as femme, feminine […] regardless of their gender.” The author argues that we should recognize femininity as “beautiful, valuable, or strong” and calls for us to “stop devaluing [anyone] who doesn’t meet some societal stereotype of perfect masculinity.”
I’ve become disillusioned with the gender politics that run rampant within rad queer circles. It’s a politics that is unsubstantiated, ahistorical, and not at all ‘radical.’
To compensate for the cultural devaluation of femininity, we have decided to glorify it as much as possible. Decades following the emergence of queer theory, our activism has gotten to a point where anything and everything can be empowering if we say it is. “Eyeliner so sharp it could kill a man,” we insist. “If you wear your lipstick in the right shade of blue, you’re contributing to the revolution!”
Our uncritical reverence of femininity is a misguided attempt to tackle misogyny. The current conversation about how feminine-presenting people bear the brunt of patriarchal violence fails to account for the experiences of butch and gender non-conforming women, as well as people who may not be women but face specific consequences because they were designated female at birth.
“A woman like me”
El* is a self described “neuroatypical Jewish lesbian” who loved Star Wars and baseball as a child. “I was a girl,” they said, “but not a very good one.” It was as if they’d failed “some secret, invisible test.” As a teenager, they tried hard to fix things. “If I style my thick, unruly hair […] I will be beautiful and worth something,” they told themselves. “If I pluck my defiant eyebrows. If I shave my arm and leg hair every morning. If I start wearing makeup. If I wear the right clothes. If I stop raising my hand so much.”
In high school El started engaging in LGBTQ activism and realized that they didn’t have to be a girl. “I still wanted to be pretty,” they said, “but I wanted to be pretty as a boy, or at least something else.” Like El, I discovered near the end of high school that I didn’t have to identify with the sex I was assigned to at birth. I wasn’t pretty, didn’t know a thing about makeup, and did horribly in my textiles class. I rejoiced in knowing that it was all because I wasn’t a girl – I was “something else.”
To compensate for the cultural devaluation of femininity, we have decided to glorify it as much as possible.
Weirdly enough, my relationship to the men in my life didn’t change one bit. When I cut my hair short, my then-boyfriend told me that he preferred me with long hair. I ended up growing it out. When adult men in my family made comments about my body, I told myself that my fear was unwarranted.
El now wears exclusively ‘men’s’ clothing and swaggers a bit when they walk. “I’m usually too scared,” they said, “to even compliment girls out of fear that they’ll find any attention from me unwelcome.” Their more feminine lesbian friends could not relate. El wonders. “Do men […] agonize like this over the decision to tell a girl she’s cute?”
“Maybe it would be easier for me to be a man,” El admits, “I tried to cope with the crushing realities of misogyny […] by identifying away from womanhood […] But I don’t want to be a man. I want to be a woman who looks and acts like me.”
However El and I may identify internally, we move through the world as women. I am almost always read as a woman, and El sometimes gets addressed as a guy. We were raised as girls, or, in El’s words, “girlhood had been assigned to me before I even had a chance to scream at the world for the first time.” Expectations of conventional womanhood shape our embodiment, whether we like it or not. ‘Femmephobia’ doesn’t address the fact that femininity is, for us at the very least, not a choice.
“I don’t want to be a man. I want to be a woman who looks and acts like me.” –El*
By the time she was eight, my mom had been fully tasked with cleaning the house and cooking for the entire family. One time when I was little, my dad drunkenly insulted me in all sorts of creative ways from across the dinner table. My mom said nothing. Maybe she was trying to teach me something. I had yet to learn that her necklaces and heels, that I used to play dress up with, were symbols of submission. Performing femininity, in other words, comes with a demand.
Say woman, not femme
El told me, “the treatment that I’ve come to expect from the world as a butch lesbian made me wish I could die.” When their then-best friend sent them an article about ‘butch privilege,’ they felt sick. “Was I denying my privilege when I carried my pocketknife with me on the subway just in case? When I avoided public bathrooms as much as possible, expecting to be gawked at in the best-case scenario?”
‘Femmephobia’ is a deeply flawed attempt to name the cause of gendered violence. As a form of analysis, it makes the gross mistake of separating femininity from womanhood. Although the demands of femininity are transient and in no way natural, they are tied up conceptually with womanhood through socialization, which begins as soon as the doctor declares, “it’s a girl!”
From that moment, built-in mechanisms exist on every social level that make sure women are to be exploited for their reproductive and domestic labour at all times. We are obliged to spend large sums of money on cosmetics and an extraordinary level of effort in keeping up with beauty rituals that are time-consuming and painful. We can’t simply opt out of these expectations because we’ve been trained to accept them as good and desirable, and there are material consequences if we do refuse them, which includes everything from harassment and assault to lack of job opportunities.
“Was I denying my privilege when I carried my pocketknife with me on the subway just in case?” –El
I want to make it clear that I have no issue with people who present as feminine because they can’t afford otherwise. If you’re racialized, fat, trans, disabled, and you need to conform to conventions of femininity for safety, I feel for you – I really do. I’m sorry that we live in a world where deviation from ‘correct’ performances of gender results in various levels of corporeal violence. The fear of punishment for nonconformity is real and devastating.
Nor am I chastising those who find it meaningful or fun to reclaim femininity for themselves. For those of us who are denied access to traditional notions of femininity, it can feel validating to be in dresses and heels, all powder and glitter.
At the end of the day, we need to all agree that a structural, historical analysis of gender as a system of domination is more accurate than any theoretical framework that deals entirely with language and representation. Dismantling essentialist ideas about sex and gender does not end with changing our language, not in a world where women’s bodies remain a primary site of patriarchal control. This is not to say that using the right words is unimportant, but addressing the material reality of oppression should always be our top priority.
The fear of punishment for nonconformity is real and devastating.
“I am hated,” El said, “not because I am feminine. I am hated because I am a woman and because I am not feminine.” Next time you get the urge to substitute ‘women’ for ‘femmes,’ note the assumptions you’re making about people whose experiences you don’t understand. The scars we carry for not being and loving men – not until the end of patriarchy would we need another name for this. The word is misogyny.
*Names have been changed.