Femme, sometimes spelled fem, is a queer gender that exaggerates the powerful, highly artificial elements of femininity. Femmes are usually women and sometimes men for whom femininity is experienced as both integral to their self-presentation and highly stylized. Usually, femmes are lesbian women who enjoy being girlish or womanly with other women. Some femmes prefer other femmes, but most femmes prefer somewhat masculine or butch women as their sexual partners, though the category of butch can itself range from soft butches, to athletic types, to very masculine women, to female-to-male transsexuals. Traditionally, however, femme women have been understood as the feminine element in a butch-femme couple, or as feminine women interested in exclusively butch lovers.
Many famous lesbian couples in the early part of the twentieth century were butch-femme in their gender styles: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are one famous American butch-femme lesbian example; Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge another example from Britain. There are few examples of famous femmes that were not part of a butch-femme couple, in large part because many famous women could not be out lesbians. Barbara Stanwyck is perhaps the best example of a lesbian woman whose femininity was powerful and strategic, and who brilliantly managed to convey this to audiences without having to actually come out and ruin her career. Among mid-century American lesbians, membership in a lesbian sexual subculture might have been signaled by becoming part of a butch-femme couple, where one woman dressed and comported herself as more masculine than did her stereotypically feminine partner. Butch-femme style was especially prevalent among working-class lesbians in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Joan Nestle, an outspoken femme who experienced lesbian life in the 1950s and 1960s, argues that butch-femme style helped make lesbians visible when there was no woman's movement or gay movement to protect them, and that their presence represented female erotic independence from men. As such they became frequent targets of violence. The homophile movement of the 1960s was ashamed of them, and discouraged such open visibility as being too antagonistic to mainstream culture.
Feminism steered many lesbians away from gender polarities of masculine and feminine in the 1970s, and an androgynous style of flannel shirts and Birkenstock sandals became the lesbian uniform for a good part of the decade. The retro revival of the 1980s and 1990s, however, helped bring back butch-femme style, especially femininity in the form of the hyper-girlish lipstick lesbian. Lesbian cultural critics have argued that butch-femme lesbian style offers a challenge to heterosexual gender styles by showing that they can be appropriated and subverted. Such appropriation, these critics argue, reveals heterosexual style as style, as artificial and socially constructed behaviors rather than natural ones. Femme style distances itself from heterosexual femininity by embracing the dramatic, campy, subcultural feminine styles found in bondage cultures, Goth and biker cultures, rock-and-roll culture, and sex work culture. The recent revival of burlesque, which emphasizes the dignity and expertise of performers and their routines, is all about femme power, and celebrates female strength and female embodiment in its variety and splendor. The new burlesque confronts audiences, taking the traditional appropriative voyeuristic look that seeks to commodify and consume naked women's bodies and sexualities, and turning that look around, so the dancer looks back at the theater, defiantly owning her own person and offering up instead an appreciation for women and their bodies that is shared by audiences and performers alike. Community burlesque events encourage audiences to celebrate women with big breasts, hips, thighs, buttocks, and stomachs who display their bodies joyously, as a challenge to conventional and narrow childlike, emaciated and passive styles of feminine beauty and comportment.
Many people confuse butch and femme with male and female, and assume that butch-femme couples are imitating heterosexual gender styles. This assumption usually involves misrecognizing femmes as subservient and butches as dominant and aggressive. In fact, femme women are understood in lesbian communities as very powerful—usually as powerful or more powerful than their butch partners, who may be shy, oppressed, and unsuccessful in the larger world. While stereotypical masculinity and femininity rely on the notion that men are powerful and dominant and women are passive and subservient, lesbian butch-femme couples turn that upside down. Butches are there to please and satisfy their femmes, and to demonstrate great devotion, chivalry, and fighting prowess if necessary. Femmes, on the other hand, are sexually powerful divas and mother figures who demand attention, sexual satisfaction, and love, but who may also offer fierce protection and devotion in turn.
Because femmes can pass as straight women, or at least present a certain level of gender normativity, they can hold jobs that butch women are unlikely to get, and thus may have significantly more economic power than their butch partners. Femme women can occupy any position in office culture, schools, restaurants, theater, or the movie industry, whereas butch women are still stigmatized in almost every area of employment. Moreover, femininity, because it is more socially acceptable for women, offers more mobility in terms of class. While there are classed feminine styles, butch gender is almost universally regarded as lower class. An unfeminine or butch woman is often read as uncultured, uneducated, uncouth, blue collar, and freakish, and her masculine style never fits in with the accessorized, more glamorous feminine gender norms of offices, corporations, or even universities. Femme women can move across and through these worlds, taking what they need and bringing it back to their communities. While many can pass as straight, most choose not to whenever possible, challenging gender norms when they can by doing gender with a difference.
This is to say that femme and feminine are not the same thing. Most femmes adopt femininity as a lesbian style that makes them attractive to other women, not to men. Femme women emphasize the power that can be achieved by feminine wiles. They flirt, use dramatic makeup, act bitchy, and enjoy being bossy and dominating. They may employ highly theatrical gestures, wear tight and dramatic dresses that emphasize their cleavage and legs, use bold lipsticks and mascaras, wear flamboyant jewelry, and totter about on the highest, spikiest heels they can find. At the same time, they present themselves as sexually autonomous out lesbians. For these women, femme is about sexual power, and the drama of their gender is about emphasizing agency, desire, attractiveness, and narcissistic pleasure. They are anything but passive. Indeed, most femmes demand sexual gratification, and their gender style is meant to issue a challenge to the people they desire: "Are you brave enough to take me on? Are you strong enough to please me?"
Men can be femmes too. Usually femme describes a highly effeminate man who identifies less as a gay man than he does as a feminine person. This can mean he identifies as a woman or a transsexual, but not necessarily so. He may be a drag queen, or a radical fairy, or an ultra-feminine boy. Male femmes share with female femmes the adoption of femininity as a powerful and theatrical style of gender that emphasizes agency, independence, costume, comportment, flair, flirtation, narcissism, and feminine strength. There are femme categories in most voguing competitions, and these reward the contestant for displaying a feminine style that is clearly constructed yet richly felt and inhabited, reflecting a deep understanding of the strategic way gender operates in the world around all of us, regardless of our gender and sexual identities and identifications.
see also Butch/Femme.
Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. 1993. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York, Penguin.
Nestle, Joan. 1987. A Restricted Country. New York: Firebrand Books.