What exactly does "Women and Femmes" mean?
November 8, 2018 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Here's a link to an article talking about how people expect emotional labor from women and femmes. The article isn't important in itself, it's just illustrating the usage, which I've seen off and on over the past two? three? years, but which I haven't seen a precise definition for. Specifically, who are 'femmes' as distinct from women? My theory is that it's everyone whose gender identity is somewhere on the feminine side of the spectrum but who doesn't identify as a woman, but I've asked a bunch of people I know who are generally up on this sort of language, and I haven't found anyone who's sure about how it's being used.
posted by LizardBreath to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Some people identify as non-binary femme.
posted by saeculorum at 7:40 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


In the past, femme has been used to refer to lesbians who present as a more "traditional" female/girly/feminine way (dresses, heels, make-up, etc). Used as an antonym for butch.

I think these days femme refers to anyone who presents in that way so the term could include trans, non-binary, or anyone else on the gender-queer spectrum.
posted by brookeb at 8:02 AM on November 8 [5 favorites]


Thread-sitting a little here, sorry.

This usage:

In the past, femme has been used to refer to lesbians who present as a more "traditional" female/girly/feminine way (dresses, heels, make-up, etc). Used as an antonym for butch.

I am familiar with, and also with similar usages not limited to lesbians -- that is, I would have understood a cis man, either gay or (less likely, but still perfectly possible) straight to be saying something coherent if he described his presentation as being femme. In that context, I'd take it as a statement about, sort of, personal style but not necessarily gender identity.

In the context where it's being used in the link in my post, though, it seems to be definitely a gender identity term, and I'm not sure what it includes, if you think of it as a Venn diagram. That is, are cis women all femmes? Or is it just cis women with a femme style of presentation? What about, say, a gay man who describes himself as femme, but is also a cis man?

I mean, I'm looking for precision in an area of language that's evolving, so it's perfectly possible that there really isn't a generally agreed-upon precise meaning for it as a gender identity term. But if someone has a clear sense of who's in and who's out of the category when it's used in this context, that's what I'm looking for.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:20 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]


Yep, it basically means

- anyone who identifies as a woman, no matter how they are presenting

plus

- anyone who present as things people would identify as female, which can include dress, manner, makeup/haircut, etc.

So I think in that article the basic gist is "The more you are or look/present like a woman, the more people will demand emotional labor from you" but the language in that article is more inclusive and not as biological-sex-centered.
posted by jessamyn at 8:21 AM on November 8 [31 favorites]


On preview, yes I think you have it right. In that article a cis man (gay or straight) who presents in a traditionally feminine way would also be who the writer of this article is referring to. And no, not all cis woman are femmes but they're in the first category ("women") so are also the people this writer is talking about. So women and femmes are two circles that are overlapping (with the women circle being larger and the femme circle largely inside it) but one is not wholly inside the other.
posted by jessamyn at 8:25 AM on November 8 [3 favorites]


I essentially agree with jessamyn but wanted to add that, when it's phrased "women and femmes," I understand that space is (possibly) being made in part to people like me: those easily and/or commonly mistaken for being women due to societal assumptions about body type and/or other aspects of presentation, but who are not actually. I'd say therefore that it's not 100% necessary to be femme to end up in that group, so you need another circle on your diagram of non-women who are incidentally perceived as femme.
posted by teremala at 9:01 AM on November 8 [10 favorites]


My theory is that it's everyone whose gender identity is somewhere on the feminine side of the spectrum but who doesn't identify as a woman

Your theory is correct in my experience--as one of the people in question.
posted by capricorn at 10:53 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


“Femme” is 100% a queer identity. Usage predates mainstream discussion of gender fluidity and gender identities generally, but “femme” itself seems to have been updated sort of painlessly, maybe specifically because issues of gender identity were already baked in?

My understanding is that it generally refers to deliberate performance of or identification with femininity regardless of overall gender identity. So a cis queer woman can be femme in a way that will never apply to a cis hetero woman (exceptions made for Ariana Grande, maybe, but I’m not gonna make assumptions about how she identifies / will keeps fingers crossed).
posted by schadenfrau at 11:37 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]


Yep, yep, I was also coming in to say that femme is specifically a queer identity.
posted by desuetude at 12:04 PM on November 8 [3 favorites]


FWIW: I think previous answers have given you the important stuff, but it's worth knowing that even in queer circles, there is a lot of disagreement (and some outright fighting) about what exactly "femme" means, who exactly can claim it, and so on.

For instance, I've seen arguments about whether it includes trans men who are misread as women. I've seen arguments about whether it includes butch-presenting or butch-identified trans women. I've seen arguments about whether it could ever include any heterosexual person. I've seen arguments about whether it could include anyone who identified fully as a cis man.

Some answers to those questions are more common, some less. Some subcommunities agree about them, some don't. And there's definitely disagreement between subcommunities.

I am not asking people to explain to me the "obviously" "correct" position on any of these debates.

I'm just saying... we, as a community, evidently disagree.

So if you continue to see the word used in ways that confuse you, the answer may well be "Yes, sometimes it confuses us too."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:47 PM on November 8 [11 favorites]


So if you continue to see the word used in ways that confuse you, the answer may well be "Yes, sometimes it confuses us too."

This is exactly what I wanted to know. I mean, if there was a clear right answer, that would have been good too, but this makes me feel better about having been unable to pin down the meaning with precision on my own.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:52 PM on November 8 [1 favorite]


In the queer activism circles I'm adjacent to in my own city, there's also a seeming racial divide, with the black queer activist group strongly favoring "women and femmes" as their collective self-descriptor, whereas the mostly-white queer activist group has at least some nonbinary AFAB people who feel really strongly negatively about being included in a group of "women and femmes." I have no idea if that is a difference that appears elsewhere, or if it's more about the specific personalities of the local queer community than a more general difference in how black vs. white (vs. POC?) people use the terms.

As a queer cis white woman, FWIW, my takeaway from the local politics of "femme" as a noun rather than an adjective has basically been "use with care and only for people I know to like it as their descriptor."
posted by Stacey at 2:05 PM on November 8 [2 favorites]


My answer is that it's entirely context-dependent. When it's being used with an implied nod to trans people (like in this article), it usually means "people perceived to be women, regardless of actual identity, plus possibly trans women perceived to be men, but usually not non-woman-identified femme people perceived to be men" (see also "woman/trans/femme"). (In other words, I disagree with the person who thinks the article potentially includes men. There's totally a discussion to be had about expectation of emotional labor placed on gay and/or femme men, but I don't think it's what the author is thinking about.)

In gay male contexts, "femme" can mean "(gay) men perceived to be effeminate" and someone writing from that perspective might well use "women and femmes" to mean "people perceived as/expected to be feminine/effeminate, regardless of actual identity (or actual femininity in the case of women)".
posted by hoyland at 4:30 PM on November 8 [1 favorite]


As a gay bloke I’d expect general usage of “femme” to include gay men.

Though I notice that the article’s use of undifferentiated “men” seems to preclude it.
posted by Middlemarch at 5:29 AM on November 11


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