(Latin): woman, women; not masculine
While the terms femme and feminine both contain this Latin root, they exist in two distinctly different realms.
Femme is not an abbreviation for feminine. It is not a chic way of declaring your allegiance to feminism. It is not an aesthetic.
Femme isn’t about acting feminine or girly in the traditional sense, but instead about breaking binaries; it’s about overturning cultural expectations. Expectations tell us how females should act; they depict a black-and-white set of guidelines. But to be femme is to be more than these rigid presumptions—it’s about blending identifying characteristics; it’s about queerness.
I understand how it could appear to be a concise feminist slogan for anyone to claim as a statement of girl power, but straight women who buy that crop top flashing “femme” from the local department store water down the term’s roots in queer history.
The term “femme” was originally coined by lesbian and bisexual women in the 1950s to label a specific working-class representation of queerness in order to describe the relationships they were developing: femme-butch relationships.
These women were not attempting to equate their relationships with those between heterosexual women and men, but were rather boldly embracing their queerness. Butch-femme couples no longer hid in the heteronormative crowds; they made queer women visible.
My first encounters with the term ‘butch’ were associated with contemptuous mannerisms; I learned to assume that a butch individual walking down the street had failed as a female. The butch woman was neither benefitting in the male-favoring society nor cherished as a stereotypical woman, but rather oppressed for their gender nonconformity. But as I personally became more comfortable exploring my own queer identity, I realized that butch-ness shares a unique relationship with womanhood; it plays with the grayness of masculinity’s connection to absence of man, toughness gelled with gentleness.
And in coming to terms with ‘butch’ as a qualitative descriptor, it is only fair to do the same with the descriptor ‘femme.’
Recent queer political shifts have enabled the permeation of the term “femme” into a category that essentially just means “feminine,” and the balancing of the term with “masc” as an abbreviation for “masculine”.
But again, femme is not an abbreviation; it is a descriptor.
And thus, the counterpart of masculine is feminine, but the opposite of masc is not femme.
These groupings have also led to a new trend in queer politics: substituting ‘femme’ for ‘woman’ and ‘masc’ for ‘man’ when discussing gendered power dynamics.
In expecting individuals to fulfill these labels based on solely their sexuality, these categories become rigid and binary entities rather than gradient forms of queerness that complement each other in a multitude of varying degrees, thus inadvertently reinforcing the gender grids towards which so much effort has gone in dismantling.
There’s no denying that femme-ness is tied to the heteropatriarchy, but that’s what makes it powerful; femme-ness is about embracing the expectations placed on women and making them their own; it’s a resistance to traditional femininity.
Femme cannot be reduced from lesbian history to represent “feminine traits” because to be femme is to challenge these traits.
This is not an attack on heterosexual women or others not identifying in the queer community who may have been previously mis- or uninformed, but more so a plea to know the roots. After all, the meaning of the term “femme” has shifted a bit. Although it was created for the specific depiction of the working-class woman attracted to ‘butch’ women, the term has now expanded throughout the queer community. An array of queer and gender non-conforming people now describe their femme experiences. As written by Evan Urquhart for Slate in 2015, “intentionality is the key to distinguishing femme identity from a traditional feminine one.”