Femme, Adjective or Noun?

I’ve always been a bit confused by the word “femme.”

This might surprise people who know me. I’m a dyke who wears dresses and skirts 98% of the time, who almost never leaves the house without makeup, who has her shoe collection in a display case and her boot collection hanging from racks on her walls. But “femme” as an identity has always puzzled me. I don’t object to it, I totally support people who use it — it just doesn’t resonate with me. I’ve often said that I’m “femmey, but not a femme.” For me, femme is a description, not an identity; an adjective, not a noun. And part of the reason is that I don’t really grasp, intellectually or instinctively, what that identity means. People who identify as femmes have a strong, clear sense of what this means to them, and how it shapes not only what they wear but how they think of themselves. I don’t have that.

But even people who do identify as femme, as a deeply personal identity-noun, sometimes struggle to define the term. Years ago I attended a femme conference: one of the panels was asked, “What does femme mean?” — and almost all the panelists fumbled and stumbled. That’s not to slam them: it’s a hard concept to define. But the clearest definition, the one that’s stuck with me over the years, was given by Susan Stryker:

Femme is adopting the trappings of femininity in a way that subverts them.

That stuck with me. And I think it explains why I’m happy to take on “femme” as an adjective but not a noun; as a description but not an identity.


Thus begins Femme, Adjective or Noun? It’s my first contribution to Femme Feminism, the new magazine dedicated to joyous expression of femininity within the context and exploration of feminist values. To read more, read the rest of the piece. And check out the rest of the magazine! Other articles so far include On Respectability, Afrocentrism & Accepting Fashion as Self-Care, not Self-Indulgence by Tajh Sutton, Redefining Fem(me)ininity by Lauren Munro, and Femme: a Case Study by Rebecca Aylesworth. Have fun!

Femme, Adjective or Noun?

2 thoughts on “Femme, Adjective or Noun?

  1. 2

    Thank you for an interesting perspective, especially the tidbit about historical costume dancing. I like contra dancing, but yeah, it can be pretty gender rigid.

    I feel a little uneasy about the word femme as either adjective or noun, but that’s because I’ve too often heard femme/butch used as a shorthand for imposing heteronormative structures on lesbian relationships. It reminds me of that cartoon where a fork and knife ask a pair of chopsticks: “so… which one of you is the fork?”

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