Femme Flagging II: The Glitter Strikes Back

So a little while ago, I did a post on the difficulties of being recognised as a femme. One of the difficulties with identifying with femme is that you have to come out over and over again because people assume that you are doing the heteronormative thang. As blogger Megan Evans points out, “we mainly slip under the radars of both gay and straight people”. Visibility matters. Though I have to say, Evans’ online campaign for femme visibility is kind of dispiriting since it is only for “those who define solely as lesbian” (where’d I put that pack of gold stars…). But homo-normative femme campaigns aside, how do you let the world know that you’re a [queer/gay/pansexual/lesbian/straight/kinky/bisexual/insert-identifier-here] femme?

Having a go at some femme flagging of my own

Nail polish. I feel naked without it. So you can imagine my JOY when I read this post about femme flagging using the stuff, on the Queer Fat Femme blog. The whole “flagging” thing is meant to be a sexual code that lets your prospective partners know what you are into, and was traditionally practiced with strategically coloured hankies in your back pocket (e.g. fuchsia worn on the left means you’re more of a spanker than a spankee). There’s a pretty elaborate guide to the whole hanky code available here.

But aside from pronouncing your sexual proclivities, it seems that the new femme code of painting one fingernail differently to the rest is more about signaling general femme-ness than anything else. Apparently it all started in March this year, when someone on Tumblr suggested the idea after posting this picture and suggesting that fingernails were the perfect femme version of the hanky code (it’s like Starbucks invented femme flagging…is this just an elaborate marketing campaign?). I have to admit that I got pretty carried away when I first heard about it, as did several femme groups I’m part of online. There was a sense of finally, we can recognise each other! in the air. Though of course we can assume that not all femmes like wearing nail polish, it seemed like a pretty fabulous idea.

SDB sporting some femme fingernails and looking overall pretty femme fabulous. SDB if you’re listening, I think you’re an accidental femme icon

But then, things got tricky. Someone in our local femme group noticed that a contestant Sarah De Bono on the Australian reality singing show The Voice, had been sporting the look. I immediately got on to Twitter to try and contact her, to see if she had done this intentionally. I said I would “vote” for her if I got an answer. An obsessed fan wrote back – nup, SDB is not a flagging femme, she’s just being trendy. This was a double-blow. Not only had SDB appropriated this newly found queer indicator, but I also had to stick to my word and vote for her.

Springsteen: Fist receiver?

Back to the drawing board I thought  *sigh*… BUT THEN I remembered that good old Bruce Springsteen album, the one where he accidentally flagged the hanky code for fisting! I also reflected on the fact that a lot of the time mainstream culture absorbs awesome stuff from the queer community, because it is awesome (e.g. who doesn’t like rainbows?!). And despite Born in The USA, flagging persisted. So why not finger nails too? I’ve decided: I’m going to persist with the nail polish thing. Though I’ll be aware that not all femmes are going to paint their sexuality on their hands and not every person I see with trendy nails is a femmster. Hanky code or no hanky code, I am going to keep hoisting the femme flag, loud, and glittery proud.

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When is enough, enough?

I came across the above clip the other day. In the video, a young man identifies his troubles being recognised as “trans” within the trans community, given that he no longer wishes to take hormones, have surgery, or do a number of other things that might be seen to be important to passing as a man (such as packing). Importantly, the guy in this video is expressing a desire to be recognised for who he feels to be (a trans boy), whether that means being less masculine than stereotypically expected, or not altering his “female” body. This perspective seems incredibly radical, as it troubles all of our notions of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman”. He’s not saying that people shouldn’t have surgery or take hormones, etc, but is saying that this approach isn’t for everyone that is trans.

I do not identify as a trans person, but this issue of feeling that you have to meet particular “criteria” to fit in definitely extends beyond the trans community. We all want to be seen to be who we say (and feel) we are. This raises issues of visibility – “how can I be seen?” – and sending the right message – “how can I effectively communicate who I am?” (see also previous discussions on femme).  When we have certain assumptions of what being X, Y or Z means and want to conform to those meanings, we also reinforce and reiterate their very basis.

sometimes we want to be seen to stand out from the crowd...

For example, the stereotype that “all butch lesbians have short hair”, might lead a baby butch to feel that she needs to cut her hair off to ensure both visibility and the right message (after all, can you really be a “boyish” lesbian with long hair…). There’s nothing wrong with this strategy- until it means you ignore those people still speaking an identity but not conforming to the expected image that goes with it (for example, if you denied someone that said, “I’m a baby butch, and I have long hair like Fabio dammit!”).

Unfortunately we’re all part of this process- and indeed, many people might claim that my “feminine” disposition means that I am also supporting a system whereby female = feminine = woman. This really hit home for me when I suggested to a friend that we start a femme group at our university. When we started thinking about the “criteria” to join we got stuck- if we write rules about what being “femme” is, we’d just be undoing all of our queer beliefs about gender and sexuality (we couldn’t come up with any good reason why everyone couldn’t define as femme if they wanted, straight, gay, bi, man, woman, whatever!).

...and sometimes we just don't want to feel like the odd one out

In the end I guess we settled on the idea that as long as the person felt they were femme and wanted to identify as such, then that would be fine by us. But then came issues of how we would explain our group, and what activities we’d do together. Sure, I may want to watch Mean Girls and wear pink eating cupcakes every Friday, but presumably this proclivity would not be shared by all…

This is tricky stuff. But I’m excited to see that the boundaries of gender are continually being critiqued, through mediums like the public video blog above. So, when we’re finally out of the semantic mud and into the post-postmodern quicksand, at least we’ll all be in it together.

Being seen: a few thoughts on flagging femme

Following up from my previous post on girlfags, I thought I should write a few words on my ever persistent question: how do you do femme identity? When I’ve asked this question to online femme groups in the past, I’ve been met with some fierce responses along the lines of, “I know I’m femme, and I don’t need to conform to anything!” This kind of self confidence is refreshing, but just deepens my curiosity as to what makes someone stick to this particular naming. Moreso, I wonder how these individuals communicate this chosen term to others given that femininity is stereotypically not-so-queer when it comes to outward appearance.

From my own experience, when I first heard the term, I was over the moon that I could finally align with a grouping where my existing penchant for femininity could be understood in a queer context. I felt relieved and ceased my futile attempts at trying to butch myself up (the extent of which involved purchasing a studded bracelet, so I wasn’t doing very well). I had heard of the butch/femme role dynamic before, an idea prominent in the underground lesbian bars of the 1950s where lesbians “coupled up” along these lines, but I was enthused to hear that the term was evolving into a standalone concept – no longer did the femme need her butch to be validated. Or so I thought…

The trouble with femme is that unless you do hyper-femininity (a tactic I like to metaphorise as strongly brewed tea), it’s just not that obvious. While I like the fact that one friend recently said to me, “if you get any girlier you’re just going to explode in a shower of kittens and sunshine”, being bisexual in an ostensibly heterosexual relationship means that feminine looks like thoughtless embrace of an old-fashioned hetero paradigm. For me, femme is not about rejecting feminism or buying into a pre-packaged notion of who I should be- it’s about enjoying the fact that I can be who I want, and if that involves love hearts, frilly dresses, glitter, or whatever might be labelled “feminine” then so be it (though I don’t think femme has to be weak or passive). This is where the radical feminists really grate my soul- they reject femininity as an invalid construct and then present a “right” way of doing gender (i.e. not feminine). Plus, femme identity is definitely not limited to people assigned “female” at birth (and see Femme FTM for more femme wonderousness).

Read my lips: FEMME

And why is this presumably “privileged” feminine identity a problem? Well, because you always find yourself asking, where are all the femme queer girls?! Are they off at roller derby, or a burlesque performance, where dammnit?!. Plus there is the problem of assumed straightness- always (sometimes even if you are on a date with a woman!). Of course there are some unique solutions to the femme dilemma. Flagging – the gay art of putting a bandana in your back pocket to “signal” what you’re into sexually – has crossed over into femme land, with these exciting flower creations. Others might opt for something more permanent, but this article on Autostraddle also suggests you look to the tactics of some out and proud hot femmy people (without having to be someone you’re not).

So, I may not have the solution to femme invisibility- but I’ll just keep being my pink sparkly self, and see how that goes.