Femme is Radical, and Femme-Shaming Isn't Feminist

Updated March 29, 2016 4:43pm PDT
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I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m femme

Okay, so that’s not really all that shocking–I’m sitting here in a coffee shop, wearing a low-cut red sweater dress and knee-high boots. It should also, however, not come as a surprise that I am a feminist. The idea of a girl with straight-passing privilege who displays traits commonly associated with femininity, does not fit most people's’ paper cut-out image of an iconic feminist. It’s 2016 and feminism is still conflated with bra-burning, hardline man-hating politics, and utilitarian fashion. I am none of the above.

I’ve always been the kind of girl who believes wholeheartedly in fighting the good fight, albeit without breaking a nail. I try to live by core tenets: promoting social equality, loving myself, defying oppressive gender norms, etc. Yet, despite all this, I’ve been shamed for being a “bad feminist” and reinforcing gender norms rather than defying them. There are some radical feminists who perceive being femme as sympathizing with the oppressors; a reinforcement of negative feminine stereotypes and not a legitimate feminist expression.

Femme-shaming is more than an abstract concept–for many women it is an all too tangible and traumatizing reality. Though it is often associated with radical feminist circles who regard femmes as not feminist enough, the real roots of femme-shaming stem from centuries of misogyny. At the core of femme-shaming belies femmephobia, a fear of all things associated with women: their bodies, their sexuality, etc. It reinforces the patriarchal dogma that being male and/or masculine is superior, and being female, or feminine, is shameful and inferior.

Femme-shaming oppresses not only women, but any gender-variant person who doesn’t equate their personal empowerment to masculine presentation.This brutal way of thinking stratifies people into a kyriarchal caste system according to their biological sex, forcing them into corresponding boxes of gender norms; arbitrarily socializing people in ways that betray their authentic selves.

To be clear, I am not femme because I am a woman, rather, I am femme because I am a feminist who is self-empowered to express herself and make choices according to her personal preferences, even if some of those preferences coincide with the patriarchy’s superficial notions of appropriate feminine behaviour. What is more feminist than standing up for the right for women to be and self-identify in ways that honour their authentic selves? Yes, I may like haute couture fashion, makeup, and ponies, however, I do so, not as a woman, but as my own self.

A few days ago I met with a good friend of mine, one hell of a badass lady whom I’ve always admired for her strength and punky attitude. She was lucky enough to come of age in the early 90s, at the peak of riot grrrl and third-wave feminism. We’ve always managed to have really great discussions on this subject; on this particular day, however, the conversation turned a bit sour. I’ve recently forayed into the wonderful world of long nails -1.25 inches long to be exact; however, despite my own excitement, my friend was less than enthusiastic. “You need new, stronger female role models”, she said. As if to suggest that my desire to have long nails is a concession to misogynistic socialization and a betrayal to respectable feminist values.

I love my friend, and I know that her intention is not to be cruel, however, femme shaming, whether intentional or not, hurts. In fact it hurts everyone, not just those being directly shamed. Women challenging other women for being femme is rooted in the same misogynistic processes behind toxic masculinity and men policing one another’s behavior for signs of “effeminacy”. Why do feminists scoff at Kleenex for men but then bully one another for long nails or lipstick?

For feminists to argue that women’s choices are the product of socialization, when they coincide with traditional femininity, suggests that such women are incapable of independent thought. A similar argument would suggest that my proclivity for spicy food is also a product of my having been socialized as Mexican. There may be some truth to this idea of socialization, but people are capable of making their own choices. My choice to wear long nails may be partly influenced by the way that I was socialized, and it may also coincide with misogynist expectations of women, however it is my choice which I made through thoughtful analysis of pros and cons. In this case I chose in favour of my own aesthetic preference, knowing full well that they can be impractical and invite unwanted attention from disapproving feminists and chauvinist trolls alike.

In 1973, Janice Raymond, wrote The Transsexual Empire. The name itself is heinous, let alone the transphobic rhetoric it espouses, which continues to this day among a small circle of radical feminists, TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). Much of TERF thinking circles the argument that trans women engage in mimicry of feminine behaviour and that they do so by reinforcing genderist attitudes that further marginalize cis-gender women. They also go so far as to say that trans women set back feminism by promoting an agenda of “colonizing womanhood.”

Transphobia is femmephobia. At the core of these concepts is a general prejudice against women veiled behind anti-patriarchy rhetoric. These attitudes hurt trans and cis-gender women alike, by invalidating our choices and delegitimizing us as women and feminists because of those choices. Policing women’s fashion and aesthetic choices to justify their womanliness, is not unlike suggesting that short skirts and high heels justify rape. Patriarchy is wrong, and shaming women under the guise of feminist dogma is also wrong. Furthermore, it only serves to foster stigmatization of feminism as extreme, which in turn repels women who might otherwise be drawn to it. We should all be rallying behind the real threats, those posed by centuries of misogyny and oppression: wage gaps, glass ceilings, rape culture, violence against women, etc.  

Dressing femininely, wearing long nails and makeup, and regularly updating my handbag wishlist board on pinterest is my way of expressing myself, not just as femme, but as a self-empowered feminist. I wear skirts like picket signs. My being femme, in a society that persistently marginalizes women, is my radical protest. Femme is my way of telling the world, “you may judge me, you may objectify me, and you may even take me less seriously as an intelligent person for the way that I look, but you will not determine my identity. You can keep your opinions and I will keep my style.”

I know that wearing my hair long and my dresses short invites unwanted attention and catcalling, but I don’t allow those things to keep me from going out and being myself, though I do avoid the dark and empty streets. Why should I allow femme-shaming to define me anymore than I allow misogyny to do the same? I wear my style with intentionality, and I owe accountability to no one other than myself. In much the same way as we stand up to misogynists who dictate to us how we should look and behave, we must also stand up to femme-shamers who would have us think that being a good feminist means compromising our authenticity.

I’m proud to be femme, not because it’s better than any other form of gender expression, but because it is my true expression. I am also proud to see other women who blur society’s gender lines by redefining what it means to be feminine. After all, being a feminist isn’t about living up to a specific ideal of femininity, it’s about being able to define femininity personally and for ourselves - one size does not fit all. Whether femme, butch, tomboy, trans, cis, straight, queer, and anything around or in-between, we are strong and -we- are radical.

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Safíra Anouk is a Two Spirit American Indian artist, freelance writer, and radical femme. An avid urbanite and fashionista on a budget, you can follow her on Instagram & twitter , and online at www.safista.com