A Butch on Femmephobia

Recently, VJD Smith criticised the term “femmephobia” in her piece “Femmephobia: what are we really afraid of?” [x] It’s a funny one for me; in the past, certainly, I’ve experienced the particular misogyny which women court when they present as femme, particularly if it’s a femme which is camp, unusual or interpreted as overtly sexual. Right now, I’m more likely to get wry questions as to the size of my dick, or strangers calling me “sir” (fine by me) and then panicking horribly when they realise I’m a woman and insist I’m a “beautiful girl” or that they “just saw the short hair and…” (less fine by me).

Anyway. Smith’s piece got me thinking. She writes, “It seems you can’t attack the industries and social environments which exploit pressures on women to be “feminine” because that’s attacking those people who are naturally “femme” (an essentialist definition which is, in itself, culturally imperialistic).”

Firstly, I’d like to argue that “femme” is not essentialist per se. Neither is “butch”. Yes, both denote certain collections of thought-of-as-gendered characteristics and performances, but there’s a reason they’re preferred to “feminine” and “masculine”. Encoded in these terms is an understanding of how gender performance and presentation is separate from biological determinism. More than that, I’ve always viewed butch and femme as fundamentally camp, rocking the foundations of masculine/feminine by showing them up for the arbitrary categories they are; “naturally femme” is a bit of an oxymoron, if only because “naturally [gendered term]” is always a questionable construction. I’ll leave it to Judy: “The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly construced status of the so-called heterosexual original.” Smith doesn’t really engage with the queer context of the term “femme”. To lesbians and other queer women denied femininity or acknowledgement as women on the grounds of their sexuality (think the good old Third Sex narrative), “femme” was and is a method of resistance just as much as “butch”; femmes shouldn’t be thought of as just “lesbians who aren’t butches” or anything so simplistic. Of course, “femme” (if not “butch” so much, though I am fully in support of straight butches) has widened in common parlance to include straight/non-queer women, too. Some queer women consider this appropriation, and I’m not going to shout them down; I can see how it could be. Personally, so long as its queer origin and current queer context remain recognised, I’m happy for its meaning to become more widespread, because we need these unstable and tongue-in-cheek words for gender presentation come unstuck from gender come unstuck from biology.

But this is nothing so far but a defence of butch/femme; what I really wanted to talk about was Smith’s conclusion. I think it’s fair to say she reaches it by straw-femme arguments, although any links to people critiquing critiques of pinkification etc are welcome, and I will recant. It’s simply that I’ve never seen “femmephobia” used that way. I’ve seen it used by people of all genders, trans* and cis, to discuss the way in which femme is seen as weak, defeatist, taboo; to discuss how trans women are in more immediate physical danger than trans men (to give a very cursory example); to talk about how young girls are in one breath told to be feminine and beautiful and then mocked for being interested (if they are) in makeup, skirts, sex. I’ve seen it used in gay male communities to discuss disgust for femme men. Nonetheless, I think Smith’s final point holds true:

“This is misogyny.”

Yep. Femmephobia is misogynistic in origin. Of course it is. It is (in some cases*) a specific version of misogyny. And it’s really important that it’s recognised and named—Smith claims that the term  is pathologising, and I can understand that, but as a non-femme, I don’t feel qualified to rename an issue which femmes themselves have highlighted. I can argue, though, against rhetoric which encourages a false idea of shared experience, an idea which will always be exclusionary. Why can misogyny not be further qualified? There is transmisogyny, there is racist misogyny, there is ableist misogyny. There is misogyny faced only by mothers, only by queer women, only by old women, only by women who work, only by unemployed women—I could go on. Specificity is not an erasure; specificity is what helps us to recognise and fight misogyny and all its attendent hatreds when we see it. When Smith lumps femmephobia, whorephobia, SWERF/TERF and radfem all into one category of “madeup words which other, misguided feminists try to find comfort in”, she’s not just being patronising; she’s demonstrating the issue of what happens when you don’t try for specificity. Of course all these things are interconnected; the whole bloody patriarchy is one massive spiderweb of concurrent, conflicting, criss-crossing fuck-ups and prejudices. We’re all pretty aware of that. It’s why we agree that it’s a bad thing. But it’s a mistake to wave a hand at whorephobia because it sounds like femmephobia and you disagree with the term femmephobia; it’s lazy to argue that the label “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”, which refers to radical feminists who try to exclude trans people, is pathologising simply because you’re talking about pathologising terms.

*Femmephobia affects women, men and non-binary people, because femme does not mean woman. When a femme man experiences femmephobia, it isn’t misogyny, but it is misogynistic.