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Femmes of Power

Renowned gender-variant visual artist Del LaGrace Volcano and writer Ulrika Dahl celebrate queer femininity in their book Femmes of Power. They spoke with Katrina Fox.

 Why did you decide to do this project? 

Ulrika: As a butchaholic, I’d been drooling over The Drag King Book and I loved the celebratory boom it created. At the same time I found it problematic that my communities willingly embraced drag kings while scorning femininity. I knew tons of fierce, smart, articulate femmes – performers, activists and writers and everyday queer heroines. I knew that we are more than pretty things that ‘masculinise the butch’ as one queer theorist put it. Weren’t femmes worth celebrating too? When Del asked me to do a book with him and Serpent’s Tail agreed, a long and amazing journey of collaboration began. 

Why the title?  

Ulrika:  Because femininity often seems to connote negative things – like weakness, superficiality, passivity and so on – we wanted to counter that by showcasing  powerful and passionate feminine folks  who are also articulate about who they are and why they do what they do. 

Del:  It was originally subtitled ‘Exploring Queer Femininities’ but we thought ‘Exploding’ was more apt. It is both a celebration and an exploration of femme and other forms of queer feminine possibilities.  There are many ways to be femme and to queer femininity. 

I love the fact that while there are some key American femmes in the book, it’s not US-centric and we are introduced to some amazing femmes from Europe 

Del: It was definitely one of our criteria to avoid being US-centric so thanks for noticing! There were so many places that we weren’t able to visit, like Australia for example, due to the self-funded nature of this project. I hope that this book will contribute to raising the status of femme in the eyes of funding bodies so that at least some of what we missed will get exposure and attention. 

What criteria did you use to choose the final women who appear in the book? 

Del: Well, both of us belong to overlapping queer kinship networks in Europe and the US and so we were already friends with people who have been doing queer femme activism for decades, like Amber Hollibaugh, Kate Bornstein and Pratibha Parmar.

Our criteria were based upon a desire to include as wide a range of femme expressions as possible. We worked hard to be as representational as possible given our financial parameters and we are fairly happy with the balance between race and ethnicity, age, body type and strategies of subversion. It would have been easy to fill the book with lesbian Suicide Girl lookalikes, or what I call ‘skinny white chicks’ and for me, a book like that would have been a sell-out, quite literally. 

Del, you said you created a ‘femme dyke’ persona that worked for you for around 15 years when you were known as ‘Della Grace, lesbian photographer’. Now that you are a self-proclaimed ‘hermaphrodyke’, tearing down the boundaries of the binary male/female gender system, is any part of you still ‘femme’?  

Del: You know, I grew up at a time when butch/femme was reviled as anti-feminist and yet we were all secretly obsessed discovering what we were! I thought I must be femme because I couldn’t play pool, hated sports, was sexually attracted to all forms of masculinity, loved to dress up, and to cook.

At the same time I felt incredibly masculine; growing up I was always getting into street fights, as a teenager I fucked guys and girls like a dude, drove a motorcycle all over the country and had no problem feeling entitled to the space I took.

These days I am no longer fucking my way around the world, I rarely drive a motorcycle, do my best to stay out of fights and since I am aware of being perceived as a white man I want to be conscious of not taking up more than my fair share of space. I have a beard and I still love to wear make-up, dress up in frocks and cook.

My life partner is a genderqueer butch and so it seems that if there is a femme in the relationship, it’s me! I don’t identify as a femme but I do feel compelled and committed to queering gender stereotypes whenever required.

What surprised you most while doing the book and why?  

Del: There were a couple of occasions where I felt that I was being perceived as more of a man than I was comfortable with. This experience of misrecognition made me even more empathetic to the ways in which femmes are also misread, as non-queer. 

Ulrika: I loved the generosity and the brilliance of our subjects and struggled a bit with what of all the great stuff we talked about to put in the book. I’ve been surprised that so many reviewers keep demanding a soundbyte definition of femme even though the point is precisely not to give one but to show some examples. 

In the book the word ‘femme-inism’ is used. Is this a term you coined yourselves? What is its definition? 

Ulrika: I’m glad you brought that up and I could talk endlessly about it! No, I did not coin it – perhaps Kathleen McHugh and Lisa Duggan did in their fabulous 1996 femme-inist manifesto. There are many definitions I’m sure, but to me, and in brief, femme-inism is a queer, disobedient and explicitly anti-essentialist feminism that places the subordination of feminine principles, no matter how they are defined, at the centre of its analysis and struggle, with a conscious aim of resignification.

Rather than being separatist or policing borders, femme-inism is about loyalty and challenging the contempt for femininity and seeks queer alliances and solidarity between the queerly feminised – including sissyboys, faggots, trannies, whores, sluts, femme dykes. Bad girls unite! 

Femme has been and often still is mentioned in the same breath as butch, as if it can only exist alongside it. What are your thoughts on this? 

Ulrika: Well, the book shows that this is not always the case – and we wanted to let femmes shine in their own right – but desire is hugely important to all identities and to many of us it remains important to value butch-femme not as a relic of some unenlightened past but as one of many queer possibilities of desire. 

In the book the word ‘femme’ is almost synonymous with smart, political, passionate and feisty chicks, yet in the queer community it’s also been used to describe simply a ‘feminine lesbian’ who may not possess any of those qualities. Is it necessary for ‘femme’ to now be reclaimed or redefined as the former, so that when a smart, political, passionate, feisty queer woman says she’s femme, she’s not lumped in with those vacuous girly bimbos who just happen to be lesbian? 

Ulrika: As a femme-inist who believes in solidarity and ‘sisterhood’, I am uncomfortable with the tendency to want to distinguish between the cool and the uncool, or politically ‘good’ and ‘bad’ femininities. Our communities have always been composed of folks with various political and aesthetic commitments and that is ok!

Even the most ‘perfect’ seeming feminine position is still never as highly valued as the masculine in our patriarchal world. I’m personally more interested in fighting the misogyny we all face at the end of the day and in addressing the ways in which class, age, able-bodiedness, race and injustices shape our lives.

Femmes have a history of being questioned for their ‘true’ queer credentials, probably because many of us are both like and unlike ‘feminine women’. As Lisa Walker has argued, this calls the emphasis on visibility as the basis for recognition and community into question and I think that’s important. At best this enables us to look at the contempt for femininity more broadly. 

Del, in the introduction to the book, you talk about your new approach to photographing people in that everybody (photographer, person being photographed and consumer) is equal and in which ‘copyleft’ principles, as opposed to ‘copyright’ ones are applied. Can you talk a bit more about this?

Del: I have always employed a collaborative approach in terms of how I produce images but this has become much more conscious over the past 10 years or so. Much has been written about the phallocentric nature of photographic practice and yet very little actual attention has been given to the process by which visual representations are produced. We have all become masters of self-exploitation and seem to equate simply being seen, in print or on TV, with being powerful.

I want to make work with the subjects who have granted me access to their bodies, hearts and minds I am not interested in taking photographs from subjects who are not fully complicit and aware of what they are doing and why. I want to give back to the people I work with as much as they are giving me. This is hard to work out in a capitalist economy and as I say in my introduction what I have created is a copy-leftish methodology. 

Is there a difference between femininity per se and ‘queer femininity’? If so, what is it?  

Ulrika: As I’m out and about, I get less and less clear about what exactly the difference is, but then again, I’m interested in all kinds of femininities, and currently in how feminists have theorised it. While one might think one is being ‘subversive’ or ‘intentional’, the world may or may not see or be able to read that, which means context is hugely important.

According to Western beauty standards – which are not only sexist but inherently racist, ageist and classist – body hair, to take one example, is the antithesis of femininity, but every community, and we all belong to several,  has its own norms. I think queer is less a property than an act and in my femme-inist activism I advocate strategies for dealing with the fact that we may or may not be read how we want to be read and encourage practising cross-cultural literacy!

What do you believe is the relationship between femininity and femme? Some people in the queer community would argue that femininity can exist without ‘femme’ but can ‘femme’ exist without femininity?

Ulrika: What is considered feminine is always culturally and historically specific and also  tied to class, ethnicity, age and body politics – as well as to local politics. What ‘femme’ does is engage with and resignify ‘the feminine’ – but there is no manual for how that is to be done. 

It’s great to see trans women who are femmes in the book. Some trans women are criticised by some parts of the queer community for reinforcing and conforming to gender stereotypes if they put on a skirt, high heels and make-up ie ‘looking like a woman’). Yet when bio women do big hair, heaps of make-up and false eyelashes, they’re often mistaken for drag queens ie ‘men’ in drag. What do you make of these conundrums? 

Del: What you describe are beliefs that are the result of decades of gender propaganda. I think the problem is more complex than bio/cisgendered women being mistaken for men in drag. I think the problem is femininity in general is reviled and despised, even in our so-called queer community and different standards are required for trans women, who are damned for their gender conformity as feminine women, than for cisgendered men, homo or hetero, who are celebrated and rewarded for the radical act of dressing down, for risking the potential loss of privilege by impersonating or performing as a woman. 

Ulrika:  Yes, and as Julia Serano reminds us, all women are biological – assigned female at birth or not! Many folks in the book talk about the joys and perils of drag and playing in the dress-up box, but hetero norms get their power through appearing ‘natural’, which means being ‘just enough’ – not too much, not too little. Perhaps gender is like Shawna Virago says: ‘A lot like water-proof mascara, which claims to be permanent but actually comes off quite easily’.   

Del LaGrace Volcano uses photography, performance and film to challenge concepts of sexuality and gender identity. His controversial Love Bites book that showed lesbian sexuality, including in an S&M context, was censored by booksellers in the US, UK and Canada in 1991, while The Drag King Book with Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam remains the first and only visual monograph of the drag king scenes of New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Milan and Paris.

Ulrika Dahl is a femme-inist writer, activist and cultural anthropologist. She teaches Gender Studies at Södertörn University College in Stockholm, Sweden. Since 2002, she has been writing and researching queer femininity and performing and advocating femme politics in the Scandinavian queer feminist scene.

femmesofpowerFemmes of Power is published by Serpent’s Tail. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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