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Femme Fatale

When Zoe Whittall discovered the word femme in the 1990s, it felt like a homecoming and transgression all at once. But what meaning does the word hold now that you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with it?

Harper’s Bazaar

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It’s 2003 and I’m in a tattoo parlor in Toronto’s Gay Village getting a pink star inked on the inside of my right wrist. A discursive indie rock anthem blares as I explain to the artist that it’s my femme tattoo. In the 1950s, butches used to get blue stars that could be hidden under their wristwatches as a way to silently communicate queerness. I try to make my best not-in-excruciating-pain facial expression as I explain that I want something symbolic to make visible what my feminine presentation often renders unseen, the aesthetic equivalent of a gay nod. When I’m walking with my butch partner, I am seen as queer. Without her, I could be any woman. Femmes never get gay nods. I like the idea of femme solidarity, of recognizing each other in a subculture that in the early aughts prizes masculinity as strength, and designates it the most subversive queer category.

I like the idea of femme solidarity, of recognizing each other.

By 2021 standards, it is a corny tattoo. I’m 45 now, and I’ve been a queer femme since I was 18 years old. I dedicate my novel, The Spectacular, to Queer Femmes Everywhere. I’ve only started qualifying the word femme with queer in the last few years. You didn’t have to say queer femme in 1995; it was implied. That was before Ellen, at a time when a therapist advised me to stay closeted, when my Dad expressed worry that I’d have a lonely life, and when I dodged beer bottles from passing cars when I kissed a girl on the street. Now, the pink star tattoo has faded along with my need to signal femme-ness quite so emphatically. But even now, I struggle to define the word if I detach it from my sexuality, or my interest in the masculinity of others. For those of you outside the queer culture chitchat wars, this is not something cool to admit.


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Though I dated butches for 20 years, my last few lovers have been nonbinary or men, both trans and cis. I’ve also been on dates with other femmes. Both the idea of femme as a mostly lesbian identity category and the word femme we now use in common spoken language, even among queers, has shifted significantly in the intervening years. The word butch has shifted a bit too–often you’ll hear mascor masculine of center as an umbrella term for those on the masculine spectrum, more than you’ll hear butch or genderqueer. But straight, cis folks have not begun to use butch the same way they’ve started to incorporate femme into their lives. Femme is not a synonym for feminine women. It's a queer word. I think cis women are using femme, because the category of woman, or feminine as an adjective, are words that don’t encompass that indescribable thing they’re trying to name.


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I rarely thought about the meaning of the word femme until I began to see it used incorrectly, specifically as a synonym for any straight or cis woman who embraces femininity. If I had to define it, I’d say a femme is someone who presents in a feminine way and identifies on the LGBTQ spectrum. You don’t have to identify as a woman to be a femme. There’s something that’s tougher, brighter, louder to it. (In the aughts, this would manifest in every femme wearing pleather skirts, leopard everything, lingerie as outwear, the reddest lips.) In 2015, Zooey Deschanel used it in Cosmo when describing why she can be both girly and a feminist. Journalist Talia Lavin used it in her funny essay “Blob Girl Summer” interchangeably with the word woman. I see it used often on social media as a replacement for the word feminine, specifically when talking about fashion and feminism, and often used when defending themselves against accusations of frivolity or heterosexual banality, a concise, linguistic equivalent of I’m not like all the other girls. It can often feel like straight women are trying to queer their lives a little, stopping short of actually, you know, having queer sex or relationships.

Is my attachment to the words queer, femme, and dyke about my age, aging, nervousness about irrelevance?

In one of those halcyon pre-pandemic shopping days where one could lounge about a mall store caressing plastic purses and age-inappropriate fast fashion, my friend and I found shirts at H&M emblazoned with the word femme in all caps. “Straight women have taken our word. I’m not generous about it. You can’t have EVERYTHING,” I muttered as I grabbed a handful of shirts and hid them beneath a stack of tacky dresses. I was reminded of when I worked the door at a gay bar in my 20s and so many straight women brought their bachelorette parties to the dance floor that we had to start kicking them out. “But we’re so safe here!” they said, even as they groped gay men and threw up on the dance floor, appearing to care only about themselves. Their appropriation of the word gives me the same feeling I had working the door: Is the word safer for them than just using the adjective feminine, with all its misogynistic connotations?

But what began as a word that just “felt right” given my love for fishnet stockings, the poetry of Minnie Bruce Pratt, and butches is now a word that means more things to more people with every passing year. It is like the word queer, a somewhat open-ended word that nonetheless feels specific and true. I know what it is by knowing what it isn’t.

What does it mean to feel like a word belongs to you, or your community?

I didn’t fully understand how embodied my femme identity was until my mid-20s, a year or two before I got the tattoo, when a group of friends and I dressed up for Halloween as the Outsiders. Most of the femmes dressed up in drag, and one butch dressed up as Cherry, the only girl character who appears prominently in the book. I was dating a trans man at the time, and we thought that my dressing as Ponyboy might be sexy. But as soon as I left the house where we’d been fixing each other’s binders and facial hair, I felt the least sexy I’d ever felt in my life. It reminded me of when I was a child in a clog dancing class (I grew up rural), and because no boys wanted to clog dance, half the group had to dress up in boy’s clothes to do the partner dancing. I happened to have short hair that year, thanks to a tragic ’80s bowl cut and thus, I had to wear pants and a button-up shirt and tie. I hated every minute of it, yearning for the crinoline and the proper feminine tap shoes. I remembered this that Halloween, as I changed my outfit in a bar bathroom, hours ahead of everyone else, just so I could have a good time. Being a femme is part of being comfortable with who I am in my body and in my social world.


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But the iconic femme writer and activist Amber Hollibaugh said it better when she wrote in her feminal (see what I did there?) memoir, My Dangerous Desires: “The difference between myself and many of the straight women I know is that they think that they are normal and natural. They believe in girl-ness, that girl-ness becomes woman-ness. … My femininity is about irony. It is a statement about the construction of gender; it is not just an appropriation of gender. It is not being a girl, it is watching yourself be a girl.”

There are ways in which the word femme has expanded to suit the current queer and trans vernacular. The history of the word has its roots in working-class and Black lesbian bars, queer ballrooms, and in sex work culture of the 1940s and ’50s. When I came out in 1994, I could be femme at the dyke bar, but in my university classes, I was suspect in the eyes of the academic lesbians, who were androgynous as a political choice. (Their fashion seemed to involve bulky T-shirts with slogans aimed at erasing gender.) But this class distinction that’s oft repeated by queers about the 1990s now wasn’t always true or consistent—after all, I watched S&M porn in my women’s studies classes and twice was turned away by bouncers at the door to lesbian bars for “looking too straight” while wearing a skirt.


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So what does it mean to feel like a word belongs to you, or your community? Femme poet Annick MacAskill writes, “It apparently means everything now. Some cishet people seem to want to use it for everyone who's not a cis man and/or very obviously masculine, and regardless of how others identify themselves.” Others step in to basically say, “Who cares? Language always evolves.” In other arguments about our shifting lexicon, I’m often on the side of “language evolves.” But then I try to imagine a world in which the word butch is suddenly de-queered. It’s impossible to imagine.

But it’s also impossible not to notice how queer language evolves all the time. And words don’t just go out of fashion, they become “offensive” and markers of people who aren’t up to date or politically savvy or perfect in the eyes of social media activists. It came to my attention recently that some younger queer people think the word dyke is offensive. “If you watched Glee with your parents as a child, you don’t get to police my language,” I tweeted in response to this. But this presents a challenge as a queer femme writer who often writes about my milieu. Many of the words we used with each other when I came out in 1994 are now either antiquated, unknown, or offensive to your average 21-year-old queer person. Is my attachment to the words queer, femme, and dyke about my age, aging, nervousness about irrelevance? Am I just another white queer getting defensive and worried about being canceled, a word that has lost all meaning?


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The other reason straight and cis women are using the word femme is in an effort to be more inclusive, resulting in sentences like this one from a New Yorker article, titled “The Dread of Getting Dressed,” by Katy Waldman: “For femme people, especially, there’s a pressure to pour ourselves into our appearances.” Using femme as an adjective and the gender-neutral people is just one (awkward, in this case) way of how language is evolving in ways to try to include queer, trans, and nonbinary people. Some might think this expansion should extend the other way. Femme theorist Andi Schwartz writes that she doesn’t care if straight women call themselves femme. “Any time femininity is taken up with a political awareness, that’s femme,” she writes in the essay “Can Straight Women Be Femme?”

We’re in the era of banks sending out pride messages while refusing to engage with any meaningful political action, and businesses capitalizing on Black Lives Matter imagery and language without supporting police reform let alone abolition. It can feel like queer language and culture is no longer within the community’s control and there’s a danger of words being flattened and co-opted and sold back to us. The straight women who want to be femmes—are they speaking out against homophobia, racism, transmisogyny, and violence against sex workers in their lives, or are they just happy to have a word that makes fashion and aesthetic choices political and less superficial? After all, the need for secret tattoos might be over, but there were more anti-LGBTQ laws passed in the United States this year than any other year in history.

In my early 20s, heartbroken by a butch lover, I asked a femme out. I was rebuked, because it just wasn’t done. Femme-looking women dated all the time, but in my queer artist and activist world, we called them LA or L Word lesbians in a pejorative way. But at the time, I felt done with the masc-femme dynamic and wondered if it wouldn’t be fun to try something new. This anecdote is now something I recall at parties, because in 2021 it seems ludicrous. I was sitting in a cafe recently when that same femme approached me and apologized for the way she’d reacted and said that she now dated other femmes, and we laughed about how femmes 10 years our junior wore #femmeforfemme nameplate necklaces and had no problems hooking up. The word femme in my own life has changed and remains somewhat flexible.

But the fact remains that even if I clocked countless hours online working hard at being my best “public scold” (a term stolen from an Ariana Reines poem), can queer people really keep a word once it’s gone? Even when we often disagree about definitions and history among ourselves? This week, I heard the word’s power bottom and twink used by straight characters on several mainstream TV shows. If we’re going to be part of the wider culture, so will our words. The reality is correction and education efforts only go so far. But I wish that when straight, cis women use the word, they were able to acknowledge or think about the way that using it to describe fashion or an attitude is borrowing in a way that sidesteps tangible solidarity with queer people.

Zoe Whittall is a TV writer and novelist. Her book The Spectacular is out now.

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This post originally appeared on Harper’s Bazaar and was published August 24, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.