What does femme mean, and how does it differ from the ‘traditional’ femininity which feminism so often puts under the microscope? Milly Shaw reviews a book of photographs of and interviews with femmes from around the world
Stilettos, lipstick, beards: there’s more than one way to be a queer femme. Photographer Del Lagrace Volcano and writer Ulrika Dahl have travelled seven countries in their quest to explore the notion of queer femininity. The result is Femmes of Power, a book of coffee-table-beautiful photography mixed with postgraduate-level queer theory discussions of gender expression.
In a queer world that can still be suspicious of women who claim to be gay yet have long hair, femmes like Swedish linguist Charlotte Karlsdotter, who believe “a well-shaped and kept beard is a beautiful ornament that shouldn’t belong to men only”, occupy a whole other level of queer femininity, which Lagrace Volcano and Dahl are delighted to explore.
The first hurdle for self-identified gender-variant photographer Lagrace Volcano was the very notion of photographing femme women. As he explains, “I asked myself if the world actually needed any more images of ‘pretty women’ since proud, powerful images or portrayals of masculine women are still so rare on screen or in print.” And while it may be true that images masculine women are conspicuously absent, femme women are also largely invisible within queer spaces, and queer women are still underrepresented in mainstream media.
Another issue for Lagrace Volcano was how to avoid the near-inevitable objectification of the women being photographed. “…my femme (pretender) history would not be know or apparent to the (mostly) women whom I was working with on this project,” he writes, in the introduction. “Would they see me as a man? Or worse, a ‘wanna-be white man’ aiming his phallic lens at their already over-objectified bodies?”
To avoid the inevitable problem of objectification, Legrace Volcano and co-author Ulrika Dahl haven’t just photographed over 40 amazing queer femme women, they’ve also ensured that each has a voice, a chance to explain and express their understanding of their own femme-ininity. This, for Lagrace Volcano, is the key to his ‘queer feminist methodology’ as a photographer, a working ethos “committed to making images with (speaking) subjects rather than taking images from passive or silenced objects.”
The notion of queer femininities is huge, and Lagrace Volcano and Dahl don’t pretend to cover all aspects. However, they do a remarkable job of looking beyond just white, English-speaking, young, thin bio-women for the subjects of Femmes of Power.
Next to larger-than-life artists and performers such as trans male femme Debra Kate (her favourite look: “a cross between a doll and a birthday cupcake, a child’s drawing of an animal and a clown”) are quieter stories of everyday invisibility and frustration at a femme-unfriendly queer culture.
“I’m a diesel dyke, in the working-class, take no shit, proud and loud tradition,” says Portland’s Sossity Chiricuzio. “My gender is femme. As much as I love butches, I got tired of my dyke strengths being minimised by them. Almost invariably, if I changed a tyre, used a power tool or picked someone up (sometimes literally) I was told I was ‘having a butch moment’. It doesn’t work like that. I’m a femme, and I do it, so it must be a femme, or even better, a non-gendered thing to do.”
“The images in this book begin to make us visible – in all our glory – yes, in all the complexities of our irreconcilable, besieged, magnificent queer personas,” writes Dahl. “Over the years, I’ve struggled to determine whether I believe femme identity is a drag identity. Trans identities, butch identities, leather daddies and bear bait, drag kings and drag queens and all of the various variations of the drag persona have currently found homes in the land of queerness.”
“To us, femininity is neither phallic fantasy nor default, it’s beyond surface and it certainly does not passively wait to come alive through a (male) gaze. Fiercely intentional, neither objects nor objective, we have stuff to get out our chests. But speaking bittersweets truths to power takes both busty bravery and some serious padding.”
Femmes of Power flirts across the boundaries of straight and gay, male and female in pursuit of femme and femme-ininity. Read the often-weighty text for a deep exploration of queer gender theory, or just flip through the pages of gorgeous photography for some inspirational rethinking of what it means to be femme and queer.
A version of this review first appeared on Lesbilicious