Friday 6 February 2009

The other side of the feminist coin

Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities, by Del LaGrace Volcano and Ulrika Dahl

The power of femininity’s face-on features has fascinated not only male writers, poets, and sexologists but - in a different way - feminists too. Since the 1960s - if not earlier - they have debated whether femininity, along with its outward and visible signs, is a patriarchal tool for controlling women or an invincible means of female power. If it’s the former, then are gay women, known as ‘femmes’, who adopt a traditionally feminine dress-code not only aping the repression endured by their straight sisters but perpetuating it within lesbian relationships too? These questions may seem of relevance only within the so-called - more of that hyphenated qualification in a moment – gay community. This book sets out to provide some answers and does so in a way that has relevance beyond the concerns of the ‘queer nation’.

The book consists of pictures of femmes taken by photographer Del LaGrace Volcano, whose previous work has covered lesbians and drag-kings (male impersonators), accompanied by essays from Ulrika Dahl who teaches Gender Studies at Sodertorn University College in Stockholm. This latter fact might arouse fears of her readers having to wade through impenetrable social studies jargon but - mercifully - the book is generally free of this. Dahl sets out her stall clearly enough.

‘In a heterosexist world that continues to tell us that femininity is the ultimate available object for universal consumption and contempt, taking a stand on and through (queer) femininity, as we all do and know, is both intense pleasure and clear and present danger.’

Indeed: fear of, and contempt for, the feminine are possibly the most depressingly ever-present (though in varying amounts) aspects of any culture one cares to name, and can be used as a perennial put-down - and not just in specifically sexual contexts: Protestant controversialists used to invoke the effeminacy of Catholic liturgy when seeking a cheap anti-papist shot.

But first, the photographs. Just how much impact is generated by the photos on show here? They may float some sexual boats, but do they rock any societal ones? The subjects are photographed in a variety of settings ranging from Paris roof-tops to San Francisco parks and cafes. Are those involving night-club scenes or displays of flesh very outrageous? Only for anyone who would find a bondage-themed student rag-week event or the sort of straight office party where people use the photocopier for unusual purposes outrageous. Some have an air of self-satisfaction: anyone seeking proof that the word ‘transgressive’ can mean ‘perverted and pleased with itself’’ will find some support for their arguments here. Sex is fun but it has been overloaded with expectations, and its mere performance doesn’t necessarily lead to the good society.

One photograph, however - of performance artist Krista Smith - stands-out for a significant reason that has nothing to do with sex: she’s pictured in her home, where, in the background, a photograph can be seen of a uniformed member of the armed forces, an interesting comment on the almost universal respect given in the United States to its military personnel, whatever people may feel about the current Middle-Eastern conflict.

It’s the essays by Dahl – along with the interviews she conducts with some of the photographs’ subjects - that are more revealing. For they show that the concept of a single, united Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community is a myth. Theatre student Signe Flysk, from Copenhagen, says: ‘I… certainly don’t dress to get approval from men. But sometimes I’m afraid of men’s aggression’, but then goes on to say that ‘a femme friend who is older than me has fought hard to create a space for femmes which enables me to claim this identity’. Marla Stewart – a PhD from Georgia State University - tells us that femmes would often be refused service in gay bars or even have cigarettes thrown at them, because they were considered to be emulating straight women. This led to women in Atlanta, Georgia, forming themselves into a ‘Femme Mafia’ to ‘discuss femme-inism, activism and community-building in the queer domain’. Andy Candy, a male-to-female transsexual writer from Stockholm, says: ‘I despise gay men who hate women and femininity. Why would any woman want to be fag hag? To be ridiculed and made fun of by gay men is horrendous’. The Queer Nation seems short on solidarity and long on Balkanisation.

At this point, it’s relevant to revisit a couple of observations made by the controversial feminist Professor Camille Paglia from Philadelphia University. She has asserted that the growth of AIDS was partly due to gay men setting-up a woman-free boys town sexual extravaganza from the late 1960s onwards, leading to an unrestrained orgy of male sexuality (previously, due to the dearth of gay clubs, gay men and lesbians had mixed socially whilst gay men tended to idolise female film stars). She has also said that straight women are emotionally stronger than lesbians because they are strengthened by having to deal with men.

Unsurprisingly, Paglia’s attitudes have not been universally welcome in LGBT circles: they should be. Had gays and others followed the difficult but more useful example of Quentin Crisp, by remaining involved in straight society without jettisoning their identities, much of the internecine conflicts among the LGBT ranks might not have arisen. It should also be remembered that, during the Second World War, straight women had been able to slip in and out of traditional masculine work - flying aircraft, working in factories, serving in the forces - without lessening their basic femininity. The other side of that feminist coin is that women can take on the traditional trappings of femininity without losing any power thereby.

Meanwhile, what’s the future for femmes? Performer and club organiser Kath Moonan, photographed in burlesque costume against three piles of gay-related art and theory books, explains, ‘I would be dead without feminism. I read all the time and I’m really into theory’. But she also has words of warning: ‘Sometimes the debates around identity polities get too earnest. We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously!’. Straight women have brought some change to the socio-economic landscape by vigorously attacking the glass ceiling. With a mixture of theory, common sense and resilience, maybe femmes like Moonan will not only lead a leather-booted charge against the parochial stone walls of the LGBT ghetto but - by doing so - also give an example of stiflingly conformist constraints being shattered, so giving encouragement to people who wish to rip up taboos in other, wider, public debates.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

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