It needs to be understood that this fight isn’t about a “battle of the sexes” but about revolutionizing our understanding of gender structures.
By Danny Reneè
It’s no surprise, in an age where we spend so much time connecting with other people via text and images on screens, that language would have to quickly evolve to reflect the times. Each of us has a circle of friends and a corner of the internet that we stick to. Phrases and idioms are created that reflect those circles and when we don’t have the language we need, we create words or reshape the meanings of old ones. Within spaces where dismantling the white cis hetero-patriarchal cancer and gendered violence that plagues our lives is a priority, one phrase in particular has become very popular: “women and femmes.” Although the phrase came from a need for inclusive language, it is neither accurate nor helpful for the people it is intended to address.
I often see the phrase used in a way that tries to convey what these groups need, i.e. “We must protect women and femmes.” But we have to stop and examine who all is considered a woman or a femme. Now, we (for the most part) know who a woman is. A woman is a person who states their gender as Woman, full stop. But even in the most intersectional of circles the meaning of the word, “femme” varies depending on who you’re talking to. The word itself originally is French for “woman.” And for years the word was adopted by LGBTQIA groups as a descriptor for a feminine presenting lesbian, as opposed to a masculine presenting or “butch” lesbian. But in the early 2010’s, as more people began to flock to social media and openly question what gender identity and presentation means to them, the word morphed into something new. I have come to understand the word to be more closely related with a personal identity alignment rather than a descriptor of presentation. Tiffany Lee writes for The Body Is Not an Apology, “Femme identities transcend a simple preference for stereotypically feminine things.” Anyone of any presentation and gender identity can be femme. And, for some, their gender identity is Femme.
Many, most notably those who are feminist/womanist aligned, use the phrase as an umbrella term to encompass women and people who they deem as feminine, usually in reference to gender non-conforming assigned female at birth bodies, which is where things become murky. I am androgynous and non-binary and have had to deal with being incorrectly labeled as femme as an afab person. And I understand why. Each of us exists at a number of varying intersections, gender being one that brings many of us together. And so as we continue to understand that gender isn’t based on a binary model a desperate need to have conversations about the ways in which people experience gendered oppression on both a macro and micro level becomes more apparent. Many people experience nearly identical gender oppression and violence even if they don’t belong to the same gender group. And so for many people, it has become simpler to try and lump those groups together via the phrase “women and femmes” for the sake of conversation and discourse.
But in our quest to use inclusive language we have created a phrase that is both inaccurate and offensive in the context that it is normally used, the main issue being that “femme” is a self-determined label. It is not something one can assume about another. But I believe the more egregious offense is that, among cisgendered women, femme has in a way come to mean “people who appear to look like women,” at least “women” in a traditional sense. But just because someone “appears” feminine, that does not mean they identify with the word femme or even with femininity as a whole. But perhaps the one fact that I’ve noticed most people gloss over is that there are also folks who aren’t typically associated with femininity that consider themselves femme. Men, GNC folks, women, cisgendered or trans people can be femme. The word does not inherently belong to any one gender expression.
Many people ask what language would be inclusive and appropriate when speaking on gender issues. Some suggest “non-man” or “non-men.” While those phrases do rightfully exclude men from many conversations they still aren’t entirely accurate for the audiences people are attempting to address. Many take issue with the centering of men in conversations and spaces where excluding them is what makes it safe. And in other instances, trans men certainly need to be given space in these conversations about navigating gender-related oppression at the very least.
I don’t believe enough people stop to ask themselves why they feel the need to center femininity specifically in these instances in the first place. It is undeniable that The Feminine is constantly challenged by society at large and that those who fall under that umbrella deserve refuge from that violence. But it’s also not that simple. For many, their oppression stems from their inability or refusal to conform to what the patriarchy deems as feminine rather than for their subscription to it. Shaniece Powell, an Activist, Writer, Artist, Black Trans Woman and friend of mine, had this to say in response to an article arguing that non-binary femmes need to be included in feminism: “I think something without the toxicity and exclusivity of feminism needs to be created. The people deserve better than feminism.”
This, I think, perfectly sums up a lot of the issues that many people have with this discourse as a whole. A lot of what is considered feminine in modern day exists purely in direct opposition of toxic masculinity. Therefore, it inherently internalizes some of that toxicity. For instance, there are cis women who center the entirety of their femininity around how well they can live up to the impossible standards men set for them while building that platform on the backs of women they deem not feminine enough, i.e dark skin, trans, tall, fat, etc. Gendered violence can be enacted by those who are feminine, it can be enacted by women. And those who are neither are capable of it as well.
When speaking about gendered oppression, there needs to be nuance. It needs to be understood that this oppression can occur laterally and intra-communally. It needs to be understood that this fight isn’t about a “battle of the sexes” but about revolutionizing our understanding of gender structures. Many of us became comfortable in allowing womanhood and femininity to be the sole face of the fight against the patriarchy, not realizing how counterproductive it would eventually become.
So, how can we be sure that we are using language that is not only inclusive, but concise and respectful and well? First and foremost, I believe we have to understand that all genders are in some way being repressed and suffocated in this system to varying degrees, and that at some point they each will have something to say and will require a space for that. Once we grasp that, we can have a better understanding of how to approach each conversation without making assumptions about other people and what their needs are.
A term that has recently picked up in intersectional communities that I believe addresses the proper crowds while also leaving room for contextual usage is Marginalized Genders (sometimes called MaGes). It’s what I suggest to people who are fleshing out these difficult conversations. But none of this is to say that more specific language can’t be used when the context calls for it. Only that we are mindful of what each discussion calls for. It is my hope that overall people can begin to actively work towards being as accurate as possible with their language.
Danny Reneè is an androgynous freelance writer, stay at home parent and hoodoo spiritualist.
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