Femme representation (pet peeves & recommendations)

Recently, Corey Alexander wrote a great series of tweets about butch representation (especially in fiction) and what kinds of butches and butchness are overrepresented and which ones could use a lot more representation. (Aside from the fact that butches/butchness in general could use a lot more representation, of course. See this Twitter thread and this blog post from Corey for more on that.)

Their thread inspired me to write a list of my own femme representation pet peeves (not just in fiction) as a companion to that thread. And since I’m bad at being brief, I’m making this into a blog post.

Before we start: A few words on my perspective and use of language

I’m writing this as a butch-loving femme who actually enjoys and eroticizes many of the more stereotypical representations of butch/femme dynamics. Nevertheless, many of these representations still miss the mark for me, usually in nuances – and often that feels actually worse than “they didn’t even try to make this three-dimensional.” Because it’s sooo close to home and then still misses. I imagine this disconnect is even worse for femmes (and femme-loving people) who match and/or enjoy the stereotype(s) a lot less than I do.

Of course, notable exceptions to the representations spelled out below exist (and I’m adding some at the very end of this post), so this is not about “always” or “never,” just about tendencies/patterns I’ve noticed.

Please note that I’m using “butch” as a shorthand here, which in this context includes masculine-of-center female, nonbinary, genderqueer, and transmasculine individuals/characters who may or may not identify as “butch.” I’m mostly using “femme” to mean “people/characters who actually identify as such and who actively desire and/or support butches” because I feel this is a necessary distinction between the kind of femmeness I’m talking about and a The L-Word type of feminine lesbians (who in my experience very often are anything but butch-loving or even just butch-supportive in a friendship/community/politics way – and that’s not the kind of femmeness I want to associate myself with).

I’m mostly referring to butch/femme dynamics because that’s where my own preferences are. This is not to suggest that other dynamics involving femmes or butches don’t exist or are any less worthy of representation. I just haven’t read enough femme/femme or butch/butch stories to have a good sense of the stereotypes in them. My examples are also heavy on the assigned-female-at-birth side for both femmes and butches because that’s mostly what I’ve been reading (which is mostly because that’s the majority of what’s available in terms of butch/femme stories).

Onwards to my femme representation pet peeves!

I’ll describe them as if they were rules. Because often it feels as if they are.

  • Femmeness is mostly about aesthetics/style, not about a deep sense of gender/queerness/genderqueerness. And it’s even less about desiring/inhabiting a specific role in a specific dynamic (which is then communicated by way of visual appearances).
  • Femmes are always high femmes. Especially when they go out, they always wear careful make-up (never without lipstick!), heels, stockings, lingerie, neat and stylish clothes, and elaborate hair – the whole 1940s/50s pin-up package. Or maybe the goth chick package. Or any other variation of highly-stylized and neatly-styled femininity. Femmes don’t wear hoodies and jeans, or chunky boots, or inexpertly styled hair (or no hair at all), or go bare-faced, especially not when they go out to flirt/date/hook up.
  • Femmes’ bodies are always curvy and have cleavage/bigger breasts. Femme attractiveness (especially when described from a butch perspective) tends to focus on the same bodyparts over and over again: tits, hips, lips, hair, legs/feet (if in stockings/heels). The focus is on how she looks, not what she can do with her body (aside from flirting/sex) or how her body feels (especially if it’s anything but “soft”).
  • Femmes have always been girly girls (or at least wanted to be girly girls) and never went through an androdyke or butchy phase (e.g. to fit the still-dominant ideal of dyke beauty/desirability and/or be easily recognizable as lesbians/queers). And if they did, they didn’t like anything about it.
  • (Cis) femmes are fundamentally, perhaps even essentially, different from butches in terms of gender and have never experienced any way of being gender-nonconforming themselves (and therefore can’t possibly know what it feels like for a butch).
  • The only issues a femme ever has out in the straight-centered world are her queer/lesbian invisibility and the sexism/anti-femininity thrown at her by cis guys (and cis guys only). She never experiences anti-queer hate, unless she’s with a butch. Also, anti-femininity in queer spaces doesn’t exist – at least not as an actual problem. And it of course never comes from butches/people who desire femmes.
  • Femmes are always really good at femininity. They just know how to draw a perfect cat-eye, bake a perfect cupcake, style the perfect hairdo, cook a perfect three-course meal, find the perfect accessories to go with any outfit, do a perfect striptease, create the perfect home. They may have learned these things at some point much earlier in their lives, but we never actually see them practice or struggle to get it right. Unless a butch is making them nervous so they burn dinner for the first time in their lives. Or there is a “I’m not like the other girls” narrative woven into the story.
  • They never have a fraught relationship with femininity (except maybe when they think it clashes with their feminism). This also often makes for “I’m not like the other girls” narratives. You know, where “they” are everything our plucky heroine is not (e.g. highly invested in their appearance, intensely emotional, bad with tools, bad at sports – in other words “too feminine”). Which is a major way of keeping women/femmes/feminine people from being in solidarity with each other.
  • Femmes also rarely have femme friends. Their main way of relating to other femmes is competitively. Unless they need femme friends to either set them up with a butch or talk about a butch. Femme friends are mostly there to help a femme pass the time until an amazing butch comes along. Then they either go into competition mode or they lose importance because now there’s that butch to focus on. Maybe they’ll reappear to do some processing around the butch or offer comfort after heartbreak, but that’s basically all femme friendships are for. Oh, and sometimes there’s talk about lingerie, nail polish, or shoes.
  • Femme caring (for butches) often veers into the maternal (cooking/feeding, cuddling, gentle chastising). It’s rarely portrayed as being fierce/aggressive in making/defending space for butches and other queers, being a political organizer, being strict/structured (outside of being a top). This is despite the reality that very often, it’s actually femmes who run (non-cismale-centered) queer things.
  • Femmes are mostly into very stereotypical versions of butchness (e.g. muscles, toughness, sexual prowess, good with tools), not butches who are predominantly kind, nerdy, inexperienced, fearful…
  • Femmes are always high maintenance. They inevitably require lots of time to get ready to go out (all that perfection needs time!). They also require butches to jump through lots of emotional hoops to show they are worthy of the femme’s attention.
  • Femmes never communicate plainly and directly, especially not with butches. Instead, they always speak in hints and make butches read between the lines/read their minds. Femmes actually speak a completely mysterious language (especially amongst themselves) that no butch could possibly understand without years of careful study and/or wise mentoring by other butches.
  • Femme sexuality comes in three variations only. 1) Bitch queen goddess top, 2) sexual service submissive, 3) pillow queen. Femmes don’t have cocks, femmes aren’t heavy masochists, and femmes don’t care much about the sexual pleasure of butches (except when they’re giving them blowjobs). Femme sexuality mostly exists to show how sexually skillful a butch is, especially compared to any and all cis men ever.
  • Femmes always like to be touched, everywhere, all the time (at least by a butch). The only possible exception to this is when they have a history of sexual violence/abuse (which will then be “healed” by the touch of a butch because butches are magically exempt from ever violating a femme’s boundaries). Or when the femme has body issues around being “too fat” (which will then also be “healed” by the magic of a butch preferring a “curvy girl” over a “skinny bitch”).
  • Femmes just magically know how to read/touch/not touch butch bodies to the point of recognizing their (“degree” of) masculinity long before the butches acknowledge it themselves. Because only a “real femme” can really see a butch. There is never a need to have an actual conversation about who likes what, as an individual, especially not in terms of gender. Because gender is natural for both femmes and butches (and if anyone ever needs to explain anything about how they would like to have their gender addressed/handled, it’s the butch). Besides, such a conversation probably doesn’t go well with the “strong silent type” butch who just magically knows what a femme needs – even if she doesn’t know it herself yet.

Which brings me back full circle to Corey’s original threads because of course these femme stereotypes usually come with their respective butch counterparts that are just as limited (and – from what I hear – often feel as prescriptive).

Femme stories I want to see (more of)

I’d like to follow up on this list with a quote that has shaped my own idea of butchness and femmeness from the very beginning (which in my case means the late 1990s):

“One voice is not a repudiation of the other. The courtly butch, the femme wife, the punk femme, the butch bottom, the femme slut, the street butch, the bulldagger and her lady, the lesbian-feminist femme, the movement butch, the tomboys are all here to reconnect us with our history and our creations.”

— Joan Nestle in “The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader” (1992)

Because, yes, I still want stories about curvy high femmes in spectacular outfits who have always been girly girls, easily excel at many traditionally feminine things, expertly speak in subtleties, know how to see a butch without being taught, and are into strong, tough butches who fuck them hard until they’ve had the most and best orgasms in their entire life (at least until their next encounter with that butch). Many of these stories are amazing and affirming and hot as fuck.

I just want other stories along with them.

Stories about femmes who successfully work through their competitiveness with each other. Stories about smart-ass femmes who are into nerdy butches. Stories about femmes with glasses and crutches and non-sexualized trauma. Stories about femmes who mentor each other, about femmes who learn how to put on make-up/a dress/a bra and how to walk in high heels only after they’ve long become adults, about femmes who like to have their cocks sucked by big butches, about tall femmes with short butch partners, and about femmes who lead on the dancefloor (and still want to get fucked hard in bed). Stories about femmes who skillshare and collaborate and put each other first (even though they still mostly desire butches), about femmes who are over 40, or over 60 (and still having sex), about femmes who are entirely disinterested in sex with anyone but themselves, about femmes who are aware of their queer history and heritage, about femmes who have been part of queer communities forever and then meet a butch who has been straight until three weeks ago. Stories about femmes who have butch friends who are neither their exes nor their future partners, about femmes who experience different kinds of marginalizations working together (and with others) to be better allies for each other (without any oppression olympics), about butch/femme team dynamics, and about femme friendship. For example. And if you wanted to throw some spaceships, dragons, pirates, robots, tentacled aliens, and/or witchcraft in there, that would also be fine with me.

So, as promised, here’s a short chronological list of examples of how these femme stories could look like. I have deliberately not just picked fictional stories (those are marked with *) but also included conversations between femmes and autobiographical pieces because, for me, they are all part of the stories we tell each other.

  • Madeline Davis, Amber Hollibaugh & Joan Nestle: “The Femme Tapes” (recorded in 1982, published in: Joan Nestle: The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (1992))
    — conversation between three “old gay femmes” as an example of how femmes share experiences, support, and knowledge with each other
  • Patrick Califia: “The Calyx of Isis” (in: Macho Sluts (1988))*
    — kinky erotic story set in a huge dyke-owned playspace with a gorgeous variety of dyke/queer genders, including some amazing femmes
  • Patrick Califia: Doc & Fluff: The Dystopian Tale of a Girl and Her Biker (1990)*
    — dyke-centered novel with a tough femme main character, massive content warning for all kinds of real-world violence
  • Patrick Califia: “What Girls Are Made Of” (in: Melting Point: Short Stories (1993))*
    — three queer femme strippers and a butch bottom
  • Mabel Maney – The Case of the Not-so-Nice Nurse (1993), The Case of the Good-for-Nothing Girlfriend (1994) & A Ghost in the Closet (1995)*
    — series of novels that are a spoof/homage of 1950s Nancy Drew mysteries, populated with a cast of femmes and butches, and featuring many hilarious descriptions of outfits and accessories, added here for its loving play on many, many butch/femme stereotypes
  • Minnie Bruce Pratt: “Green Scarf,” “New Year’s Eve,” “Camouflage,” “Fear,” & “Martial Arts” (all in: S/HE (1995))
    — short autobiographical pieces about the complexity of femme gender and about butch/femme as a team dynamic (Minnie Bruce Pratt was the partner of Leslie Feinberg of Stone Butch Blues [link goes to free download] and Transgender Warriors fame until Feinberg’s death).
  • Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha (now: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha): “Gender Warriors: An Interview with Amber Hollibaugh” (in: Laura Harris & Elizabeth Crocker (eds.) Fem/me: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls (1997))
    — intergenerational conversation between two femmes (Piepzna-Samarasinha went on to write a book called Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (2016) which alludes to Hollibaugh’s book listed below – I haven’t read it yet, so it’s not on this list).
  • Carol Queen: The Leather Daddy and the Femme (1998)*
    — erotic stories about the relationship between a cisfemale bisexual femme and a cismale gay leatherman.
  • Amber Hollibaugh: “My Dangerous Desires: Falling in Love with Stone Butches, Passing Women and Girls (Who are Guys) Who Catch My Eye” (in: My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home (1998))
    — autobiographical piece about the complexity of femme gender, desire, and politics.
  • Xan West: “My Pretty Boy” & “The Tender Sweet Young Thing” [link goes to full story] (in: Show Yourself To Me: Queer Kink Erotica (2015))*
    — two kinky erotic stories that feature femme transmasculine/nonbinary/genderqueer bottoms and show femmeness as both a source of strength and a show of intentional vulnerability (please check the content notes in the book).

Most of these authors have written many more stories with more great femmes (real and fictional), but these ones stood out to me in particular.

I also want to acknowledge that this list is missing all of the amazing writing by femmes that I have read in digital spaces, so it’s necessarily excluding a lot of perspectives that nevertheless exist and have had a welcome impact on me.

Please feel free to add your favorite femme stories to my list in the comments!

Glee: Bathroom Talk

Bathrooms are highly gendered and gender-policed spaces. Especially women’s bathrooms. The most recent Glee episode “The Role You Were Born To Play” (4×05) gives us a pretty spectacular example of that. And I use ‘spectacular’ both in the sense of ‘making a spectacle out of it’ and of ‘awesome.’ Because, yes, I very much enjoyed watching that scene, despite the massive amounts of transhating and gender-policing (not to mention racist and classist) language it contains. Which is why I now want to pick it apart to see how it works. I should start off by saying that I’m examining fictional characters on a TV show here, not actual human beings. Which means that I will talk about the “narrative function” of a trans* character, and that I will only briefly discuss her perspective in this post. It also means that I will defend the presence of hateful language and intimidating behavior towards a trans* person in this episode because it tells an interesting and complex story about another (cis) character. In other words, please brace yourselves (or come back some other time, or skip this post altogether, whatever works for you).

So, to get everyone on the same page, let me transcribe that scene for you and illustrate it with some screenshots.

[Marley is in the bathroom, looking into the mirror over the sink. Unique comes in.]
Marley: Hey, this is the girls’ bathroom!
Unique: I sit when I pee.

[Both look into the mirrors above their sinks, checking/fixing their faces.]
Marley: How psyched are you for ‘Grease’ auditions? I want Sandy so bad.
Unique: I’m not auditioning.
Marley: What?! Why not? You know you’d get a part!
Unique: I don’t want a part, I want the part. Rizzo. No offense, Sandra Dee, but Rizzo is the money roll of that show. A hot bitch who thinks she’s pregnant and turns out to have a heart of gold. It’s basically my life story.
Marley: [looks at Unique as if to say ‘wait, what?!’]

Unique: But they won’t give me the role. Everyone sees me in drag as a joke or as a stunt when we’re performing. But it would feel as weird for me to play Danny Zuko as it would for you.
Marley: Artie and those guys know that. Just tell them you wanna audition for Rizzo and I’m sure they’ll give you a chance.

[Sue comes out of a stall]
Sue: You know, the casual eavesdropper, hearing the feminine lilt of your voices would just assume you’re a couple of regular gals, yapping away in the crapper. But then the unmistakable scent of talcum powder and day-old pantyhose tells a different story. Well, well, well, if it isn’t McKinley High’s very own Tina Stomach-Turner and her trusty sidekick– [looks at Marley] Trying to think of a mean nickname for you and I’m blanking. But you [points at Unique], Urethra Franklin, you’re a boy and you’re fooling no one. You’re smuggling more kielbasa [points at Unique’s crotch] under these gowns than a homesick Polish lady trying to sneak through customs.
Marley: You can’t say things like that!

Sue: Oh, I think you’ll find I can say anything I want, absolutely stunning, kind-faced, blue-eyed girl. [Starts to put on Marley’s make-up from the bag she left on the sink.] Now, I know full well that gender confusion is the liberal media’s new darling, bored with drowning the nation’s airwaves with tinny sitcoms so gay that you have to stretch a dental dam over your television set in order to watch them safely. The Hollywood communists are busy force-feeding us drag queen reality shows and soft profiles of gender-confused, hormone-gobbling pre-teens who faint at the sight of their own genitals. [Puts one of Marley’s make-up items into her tracksuit top.]

Sue: (cont.) There’s no way in hell you’re gonna play Rizzo. I will not allow you to unleash a teenage maelstrom of gender-bent sexual confusion at this school. So you can turn it around and make it a launch party for your very own line of male girls’ brand-new fragrance called ‘Nutwhiff’–
Marley: We don’t care what you say! [Grabs her make-up bag.] We’re both auditioning for that musical!
Unique: [glares at Sue as she turns around]

[Unique and Marley leave the bathroom together and launch into “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” from P!nk…]

At first sight, this seems like just another one of those gender-policing bathroom scenes that happen all the time (except that many of the real-life ones are a lot scarier and often end on a much more depressing note), with a generous handful of Sue’s random insults to really drive the point home. And, yes, showing the many ways of gender-policing and misgendering and transphobia that Unique faces is indeed one of the points of this scene. But there’s more, much more to this scene than just that. And Sue’s insults are anything but random. So let’s look at these 2:10 minutes more closely.

We are in the sinks-and-mirrors part of a girls’ bathroom at William McKinley High School (WMHS), that is, a space that is defined as “female” in the two-gendered world of public bathrooms (almost) everywhere. On Glee, this is a space where many a private talk between the girls/women of that school has taken place in previous episodes (Sue is not the first teacher to use it, by the way). There have been many moments of gender-policing (including this deleted scene from the pilot — expect 19 seconds of gender-policing and trans-hate directed at a feminine cisgirl) in this bathroom. There have been fights and jealousy, confessions of secrets, and many moments of bonding between female characters. It serves as a semi-private and female-only space in the world of Glee. However, its has also been established as having leaky boundaries because some secrets have spread beyond the bathroom doors and also across the gender divide. Nevertheless, it is an intimate girls-only space, and the only one of its kind in the Glee world, especially inside of WMHS. Which is why it is so contested in the first place. Actually, the girls’ bathroom (in real life as much as on Glee) is a symbol for the boundaries of femaleness as such. Which means that everyone who enters it is automatically subject to be judged on their worthiness of being there. [By the way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence we have never seen Coach Beiste even anywhere near that bathroom. Most of her fights with femininity happen in the extremely masculine environment of the football players’ locker room – but that’s another story. As is a more detailed look at all the other bathroom scenes on Glee.]

As the scene starts, Marley is already inside the bathroom because her femaleness and femininity have never been questioned by anyone. The action starts when Unique strides in like she owns the damn space. Marley is surprised by her presence (which means that Unique is a not-girl in her mind) and states the obvious: “This is the girls’ bathroom!” (which means that Unique as a not-girl shouldn’t be there). Unique, however, walks on undeterred and informs her that she sits to pee in a tone that is amazingly both prim and sassy. And that apparently concludes the matter for Marley (as well as the other girl who has been in the bathroom with her and leaves after Marley has thus accepted Unique as a legitimate user of the space).

Let’s examine Unique’s comment “I sit when I pee” before we move on. I find it an absolutely ingenious reaction to Marley’s gender-policing because it completely deflects any questions about Unique’s body and turns her gender into something that is sufficiently proven by what she does, not what she (or her body) is. Or, to be more precise, by merely saying what she does. Judith Butler would approve so hard.

And, fascinatingly, this statement, this utterance (okay, Judith, now get out of my language again) really is enough to settle the matter of Unique’s gender for Marley because the next thing that happens (after a minimal cut during which the other girl went from the sink to the door) is Marley chatting to Unique (who has claimed the mirror next to her) about auditions for the school musical and how much she wants Sandy. And again, we need to pause and realize that this is a very interesting little sentence right there. You see, she doesn’t say she wants to “play Sandy” or even “be Sandy.” No, she simply wants Sandy. Of course we’re meant to understand this as “wants the role of Sandy,” but I still can’t help flashing back to previous conversations in that exact bathroom where girls have told other girls what boy they were really into. (Keep that lesbian subtext in mind because it will reappear in a bit.)

The next appearance, however, is made by one Sue Sylvester (the school’s cheerleading coach), who enters the scene from a bathroom stall. Which means that, like a hostile undercover spy, she has heard everything that has been said so far, which means all the gendered secrets and desires of both Marley and Unique. In other words, the previously established safety and trust of this space is now exposed as an illusion once again [gratuitious reaction gif]. Worse, the enemy was there first. And, predictably, Sue goes on to prove that she is indeed an enemy to Marley and Unique.

Before we look at how exactly she does that, let me remind you that Sue often has a casual insult ready for everyone who happens to come across her path and will pick on almost anything that looks like a sore spot. So no regular Glee viewer is surprised when the insults start (Marley and Unique, however, are both new to the school and haven’t encountered Sue before). Let me also remind you that Sue most viciously lashes out when she feels that her status, her place in the world, and her power are attacked. And I would argue that this is exactly what is happening for her here. Because Sue also is a woman who wears androgynous zipped-up track suits every single day. Until Coach Beiste showed up, she was the most masculine woman on Glee in both appearance and behavior and she remains fairly (and usually happily) masculine in comparison to the other women/girls. She has been depicted as unattractive, undesirable, domineering, and, by implication, unfeminine countless times. She has been ridiculed by several other characters, including her students and coworkers, for her decision to get pregnant at an older-than-average age, complete with jokes about the presumed absence of a sex life/functional vagina. Even her heterosexuality remains dubious because she treats men like stereotypical men in power positions treat women and can’t seem to stay in a relationship for longer than a few episodes, if she can find anyone who wants her at all, that is. She has even married herself, in a tracksuit dress, no less. (She is also played by the out lesbian actress Jane Lynch, who often appears in public in a low-femininity style, if we want to include such real-life factors, which we should because Glee tends to play with the Fourth Wall like that.) What all of this means is that Sue Sylvester’s own presence in the space of “female” isn’t exactly undisputed. And this is precisely what makes her behavior in this scene so fascinating and many-layered.

Her rant starts with a reference to the “feminine lilt” of the girls’ voices. Ironically, that actually acknowledges Unique’s gender as basically the same as Marley’s. While Unique’s voice is in a range that is pretty ambiguous by itself in terms of gender, the way she modulates that voice, her “lilt,” is feminine indeed. Sue then goes on to reference both femininity (powder, panty hose) and poverty (talcum powder, day-old pantyhose), which also implies a femininity that isn’t good enough, one that has failed to meet the standards (it’s also one of Marley’s biggest sore spots because her mother works as the school’s lunch lady and they are too poor to keep up with the latest fashion and designer brands).

Yet, Sue keeps addressing Unique with names that allude to successful black female singers, but in a way that makes Unique out to be a repulsive version of them. I’m also reminded of drag queen stage names here, which often are parodies that mock and celebrate female icons at the same time. The difference here is of course that Sue, not Unique, does the naming, which turns these names into straight-out insults – and implies that she considers Unique to be a “drag queen,” that is, someone who performs femaleness on stage but “really is” a man (or boy, in her case).

As in some previous episodes, Unique’s gender is once again defined by others, not by herself. This pattern will continue in this episode throughout two more scenes where several people speak about her in her absence, which results in an offensive and disrespectful mess of pronouns and other gendered associations and perceptions. In my reading of it, the point of all these awful scenes is that Unique’s first narrative function is to trigger all these projections about her gender in other characters (note: Unique gets to define herself in a later scene). In this case, Sue Sylvester.

The next bundle of references Sue makes in the bathroom scene relate to foreign(!) sausages, smuggling, national borders and general dishonesty/criminality (which is here expressed in terms of Polishness). Of course these are all thinly veiled (and racist) metaphors that bring up the theme of gender as a country, a place to inhabit, whose borders are controlled (but can still be illegally crossed). I find Sue’s inclusion of the term “homesick” into this part of the rant particularly telling because it describes so well the longing to go (back?) to a gendered place where one belongs (which is in fact very similar to the language Unique herself uses later, in the scene where she finally gets to describe how she feels in a two-gendered world). It’s also the point in her rant when things start to shift and break down.

Because the more Sue insists that Unique is a “boy,” the more obvious the visual parallels between the two become (now we actually see both of their whole bodies together in the some frame), the more the gendered line between them begins to blur. This is also where I want to introduce yet another layer to my reading of the scene. Because if we ignore the more theatrical elements of Unique’s femininity (and what we already know about her character) for a moment, she could just as well be a butch cisgirl who got the “this is the girls’ bathroom!” comment from Marley upon entering that space. In fact, I have known several butches who dressed a lot like Unique does in that scene, so something about her gendered ambiguity and the way women in public bathrooms react to that pings some of my receptors that are usually pinged by butches (or transguys). So, even if Sue and Unique approach the line between the two nations of gender from “opposite” sides, they still end up in a very similar place.

But now Marley interrupts Sue’s rant because (as her sideways look tells us) she is concerned about how it is affecting Unique. To understand this better, we need to know that Marley already has a history of speaking up against insults directed at people she cares for (like her mother who keeps being the target of meanness because of her size). So far, Glee has depicted Marley as an almost painfully good girl, which might explain why even Sue can’t think of a “mean nickname” for her. In fact, when Sue gets right into Marley’s physical space and again needs something mean to address her with, she calls her an “absolutely stunning, kind-faced, blue-eyed girl” in exactly the tone she normally uses for insults. And this is when something else happens, in this moment when Sue and Marley’s faces are very close together, in what was meant to be a threatening gesture by Sue. But then she ends up complimenting Marley for being pretty and kind and feminine, and we’re right back at the lesbian subtext I brought up earlier. And it throws Sue for a moment, to a degree where she has to physically shake it off, before she can launch into the second portion of her rant.

The rest of the rant is basically about media representations of transgender issues as a more scandalous next step after homosexuality has become commonplace. And while she rattles it off as if she has done so countless times before and isn’t even very interested in what she’s saying, Sue starts taking items out of Marley’s make-up bag on the sink and uses them on her own face. It almost seems as if she does it on autopilot because she never stops to acknowledge what she does. I read this both as an intrusion into Marley’s space (and I could even be tempted to invoke Freudian symbology when it comes to Sue’s hand in Marley’s container of femininity-enhancing things) and as a compulsive reassertion of her own femininity after the double impact of seeing the similarity between Unique’s gender presentation and her own and her subtle, lesbian (and thus potentially unfeminine) desire for Marley. That desire is once again emphasized when Sue ends her make-up application by putting one of the items into her jacket, right above her heart, where every romantic heroine has always kept intimate items that reminded her of her lover. And let’s not forget her invocation of a dental dam, that is, the most lesbian-associated safer sex accessory ever, as a protective measure against all the gayness on TV. Together, this also brings up the idea of not quite knowing whether you want be someone or whether you just want that person. As if she has suddenly come to her senses, Sue addresses Unique again, and tells her that not only can’t she play a female role in the school musical, but Sue will also “not allow [her] to unleash a teenage maelstrom of gender-bent sexual confusion” which only serves to underline that it is most of all her own gender and sexuality-related confusion that is inspired by the presence of Unique and which she apparently can’t allow.

And this is why I read this scene as an example of how big parts of the world react to trans* people. Because the mere existence of someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the heteronormative model of a feminine mind in a female body experiencing nothing but heterosexual desire for masculine men (and vice versa) forces everyone, no matter their own gender and desire, to find an answer to the question “what determines someone’s gender?” Granted, not everyone answers that in a trans-positive way, but they are still required to consider other potential answers to that question, if only to rule them out. And that destabilizes the very idea of gender as a monolithic block of certainty and alignment, even if that destabilization isn’t permanent. But, like the presumed safety of the girls’ bathroom at WMHS, the boundaries of gender will continue to turn out to be leaky and unreliable and maybe an illusion altogether because the enemy has always already been within. Not bad for a two-minute scene from a widely-watched TV show, huh?

[By the way, The lesbian subtext continues after the bathroom scene when Unique and Marley both act chivalrously with each other and Marley ends up wildly jumping around on stage in flat boots and jeans (which are strangely absent from the wardrobes of nearly all female characters on Glee) while Unique wears a dress and a feminine wig, which I don’t find hard to read as tomboy and femme, respectively.]

Does all of this mean that I think we’ll see a lesbian romance between Marley and Unique or a dramatic exploration of Sue’s newfound attraction to one of her female students or her own crossgendered identifications? Not at all. That’s not how Glee works, and these are not the stories that it’s ready to tell openly. But they are there nevertheless, in the spaces between what is factually scripted, what is added to that (and not always intentionally/consciously) by acting and editing, and what happens in the viewers’ imaginations when it comes to filling up the many narrative gaps and spaces that Glee has left open. And maybe there will even be ‘Marlique’ (Marley/Unique) or ‘Sueley’ (Sue/Marley) fanfiction one day to make these stories even more visible and real. And at the same time, there will be many other stories about the exact same scene, which will be completely different than mine but equally true and real.

“Because of the layers.”

This entry started with a comment I made on this post on Letters from Titan. Since I couldn’t stop thinking about the issues I had started to verbalize there, I decided to do what works best for me in those situations: talk about it. So here I give you my first post in English on this blog, and my first post about Glee. I have a strong suspicion that this is only the beginning…

As I said before, the butch and I are currently obsessing about Glee a bit (me more than him). We’re watching all episodes for a second time, and I’ve recently discovered some really read-worthy blogs that are wonderfully thinky about aspects of Glee. So I’m catching up on that end, too. I’ve also been sucked into Glee-related Tumblr blogs, mostly from Kurt/Blaine fans, and have found myself watching GIFs of the same kiss (their first one, from “Original Song”) over and over again until the wee hours of the morning. So far, I’ve only read a few fanfics, but I’m pretty sure I will get back to more of that eventually. And I can’t stop thinking about Glee. For me, that’s an extraordinary level of fan involvement which I experienced last with the Rocky Horror Picture Show (starting, oh, eighteen years ago).

Right now, I switch between moments of believing that Glee is absolute genius, especially in the way it depicts Kurt’s story arc (including the Karofsky story) and his relationship to Blaine (this happens most of all when I read Letters from Titan until my brain starts to crackle with happy fireworks of neuronal joy due to all the thinkiness and detail obsession and her seemingly random webs of associations that suddenly aren’t random at all anymore) and the sober realization that Glee does oh-so-many things terribly, terribly wrong, especially when it comes to its female and/or of-color characters and the madness of Glee‘s random story arcs in general (that happens a lot when I read Glee Critic, for example) or the unequal treatment of gay and straight relationships on the show (likewise with Fabfemmeboy). And don’t get me started on Finchel.

But even despite my awareness of the many problems Glee has, I can’t help being crazy over many of Kurt’s and Kurt and Blaine’s moments. What can I say? They move me. After all, they are exactly what brought me to Glee in the first place (and it’s the one thing I really, really owe Mensa for because someone shared a link to the video of Teenage Dream sung by the Warblers in “Never been kissed” (2×06) on their QueerSIG mailing list).

 

And then I watched the entire series up to wherever they were in April last year. And kept watching. And remained fascinated by Kurt (and Blaine). At some point, I noticed that I was obviously identifying with Kurt, and I’m partly writing this entry because I’m still trying to understand why and how exactly that is the case and how it ties in with my own gender and desire. I’m peeling back the layers, if you will.

You see, in my everyday life, I’m a queer, butch-loving femme who experiences a profound disidentification with what media portrayals (and, sadly, all too often real people as well) tell me is a woman/girl. Nevertheless, I’m apparently read as a fairly gender-conforming female, at least to the degree that strangers or coworkers wouldn’t seriously question my belonging to this category. But even in contexts where people are easily able to assume I’m straight (e.g. when I haven’t come out verbally yet, or when my transgender butch partner has been read as a cisgendered man and I am “straightened by association”), they still often notice that there’s something odd about the way I do gender and gendered interactions. So in that sense, I do read as queer in many situations, even if I don’t specifically aim for that (but I also don’t aim for avoiding it). If I want, I can make myself look pretty and/or sexy, and not just in the queer eyes of a select few. But that never completely overrules the fact that I also feel like a terribly awkward dork a lot of the time in the area of beauty and sexiness, especially when I didn’t consciously transform myself into a pretty/sexy girl (or woman, or even femme). The dorky, awkward real-life teenage me from 25 years ago has obviously not vanished entirely.

Perhaps this is why Glee speaks to me. It’s this world where people aren’t even expected to know who and what they “really” are. They aren’t supposed to be “done” with themselves. It’s this world where nothing is set in stone yet, where the future is wide open, where anything can happen. Even if we secretly know that this is a lie. Because you can’t fully unlearn being an outcast once you’ve been there. Especially not when you discovered the glittery, hard but absolutely exhilarating joys of it (which reminds me of that quote I recently read about Glee being a few diamonds in a pile of shit). Then again, I never went to an American high school because I grew up in Germany (and still live there), and I’ve never been to a school where athletes and cheerleaders were of any relevance to the entire student body (not to mention that we didn’t even have cheerleaders). Of course we also had social hierarchies and cliques and outcasts, but as long as I had a few like-minded friends, and a teacher or two who cared, I didn’t even want to be “popular” anymore.

I probably also need to say that there were a few rather interesting moments in my adult life where I felt like a young gay guy (which caused a rather interesting temporary transformation of how I perceived my entire body, which is perhaps a story for another day) and/or where I was erotically attracted to a certain type of gay male leather daddy. This attraction also happened while I was wearing a miniskirt and high heeled platform boots with my shaved head. And I know from experience that people’s anatomies are a lot less relevant to me and to the degree I enjoy sexual interactions than I initially thought. What turns me off most men (both cis and trans) isn’t the way their bodies look or work, or even their identification as men, but their inability to see my gender as anything but “naturally female” and our interaction (sexual as well as social) as anything but “naturally heterosexual.” Because I don’t do either of these.

So here I am, identifying with Kurt Hummel of all people (okay, characters) and trying to understand why and how. I’ve obviously never lived a gay male teenager’s life (or a lesbian teenager’s life at that, because I was already 21 when I first came out). I’ve never been harrassed, insulted, shoved into lockers, thrown into dumpsters, and I most definitely never had my life threatened for my queerness, gendered or sexual. Especially not at school. [1] But still, I can relate to Kurt so much more than to any other of the Glee characters.

I’m pretty clear on at least one aspect of why that is.

Before I get into it, however, let me insert a disclaimer. I’m talking about media representations and cultural narratives of certain genders here, and I read them the way I read book or movie characters, even if the stories are at least partly (auto-)biographical. I am not talking about actual people who I’ve personally met. I realize that this is a problematic thing to do, because the two constantly bleed into each other, but it’s the only way I can even start expressing certain things about myself right now. So please read this as provisionary and imperfect images I use because they’re better than nothing and until I find better ones.

So. The way I read Kurt, he embodies a certain kind of queer, camp-influenced, male femininity. And I have always found it a lot easier to identify with the queer femininity of drag queens, or lifestyle queens (I hope this is the appropriate term! I mean people like LaMiranda from the movie Stonewall, for example) and some kinds of feminine, gay men, than with straight or even mainstream-lesbian femininity (I’m looking at you, The L-Word). As much as I can explain that, it has to do with not taking one’s femininity for granted because people keep telling you you’re not good at it (in my case) or that you shouldn’t do it in the first place (in the case of lifestyle queens – which is not to say that I didn’t also get some pretty heavy anti-feminine shit thrown my way from a feminist/lesbian and direction). Instead, this kind of queer femininity has to be carefully and consciously constructed, and it never comes across as completely “natural.” Even if at the same time you feel that it has “always” been there and it just happens without you even thinking about it.

For me, this tension between consciously constructed and “natural” femininity is a fundamental aspect of my own femmeness. You see, I never was a pretty or girly girl. Nor was I an outright tomboy. Instead, I grew up as an oddly gender-neutral kid who was happiest when reading, or creating elaborate fantasy worlds to play in that included rearranging at least half of the furniture in my room. When puberty hit, I found out that all of this was suddenly a problem. I wanted nothing more than to be pretty and desirable like the other girls, but I failed miserably at that. I tried dressing right and wearing my hair right and moving right, but none of these things came “naturally” to me, and I kept looking like I had put on an ill-fitting costume for a role I simply couldn’t pull off. I very obviously wasn’t wanted by any of the teenage boys around me, and I was unable to join all the psychological “games” between girls and boys. Partly, I because found them stupid, but mostly because I just didn’t get them. My intense crushes on boys went unrequited, and I barely had any kind of teenage relationship although I did eventually start making out with boys at parties when we were all drunk and maybe a bit desperate. But I was never chosen by the ones I most desired.

It was only much later, after I had come out as a butch-loving femme (one went with the other for me) in my mid-twenties, that I experienced the blazing glory of being the prettiest girl in the room, being desired above everyone else, and being proudly and publicly chosen – and choosing and desiring back, because that’s part of the butch-femme dance for me, the mutual choice of what is otherwise despised, passed over, and considered ugly. With that came the realization that I could learn doing pretty and sexy femininity and be incredibly powerful at the same time. Even (or rather, especially) when I was yielding to the look and touch of a butch. Finally, femininity didn’t equal being stupid, exploited, or in danger anymore. Because I learned it so late, however, I was very conscious of the act of learning and the amount of practice it took until I was good at it. And that’s precisely when I remembered that I had once, without thinking, seen myself in a ballgown at a women’s dance to which I was invited during the most lesbian-feminist and harshly femme-hating phase of my life. And how perfectly right it had felt to walk into that dance in my red floor-length ballgown from the cheap second-hand store, with my tattoos visible on my upper arms, Doc Martens-like boots peeking out from under the hem of the dress, and a DIY haircut that mostly fulfilled the lesbian cliché look of that time and place – and a dyke in a tuxedo or men’s suit jacket, respectively, on each of my arms. That was indeed a princess dream come true, long before I even dared to think of myself as having even the slightest trace of princess in me, or the desire to be one. Even though I didn’t even know a single ballroom dance step and sat around most of the time, pettily envying the only other young woman in a dress whose femininity was so much more “perfect” than mine (and who therefore couldn’t be a “real” lesbian in my then-“logic”) and who got to dance with the kind of dyke I found most attractive.

It took me a few more years to understand that I didn’t have to be a butch just because I desired butches, and to think about my own gender and desire in terms of butch and femme in the first place. Today, I still cringe at the few pictures of me that exist from these years because I look so awkward in my attempts at looking “like a real lesbian.” I cringe even harder at remembering how I hated my own femininity and tried to eliminate it, not just by putting away my eyeliner and skirts and eventually stopping to do bellydance (which, ironically, had taught me to be erotic and flirtatious for and with women in the first place), but by trying to develop a new body language that would read as more “lesbian” (read: butch). And that point of painful, deliberate, self-hating re-formation of myself is exactly where I come crashing back to Kurt. The Kurt in “Laryngitis” (1×18), who tried so hard to butch it up to be who he thought others wanted him to be. There’s no scene in all three seasons of Glee that make me as uncomfortable as watching Kurt sing “Pink Houses” during that episode, and few that make me tear up as much with pride and joy than seeing him sing “Rose’s Turn” later on.

Because I’ve been there, and not just once, and not just with one gender. So, yeah, that’s where I get Kurt, in all the ambiguity of both becoming and understanding him.

And that’s where I get back to Blaine. Because, at some point in my budding Glee obsession, I realized that I found Blaine attractive. And it was most decidedly Blaine, not Darren Criss who portrays him. And I didn’t find him attractive from a girl-to-guy position. I found him attractive for the way he looked at Kurt, because that’s how I want to be looked at: Like I am loved for being perfectly imperfectly exactly how I am, with all my insecurity and my big dreams and my hurt at never, ever truly fitting in. With my hard-edged scorn for what’s “normal” and my desperate episodes of wanting to be completely unexceptional, just for once. I want to be someone’s treasure, the thing they never thought they could get because they’re as much of a freak as I am, just in a different way. And I want to be the girl to someone’s boy, even though it’s really never that simple and there are days when girls need to give boys flowers in all seriousness and… zig instead of zag. Layers, you know. Layers and intimacy.

Besides that, Blaine has a certain kind of retro masculinity going on, which often looks inherently “queer” to the modern eye (even though it wasn’t back then, except when it was – there’s a brilliant article out there somewhere that discusses Blaine’s clothing and its relation to gayness of earlier time periods but I sadly can’t seem to find it again right now) and which plays into the Kurt/Blaine dynamic. The first time we very explicitly see this is with “Baby, it’s cold outside,” and the retro theme, complete with obvious nods to hidden homosexual narratives of the 1950s, comes back with full force in “Extraordinary Christmas” (3×09). And this retro masculinity has a very strong “lesbian” butch-femme subtext for me. After all, this is where “we” first started – at least in one of the butch-femme history narratives. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues iconized the decades of the late 1940s to 1960s for us, and many butches and femmes have been romanticizing this time ever since. We’ve been dreaming of being or having a perfect gentleman who really is a “woman,” and in recent years, many of the aesthetics of that time were adopted as an iconic look for butch-femme. All of this is present for me in Blaine and Kurt’s interaction. Which makes it very easy to see myself in their dynamic. And since I really have to think hard to remember even one filmic depiction (let alone in the mainstream media) of a romantic narrative between a (transgender) butch and a queer femme where the butch wasn’t so “girlified,” presumably to make her more acceptable to a larger audience, that she stopped reading as a butch to me, Blaine and Kurt are the closest to home that I’ll probably get anywhere soon.

Finally, the way the two of them don’t even get close to being undressed on-screen (on their own or with each other) goes a very long way for me in reading their genders as something that isn’t determined by their anatomy. Which again ties into my desire for (transgender) butches and my femme gaze at their naked bodies. Because my gaze looks not primarily at the anatomical “truths” which (we’re told so often) remove any doubt about someone’s “real” gender. Instead, I see a different but still gendered layer when I look at a naked butch body that is a lot more true than what a plain photograph of this body could ever capture. In other words, I’m very grateful that Kurt and Blaine’s sexual moments have not been illustrated with lots of undressing of clearly gendered body parts.

Wow. That was a very interesting trip. (It also served its purpose, because I now understand a lot more about my identification with Kurt and desire for Blaine.) I think I’ll do more of them.

Update, 01 August 2012: And how could I forget to link to this article from Letters from Titan where Racheline Maltese has said pretty much the same thing about the butch-femme dynamic between Blaine and Kurt without ever using the words “butch” or “femme.” Here’s an excerpt.

For folks (largely queer folks) paying attention, Glee informs us that Kurt is happy and eager to be an aesthetically feminine partner in his relationship and play act at that very role… when it’s about his relationship. But that in no way makes him a passive, submissive or traditionally feminine partner; it doesn’t even make him a girl (sidenote: I loathe all the stereotypes it’s necessary to address to untangle what’s going on with Kurt, but it’s the world he, and we, live in). It places a heteroaesthetic dynamic around Kurt and Blaine, while firmly removing any hint of a heteronormative one.
That heteroaesthetic dynamic serves to amplify queerness for the viewer interested in queerness, but also to minimize queerness, by suggesting the actually rejected heteronormativity, for the viewier not interested in, or not comfortable with, that same queerness. This is a type of relatively outrageous passing, one that offers Kurt and Blaine safety both intra- and extradiegetically, without imposing restriction on their significantly queer gender expression and sexuality.

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[1] This is not to say I’ve never personally experienced anti-queer harrassment or violence, but the context of those few incidents was very different from what has been shown on Glee. I was also already in my twenties. All in all, I’ve always been a lot more more afraid of anti-queer violence towards my butch girlfriends/partners than towards myself, which probably has to do with the very real and drastic violence they did experience, partly while I was their girlfriend (but not with them when it happened). For now, let’s just say this isn’t my point of connection to Kurt.