By Sameerah Balogun (@sameerahblgn)
Every time we choose an outfit, we choose to tell a story. With fashion and the way, we adorn our bodies, we tell a story about ourselves, the communities we’re a part of and the subcultures we belong to. In our capitalist patriarchal society, which loves to box people into stereotypical categories, femme sapphics(1) exuding hyper-femininity through their appearance often get mistaken as heterosexual – even from their own community.
I’m sure we’ve all seen Tik Tok’s of femmes saying that no one can tell that they’re gay – but let me tell you, an eyebrow slit, eight rings on your fingers and a septum piercing won’t necessarily be the answer to that problem. On the contrary, it not only potentially creates horrific fashion moments we’re embarrassed about after but also some sort of cultural politics to look like what you are while playing into gender archetypes and stereotypical imagery of queerness alike. It’s like you have to wear your queerness as a badge (quite literally, rainbow patches are also a common gay girl tip) in order for it to be recognized. But what about us femmes who feel comfortable within our femininity?
Femme as a queer identity is based around the idea of leaning into one’s femininity, which simultaneously is a construct rooted in a heteronormative understanding of gender and concomitantly sexuality. While we’re increasingly deconstructing the gender binary and the idea that masculinity is exclusively preserved for male-presenting bodies and vice versa femininity for female-presenting ones, they’re still effervescent of patriarchal stereotypes.
Take the butch/femme dichotomy, for example, which emerged in the 50s and used fashion as a visual communicator of sexual desires, whereas masc lesbians adopted masculine connoted style elements and the concomitant power it entails, essentially creating the top/bottom dynamic within the lesbian community. The replication of the power dynamic of heterosexual relationships between lesbians was, however, criticized by feminists in the 80s. While masculine connoted clothing markers can be a way for some to defy the male gaze, it doesn’t necessarily mean that such style elements are something that works for everyone. In any case, we shouldn’t feel forced to escape the objectification of our bodies but rather question our shared (patriarchal) understanding of femininity, as it can be way more multifaceted and nuanced.
So, let’s take a look at why hyper-feminine women-loving women seem to be invisible ghosts in the queer dating world. May it be a dictionary, a magazine article, or an academic journal entry – when you google the definition of hyper-femininity, most of the sources describe it as an exaggerated adherence to stereotypical feminine gender roles. The difference is, however, that femme sapphics, unlike heterosexual feminine women, don’t want to appeal to the male gaze – quite frankly, most of us couldn’t give a fuck about what cis straight men think of us. Yet, everybody assumes we’re doing it for them because female bodies emanating femininity – irrespective of whether they’re queer or not – tend to get objectified based off of their societally internalized heteroerotic perception.
If we look at sapphic representation in TV and Film, for example, it seems to further play into stereotypes surrounding lesbianism, their fashion and inevitably their fetishization. Fact is, that there’s a general lack of masc or fluid representation, as the women-loving women that are portrayed on our screens tend to be femme. And certainly, I cannot go around to wonder whether this is owed to the idea of some sort of identification – may it be for the straight girly girls who cannot relate to dykes or the toxic heterosexual men, unable to endure their inappropriate sexual fantasies of hot lesbian sex if there is too much masculine energy involved. Thus, while a femme bisexual character like Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) in Jennifer’s Body or a lesbian like Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) in Glee allows to foster and sell an image of lesbianism for the male gaze (intentionally or not remains to be seen), genderfluid sapphic characters like Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose) in Orange Is The New Black don’t necessarily sell to the heterosexual masses but rather to us gays – and as we are all painfully vary of, capitalism by its very nature tends to cherry-pick when it comes to matters of diversity.
At the same time as Cynthia Ellen Nixon’s character in Sex and The City, Miranda Hobbes, is awkwardly mistaken as a lesbian in one of the early seasons of the show primarily because of the outfits she’s wearing, femmes are not only invisible but are also being defied as queer due to the maintenance of a stereotypical lesbian melting pot measured by flannels and keyrings. If we don’t stop equating femininity to heterosexuality, femmes will inadvertently yet unavoidably appeal to the heteroerotic idea of femininity within the unforeseeable future. Even within the community, the queerness of (hyper-)femme sapphics is either questioned or not taken as seriously, because what if we’re potentially just a straight girl looking for adventurous bisexual escapades “for fun” (which, fair enough, is a scenario that probably happened to all of us gay girls at least once).
To considerably say that (queer) hyper-femininity can be characterized by a flood of pink, super girly silhouettes or graphic liners in return, is – in my humble opinion – bullocks as well. There are so many sapphics who feel more masc in one minute and more femme the next, whereas the fluidity of sexuality cannot simply be identified by the same only four styles (femme) lesbians are supposed to have according to Tik Tok. It further creates confusion for people if they don’t know where to fit in while the whole point is supposed to be that you are a part of a community in which you don’t have to conform and adjust to a normative category but just be who you are. It’s 2023, there is no universal way to look gay. While the visibility of queerness has gotten us far in the fight for its liberation, it shouldn’t be dependent on a cultural politics of visibility through fashion and other style elements but rather the deconstruction of the patriarchal invasion of our minds.
For now, it seems like society cannot go around seeing femmes as amorous without relating it to heterosexuality, which is essentially a grave dug by the heteronormative masses and the queer community alike. In Sister Outsider Audre Lorde describes eroticism as something both deeply feminine and spiritual, but bereaved of its context within male models of power, it ponders a vindicated sense of self, whereas „recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama“. At the end of the day, change the game and don’t let the game change you (or your fashion sense).
(1) Umbrella term for attraction or relationships between women, irrespective of whether they identify as lesbian, bi, pan, a-sexual, non-binary or queer