Posts Tagged ‘ To Be Real ’

Danzy Senna on Identity Politics

I’ve already talked about the book To Be Real a few times. One of my favorite essays was the introductory piece by Danzy Senna, also titled “To Be Real.” In it, she talks about trying to find an “authentic” identity to maker her real. She explored the search for a “neat culture box.”

She writes:

“I was left with only questions. To Be or Not to Be: black, Negro, African-American, feminist, femme, mulatto, quadroon, lesbian, straight, bisexual, lipstick, butch bottom, femme top, vegetarian, carnivore? These political identities let me into the maze of American identity politics, and hopefully out the other side.”

I’ve been trying for months to come up with something clever to say about this essay I very much enjoyed. I’ve been searching for some intelligent discourse on the appeal and danger of identity politics. Something about how we are always more than we seem. How we each exist at the sum of all of our identities. Something about how making the boxes too small pushes others out.

I’ve been thinking about this more today, 9 years after the September 11, 2001. With a lunatic threatening to burn Korans and American up in arms over the place of Muslims in American society, it seems more important than ever to remember that people are more than symbols, or labels, or movements.

Needless to say, I still haven’t formed my coherent thoughts. Instead, I will just share the concluding part of her essay.

“…it is not my “half-breed” lipstick-carrying feminist muddle that is too complicated, but identity politics which are too simplistic, stuck in the realm of the body, not the realm of belief and action. I have become suspicious of kente clothe and womyn symbols, the sale and mass consumption of cultural artifacts. My yearning to be real has led me in circles, to red herrings called identity, those visible signifiers of liberation that can be bought and sold as easily as any other object. Breaking free of identity politics has not resulted in political apathy, but rather it has given me an awareness of the complexity and ambiguity of the world we have inherited- and the very real power relations we must transform.”

Femmenism

I’ve written over and over about femme identities; about femme invisibility, about my discomfort with a femme identity, about how I sometimes feel really femme, about how it’s how I’m perceived even if I don’t quite identify with it myself, etcetera etcetera.

The essay “Femmenism” by Jeannie Delombard in the collection “To Be Real” by Rebecca Walker explored a little bit of all of this through the lens of femmenism, which she defines as “where the third wave of Western feminism and the third wave of American lesbianism intersect.”

She writes:

“Femmenism is nothing if not contradictory. Femmenism is looking like a straight woman and living like a dyke. Femmenism is being attracted to someone of the same sex who is very much your opposite. Femmenism is calling yourself a girly-girl and insisting that others call you a woman. Femmenism is playing up your femininity even when you know it can be used against you. Femmenism is using that master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Femmenism is political but not correct.”

In a way, her story is also my store. Though I grew up a decade and a half later, I too wanted to spend my childhood in “pastel party dresses and Mary Janes.” My mom was not quite as politically correct as her mother, but then again, I was a child in the early 1990s, not the mid 1970s. While Delombard’s mother pushed “corduroys and hiking boots,” my mother merely suggested, “Don’t you think a pair of jeans would be more comfortable?” Art supplies were the ideal playthings in our household, and when I wanted Barbie dolls, I had to save up my allowance or take advantage of visiting grandparents.

Like Delombard, household duties were divided by ability, not gender roles. My dad loved to clean, and so he did. My mom liked to cook, but she hated getting up early, so dad cooked us breakfast and mom took care of dinner.

Unlike Delombard, I never felt like I had to fulfill a certain gender role due to parental expectations, lesbian community requirements, or anything else. Not to say I haven’t struggled with my sexual orientation or gender expression at times, but I’ve always been pretty comfortable in my own skin- or my own clothes: be that boys cargo shorts or a strapless polka-dotted dress.

Needless to say, I’m still uncomfortable with a femme identity. Is it because it is a label? Perhaps. Is it because it suggests that I am only attracted to its opposite [butch]? Perhaps also. Is it because I fear mirroring heterosexual society? Maybe a little.

Delombard writes:

“If lesbians see butch-femme as a capitulation to heterosexual norms, most of the straight world believes that butch-femme lurks at the core of every lesbian relationship, while the rest see it as a kinky, erotic sex game, better left in the bedroom along with the strap-on dildo, the handcuffs, and the edible underwear. Like pornography, everyone has an opinion about butch-femme, but no one seems very clear about what exactly it is.”

She talks about the feeling that her and her partner are “making up what it means to be butch and femme” as we go along. That, I can relate to. Whatever I am, I feel like I am constantly making it up.

I like this part:

“For me, being a femme means that I take pride in wearing just the right shade of lipstick (not true for me), drawing the perfect black line above my eyelashes (true for me), keeping my legs smooth (sometimes), and smelling good. Being a femmenist means knowing I am just as attractive when I don’t wear makeup, shave, or put on perfume (very true).

Being a femme also means that I want to be with a woman who appreciates it when I do these things; not silently, but openly and enthusiastically. A women who sends me flowers (yes), helps me out of cars (whatever); and know how to take care of all the details, like choosing the right wine, tipping the bartender, and calling a cab (eh). Being a femmenist means both making sure that I know to do all the things myself and getting an erotic charge out of having them done for me.”

To me, this last sentence is key. As politically incorrect as this may be, I fear the label femme because I feel it suggests that I am helpless. Delombard makes it make sense. I can do it myself, I have that power, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate romantic and caretaking gestures.

There is no great conclusion I’ll offer in this post, except that this essay made me feel a little less alone, though not neccessarily less confused. Still, it made me  laugh:

“The same thing happens when my love and I go out to dinner: no matter how we are dressed, invariably the server will take my order first, have my girlfriend taste the wine, and present her with the bill (even when I have requested it, credit card in hand).”

So true, so true.  As is this:

“On the one hand, being a femme increases exponentially my much-publicized invisibility as a lesbian. Almost every day, usually several time a day, all sorts of heterosexual men strike up conversations with me, comment on my appearance, or shout lewd remarks at me. Since to them I don’t look like a dyke or even a liberated woman, they automatically assume that I look the way I do to provoke male attention and approval. […] On the other hand, my lesbian invisibility is suddenly, dangerously, stripped away when I am with my lover.”

On this account, as well, Delombard couldn’t be more accurate.

I may be no closer to reconciling my identity with the femme label, but it’s nice to know I’m not alone in thinking about it. It’s also nice to read a well written personal essay. And it’s nice to remember that femme can still mean powerful, political, and capable.