There’s a beautiful metaphor in Butch is a Noun, in the chapter where S. Bear Bergman is warning young butches not to let their embrace of masculinity turn into misogyny. Ze writes: “Leave femininity aside but don’t ruin it. Think of it like a castoff piece of clothes, fold it gently and leave it out where some young thing who wants it can pick it up.” (S. Bear Bergman, Butch is a Noun [San Francisco: Suspect Thoughts Press, 2006], p. 111)
If my femininity were a piece of clothing, what would it look like? I imagine a thin cotton dress, slight, a faded tiny floral print.
Lady Brett Ashley has been writing about her discovery of her own femininity, after a lifetime of tomboydom, and her feeling that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she wasn’t raised to it. Reading her latest posts, I thought for a moment, take mine.
It’s a cotton dress without any ornament, though. I knew from the moment a preschool pal wanted to spend forever painting our nails bubblegum pink that I was never going to have the energy to figure out all those little fussy details. And honestly, though tomboy was strictly off-limits, no one at home was invested in making me a hyperfeminine, supercute little girl, either. So from the start mine was a femininity on the cheap, toenail polish always chipped, only my Johnny-Depp-eyes-of-doom eyeliner carefully reapplied.
The cut might be a little off, too. It might just hang a little funny. Efforts were made, when I started negotiating puberty, to help me along the path of womanhood. How to sway my hips, how to cross my legs, all the little details of poise and grace. You see I’m falling back on generalities here, because I don’t really remember those details. I was too busy with my intensive covert spy operation, gleaning all the tidbits of masculinity I could from a distant father and much older brothers, carefully filing them away in the massive cross-indexed database in my head. And I never could sway my hips, anyway.
It’s a slight dress, as I said; it doesn’t offer much protection and it doesn’t have much substance. There were some lessons of femininity I learned very well and without leavening. Don’t upset men. Don’t be smelly or greedy or pushy. Don’t make too much noise. I’d been told I had the right to say no to unwanted sexual advances, but I also knew they weren’t supposed to all be unwanted; that was something wrong with me.
Femininity for me was constriction and stumbling awkwardness. I imagined feminine sexuality as masochism and violation. Femmes are a revelation to me: femininity as joy, feminine sexuality as a desire to receive and to hold. I’ve undervalued femininity so much as an adult, despite my feminism, because it hurt so much for me to wear it.
So on second thought, Lady Brett, don’t pick up my femininity. When you look closer you’ll see it’s stained and torn. Leave it folded there by the side of the road where the sun and the rain can clean it. Let it subside back into the earth, poor misbegotten thing.