The feminine invert has always been a problem


Clare Hemmings
London School of Economics and Political Science

Este artigo trata o problema da subjetividade feminina em relação a um série de textos teóricos e culturais, considerando, pricipalmente, o último legado de Havelock Ellis sobre a construção da inversão feminina. O artigo esboça a narrativa feminina dominante e resistente, ao mesmo tempo que questiona como poderíamos começar a pensar a subjetividade e identidade feminina de maneira diferente.

This article addresses the issue of femme subjectivity in relation to a range of theoretical and cultural texts, considering particularly the lasting legacy of Havelock Ellis's construction of the feminine invert. The article traces dominant and resistant femme narrative, and asks how we might begin to think through femme subjectivity and identity differently.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Theorizing Femme Narrative


In this article, I begin by interrogating Havelock Ellis's construction of the feminine invert, highlighting the ways in which his own rather skewed logic produces both dominant femme narratives, and a range of means for resisting these. I follow this theoretical introduction with readings of a series of cultural and literary texts that are pertinent to my development of femme narrative possibilities, focussing in particular on the importance of both looking and passing for imagining a contemporary femme subject who signifies independently of a masculine gaze.

Part I: Fem(me)inine Significance[1]

The feminine invert has long been a problem. Where the masculine woman has been visible, if demonized, her presumed counterpart has been passed over as really (or finally) straight, misguided or unattractive --- a desperate misfit whose story cannot be told. And yet, even within sexology - that central site of her nineteenth and twentieth century production - the feminine invert is difficult to explain away. If the feminine invert provides the complement to masculinity, as she appears to, why does she respond to female, rather than the more biologically appropriate male, masculine attention? Simply rendering her particularly passive or innocent of the perversion that she is enacting, as Havelock Ellis does, cannot account for her satisfaction with her masculine female-bodied lover. One can clearly be both passive and unworldly and be responsive to male advances (in fact, these can easily be seen as conditions of an essentially masochistic heterosexual femininity, as Freud will later suggest).

Ellis has to content himself with a script that positions the feminine invert as more open to being "cured" of her perversion than her masculine counterpart --- if she must be with a woman, then at least let that be temporary. Providing a heterosexual endpoint for the feminine invert allows for a clinical resignification of her desire for the masculine woman as "error", as something that she never really meant to do, thus confirming her passivity and innocence as belonging to perversion. But instead of allowing us to "move on" from the trouble the feminine invert has caused, Ellis's construction raises the possibility that, given their status as objects of masculine attention, all heterosexuality-bound women have the capacity to commit the same "error" of mistaking the masculine invert's attention for "the real thing". Rather than resolving the problem of the feminine invert, then, Ellis ends up by positioning femininity itself as susceptible to seduction by the masculine woman.

And what of those women who resist such circular reasoning by refusing to be finally "cured" of their satisfaction with the female-bodied? Ellis has no choice but to re-figure such a woman as failing in her femininity, her very refusal ample evidence of blatant gender-inappropriate willfulness. Interestingly, Ellis describes her as "the pick of the women whom the average man would pass by" (1918: 222). Such a curious construction serves several purposes. Firstly, it repositions her as unworthy of a heterosexual male gaze, rather than as refusing it herself. Secondly, while she is not quite attractive enough (i.e. feminine enough) to hold the attention of the truly masculine (i.e. male) gaze, the untrained eye of the masculine woman (or, presumably, the less than average man) may be more easily seduced. Ellis's turn of phrase places scare quotes around feminine and masculine inverts, relegating both to the realms of inauthenticity --- the former because of her lack of real feminine charms; the latter because of her inability to tell the difference. Interestingly enough, the masculinity of the heterosexual male in whose arms the feminine invert's cure is to be realized, is also called in question, since a real man would have passed such a woman by. He is necessary for her return to natural femininity, yet her perversion must surely "unman" him.

The reason I have detailed Ellis's construction of the feminine invert in some depth is because I believe it directly relates to contemporary femme narrative structures, through which femme subjects continue to be produced as inauthentic perverts in comparison to their butch chaperones. Writing in 1992, for example, Joan Nestle insists that Frank Caprio's 1950's view that feminine lesbians are "more apt to be bisexual and also apt to respond favorably to treatment" (1992: 143) is still a burden the femme must bear.

But in addition, I want to argue that this is not the only way reason that we might want to return to Ellis's construction of the feminine invert. As I suggested above, a close reading of Ellis can also identify mechanisms internal to his own logic, or more precisely that surface to disrupt this logic, and that might constitute a femme resistance. Thus, while the femme may continue to be haunted by her "inevitable return to heterosexuality", heterosexual femininity itself is scarcely free of perversion, but remains haunted in turn by the possibility of seduction by the masculine woman. In this respect, I would agree with Judith Butler that the figure of butch/femme exposes the "naturalness" of heterosexuality as heterosexist presumption (Butler, 1990), and that a heterosexual/homosexual separation is produced by psychic (Butler, 1993) or cultural (Hemmings, 1998), repudiation. But I would add that this opposition is further troubled by the fact that femininity (in women) cannot be seen to belong to either category. The feminine woman is structurally positioned as object of both a heterosexual and a homosexual gaze, whether she "allows herself" to be cured of her perversion or not. While her femininity is conferred upon her through the masculine gaze, it is also true that one cannot tell, just by looking, which gaze she will return. Femininity (in women), then, could be said to be the thorn in the side of a heterosexual/homosexual opposition, because it is needed to confirm a gendered and sexualized gaze, but only signals the former in advance. There is an anxiety-filled time-lapse between the gendered gaze and the sexualized knowledge that are supposed to be co-extensive. Ellis's femme formulation - "the pick of the women whom the average man would pass by" - suggests a rather more active resistance, too. Recent lesbian writings are full of femme subjects who are not so much "passed by" in terms of the heterosexual male gaze, but who actively refuse it (Nestle, 1987 and 1992; Munt 1998), either seeking out spaces (such as the lesbian bars and beaches of the 1950s (Nestle, 1997)), where they can position themselves as part of an exchange of female glances, or directly refusing that presumably "not so average man" who expresses sexual interest.

Theses two forms of resistance - structural and agented - come together in situations like following. Consider the common Saturday night situation most fem(me)inine women will be familiar with, when a heterosexual man has you in his sights, and you refuse his attention - "Are you a dyke or something? You're a dyke aren't you? Dyke!" I want to propose a reading of this that suggests, not so much that wounded male pride cannot conceive of personal rejection, but rather that his violence conceals his anxiety that you have been a dyke all along. He does not "realize" it through rejection; it is there as a possibility preceding his advances. The realization, requiring immediate foreclosure through his violent assertion, is that he was not able to detect "perversion", simply by looking. What is called into question, then, is the structural (and actual) relationship between the heterosexual male gaze and knowledge, a relationship which produces and reproduces the heterosexual male subject. And what if in that moment one responds "Yes, you are right, I am a dyke", if one does not capitulate to the demands of such a violent utterance? What if, in other words, one refuses to reinstate the heterosexual masculine subject's certainty via an affirmation of heterosexual femininity? It seems clear to me that in this case, the heterosexual masculine subject's anxiety (suggested by his initial accusation), is consolidated as wholly justified. In this respect, the fem(me)inine invert's relationship to dominant constructions of heterosexuality is similar to that of other passing subjects. The violent response that is the most likely outcome of the above encounter is born of the dominant subject's inability to "know" its object (and therefore itself). I am thinking here of the violence following the realization of Brandon Teena's "true sex".[2] It is a rage born of the (undeniable) knowledge that subjective authority is always founded on a fiction.

But I do not want to suggest that the contemporary femme should be claimed as the next wholly transgressive subject of queer celebration. This would be to ignore the ways in which, as Nestle suggested above, femmes continue to be positioned as "soon to become" heterosexual within both mainstream and lesbian discourse. While the femme cannot be reduced to heterosexual femininity, neither can she be entirely detached from its mechanisms; in Carole-Anne Tyler's formulation she remains "not-quite-not-straight" (1994: 241-3). Such a move would also be to overlook the extent to which, as I argued in my reading of Ellis, femininity itself is visibly unknowable as an indicator of sexuality, whether it is the performance of a straight or a queer subject. I believe it is extremely important to chart the ways in which femininity is made visible in sexual terms only through the gaze, and then presence, of a masculine subject, whether male or female. In other words, if the feminine woman is not heterosexual before returning the gaze, neither is she lesbian. In narrative terms, this means that the femme is invisible as a queer sexual subject once she is out of the sights, or does not return the gaze of the masculine woman.

My refusal to endorse a transgressive/regressive, or queer/straight separation in relation to the femme is a political decision as well as a theoretical impossibility. All too often, femmes produce themselves as queer subjects in opposition to an imagined straight femininity, one that is privileged yet oppressed, unknowing, meek and without pleasure (e.g. Bercuvitz, 1995).[3] Even where heterosexual femininity is not directly addressed, the need for a potential, if not absolute distinction between heterosexual and lesbian femininity is assumed rather than discussed (Whatling, 1998: 75, 234n2). The most notable exception to this is Joan Nestle's seminal piece "My Mother Liked to Fuck" (1983), in which she pays tribute to her "Jewish working-class widowed" mother, whom she remembers "liked sex and let me know throughout the years both the punishments and rewards she earned because she dared to be clear about the enjoyments of fucking" (468). The Regina Nestle of her daughter's imagination makes the urgent and necessary links between the ways in which heterosexual women and femmes creatively negotiate the confines of the masculine gaze, as well as the ways they are both subject to violence at the point that they resist confirming heterosexual masculinity, when she declares, "[t]hey called you freak and me whore and maybe they always will but we fight them the best when we keep on doing what they say we should not want or need for the joy we find in doing it" (470).
My aim in the rest of this essay is to examine several contexts within which some of the aspects of femme narrative I have discussed above come to the fore. As well as delineating dominant formations of contemporary femme subjectivity, I am also interested in articulating the possibilities of femme narratives that elude the masculine gaze, and that cannot be fully articulated within a heterosexual/ homosexual opposition.

Part II: (In)visible Subjects

At an event held in London in 1998 to mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Restricted Country in the UK, well-known femme writer and activist Joan Nestle characteristically blended poetry and politics, gradually drawing her lover into the skeins of her reading. For those familiar with Nestle's work this was nothing new, but the fact of her lover's unmistakably femme self-presentation appeared to shock an audience used to Nestle's well-documented desire for butches. Nestle has been the primary documenter of butch/femme erotics and culture (from the 1930s to present day), through her work to create and sustain the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, and champion of the same through her writing and teaching. Both aspects of Nestle's work have proved particularly important in the face of accusations from within a contemporary second-wave Anglo and American feminist movement that butch/femme "role playing" mirrors and reproduces oppressive gendered heterosexual relations (e.g. Martin and Lyon, 1972 and Jeffreys, 1993). Nestle has always insisted on both the internal validity of butch/femme and its radical difference from heterosexual relations, proving by her own progressive political involvement (similarly to other prominent femmes, such as Sue O'Sullivan and Elizabeth Wilson in this country) that femmes are, in fact, rarely invisible within left-wing sexual politics.
The audience discomfort with Nestle's desire shifting away from butch and onto a feminine woman (I do not know whether or not she identifies as femme) raises several questions about the conditions under which femme subjects are able, or not able, to make themselves visible contemporarily. The key issue here, it seems to me, is that even though Nestle has been highly visible as a self-identified femme for many years, her "new" object choice causes problems of both representation and narrative. In a direct recollection of Ellis's formulations detailed above, it is not clear how the observer is to recognize Nestle's femme desire, and therefore her femme subjectivity, without the presence of a masculine woman. In structural terms, Nestle is "failing" on two counts. Firstly, in dominant heterosexual terms she refuses to return the heterosexual male; secondly, she can no longer be constituted as "the pick of the women the average man would pass by", due to her failure to hold and then return the masculine woman's gaze. In other words, we no longer have evidence of Nestle as either heterosexual woman (a position she has always refused), or as feminine invert (which she has embraced). Nestle exceeds the narrative boundaries laid out for femme signification by taking a feminine object, which confounds the expectations of gender-regulated heterosexuality and homosexuality. Thus, Nestle forces her audience to reconsider the understanding of "the feminine" subject as the object of a gendered, if not exclusively heterosexual, gaze. As one audience member put it, femme-to-femme does seem truly perverse.

These concerns are particularly resonant in this context since it is "Joan Nestle" who is the subject in question. As a well-known figure within lesbian community and politics, Nestle's object-choices are public information. We already "know" her desire, and so what is construed as a shift in the direction of her desire, acts to throw a number of assumptions about fem(me)ininity into relief. Firstly, our confusion at this shift shines a direct spotlight on our reliance on masculinity as the catalyst for sexual signification, or, at the very least, it begs that question. Secondly, if an unknown femme had made a similar shift, she might conceivably remain, not invisible in gendered terms (since femininity is highly visible), but invisible in sexual terms. Thus, we might never realize that the two feminine women walking hand in hand were lovers, since this is one of the few displays of affection tolerated in the UK and the US between women without ties of blood. If we were unable to ignore the sexual nature of their relationship, however, if, for example, they were kissing in a lesbian bar, we might reinvent them as androgynous rather than femme, or as a product of the heterosexual pornographic imagination that views two feminine women as incomplete without a phallic interruption, or as acting on sexual rather than gendered attraction (eroticizing lesbianism rather than gender).
But none of these speculative narratives works in the case of Joan Nestle's desire for the feminine woman she addresses her writing--they have captured and held each other's clearly gendered gazes. Nestle continues to identify as femme (not only as lesbian), and is, in fact, visible without the presence of a butch, because of her position within lesbian history and culture. She may, structurally at least, have abandoned her butch, but this cannot be reconceived as a return to heterosexuality. And, possibly more threatening still, should her and her lover go their separate ways, there is now no way of knowing which gendered gaze Nestle might return next. In other words, at the same time as Nestle's fem(me)inine trajectory no longer fits the dominant femme narrative so neatly laid out for her, yet she cannot simply be banished from femme subjectivity. What Nestle has effected is a profoundly disturbing move that alters our understanding of femme location, to include a rather more complicated range of gendered and sexual possibilities.

Before moving on to look at how some of the different femme locations suggested by Nestle's movements might be articulated, I want to consider further the impact of the centrality of the gaze of the masculine woman/ butch in making femme subjectivity visible. My intention is to discuss this, not as a positive or negative legacy, but in terms of such a relationship's delimitation of femme narrative as well as the possibilities it opens up.

The disavowal of the masculine woman as the "legitimate" figure of lesbian visibility within early second wave lesbian feminism (e.g. Cook, 1979 and Stimpson, 1981), has largely been displaced by a "butch revival" within contemporary lesbian popular culture and theory. This focus takes a number of forms, either emphasizing the playfulness of butch or transgendered masculinity or, following Butler, arguing for the subversive potential of masculine drag in terms of its capacity to illuminate all gender as masquerade. Alternatively, writers such as Jay Prosser (1998) and Sally Munt (1998) insist on the embodied and historical integrity of the masculine subject, of the female-to-male transsexual and butch lesbian respectively. Thus in Heroic Desire: Lesbian Identity and Cultural Space (Munt, 1998) Munt writes that "[b]utch ... is the gospel of lesbianism, inevitably interpreted as the true revelation of female homosexuality ... Explicitly and implicitly the butch stands for the lesbian in the Lesbian Imaginary" (1998: 54).

In her careful mapping of a nineteenth and twentieth century butch genealogy, Munt's lesbian subject emerges through two central mechanisms: her visibly gendered difference which locates her outside of heterosexual relations, and her possession of the gaze, which marks her as a desiring subject. Only the two together can produce her as the subject of the "Lesbian Imaginary". Munt illustrates this through a passage on the pleasures of making a home in Brighton, where "it is just warm enough to provide a pavement culture to sit out and watch the girls go by" (30). Munt complicates my rendering of the butch's role as suggested above, however, by reinventing her lesbian subject as the lesbian flâneur, thereby expressing the ambivalence that typifies a butch genealogy. As the lesbian flâneur, Munt's butch is both visible and invisible; visible in terms of masculinity, but always with the possibility of passing as male, thus enacting the traditional role of the flâneur, who negotiates the urban landscape without being recognized.[4] Similarly, far from the gaze that signifies her desire being unidirectional, the heroic butch's desire is located through a complicated exchange of gazes between women. Thus Munt writes that:

Promenading on a Sunday afternoon on the pier, loitering in The Lanes, or taking a long coffee on the seafront, the gaze is gay. Brighton introduced me to the dyke stare. It made me feel I was worth staring at, and I learned to dress for the occasion. Brighton constructed my lesbian identity, one that was given to me by the glance of others, exchanged by the looks I gave them, passing - or not passing - in the street. (31)

In effect, what Munt has succeeded in doing is providing a complex scenario within which the butch can function as something other than a reflection of her stereotyped ancestors, the masculine invert or the 1950s bar butch.

Yet I want to suggest that however expansive the portrayal of the butch, here, the femme is still absent unless brought to light by a masculine presence. The structures of visibility and the gaze may bend, in other words, but they nevertheless remain both intact and recognizable. It is not possible for the lesbian hero of Munt's imagination to be anything other than butch in this context. Thus when Munt tells us that she learns to "dress for the occasion", for example, she is surely not suggesting full make-up and high heels, or blow dried hair, discreet earrings and a matching skirt and jacket. No, the lesbian hero "[s]wagger[s] down the street in her butch drag, casting her roving eye left and right" (43), and while she may not always be visible as butch, or the sole possessor of the gaze, "the lesbian flâneur signifies a mobilized sexuality in control, not out of control" (1998: 43).
It might be possible to attempt a move that expands the concept of the lesbian flâneur to include the femme, given that femmes are also visible in gendered terms, but not always visible in sexual terms, and that femmes are also in possession of the gaze, as we have seen. But this would, I believe, continue to privilege the masculine over the feminine, in much the same way that liberal feminists privilege men's centrality when they argue that women are "just as capable" of functioning as rational beings within capitalism as men are. I have always preferred the approach of writers like Irigaray, who trace the untraceable, the irrational, the anti-linear (1985 [1977]). In addition, it is important that the confusion caused by Nestle's refusal to return the gaze of the proper masculine (heterosexual or homosexual) subject, be incorporated into a theory of femme subjectivity and narrative. So, I want to propose that the femme cannot be the flâneur. I want to push the dominant construction of the fem(me)inine woman to its limits and suggest that the sexual invisibility of the femme, once outside an exchange of masculine-feminine gazes, marks her as the opposite of the flâneur. Instead of "in control", and central to narrative (we follow the butch's trajectory in Munt's description, above), she is "uncontrollable" and peripheral to narrative. I want to suggest, then, than rather than flâneur, the femme be considered passante, the one who passes by, as well as the one who passes.

Like the flâneur, the passante is a creature of the streets, a figure of the shadows, enabled by the development of the modern industrial landscape. As the one who passes by, she is watched, but also returns the flâneur's gaze, perhaps fleetingly, and then disappears from view. In other words she is located as passante, by virtue of the fact that what we see is controlled by the gaze of the flâneur, whose presence propels the narrative. To utilize a text appropriately saturated with ambivalence about the "proper lesbian subject", I want to highlight a key moment in Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). [5] Orlando's fictional biographer is the one who tells the history of her/his three-hundred-year transformations. Significantly it is at the point that "he" becomes "she", that her biographer begins to have trouble following Orlando--"As we peer and grope in the ill-lit, ill-paved, ill-ventilated courtyards that lay about Gerrand Street and Drury Lane at the time, we seem now to catch sight of her and then again to lose it" (1928: 211). What is interesting to me here is the fact that we have no way of knowing where Orlando is, and what she is doing, once she moves beyond the reach of her biographer's gaze. This passage also suggests another problem of representation that surrounds the fem(me)inine subject; if she is only visible in those moment when she is gazed at, rather than gazing, even those moments are inevitably produced from the masculine subject's perspective. Not knowing "which way she went", in other words, forces the biographer/narrator to see her relationally only, since there is no other documentation that he can refer to.
Theorizing femme narrative through the figure of the passante is appealing to me, therefore, because it allows us to witness the fem(me)inine woman's returning of the gaze, while acknowledging that if the gaze she returns is not that of a masculine subject then this is experienced as a radical break in femme narrative. It allows us to confirm femme agency (it is Orlando that loses her biographer), while not negating her location as peripheral to narrative. Thus, we can mark the subjective and social experience of being "outside" that a fem(me)inine subject like Nestle has to negotiate, while emphasizing that it is a fault of the "viewer", a question of perspective rather than truth.

The need to consider femme narratives on their own terms is illustrated by the empirical problems encountered by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis's in the research for their ground-breaking work Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (1994). Boots of Leather reconstructs the history of lesbian community in Buffalo, New York, from the 1930s to the 1960s, via an extensive oral history project (1994). In their "Introduction", Kennedy and Davis note, as has many a conscientious lesbian historian, that there are problems with using the term "lesbian" to refer to their "narrators" (participants in the oral history project), given that the majority of them used "butch and fem", "a butch and her girlfriend", or even occasionally "homos", to refer to themselves during the period in question (1994: 6-7). Nevertheless, the authors state that they "use the term `lesbian' to refer to all women in the twentieth century who pursued sexual relationships with other women" (6). Kennedy and Davis also make the methodological decision that they will only interview those women who still identify as lesbian at the time of the research project. As they themselves acknowledge "at the time we didn't realize how many fems we were excluding", and so consequently the authors ended up with "the stories of significantly fewer fems" (18) than butches. Interestingly, while they themselves suggest otherwise, the "still" above, indicates that Kennedy and Davis presume a retrospective truth to the term "lesbian", that was true at the time and remains true, or else is relinquished for something else--heterosexuality, predictably. What I want to suggest here is that we need to follow the trajectories of femmes on their own terms, rather than impose meanings that attach themselves more readily to a consideration of butch narratives, if we are not to "lose sight" of the femme as she passes us by. I am, unsurprisingly, far more interested in these "lost fems" of Kennedy and Davis's research than I am in those subjects that confirm the imposition of an always already lesbian (butch) gaze. As with Munt's lesbian flâneur, Kennedy and Davis's heroic subject, whose trajectory stretches forward and backwards in time from a privileged present, is invariably butch.

I want also to look briefly at femme narrative in Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues (1993), given that here is a text which distinguishes itself by being absolutely pro-femme, yet continues to struggle with femme narrative and representation. In a fairly lengthy passage below, Jess - the butch/transgendered hero of the narrative - writes a letter to her ex-lover Teresa:

They drove us out, made us feel ashamed of how we looked. They said we were male chauvinist pigs, the enemy...
The plants closed. Something we never could have imagined.
That's when I began passing as a man. Strange to be exiled from your own sex to borders that will never be home.
You were banished too, to another land with your own sex, and yet forcibly apart from the women you loved as much as you tried to love yourself.
For more than twenty years I have lived on this lonely shore, wondering what became of you. Did you wash off your Saturday night makeup in shame? Did you burn in anger when women said, "If I wanted a man I'd be with a real one?"
Are you turning tricks today? Are you waiting tables or learning Word Perfect 5.1?
Are you in a lesbian bar looking out of the corner of your eye for the butchest woman in the room? Do the women there talk about Democratic politics and seminars and co-ops? Are you with women who only bleed monthly on their cycles?
Or are you married in another blue-collar town, lying with an unemployed auto worker who is much more like me than they are, listening for the even breathing of your sleeping children? Do you bind his emotional wounds the way you tried to heal mine? ...
Only you could melt this stone. Are you ever coming back? (1993: 11)

In Stone Butch Blues Jess's femme lover Teresa is absent, despite the protagonist's best efforts to frame the story with her. She is prelude, nostalgically and sentimentally revisited (I still can't read the whole letter without brimming with tears), but absent nevertheless. What is unusual about the representation of Teresa, here, is that we are given a range of possible directions that she may have moved in once "out of the (narrative) control" of the masculine protagonist. Unlike Kennedy and Davis's lesbian projection, Feinberg does not restrict her femme's pathways by harnessing to an opposition between "still lesbian" or "gone straight". In fact, Jess quite explicitly disturbs such a mutually exclusive opposition by her suggestion that s/he is more like the blue-collar worker Teresa may be married to than the "women who only bleed monthly on their cycles". Teresa's narrative may have more internal consistency, in other words, if she moves from working-class (transgendered) butch to working-class man, than if she looks for the butchest woman in a contemporary lesbian bar. In effect, what Feinberg is highlighting is precisely the femme narrative structures that I have been concerned with throughout this essay. The gaze that Teresa returns is firmly defined as a masculine gaze, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and so therefore her own subjectivity is primarily gendered rather lesbian or straight (and in fact those terms are wholly inadequate in relation to Teresa).
Of course, from the perspective of the masculine gaze, Jess cannot accurately plot her journey; s/he doesn't know which way she went. Like Orlando's biographer, Jess is left to "peer and grope" in the half-light: "Tonight I walked down the street looking for you in every woman's face, as I have each night of this lonely exile. I'm afraid I'll never see your laughing, teasing eyes again" (1993: 5), though unlike Orlando's biographer s/he is at least able to trace imaginary paths for her. Yet even those imaginary paths rely on the presumption that the gaze the femme subject will return is inevitably masculine - as a result, Teresa is still imagined within a narrative that has the masculine subject at its centre.

Part III: (Re)imagined Trajectories

What if we alter our perspective, if we imagine taking Teresa or Joan Nestle as our subject and try to follow her, allowing the passante to take us where she will. Suivre la Femme! What if we do not lose sight of her once she has turned a corner, if we keep up with her? What if we relinquish the expectation of a (lesbian) narrative consistency that relies on the centrality of the masculine subject as the "authentic" subject? These are of course political suggestions, and as such bare tactical resemblance to some of those made in other contexts. I am thinking here of the "documentary" The Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1997), in which the protagonist tries to link the narrative of the elusive black femme actress of early 1920s film to her own. The (need I say, butch) protagonist of the film can only do so through traces she has left, pieces, snatches in other people's photographs, and through the remembrances of her butch lover, who the protagonist does manage to track down and interview. The audience's "surprise" at the final revelation in the film that this documentary is fiction (that not only could she not locate "The Watermelon Woman", but she never existed), belies the fact that the film could be said to be all about the constraints of femme narrative. As such, it highlights the fact that, currently, this is the only way in which one can tell the femme's story.
I am thinking here, too, of the methods employed by Jean Rhys in The Wide Sargasso Sea (1998), rewriting Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre from the perspective of the woman who had previously only been visible as "mad Bertha". In tracing Bertha's narrative from her own perspective, Rhys does much more than simply make central Bertha's otherwise peripheral role. She shows how this change irrevocably alters the way in which we see the "original" text, exposing the extent to which Bertha's confinement was in fact always central to the maintenance of a dominant, white heterosexual narrative trajectory.

Trusting in the integrity of the fem(me)inine woman has risks of course, and these should not be underestimated. The feminine subject has long been denigrated, ignored or pushed to the margins of political efficacy within feminist and lesbian theory and politics. As with Rhys's rewriting of Jane Eyre, prioritizing the femme is not simply a shift in emphasis; it forces us to rethink the "original plot". Following femme narrative will invariably take us into gendered and sexual spaces that we are unfamiliar with, that we do not have mastery/control over. As suggested in my reading of Boots of Leather, for example, "taking the femme seriously" cannot fail to disturb the assumptions about what constitutes lesbian history, and who the subject of that history is, or should be. Similarly, as Jess's letter to Teresa in Stone Butch Blues suggests, a consideration of femme narrative must necessarily challenge the assumption that a femme subject is now lesbian, now straight ("we seem now to catch sight of her and then again to lose it"). Once we release the femme subject from the narrative confines of the masculine gaze, Joan Nestle's object choice will no longer seem either bizarre or perverse, but one among many potential configurations that mark the fem(me)inine subject as always in excess of the heterosexist structures that seek to restrict her.



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[1]I am borrowing Ann Kaloski's formulation here, which both distinguishes between femme and feminine, but which also suggests their mutual dependence as outlined
[2] Brandon Teena was murdered by two men when they discovered that the person they had considered a `he' was biologically `she'.
[3] My understanding of the relationship between straight and queer femininity has been profoundly influenced by conversations with Ann Kaloski.
[4] My thanks to Elizabeth Wilson for drawing my attention to the flâneur's invisibility.
[5] I am thinking here of the significance of Orlando for the late twentieth century production of the ideal lesbian subject as androgynous rather than masculine (see particularly Cook 1979 and Meese 1996 [1992]).

Clare Hemmings is a Lecturer in Gender Studies and Gender Theory at London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the co-editor of The Bisexual Imaginary: Representation, Identity and Desire (1997) and guest editor of "Stretching Queer Boundaries", Sexualities, Vol 2, No 4, 1999. She is currently working on the cultural significance of sexual narrative and biography.

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