Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities

Two articles introducing the ground breaking and seminal book ‘Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities’ by photographer Del LaGrace Volcano and writer and academic Ulrika Dahl.

Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities


What does femme mean, and how does it differ from the ‘traditional’ femininity which feminism so often puts under the microscope? Milly Shaw reviews a book of photographs of and interviews with femmes from around the world Milly Shaw, 8 September 2008

Stilettos, lipstick, beards: there’s more than one way to be a queer femme. Photographer Del Lagrace Volcano and writer Ulrika Dahl have travelled seven countries in their quest to explore the notion of queer femininity. The result is Femmes of Power, a book of coffee-table-beautiful photography mixed with postgraduate-level queer theory discussions of gender expression.

In a queer world that can still be suspicious of women who claim to be gay yet have long hair, femmes like Swedish linguist Charlotte Karlsdotter, who believe “a well-shaped and kept beard is a beautiful ornament that shouldn’t belong to men only”, occupy a whole other level of queer femininity, which Lagrace Volcano and Dahl are delighted to explore.

The first hurdle for self-identified gender-variant photographer Lagrace Volcano was the very notion of photographing femme women. As he explains, “I asked myself if the world actually needed any more images of ‘pretty women’ since proud, powerful images or portrayals of masculine women are still so rare on screen or in print.” And while it may be true that images masculine women are conspicuously absent, femme women are also largely invisible within queer spaces, and queer women are still underrepresented in mainstream media.

Lagrace Volcano is ‘committed to making images with (speaking) subjects rather than taking images from passive or silenced objects’

Another issue for Lagrace Volcano was how to avoid the near-inevitable objectification of the women being photographed. “…my femme (pretender) history would not be know or apparent to the (mostly) women whom I was working with on this project,” he writes, in the introduction. “Would they see me as a man? Or worse, a ‘wanna-be white man’ aiming his phallic lens at their already over-objectified bodies?”

To avoid the inevitable problem of objectification, Legrace Volcano and co-author Ulrika Dahl haven’t just photographed over 40 amazing queer femme women, they’ve also ensured that each has a voice, a chance to explain and express their understanding of their own femme-ininity. This, for Lagrace Volcano, is the key to his ‘queer feminist methodology’ as a photographer, a working ethos “committed to making images with (speaking) subjects rather than taking images from passive or silenced objects.”

The notion of queer femininities is huge, and Lagrace Volcano and Dahl don’t pretend to cover all aspects. However, they do a remarkable job of looking beyond just white, English-speaking, young, thin bio-women for the subjects of Femmes of Power.

Next to larger-than-life artists and performers such as trans male femme Debra Kate (her favourite look: “a cross between a doll and a birthday cupcake, a child’s drawing of an animal and a clown”) are quieter stories of everyday invisibility and frustration at a femme-unfriendly queer culture.

To us, femininity is neither phallic fantasy nor default, it’s beyond surface and it certainly does not passively wait to come alive through a (male) gaze

“I’m a diesel dyke, in the working-class, take no shit, proud and loud tradition,” says Portland’s Sossity Chiricuzio. “My gender is femme. As much as I love butches, I got tired of my dyke strengths being minimised by them. Almost invariably, if I changed a tyre, used a power tool or picked someone up (sometimes literally) I was told I was ‘having a butch moment’. It doesn’t work like that. I’m a femme, and I do it, so it must be a femme, or even better, a non-gendered thing to do.”

“The images in this book begin to make us visible – in all our glory – yes, in all the complexities of our irreconcilable, besieged, magnificent queer personas,” writes Dahl. “Over the years, I’ve struggled to determine whether I believe femme identity is a drag identity. Trans identities, butch identities, leather daddies and bear bait, drag kings and drag queens and all of the various variations of the drag persona have currently found homes in the land of queerness.”

“To us, femininity is neither phallic fantasy nor default, it’s beyond surface and it certainly does not passively wait to come alive through a (male) gaze. Fiercely intentional, neither objects nor objective, we have stuff to get out our chests. But speaking bittersweets truths to power takes both busty bravery and some serious padding.”

Femmes of Power flirts across the boundaries of straight and gay, male and female in pursuit of femme and femme-ininity. Read the often-weighty text for a deep exploration of queer gender theory, or just flip through the pages of gorgeous photography for some inspirational rethinking of what it means to be femme and queer.


Del LaGrace Volcano and Ulrika Dahl: Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2008.) A lot of mascara and ink has been spent conceiving passionate poetic theory about what the world looks like through a femme figure. (Dahl, 2008) For casual visitors to the king- or queen-dom of ‘queer’, feisty and unashamed examples of ‘gender bending’ or ‘cross-dressing’ would perhaps seem most appropriately and obviously to epitomise the ‘queer’ undoing of normative gender stereotypes. Texts such as Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity might appear to uphold this assumption. Here, Halberstam argued groundbreakingly that genealogies of the masculine need to look as much to masculine women as to masculine men to make sense of the set of performative attributes and gestures that make up ‘masculinity’, effectively de-coupling maleness from its social counterpart and showing up the lack of inevitable fit between them. In common parlance, ‘drag’ refers to the putting on of the garb and attributes of the sex to which one does not belong. Judith Butler was clear in her canonical Gender Trouble, that the binary genders of masculine and feminine ‘belong properly’ to none, this ‘belonging to a sex’ being already part of a normative binary logic that excludes intersexed, trans- and gender-variant bodies and lives. Rather, genders are social constructions that straitjacket subjects as either male or female and then create by means of repetition and cultural approbation the illusion of sexual difference as naturally occurring gender. In Butler’s logic, then, there is nothing inevitable or natural about a self- identified woman putting on masculine or feminine ‘drag’. Rather, there is ideology that expects one sort of performance rather than the other. But this expectation can be subverted and the meanings of gender subtly challenged when femininity or masculinity are performed ironically, excessively – in short with queer intent. In spite of this Butlerian insight, it is only relatively recently that scholars and activists have explicitly asked question about the meanings generated when queer women actively and self-consciously produce ‘feminine’ appearances, performances and identities as both sites of resistant gender politics and sources of allo- and auto-erotic pleasures. The collaboration between ‘off-white, self-proclaimed hermaphrodyke’ photographer, Del LaGrace Volcano, and Swedish ‘femme-inist’ ethnographer, Ulrika Dahl, resulting in the aesthetically wondrous and theoretically rich coffee-table-book-cum-radical-manifesto, Femmes of Power, is one such recent contribution to this growing body of scholarship and queer life documentary. It is at once a personal celebration of communities of femme queers, linked by their deliberately avowed and performed femme-ininity, across a series of national and continental

contexts, and an academic intervention in queer studies. As such, the book defies and redefines generic, as well as gendered, conventions. In her introduction, Ulrika Dahl reflects upon her position as ethnographer, teasingly and thought-provokingly addressing the question of ‘femme science’, a term coined by Lisa Duggan and Kathleen McHugh to whose femme scholarship the book addresses itself, and alongside which it finds a place. If science is a masculinist or phallogocentric endeavour, underpinned by its ambition of neutrality, mastery and possession, what is at stake when a queer femme speaks as an ethnographer? Focusing on the queer notion of plural selves, plural positionalities from which we speak and act, Dahl reconciles her identities as a social scientist and a queer femme activist, subject and lover, precisely by refusing to reconcile them, refusing to elide their tensions in order to make them fit a seamless illusion. The femme scientist is one who rejects ‘the imperialist fantasy of scientific “discovery” and question[s] a capitalist consumption logic that feeds on always inventing something new’ (p. 20); rather, she ‘solicits collaboration’ (p. 20) in her collection of ethnographic data. This reflection on feminist ethnographic method echoes Volcano’s photographic principle of making photos with subjects, rather than taking photos of them and the awareness of a history of domination underpinning portraiture: ‘The history of photography is also the history of the violent and ubiquitous exploitation of those who are considered marginal and disposable with the camera as its weapon of choice’ (p. 14). Volcano’s ethics of production is materially underpinned by the innovative ‘copyleft’ system, a form of copyright licensing in which the photographer surrenders certain rights over the distribution of the photograph, resisting the conventions of controlling and capitalising on the image created. An ethos of sharing – of both knowledge and images – runs through the book, then, uniting the collaborators’ methods and subtly, but insistently, rejecting the taking from that characterises mainstream art and ethnography. Thus the doing differently of queer femme performativity is imported to the academic practice of sociology and the artistic practice of photography. SQS The multiple versions of femme identities and practices that expose and celebrate themselves throughout the book similarly resist the ascription of sameness – while nevertheless drawing on solidarity, continuities and community ethics. ‘Femme’ is rendered multiple and multi-layered throughout by considerations on the part of Dahl, Volcano, and the book’s subjects and co-creators, of the intersecting factors of nationality, ethnicity, class-mobility and identifications. ‘Femme’ is not understood as the simple counterpart of ‘butch’ in a lesbian couple here; though at moments and in certain contexts it may well appear as such. Straightforward and permanent binary either/ ors are entirely exceeded by the complex and multi-layered stories and images that are produced. In short, as Dahl puts it, femme ‘never sits still and she is always in relation’ (p. 20). In its commitment to re-imagining ‘femme’ apart from ‘its heterosexist history’ (p. 20), the book engages with those involved in sex work and fat activism; with ‘transfemmes’, bearded ladies, and queer dykes who play with stereotypes of the ‘exotic’, ethnically-marked female, opening the horizon of meanings for those forms of femininity that are subjugated or marginalised in heteronormative narratives. ‘Dyke Marilyn’, for example, is a character performed by Maria Rosa Mojo on London’s club scene. She incarnates humorously ‘the bastard child of Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix who inherited Jimi’s looks and Marilyn’s guitar skills’ (p. 48). She at once debunks and re-creates in celebratory fashion a ‘white idol of femininity’ with ‘black roots’ – the pun on hair dye and ethnic origin a typically femme queer strategy for playing with and undermining the language of categorisation. In Volcano’s photograph (pp. 46–47), she takes a provocative stance in the foreground of a London tourist site, Piccadilly Circus. Dressed in a feather boa, red basque and holding a guitar, she 1/2011 64 Queer Eye Reviews Lisa Downing
dominates the city scene, gazing straight at the viewer, a snarl playing over her red lips. Dyke Marilyn, in her dismantling of categories of ethnicity and iconic femininity, embodies the copy without original, showing up through her ironic citation of Marilyn’s sexiness the very constructedness of feminine desirability in the heterosexist mode, and making it signify otherwise. She imbues it with a queer femme feistiness that both makes us look and that looks back at us challengingly. San Francisco-based Dominatrix and BDSM-educator, Mistress Morgana, similarly adopts strategies of ludic parody and deliberately faulty citation to re-encode and queer the meanings of sex work and domesticity. A ‘twisted Martha Stewart’ (p. 129), her persona is that of a paradoxically kinky-yet- prim 1950s housewife, photographed (pp. 128–9) in the setting of her floral-bedecked retro kitchen. In this image, she smiles warmly and proffers a plate of home-made cupcakes, made from eggs laid by her hens whose names, we are told, are Rita Hayworth and Sophia Loren. The deployment of vintage glamour aesthetics at once appeals to a sense of women’s history and, in its queered form, suggests pleasurable ways of recuperating images and modes of femininity loosened from their ideological linchpins. This double-use of history for reverse discourse is adumbrated in the attention Mistress Morgana accords to the context of some of the fetishes with which she engages: a desire to serve Morgana in 1950s domestic servitude is accommodated so long as it is accompanied by an ‘awareness of the racist reality of that decade’s McMcarthyism and American Apartheid’ (p. 130). Insisting on the necessity to ethically contextualise our desires and practices, Morgana’s form of erotic domination suggests a groundedness in political consciousness that separates queer femme kink from much of its un-self-reflexive heterosexual counterpart. It is, perhaps, in attending to the uses of history to inform the present and shape the future that the overarching ambition of Femmes of Power – ‘to explode the meanings of femininity’ (p. 26) – might be achieved. As a personal footnote to this review, I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the Femmes of Power project when Ulrika Dahl and Del LaGrace Volcano agreed to perform a presentation based on it at a colloquium on ‘Queer in Europe’ that I co-organised with Robert Gillett in Exeter in September 2008. As a scholar of international queer, I found both the publication of the book and the series of presentations and launch events that accompanied it to be a genuinely important event in queer her-story; a visual and verbal dis-articulation and re-framing of so many deleterious and still persistent ideas about femininity – within LGBT cultures, as well as in the heterosexual mainstream. This is a book that engages the senses as well as the intellect; an encounter with it is a synaesthesic and intersubjective interaction with the other and the same. It is my belief that everyone could benefit from an encounter with Femmes of Power. Finally, as a leopard-print-clad, shiny-boot-shod, queer- identified femme, who would never be brave enough to present myself to the camera, I rejoiced in this book in a spirit of rarely experienced recognition, understood in the capacious French sense of reconnaissance, which etymologically encompasses gratitude as well as identification. Works cited Butler, Judith 1990: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge. Duggan, Lisa and Kathleen McHugh 2003: ‘A Fem(me)inist Manifesto’. In Chloe Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri (eds): Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press. Halberstam, Judith 1997: Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press. SQS 1/2011 65 Queer Eye Reviews Lisa Downing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s