Knowledge is power. Sofie, however, has always felt pretty powerless, at least when it comes to academics. She enjoys school—playing soccer and hanging out with her cute, popular boyfriend Paul. And even though she and her single mom don’t have a lot of extra money, their home is loving and stable. But now, close to graduation, she realizes that her world is changing. The time she spends with Paul isn’t what it used to be, and her mother is beginning to pressure her about the future. When Sofie gets paired with her high school’s star student Clea, she is sure this is the final straw. Until she realizes something else. Clea’s the only out lesbian at school, and once she and Sofie start working together, Sofie begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself, what she’s capable of, and what she might become. A road trip with Clea to scout potential universities kicks off an avalanche of self-discovery, one which sweeps away her old life and just about everyone in it.
I wanted to like Femme, and while I didn’t actually hate it, I was unable to muster much feeling one way or the other. It’s a hi/lo title (high interest, low reading level) but that classification doesn’t mean that the book must be shallow and simplistic. Unfortunately, Femme is just that. Everything happens too quickly, too easily. Time zooms along. On one page it’s Christmas, on the next page it’s months later with no inkling of anything that might have occurred in the interim. Character development seems limited to a few signifiers: Clea is a good student! Sofie is a foodie (who never really talks about food or cooks anything after declaring herself a foodie)! Paul is handsome and popular! Along we cruise towards the predictable end of the story. Coming out stories still have their place in LGBT lit, but it is not unfair to expect more from them these days than mere self-discovery. Sofie’s story offers nothing more than that, and even the self-discovery is as insubstantial as every other aspect of the book. It seems like Sofie comes out because the author decided to write a story about a girl coming out. No stress, no struggle, just another plot point and on we go.
The world needs stories. We especially need lesbian stories, lesbian stories of butch women, women of color and size and age, stories of self-discovery and first love. We need all of this, and while Femme tries hard to deliver, ultimately I believe we can do better.
“Air Planes” is a work of short fiction, the first in a series by Anna Macdougal called The Lock and The Key: Butch/Femme Erotic Romance. It’s the story of marketing consultant Stephanie, fresh from the triumph of closing a deal, and her erotic encounter with the chivalrous butch woman she meets at the airport. Their chance meeting leads to high-flying intimacy, and–perhaps–love.
As you might expect from the collection’s title, this story relies heavily on the mystique and appeal of the butch/femme dynamic:
A butch lesbian stood near the exit, browsing the New Titles display. Something happens to me every time there’s a butch woman in my vicinity. Each cell in my body instantaneously comes alive and urgent messages from my femme brain race through my entire nervous system.
If butch/femme dynamics are your cup of tea, you will be quite happy with this promising debut. I found that mentions of “the butch” and “the femme” as objects–stepping back from the interplay between interesting, relatable characters to delve more deeply into that archetypal aspect of lesbian desire–distracted me from the otherwise excellent writing. However, I enjoyed the story immensely and will definitely read anything else that Macdougal produces.
I’ve been a fan of Ivan Coyote for years, so I had high expectations for this collection. It absolutely delivered.
It’s hard to sum up Persistence other than using its own subtitle. It contains a huge array of different kind of butches and femmes (and a futch, and some switches, and…), embodied by many different genders and sexualities.
The writing it top-notch, and there are a lot of big names: Ivan Coyote, Jewelle Gomez, S. Bear Bergman, Joan Nestle, Sinclair Sexsmith… The content ranges from academic essays to poem and short stories. Some are incredibly personal, and some are political declarations. I really appreciated the amount of essays that approached how race intersects with butch/femme, and a few that also address class.
If I could guarantee one thing, it’s that at least one entry in this collection will piss you off. There are opinions all over the spectrum in this collection, and there is a lot to be debated. For example: do butch and femme constitute each other, or can you be a butch without a femme and vice versa? Are femmes more privileged by having “passing privilege”, or are they invisibilized, or are people just not looking hard enough for femmes? Is the concept of “butch” too tied to whiteness to be used in an antiracist way? Can other sexualities and genders by butch or femme, or only lesbians? Where do butch and femme fit into the trans* spectrum, or vice versa, or are they unconnected? It is the trans* questions that are particularly divisive. But I think this range is the strength of the collection: it is a good attempt to encapsulate a broad-ranging community that is entirely in flux. And the voices are strong, so even the essays that were actively angering me were still compelling.
I definitely recommend Persistence, even (especially?) if you’re not butch or femme or know very little about butch and femme. It is an important part of the queer community as a whole today, and lesbian history as well. There are quite a few contributors that I will now be seeking out in a longer format.