femme camp

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Dykes could use a little camp these days. Open Lex and there’s roughly a 50% likelihood that the first post you read will take the form of abstract scolding: users berating each other for their toxic and abusive tendencies, the exclusionary nature of their desire, their temerity in wanting to hook up in a pandemic. It is not that these posts don’t speak to real and difficult truths, and I am sure in some cases they successfully convey information to those who need to hear it. But I worry about the whirlpool of moralism and sex negativity into which we find ourselves pulled.

Jenny Fran Davis’ inventory of “High Femme Camp Antics” initially promises to be a welcome departure from this whirlpool. It opens with sex—hot. Its theme is catastrophic desire—hot. Its internal structure hinges on a butch/femme daddy/girl sex game which, while pretty vanilla, is hotter than the usual bland representation of lesbian sexuality, at least in mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, the initial promise of HFCA swerves quickly in a disturbing direction. It is not very fashionable, post-“Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” to claim that gay people sometimes do imitate straight people, but at risk of cancellation I’m going to say it. Despite Davis’ best efforts to insist on the queerness of her antics, the forms of manipulation, misogyny, and cruelty she catalogues have been taken directly from the heterofeminine playbook.

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I have long been interested in the heterosexual equivalent of HFCA, a set of behaviors so indistinguishable from what Davis describes that it doesn’t seem worth giving them a separate name. These HFCA are what the media theorist Anna Watkins Fisher theorizes through the figure of the parasite: “Parasitism is a misogynist trope that portrays femininity as smothering and overly reliant: the ‘clingy’ mistress, the idle ‘trophy wife,’ the ‘kept woman,’ the ‘plus one,’ the ‘hanger-on’ who ‘makes it [her] profession to dine at another’s table.'” In a reading of I Love Dick, Fisher suggests that Chris Kraus strategically performs parasitism as a form of feminist commentary on her own abjection and complicity with patriarchy: “Rather than fleeing charges of overattachment, Kraus embraces the compulsiveness and overintimacy with which the so-called dependent woman has already been charged […] A self-described financial and emotional drain on her husband’s resources, she is emotive excess.”

While Fisher captures the strategy of Kraus’ antics with vivid precision, her argument unravels by neglecting to mention that Kraus is also a literal parasite. (Control-F “landlord” in the Play in the System eBook and you will find yourself sorely disappointed.) This is the problem when heterofeminine antics are celebrated as transgressive, feminist, or so hysterically straight that they actually become “queer” (an argument made more often than you might think). Very often, they are being enacted by women who wield real power, whether in the form of whiteness, affluence, real estate holdings, or other modes of capital, yet who obscure this power through claims of helplessness and victimhood. I don’t know if Davis’ statement, early in the essay, that she’d never considered that her HFCA might harm people is disingenuous—either way, it is telling.

Davis claims that “the difference between HFCA and straight feminine manipulation is ultimately a difference of stakes, orientation, and alignment.” This sentenced confused me deeply—if anything, surely for dykes the stakes are much higher? Where straight dynamics might be founded on antagonism, dykes have no heterofatalist smoke screen to convince them they have no ethical obligation to their partners. Deliberately subjecting your lover to emotional chaos is never a cute look, but when that manipulation is partly enabled by the power imbalance of their desire for you (the “pretty lesbian”), it all becomes extra sus. If this manipulation also incorporates misogyny—”being cruel about other women’s looks if I was threatened by them, calling them potato-faced, log-like, animatronic”—it begins to resemble the worst sides of heterosexuality.

I should say here that this is not a diagnosis of Davis herself or her relationship. I think it’s weird to do that, even if the personal essay form openly invites it. I’m not sure how helpful it is for online queers to respond to this essay by denouncing Davis’ relationship as abusive; aside from being a little overblown, such charges patronizingly speak for Davis’ partner in a way that solves nothing. What compelled me to write this reflection is that I think Davis does capture a real phenomenon—one that extends far beyond herself—and I wonder if this is an opportunity to have a conversation about the kinds of harms perpetrated (in particular) by white cis femmes against their gender deviant, trans, and/or non straight-passing partners.

Such harms were recently catalogued in the queer cultural disaster that can only be described as what would happen if Sara Ahmed wrote a horror movie. In this film—an act of lesbian-on-lesbian violence tragically perpetrated by Clea Duvall—Kristen Stewart plays a dyke orphan, Abby, whose homophobic girlfriend, Harper, tricks her into entering the haunted house that is her childhood home. Here, Harper’s wealthy relatives and (most of all) Harper herself subject Abby to a series of emotional hazing incidents that conclude in the terrifying absorption of Abby into the bourgeois family (an ending not dissimilar to that of Midsommar). It is, as Maxi Wallenhorst put it, “Get Out for white lesbians, so nothing really happens to them except they’re trapped in fantasies of their own innocence.”

Against the possible charge that this is coming off as a little femmephobic, I’ll admit that I carry a certain amount of personal bias based on some minor-league gender trouble of my own. Before the pretty recent moment when I was finally able to admit/recognize that I was butch, I developed an almost decade-long grudge against cis femme identity that I now realize was largely caused by feelings of misrecognition. In the long, confused period when I attempted to resolve my vexed relationship to femininity—attempts that included an ongoing experiment with being a stone top and, like Davis’ butch girlfriend, tattooing the word “dyke” on myself—the time I felt least wrong was dating other femmes (go figure). In one such period, my former lover and I would make out while we were both wearing lipstick, smearing a clash of colors all over each other’s faces. “The femme4femme horror show,” we called it. Another term might be High Femme Camp Antics.

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