Locating femme theory online
First Monday

Locating femme theory online by Andi Schwartz

Paying close attention to the Internet has revelatory potential for femme theory. Femme, a queerly feminine sexual and gender identity, has so far been under theorized and is often treated as unimportant or even suspect in queer and feminist studies (Martin, 1996; Harris and Crocker, 1997; Maltry and Tucker, 2002; Dahl, 2017). Work on femme has proliferated in response to this (mis)treatment of femme (Volcano and Dahl, 2008; Rose and Camilleri, 2002; Harris and Crocker, 1997; Duggan and McHugh, 1996; Nestle, 1992b), and looking to the Internet reveals a rich tradition of femme theorizing. In this paper I argue that femme theory is often produced through cultural and community forms and emphasize the potential of blogs and social media as sites of this knowledge production. Femme theory found online challenges the masculinist standards of queerness and, I argue, the masculinist standard of inquiry. I rely on a range of feminist, cultural, and queer theorists who engage with theories of epistemology to shift our understanding of the concept “theory” itself in order to make space for femme epistemology. In addition to challenging the superiority of masculinity, hegemonic femininity and patriarchal gender roles, and defying stereotypes about femmes, femme theory also complicates several aspects of formal knowledge production. Looking to the Internet is a crucial way to locate femme knowledge and attend to gaps in feminist and queer theory.


Femmes’ status in the academy
On femme “theory”
Locating femme theory online




Femme scholars have been critical of the lack of theorizing surrounding femme identity within queer and feminist studies, especially considering the greater degree of academic attention awarded to butch identities and queer and female masculinities (Martin, 1996; Harris and Crocker, 1997; Maltry and Tucker, 2002; Dahl, 2017). “Butch” and “femme” are identities that originated in working-class lesbian bar communities in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. Often coupled as a dyad, butch/femme has been conceptualized as an erotic dynamic (Nestle, 1992b; Minnie Bruce Pratt, 1995) as well as separate but connected gender, sexual, and political identities (Gomez in Nestle, 1992a). Though femme has origins in lesbian subculture, it has been theorized as a queer feminine identity independent of butch that includes lesbians, bisexual women, transgender and non-binary folks, queer men, and heterosexual women. These femme framings are not without contest, however: contemporary debates continue on Tumblr [1], for example, about whether femme can be anything but a lesbian identity [2]. As a bisexual femme myself, I define femme as a queer identity not tied to any specific sex or sexual orientation but rather as marked by a political engagement with femininity that manifests in one’s values and style. While I would say, to paraphrase Halberstam (1998a), enough hasn’t been said about femmes (in the academy), I argue that there is a lot being said about femmes outside the academy, and these conversations are worthy of our attention. In this paper, I underscore the need for more femme theory while also highlighting the need to look outside the academy — specifically, at the Internet — to locate already existing femme theory. In this paper, I consider misogyny, androcentrism, and femmephobia — a term that describes prejudice against femmes and the feminine in general — as causes of these femme absences in the academy, or what Vrinda Dalmiya and Linda Alcoff [3] call “epistemic discrimination.” As I call for more theorization of queer femininities, I also point to femme theorizing that is currently occurring, both inside and outside of the academy. In this paper, I aim to outline the status of femme in the academy and make a case for turning to the Internet to build a broader body of femme epistemology.



Femmes’ status in the academy

Some forms and bodies of knowledge, like those related to the feminine or women’s work or roles, have been subjected to epistemic discrimination. Dalmiya and Alcoff [4] argue that contemporary epistemological theories exclude traditional women’s knowledge by defining all knowledge as “propositional,” and other ways of knowing as “mere tales or unscientific hearsay.” Through an examination of the decline of midwifery and the rise of the OB/GYN, Dalmiya and Alcoff reveal how women’s knowledge — gained through bodily or community experience — has been dismissed and trivialized in preference for male-dominated, scientific, propositional knowledge, and how women themselves have been barred from entering into these accepted realms of knowledge production. Epistemic discrimination extends to other marginalized groups, and here I focus on femmes.

Though butch/femme was the prevailing lesbian style of the 1940s and 1950s, butch and femme lesbian expressions became equally demonized under the radical lesbian feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Some radical feminist theorizing during this time, in both grassroots and academic communities, constructed an androgynous gender ideal for lesbians and queer women, and an egalitarian relationship ideal in lieu of butch/femme sexual dynamics (and all other sexual relationships and activities that play with power, including, for example, S/M) (Nestle, 1992b; MacCowan, 1992; Harris and Crocker, 1997). This denigration of butch/femme roles coincided with a feminist disdain for femininity in general, the effects of which are still felt today as certain feminine adornments — high heels, lipstick, short skirts, etc. — continue to be conflated with internalized misogyny, depoliticization, and placating to the male gaze and patriarchy.

While butch identities enjoyed a kind of critical renaissance in the 1990s — an era that femme scholars Lisa Duggan and Kathleen McHugh [5] dubbed “the postmodern reign of the queer” — critical consideration of femmes in the academy has been slower to build. The intellectual interest in masculine, butch, androgynous, genderqueer, and transgender identities starting in the 1990s (see, for example, Butler, 1990; Wittig, 1993; R. W. Connell, 1995; Halberstam, 1998b; Noble, 2004) — and particularly the use of post-structuralist language that illustrated the subversive and radical potential of these gender identities — combined with cultural femmephobia seemed to privilege queer masculine identities over queer feminine ones, creating a hierarchy of queer identities wherein femmes rank near the bottom. Femmes have responded to this canon of queer thought by theorizing femme as similarly subversive, radical, and queer, both in the academy (Duggan and McHugh, 1996; Hemmings, 1999; Galewski, 2005) and outside of it (Rose and Camilleri, 2002; Hollibaugh, 2000).

Here, I am trying to illuminate the development of a canon, as well as argue that in an androcentric/masculinist institution like the university, masculine inquiry, and studies in masculinity are institutionally and structurally supported. Queer or female masculinities have so far been studied more than queer femininities, which builds a canon of queer feminist studies with a masculine slant, as well as the impression that masculinity is inherently more queer and interesting than femininity. I make this point not because I am “angry” at butch and transmasculine academics for their choice of research projects, or to say that butches are “to blame” for femmephobia (though, of course, they play a role in perpetuating it), but rather to illustrate the effect that misogyny, androcentrism, and femmephobia have on shaping the academy. The impact these factors have highlights the necessity of further developing femme theory.

In addition to femmes, third wave feminists have also produced nuanced takes on femininity, and studies in post-feminism are further adding to the complex understandings of the production and performance of femininity (Wolf, 1990; Baumgardner and Richards, 2000; McRobbie, 2009; Gill and Scharff, 2011). Further, the turn to affect in queer theory can be read as a revaluation of more “traditionally feminine” approaches and perspectives, and Tan Hoang Nguyen’s (2014) work on bottomhood is an explicit example of finding theoretical value in feminized perspectives. Ulrika Dahl (2012) calls for the development of critical femininity studies, and I see my work as contributing to the development of this field, alongside several other scholars. Though the emergent field of critical femininity studies [6] is evidence that scholarly interest in (queer) femininities is “catching up” to scholarly interest in (queer) masculinities, it is noteworthy that many of the canonical femme texts are not academic but rather anthologies, like The persistent desire: A butch-femme reader (1992b) edited by Joan Nestle and Brazen femme: Queering femininity (2002) edited by Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri, and memoirs like S/He (1995) by Minnie Bruce Pratt and My dangerous desires: A queer girl dreaming her way home (2000) by Amber Hollibaugh. I see these works and others that address femme in substantive ways as evidence that femme theory is often produced in non-academic contexts. Following this apparent femme trend, I argue that paying close attention to the Internet has revelatory potential for femme theory. Seeking to locate femme theory in cultural texts like memoirs or posts on Tumblr and Instagram can be understood as an extension of the political and epistemological project foregrounded by Dalmiya and Alcoff of examining sexism in knowledge production, reclaiming marginalized knowledge, and rethinking how we value the feminine.

This approach is not exclusive to feminist or femme knowledge. Knowledge production is also understood as a political project within queer Indigenous studies. Theories that address the “specificities of Indigenous gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and Two-Spirit lives and communities” are developed in academia (specifically within queer and Indigenous studies) as well as in grassroots movements and the everyday lives of Indigenous queers [7]. To focus on queer Indigenous knowledge producers is a radical act that has political implications. Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen [8] write:

[W]e center knowledges produced by Indigenous GLBTQ2 people in order to counter colonial representation, affirm Indigenous GLBTQ2 intellectual histories, and foreground multiplicity among Indigenous people to critically examine their production within power relations.

Feminist, femme, and Indigenous theoretical frameworks teach us that knowledge is political, and that theory may emerge from sites other than the academy, an idea I explore more in the next section.



On femme “theory”

My inclination to pay close attention to the Internet to locate femme epistemology comes from reading femme anthologies and memoirs, and also follows the work of several theorists who work to shift our understanding of theory to include non-traditional (i.e., non–white, –Western, –masculine) forms of knowing. In addition to the feminist and Indigenous scholars discussed above, I draw inspiration from Kath Weston (1995), who distinguishes between “straight theorizing” and “street theorizing”; José Muñoz (1999), who understands cultural workers as theory producers; Tavia Nyong’o, who proposes a “punk or punk’d theory” (2005); and Jack Halberstam, who borrows “low theory” from Stuart Hall, to name a few. In The queer art of failure [9], Halberstam describes the concept of low theory, a theory that gives credence to “the in-between spaces,” a “theoretical model that flies below the radar, that is assembled from eccentric texts and examples that refuse to confirm the hierarchies of knowing that maintain the high in high theory.” Halberstam uses “low theory” and “popular knowledge” to seek alternatives to neoliberal ideologies and “to look for a way out of the usual traps and impasses of binary formulations” [10] If low theory holds the potential for uncovering alternatives to dominant ideologies and challenging hegemony, then it is particularly apt to use this method to seek out feminized knowledges. In the context of low theory, Tumblr blogs and bloggers and Instagram [11] and Instagram users can be understood as not only sites of cultural production and cultural producers, but sites of theory production and theorists themselves.

Muñoz [12], too, understands cultural work as producing theory. He writes:

The cultural workers whom I focus on can be seen as making theoretical points and contributions to the issues explored in ways that are just as relevant and useful as the phalanx of institutionally sanctioned theorists that I promiscuously invoke throughout these pages. To think of cultural workers [...] as not only culture makers but also theory producers is not to take an antitheory position. [...] It should be understood as an attempt at opening up a term whose meaning has become narrow and rigid.

Though I, too, examine cultural productions — most often blogs — I still call this work “femme theory.” I intentionally use the term “theory” (in addition to other terms, like “knowledge”) even though traditionally “theory” is understood as the specific knowledge produced through the formalized processes associated with academia. This reveals one of the central tensions of my work: the contradiction of seeking to legitimize grassroots, community, and cultural knowledge through institutional language. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter [13] state that this tension is characteristic of feminist epistemology:

The history of feminist epistemology itself is the history of the clash between the feminist commitment to the struggles of women to have their understandings of the world legitimated and the commitment of traditional philosophy to various accounts of knowledge [...] that have consistently undermined women’s claims to know.

By using the term “theory,” I follow the tradition in queer and feminist studies of reading value into cultural forms of knowledge. Using the term “theory” to describe the knowledge gleaned from cultural productions demonstrates how altering our understanding of knowledge can improve upon existing epistemological theories. My conceptualization of theory extends to the cultural content produced and disseminated on the Internet. Even while my aim is to understand online content as theory in its own right, I am also trying to fold this work into the academy. I think it is useful to do so for two reasons: 1) so we have (more) contemporary and nuanced theories of femme subjectivity, identity, and politics; and, 2) so we can consider the Internet as a site of valuable knowledge production.



Locating femme theory online

I started my graduate work aiming to think through the possibility of creating a resource that would showcase the theoretical work on femme being done at cultural and community levels. As both a femme and avid Tumblr user, I continuously witnessed the production of femme theory online — whether it was understood as “theory” or not. The corner of cyberspace that I occupied led me to an informal network of femmes and I, like many others, was privy to their self-portraits (or selfies) and commentary that constructed femme identities in critical, intersectional, radical, and non-normative ways. Seeing and participating in this online activity motivated me to look at blogs more closely and examine how theory is produced in online communities and spaces.

The femme theory produced online matches the sketches of “femme science” put forward by Duggan and McHugh (1996) and extended by Dahl (2011). Duggan and McHugh [14] state that femme science “endorses the critique of traditional research on the grounds of its pretenses to objectivity” and “solicits loving, grateful collaboration.” Dahl (2011) uses this conception of femme science to frame her reflections of her 2008 femme-inist ethnography of her own community — queer femmes. This project, Femmes of power: Exploding queer femininities (2008), offers an example of a collaborative approach to research, drawing from the principles of femme science and other queer ethnographies. According to Dahl (2011), a study of one’s own community queers the masculinist standard of inquiry by problematizing both the notion of “the field” and the relationship between researcher and informant. Dahl argues that studying one’s own community queers the traditional notions of being “home” in the academy and “away” in the ethnographic field [15]. In the ethnographic tradition, distance signals “objectivity” which renders the research “scientific” [16]. Closing the psychic gap between researcher and informant by doing a study of one’s own community is part of the necessary queer challenge to notions of what “counts” as theoretical work. Femme-inist ethnography also enables collaborative methods, which question the hierarchy between the researcher and her informants [17]. In this context, collaborative methods mean understanding subjects not just as informants, but as experts and co-producers of theory [18]. This queer femme approach to knowledge production is mirrored in knowledge produced on the Internet. Femme knowledge produced online similarly challenges the masculinist standard of inquiry by 1) questioning the hierarchy of “high” and “low” theory; 2) challenging femmephobia; and, 3) utilizing collaborative methods.

As I mention above, one compelling reason to look for femme theory outside the academy is the sheer volume of work produced through blogs, zines, art, and other non-academic forms that engage with femme. I interpret this volume of work as evidence that femme theory often actively resists conventional knowledge production by questioning the hierarchy of “high” and “low” theory. In fact, many femme artists are critical of academics and the academy, and often value informal rather than formal education (see, for example, Milan, 2014). Producing and sharing knowledge through cultural or community forms, like on Tumblr or Instagram, is one way of putting this value into practice.

Another compelling reason to look outside the academy for femme theory is the persistence of femmephobia. Femmephobia is connected to misogyny and sexism and is an unavoidable cultural attitude, meaning it also pervades research. Masculinity is greatly valued in our society, and the university is a traditionally masculinist institution, so it follows that studies in masculinity are structurally supported. Online content is primarily user-generated, so while femmephobia cannot be escaped in or out of the academy, at least online femmes can skip over the gatekeepers to produce and disseminate femme content and build supportive femme communities on their own terms. This is a strategy has been used by other minoritarian communities since the Internet’s invention; women and queers often form online groups and networks based on shared subject positions and/or politics. For example, Leslie Shade (2002) has written about four specific groups using the Internet to further their communities: feminist academics who created mailing lists to create spaces for discussion; the global feminist movement that uses the Internet to organize policy-based activism; the cyberfeminist movement; and girls who use the Internet to create e-zines and Web sites [19]. Shade’s research demonstrates that, despite barriers to access for various groups of women, the Internet has become an inexpensive and flexible tool at many women’s and feminists’ disposal to facilitate interpersonal connections and political organizing [20]. Further, Radika Gajjala’s (2004) research demonstrates how South Asian women have used the Internet to navigate their diasporic identities and create connections with each other. Gajjala remarks that South Asian women’s listservs and Usenet groups often formed because women’s issues were marginalized and belittled in other Usenet groups based on ethnicity, specifically the group soc.culture.indian [21].

Tumblr specifically has been credited for allowing minoritarian communities and subjects to circulate images, art, and discourse of their own creation by Catherine Connell (2012), Marty Fink and Quinn Miller (2014), and Nichole Nicholson (2014). Self-representation occurs through the widespread practice of sharing self-portraits or “selfies.” Criticism of this practice is common, but theorists argue that selfies are political because they allow minoritarian subjects to create and control images of themselves (Rettberg, 2014). Nicholson [22] writes:

For femmes on Tumblr, then, the selfie is not just an innocuous practice of self-indulgence, or the sign of a cultural downfall as predicted by columnists for mainstream news, but a viable political and personal engagement.

Further, Nicholson argues that the selfies posted by femmes on Tumblr signal femme aesthetics: a kind of mixing and matching of masculinity and femininity [23]. These aesthetics are shared by numerous Tumblr femmes and thus indicate that femme culture spreads on and can be traced through online platforms. Nicholson [24] suggests that Tumblr is the “perfect medium” for this identity project, as it allows for obvious aggregates of selfies and self-representations by and of femmes that other users can engage in and with. Similarly, Fink and Miller (2014) argue that Tumblr has fostered cultural exchange among queer and trans people. The image-based platform has created intricate networks of digital self-representation. They say it is the specific elements of the Tumblr interface that allow for the disidentificatory work of resistant queer and trans people [25]. To truly appreciate the trans networks on Tumblr, Fink and Miller say it is important to consider the need for a new media space for trans cultural production, given the long history of obstacles to self-representation that trans people have faced [26]. Considering the obstacles to cultural and scholarly representation femmes have faced, going online is a promising strategy to overwrite femmephobia and femme erasure.

Further, the specific technological affordances on Tumblr enable the collaborative approach encouraged by femme scholars. In her study of the Tumblr blog Fa(t)shion February, Catherine Connell (2012) finds that Tumblr users produce texts that are multi-authored and hybrid, and thus she says knowledge on Tumblr is produced collaboratively. Connell [27] writes:

[P]osts on Tumblr are produced as blogs and reblogs — an original author posts a blog, but instead of commenting, other users reblog the original text and add their commentary. Often, this reblog is again reblogged, and so on, creating a multi-iterative, multi-authored text that proliferates in multiple directions at once.

Considering that collaboration is put forth as a cornerstone of femme science, not only is Tumblr the “perfect medium” for femme identity projects, but also for the production of femme knowledge. Positioning bloggers as theorists and folding their work into the academy would produce another mode of collaboration, as the bloggers would not only be informants but co-creators of femme theory. The embrace of collaboration and community-based knowledge challenges the standard of inquiry that is shaped by Western individualism and myths of androcentric objectivity. Producing knowledge about femmes from femme perspectives overwrites femme erasure in culture and the academy, challenging the femmephobia and male/masculine dominance in knowledge production that is a product of misogyny and androcentrism. The research by Connell, Nicholson, and Fink and Miller demonstrates that Tumblr offers a space for the creation and circulation of self-made images of minoritarian subjects. All of these theorists point to the subjects’ minoritarian status as the reason spaces like Tumblr that allow for self-representation are so important; positive and/or varied images of minoritarian subjects are rare on other media platforms. Considering these scholars’ work, it seems that the Internet would be particularly useful to femmes, and that knowledge about femmes would flourish online.




In this paper, I argue that more theories and studies of queer femininities are needed. At the same time, I argue that theory about queer femininities is increasingly being produced, especially in cultural and community forms like social media and blogging sites. Specifically, I argue that looking to the Internet has revelatory potential for femme theory, and fits with the traditions of femme science and theory. Through Instagram and similar platforms, femmes produce theories about femme identity and subjectivity. In content, femme theory often challenges the superiority of masculinity, hegemonic femininity, and patriarchal gender roles, and defies stereotypes about femmes. In practice or in method, femme theory often questions aspects of formal knowledge production, including how and where theory can be produced. Sharing knowledge over a social media platform like Instagram fits this understanding of femme science, as it emphasizes values like skill sharing and community building that are present in both academic femme theory and other cultural forms like anthologies. These values are further emphasized when we consider the different levels of accessibility in academic and cultural knowledge. Cultural knowledge like that found on Instagram could be considered more accessible than formal or academic knowledge in the sense that Instagram is viewable to anyone with Internet access, and it is usually coded through easily consumable images and colloquial language. In this way, I offer a theory of femme as cultural producer and theorist, building on existing theories of femme as a queer sexuality (Nestle, 1992b; Hollibaugh and Moraga, 1992; Kennedy and Davis, 1993; Gomez, 1998; Payne, 2002; Cvetkovich, 2003), a queer and subversive gender (Duggan and McHugh, 1996; Rose and Camilleri, 2002; Maltry and Tucker, 2002), and a political identity (Nestle, 1992b; Harris and Crocker, 1997; Galewski, 2005; Levitt, et al., 2003). Much of femme theory would be lost if community or cultural knowledge was overlooked or rejected for failing to adhere to prevailing ideas of what constitutes theory, and so I move to consider the Internet as a major site of femme theory.

It is no coincidence that the knowledge in danger of being lost or overridden is particular to women, to femmes, and to other marginalized groups. If we follow femme and queer cultural theorists, and shift our ideas of what counts as knowledge and begin paying attention to other ways theory is produced, not only can we can avoid losing valuable knowledge, but we can reaffirm our commitment to a politics that values queerness, and femininity, and challenges hetero-patriarchy. That knowledge production is political is unavoidable, but relying on epistemological theories that maintain oppressive social hierarchies is not. Theory cannot escape politics; it’s just a matter of deciding in which politics we ground our theories. End of article


About the author

Andi Schwartz is a Ph.D. candidate in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies at York University. She works at the intersection of critical femininities and digital culture. Her research interests include femme identities and communities, online subcultures and counterpublics, and radical softness. Her writing has been published in GUTS, Broken Pencil, Herizons, Shameless, Daily Xtra, and Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology.



1. Tumblr is a micro-blogging and social media platform. Tumblr allows users to post original content as photos, text, audio, and video, and to “reblog,” or repost, content originally posted by other users. In addition to reblogging content, users can “like” or “reply” directly to posts; all of these interactive options culminate in “notes” assigned to each post. The more “notes” — made up of likes, reblogs, and replies — a post has, the more popular it is on the site. Posts are archived and linked together by using hashtags. Users can interact directly with each other by using the “ask” feature. Asks can be answered privately or published on the user’s blog.

2. Other debates or conflicts within femme communities and scholarship include the centrality of whiteness (Dahl, 2014), the presence of ableism (Mingus, 2011), and the primacy of “hard femme” and performativity ( Vannewkirk, 2006; Walker, 2012), to name a few.

3. Dalmiya and Alcoff, 1993, p. 201.

4. Dalmiya and Alcoff, 1993, p. 217, original emphasis.

5. Duggan and McHugh, 1996, p. 155.

6. See, for example, Dahl, 2012, and special issues of Feral feminisms (2014) and lambda nordica (2016).

7. Driskill, et al., 2011, p. 1.

8. Driskill, et al., 2011, p. 4.

9. Halberstam, 2011, pp. 2 and 16.

10. Halberstam, 2011, p. 2.

11. Instagram is an image-based social media application and Web site. Instagram allows users to edit and post photos, like and comment on other users’ photos, and send direct messages to other users privately.

12. Muñoz, 1999, pp. 32–33.

13. Alcoff and Potter, 1993, p. 2.

14. Duggan and McHugh, 1996, p. 158.

15. Dahl, 2011, p. 10.

16. Dahl, 2011, p. 5.

17. Dahl, 2011, p. 3.

18. Dahl, 2011, pp. 8, 13–14.

19. Shade, 2002, p. 33.

20. Shade, 2002, p. 34.

21. Gajjala, 2004, p. 12.

22. Nicholson, 2014, p. 72.

23. Nicholson, 2014, p. 73.

24. Nicholson, 2014, p. 74.

25. Fink and Miller, 2014, p. 612.

26. Fink and Miller, 2014, p. 615.

27. Connell, 2012, p. 216.



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Editorial history

Received 1 June 2018; accepted 5 June 2018.

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“Locating femme theory online” by Andi Schwartz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Locating femme theory online
by Andi Schwartz.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 7 - 2 July 2018
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i7.9266

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