Troubles with the Dictionary: Defining Femme

Y’all – I’ve been having troubles with the dictionary.

It all started when I was researching for the FAQ page. I wanted to know just how exactly “femme” is defined in our language, so I went right to the source – the Oxford English Dictionary.

Now, as an English major, I’ve had many a run-in with the illustrious OED. One particular professor was, in a word, obsessed with referencing it. The OED is considered the authority; in fact its motto is “the definitive record of the English language.” I would link to it, but the OED is so exclusive that you have to purchase a membership if you aren’t a university student, so you’ll just have to take my word on this one.

The point of all this is to say, ostensibly the OED knows what it is talking about. So why is it letting me down so much?

boxer puppy

Not even this adorable face can fix it right now

First, it defines “femme” as “a lesbian who adopts a passive, feminine role.” Really? Passive?

What about all the femme tops out there? I wondered. But maybe passive isn’t as negative a descriptor as I think it is, I told myself. So I looked it up – and it turns out, it is much, much worse.

Beyond the sexual meaning of “passive,” (the “receptive partner” as the OED so decorously describes it), which does not necessarily hold a value judgment, there are a host of other definitions for “passive” that are unflattering at best.

The second definition of “passive” is “that suffers, (especially physical pain, death, etc.); exposed to suffering, liable to suffer” (emphasis mine).  Okay, OED, we get it – femmes are going to suffer. And not just a little bit. Nope, we can look forward to being tortured and killed. Perfect! (Also side note: that “etc.” after “physical pain and death” cracks me up every time. What is worse than physical pain or death?? What can that “etc.” possibly be referring to? Well, whatever it is, us femmes will find out soon enough.)

Oh, and there’s more. Us “passive” femmes are also “inert” and “quiescent” – we don’t “exert any force or influence.” So not only are we going to suffer great physical pain and death (etc.), for the short time we have on the planet we’re not going to do anything either. Guess these ladies are invisible, OED.

leisha hailey, chely wright, cynthia nixon, sarah paulson, cherry jones, portia de rossi, tammy lynn michaels, jennifer knapp, clementine ford, jessie j, cat cora, amber heard

Apparently all these people don't exist either

And you know what really gets me? The definition of “butch” is simply “a lesbian who is masculine in appearance or behavior.” There is no corresponding adjective for the “passive” that shows up in the “femme” definition. They could have added “aggressive,” passive’s opposite, or any number of other qualifying words, but they didn’t. And you know why I think that is? Because in the minds of those who write the OED, the word “masculine” is enough. It calls to mind all the images that are the opposite of “passive” – commanding, effective, strong, invulnerable. And therein lies the problem. A femme lesbian could never be any of those positive things, the OED tells us, because she’s feminine.

Coded right into the very definition of “femme” are all these underlying meanings that imply incredibly restrictive roles for the feminine that one would think we would have moved past in the year 2011.

I realize not every meaning of the word “passive” is applicable in every situation, and its use in the definition of femme is most likely sexual in nature. (But again, you’re still wrong, OED, because, SHOCKER, there are femme tops.) Despite the likely more neutral intention of the word, all the negative ideas behind “passive” are still there in its connotation. And it’s this kind of unfavorable and prescriptive language that contributes to the undermining of the femme identity in LGBT circles and beyond.

Okay y’all, I’m sufficiently worked up. The sticks and stones nursery rhyme is inaccurate – words are powerful things. That’s it for this edition of Troubles with the Dictionary, but stay tuned for part two – there’s a lot more where this came from!

So what do you all think? Why is the word “passive” included in the definition of femme? And why no equivalent in the definition of butch? And perhaps most importantly, what is that pesky little “etc.” referring to? Share your thoughts!

Click here for Troubles with the Dictionary Part 2: Defining Masculine and Feminine

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12 Comments on “Troubles with the Dictionary: Defining Femme”

  1. April 13, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    Me and the ‘ole OED are about to fight. Jerk.

    I think it is that very attitude that caused me to most identify as femme. Because yes, I AM feminine but no I’m NOT passive and quiet and demure and wilting. (And I may be a bottom but I am far from passive.) I identify as femme to turn the very idea of femininity on its ear. I know this is an argument that my hetero feminist sisters have as well but for us, it’s not just about redefining femininity but defending our very identities as well. (I realize that not everyone will agree with this, but I feel very strongly that femme belongs to the queer community alone.)

    • April 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

      You are so right about defending our identities along with redefining femininity. Not only are we challenging traditional roles for the feminine, but we simultaneously are fighting to make a place for ourselves.

      I agree with you in feeling that femme belongs to the queer community, and am planning a post on the topic sometime soon.

  2. April 14, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    Good article. But for the record, I think the whole top/bottom distinction is kind of stupid and unnecessary in general.

    • April 14, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

      It’s certainly not stupid for those of us in the BDSM community. Please do a little research before passing judgement.

    • April 15, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

      You know, the more I think about your statement, the angrier I get. Who are you to tell anyone that their identity is stupid and unnecessary? Do you really not realize what a terribly offensive statement that is?

  3. September 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    I have a question, why doesn;’t it say anything about femme as applies to bisexual females in the OED? are we not allowed to be known as femme just because we go both ways?

    • Lindsay
      May 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

      I would like to push this comment a little further and ask if a trans-woman would be able to be included in this definition of femme, or any self-identifying femme for that matter, gay, straight, or otherwise. OED has placed a very limiting definition on a term which is used by so many people, the same way they have limited the use of butch to masculine women.

  4. Reluctant Femme
    May 17, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    I think the OED hits at the heart of why i do not identify as femme. I do not like being pushed in passive boxes. i have that enough as a woman. I get rather annoyed when I get told I am a femme. And I am always told, I have never self identified. I am on this blog because I am struggling with whether I am a femme who is pissed off she is a femme (I am not a femme hater). It’s looking likely. I mean i was pissed off when I realised i was a girl too. I have always felt to much of a gobshite to be a femme (basically that is UK english for loud mouth bitch). Before I came out, I felt too much of a gobshite to be a woman. Always felt like a tomboy who likes lipstick. I have never felt like i perfectly fit into my gender expectation. You know, that’s not very femme or ladylike kind of shit.Oh bloody hell, I am confused. Plus one thing I don’t usually go for is the reclamation of stuff. I feel like if it oppressed get rid of it. But I LOVE make up and shoes- I know they have both been used to oppress!

  5. sylphette
    July 1, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Femme top here! Well the inclusion of passive in the definition of femme is an obvious assertion of pretty damn old fashioned and stupid ‘traditional’ gender roles. You know they used to say ‘the weaker sex’ and all of that, so like, all women, and therefore all femininity was regarded as weak and passive. Outmoded, inaccurate and offensive in my opinion.

  6. August 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    One description of femme that I have read focuses on femme identity as learning to be a girl
    in ways that don’t hurt. I think it was some one from a panel at the femme conference.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Call my bluff – the politics of lesbian language | Femme Meets Femme - November 26, 2012

    [...] Related article:  Femme on a Mission: Troubles with the Dictionary [...]

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