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?
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.
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!