by Cyree Jarelle Johnson
I made my first Femme frienemy in College, as one of the organizers of an on campus Femme empowerment group. We were both Femmes of color on a campus characterized by walls of white snow for what seemed like half the year and throngs of didgeridoo playing white people. It was our differences that made us frienemys: we couldn’t be friends because frankly I didn’t like her, and we couldn’t be proper enemies because we shared the same community spaces and friend groups. Thus, the uncomfortable median of pleasantness and competition that characterizes the relationship between frienemies is what we opted for.
Greetings and goodbyes between us were half-hearted or hissed, forced on us because we didn’t want to make our friends uncomfortable. When we were alone in groups together we were invisible to each other. The distance was never breached by conversation or healing, nor do I believe it will ever be. I find this fact unfortunate, of course, but its not a surprise because Femme competition and frienemies rely on people’s similarities to cause envy and thus meanness.
Why do Femmes of color compete with each other? I’ve heard some good thoughts on the subject this year. I was a part of the Programming Steering Committee for Femme Conference 2012 which was held in Baltimore. While there, I attended the workshop “Mean Girls: Community Conversations on Femme Competition” with Amanda “Arkansassy” Harris and the participants had absolutely no shortage of causes for Femme competition. We were invited to write what we thought was the most common reason for Femme competition on a poster board, then other participants moved over to the card that they felt spoke to them the most. The card I wrote read “Competition for AGs, butches and studs”; my group was exceptionally well attended.
The Femmes who joined the group broke it all down in important ways. We spoke about how erroneous scarcity fears, the overvaluation of masculinity, and self hatred made it easy to compete with each other for masculine partners. We talked about how whiteness and white skin conveyed a higher status as a Femme than brown skin and ethnic features. But the workshop was awkward too, because in a group of 40+ Femmes, lots of the participants were now or had been in Femme competition with each other. Myself included.
As much as I would like to say I am nothing but nice to the other Femmes of Color that I meet, this is not solely the case. As soon as I put up my sign, the first Femme who walked over was the ex of my ex. I felt the drama bubble in my heart. Before I moved to Philadelphia, there had been drama that was really none of this Femme’s fault at all. I know because it was my fault: I was jealous of how close they and my boo still were after years of being apart. I felt less than this other Femme because of the way that her features read. That her walk had no limp. Basically, I stayed hatin on her silently.
Yet, there she stood before me, smiling and being pretty and pleasant, and it made me feel like crap. I had created an enemy in my mind of a near stranger. After the workshop I apologized to her and we had nice Femme times. I was embarrassed that I had been so mean for really no reason. Like many Femmes mired in competition with one another I was the victim of my own insecurities and self-conciousness. Certainly, some Femme competition is caused by real responses to bigotry and unfairness within our Femme communities—but some of it is an issue of personality clashes and egos.
On its own Femme competition doesn’t have to be a big deal. Everyone doesn’t have to like each other for our communities to work, but mutual respect is necessary. The more insidious face of Femme competition keeps us from organizing together and building bonds of community. It informally bars some Femmes from community resources and social spaces. And it plays
into the often recited notion that Femmes can’t get along with each other, which is also rested upon other incorrect ideas about the traits of Femmes. Femme competition keeps Femmes from operating in one of the ways that I believe to be most important to Femmeness: the creation and maintenance of Femme friendships.
Melissa Heckman addresses the importance of Femme friendship in the article “Body Image: I’m a Femme” when she writes “Femme is, in part, about femme friendships. Femmes are people who see another feminine person and purposefully ignore the culturally prescribed girl hate and learn to say, ”God, you are beautiful and I want to be your friend,” rather than, “She’s so much prettier than me, I hate her.”For me, so much of Femme completion comes from self hatred. It comes from looking at another Femme and thinking “this person is so much more X than me” and wanting to punish them, and punish myself.
Imagine what would happen if we harnessed that energy into healing from trauma and building resources for survivors. If we apologized to our Femme frenemies and worked with them to mentor Femme youth and write poems and cook dinner—even if we still didn’t like each other. Imagine what would happen if instead of fighting against one another we prioritized fighting with each other, even if we have exs in common, even if we don’t like the way the other person does Femme. Femme competition keeps Femmes apart, and Femmes need one another. I know that I can do better. I know that we can do better.
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Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.
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