I’ve hesitated on posting this a few times, because it’s taken me a while to feel that I understand this provocative and powerful speech. It’s by Mia Mingus, “a queer physically disabled woman of color, korean transracial and transnational adoptee writer, organizer and community builder” who blogs on her site Leaving Evidence. She spoke at the Femmes of Color Symposium in Oakland, CA, and this was her keynote address.
Now, this has been all over the radical queer blogosphere (oooh it rhymes), but with very little comment other than short exclamations of joy. Maybe it’s just me, but I want to have a larger conversation about what she’s saying here. This speech engaged and provoked me so much that I resisted much of it at first, as have many of the more powerful concepts that I now hold dear to me, and like any good piece of writing, took me on quite the journey. I think it is extremely relevant to our interests over here.
Sidenote: I consider femme to be a non-conforming gender. Like other gender variations, it confronts normative ideas of ‘natural’ gender with flamboyant and conscientious performativity. I have met femmes of many genders, and I have met people for whom femme is their one and only gender. Femmes in particular often face invisibility from their own communities and hatred of the feminine from the mainstream world.
On to the speech.
This is the most oft-quoted section of the piece, which says to me that it moves people the most. I’ll start there:
“If we are ever unsure about what femme should be or how to be femme, we must move toward the ugly. Not just the ugly in ourselves, but the people and communities that are ugly, undesirable, unwanted, disposable, hidden, displaced. This is the only way that we will ever create a femme-ness that can hold physically disabled folks, dark skinned people, trans and gender non-conforming folks, poor and working class folks, HIV positive folks, people living in the global south and so many more of us who are the freaks, monsters, criminals, villains of our fairytales, movies, news stories, neighborhoods and world. This is our work as femmes of color: to take the notion of beauty (and most importantly the value placed upon it) and dismantle it (challenge it), not just in gender, but wherever it is being used to harm people, to exclude people, to shame people; as a justification for violence, colonization and genocide.”
Absolutely amazing. But by far, not the hardest part to digest. I want to share with you some pieces I found more difficult, and how I’m now thinking about them.
“To me, femme must include ending ableism, white supremacy, heterosexism, the gender binary, economic exploitation, sexual violence, population control, male supremacy, war and militarization, and ownership of children and land.”
This is interesting to me, because in my circles, gender is often treated as something that is political enough in itself, and should not necessarily carry more political burdens. I am certainly tempted by the idea that no one should have to answer for their gender. However, the following story brings this more to light, I think:
“Many people assume that I identify as femme and even call me femme, but the truth is that “femme” has not felt like a term where I belonged nor was it a place I wanted to be. I rarely see femme being done in a way that actually challenges and transforms gender, rather than colluding in an alternative enforcing of gender. Many of the people in this room are more invested in being beautiful and sexy than being magnificent. Even something as small as the time I nervously asked a comrade femme of color friend of mine to wear sneakers in solidarity with me, instead of her high heels, because I didn’t want to be the only one and didn’t want to get chided from other femmes of color about my shoes (as so often has happened). She said “no,” but she (of course) “totally didn’t think there was anything wrong with wearing sneakers.”
This definitely changed my mind somewhat, since that story shows gruesome lack of solidarity, apparently thinking they were excused because of their gender. However, I still feel like this might be a case where the person needs to be held accountable, not ‘femme’ in itself. Even though I understand wanting to have distance from something because of negative personal experience, I’m not sure that holds up conceptually. But, in all fairness, she’s addressing a room full of self-proclaimed femmes of color, calling them out on their shit, and being super-brave. She’s showing them her vision:
“…gender was about being a grounded force to end violence. Their gender was about forging dignity out of invisibility that could slice through femininity that would rather be pretty than useful. Their gender was about answering the question, what is the work you are doing to end violence and poverty, not what shoes are you wearing. Their gender was about feeding family and raising children collectively; organizing for themselves when no one else would. Their gender was a challenge to the world they lived in that was trying to erase them.
As femmes of color—however we identify—we have to push ourselves to go deeper than consumerism, ableism, transphobia and building a politic of desirability. Especially as femmes of color. We cannot leave our folks behind, just to join the femmes of color contingent in the giant white femme parade.”
This does seem to me to be a lot of stress to lay on gender, but it is an incredible call to action. I hope everyone in that room was able to get some inspiration from this vision.
Now her main solution to the problematics of ‘femme’ is to replace the ideals of beauty with the ideals of ‘magnificence’:
“The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself. The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use. A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed. The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.
Because we all do it. We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty. Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot. What would it mean if we were ugly? What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s? How do we take the sting out of “ugly?” What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel? What would it take for us to be able to risk being ugly, in whatever that means for us. What would happen if we stopped apologizing for our ugly, stopped being ashamed of it? What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent? “
I really appreciate this concept. However, I wonder how useful it is to have a whole new word and concept, when perhaps the concept of beauty just needs to be expanded? She says:
“There is only the illusion of solace in beauty. If age and disability teach us anything, it is that investing in beauty will never set us free. Beauty has always been hurled as a weapon. It has always taken the form of an exclusive club; and supposed protection against violence, isolation and pain, but this is a myth. It is not true, even for those accepted in to the club. I don’t think we can reclaim beauty.”
Perhaps I am in such a privileged position (white, thin, enabled) that I can’t imagine the difficulty it takes to reclaim beauty. But I think I see beauty being reclaimed every day. I see people refusing the beautiful/ugly binary. And perhaps that is what her magnificence is all about–it’s the fusion of that binary, the place of tension at their axis. This essay definitely made me see that the concepts of beauty and ugly need to be exploded. But I don’t think one can swallow the other. I think we need all of these words, all of these concepts, and we need to continue challenging and confronting them. From what I understand of Mingus, that’s what she thinks too.
After everything, this is all about, as Mingus puts it,
“liberation and ending violence and oppression so that we all may shine; not just some of us.”
And that is magnificent.