High Femme Camp Antics

December 8, 2020   •   By Jenny Fran Davis

THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE DOMESTIC ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.28.
THE LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS IS A READER-SUPPORTED NONPROFIT. ALL DONATIONS RECEIVED BETWEEN NOW AND DEC 31, WILL BE MATCHED THANKS TO THE GENEROSITY OF AN ANONYMOUS DONOR.
DONATE $100 OR MORE AND RECEIVE THE DOMESTIC ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL AS A PDF OR IN PRINT.

¤

High Femme Camp Antics (HFCA) of the 20th and 21st centuries include: Jennifer Tilly in Bound slipping out of her negligée while hoarsely informing butch Gina Gershon, “Isn’t it obvious? I’m trying to seduce you.” Cleo’s sexy, mute girlfriend, Ursula, in the 1996 bank-robber movie Set It Off, who performs a lap dance to thank Cleo (Queen Latifah) for buying her lingerie with stolen cash. Lorna Morello in Orange Is the New Black wearing makeup in prison and making up a fake husband to toy with Nikki’s butch emotions. Alice B. Toklas replacing the word “may” with “can” every time it appeared while copyediting Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation because Stein’s ex-lover was named May. The top-bitch attitude of Glee’s Santana, played by the late Naya Rivera, along with her smirky catchphrase, “wanky.” And pretty little Ann Walker, in HBO’s Gentleman Jack, suffering a nervous breakdown — complete with hemming and hawing, hysterics, her heaving bosom — when choosing between going off with butch Anne Lister, her true love, or marrying a man.

Things I have done to make my lesbian boyfriend’s therapist call my behavior High Femme Camp Antics: asking Tess questions like, “Would you have left your ex for me?” at three or four in the morning; calling Tess my boyfriend and using “he” pronouns to discuss him with my friends; making Tess play a sex game I invented called Can I Come Inside? in which Tess would have to say, Can I Come Inside? Can I Come Inside? to which I’d reply, No, No, No, until she was meant to finally thrust her fingers inside me anyway, because I wanted her to want me in a way that was out of her control; being cruel about other women’s looks if I was threatened by them, calling them potato-faced, log-like, animatronic; accusing Tess of deceit after she slept with someone else in the pre-monogamous month of our courtship; seeing Tess’s ex, R., at a Friday night screening of Booksmart in Cobble Hill, taking a series of covert pictures of R. in the row behind us, and firing off a picture to Tess — R.’s face foregrounded by a pretty sliver of my own — as I walked back from the subway that night, taking care to send the crop that most distended R.’s features.

Tess’s therapist was a shaggy blonde with an office just north of Union Square and a specialty in feminist psychoanalysis. Tess had shopped around for therapists all autumn (her requirements were few — gay, woman-identified, and not too much like her mother), and she’d settled on Amy, decidedly femme and a sexpot at 5’7”. Tess thought Amy would be perfect for her transference.

I don’t remember exactly what I did to make Amy say it: Watch out for Jenny’s High Femme Camp Antics. But I bristled at the accusation that there was something both scheming and malicious about my antics, whose charm I’d always suspected lay in their impulsive girlishness. To my mind, no one had ever been damaged by my HFCA. Annoyed, maybe, but never wounded. But Amy was telling Tess that my antics might hurt her; she was telling Tess that my antics were powerful precisely because Tess was both enraptured and repulsed by them.

The winter we started dating, I was waylaid by a walnut-sized cyst on my tailbone. The cyst became infected, then it abscessed, and then it was removed in an operating room under general anesthesia. When I came to, I had a walnut-sized hole to the immediate left of my tailbone. To stop the bleeding, the doctors stuffed the hole with packing gauze, and so twice a day I climbed into a bath filled with Epsom salt and gingerly pulled a rope of packing gauze out of the wound. After the bath, I lay prone on my bed while my mother forced packing gauze back into the hole with a pair of tweezers.

The baths gave me a lot of time to practice my script for when I could see Tess again.

Soon you’ll be able to do whatever you want to me, but in the meantime, I want you to ask me over and over again if you can Come Inside. Each time you ask, I’m going to say No. When you can’t stand it anymore, and you absolutely must Come Inside, you’re going to force your way inside anyway. Okay, go.

Can I Come Inside?
No.
Can I Come Inside?
No.
Can I please Come Inside?
No!
Can I Come Inside?
Tell me why you want to Come Inside.
I want to Come Inside. Let me Come Inside.
No.
Can I Come Inside? Can I Come Inside?
No! No!

I took hold of the tip of the bandage, which floated in the salty water. I pulled gently, but nothing happened. I pulled harder. The rope, when it emerged, was coated in bits of debris that resembled white asphalt. The coil was long, at least two feet, and had been stuffed so tightly into me that it was wrinkled and misshapen, like a shirt that had been lost in a drawer for years.

 

In 1925, the psychologist Winifred Richmond declared that feminine lesbians seek mother love, crave affection and attention, and are obsessed with beauty. “Where’s the lie?” I joked to a friend when I read that description. I know that lesbians, particularly femmes, have long defended themselves against charges of immaturity, childishness, and narcissism, and I know we’ve been long pathologized as stunted, inverted, and backward. I also know that Richmond’s statement does sort of describe me, as much as I wish it didn’t.

Recently, I described my Amelia Bedelia ditz trick — that thing I do where I pretend I can’t hang my curtains or find my way to an event or light a match on my own — to a small crowd of queers at a friend’s birthday party in Bushwick.

My attraction to vintage methods of seduction — performing weakness, preying on tropes of midcentury femininity by acting and dressing like it’s the 1950s — is twisted, of course, and it’s central to the aesthetic performance of HFCA, whose mode of camp relies on old, ingrained iconography of what it means to be female.

Tess once described camp to me as a way of resolving the question of what to do with the iconic. Camp often deals with problems of representation and authenticity via “disidentification”— José Esteban Muñoz’s term with mainstream cultural symbols. HFCA is a mode of disidentification, an embrace of feminine performance that negotiates its inclusion in mainstream representations of women and of lesbians by neither assimilation nor absolute opposition. It opts instead, at least to a certain extent, to play along with mainstream representations that have persisted at least since the Hays Era of television (1934–1968), when all queer characters were mandated to be unsympathetic to viewers.

Contemporary girl-on-girl porn, for example, often exploits the ingrained trope of female queerness as not just divergent, wrong, and wayward, but also scheming, wily, and calculating: good little schoolgirls don’t do their homework but do each other instead. In the show Glee, for a sanitized example, Britney and Santana are lesbian cheerleaders on especially bad behavior. Britney’s hyper-feminized dumbness and Santana’s racialized cruelty are both versions of the same HFCA — the HFCA of a teenaged femme trying to survive high school. The L Word presents us with a network of lesbians who lust after and lie to one another almost compulsively, as though they have no other choice. Television shows us girls-on-girls being girlie, but in a lesbian way, which is to say that these girls don’t just fuck each other, but more so fuck with each other.

“It makes them feel strong,” I giggled at the Bushwick birthday party, referring to my antics’ effect on butches.

I cast a sidelong glance at Tess, who jokingly flexed a bicep. A few partygoers eyed each other, startled. Someone later described me to a mutual friend as a “piece of work.”

I got that it wasn’t really meant as a compliment, but I’m a student of being over-the-top, unnecessary, too much. That is, after all, the name of the game.

 

In those early days of winter, Tess begged to change my wound’s packing. This meant she also offered me a salt bath in her tub, and to lie prone on her bed while she knelt above me with a rope of packing gauze. I wouldn’t let her, worried that the smell and the look of my wound would disgust her.

Tess was a performance artist and part-time jewelry maker who now worked as a set designer. I had long pegged her as a subterranean bachelor. She lived in a basement apartment in Bushwick and smiled with only half her mouth. She was broad-shouldered and stocky and had short, thick hair and a stick-and-poke tattoo that spelled out DYKEBALL over her left ribcage.

The first night we spent together, I taught her to knit — my classic seduction technique (HFCA) — and about frisson, that carbonated feeling that accompanies a crush. We stared at each other for a long time, unblinking. Because I knew that this otherwise might take forever (lesbians!), I finally asked Tess point-blank if she felt a frisson for me (HFCA). In response, Tess kissed me hard, with teeth. I knew she wanted to fuck, but I pushed her hands away dramatically when they crept under my skirt (HFCA). I told her that I didn’t typically sleep with people so soon (HFCA), which was true not for any real reason but because I was privately humiliated by my body (HFCA). Instead of letting her fuck me, I scratched Tess’s entire torso with my long, pink fingernails (HFCA).

“Her fingernails drifted down my neck, across my shoulders,” Jess Goldberg, the butch narrator of Stone Butch Blues, says of a high femme whose camp antics thrill her. “I’d forgotten the sheer pleasure of a high femme tease.”

“Your fingernails are full of frisson,” Tess said as morning light began to stream in through the window above her bed.

“I know,” I said.

 

I recently read a collection of funny stories by Lesléa Newman, high-femme chronicler of dyke life in the 1990s (the materialistic, shopping-addicted Golden Age of HFCA). In one story, a butch named Flash arrives to pick Lesléa up and take her out to dinner. Flash politely tells Lesléa that she looks nice.

“The average femme would have taken that to be a compliment,” Lesléa dishes. “But this high-maintenance femme hadn’t spent the last two weeks shopping for the perfect outfit and the last seven hours bathing, shaving, bleaching, filing, polishing, combing, brushing, drying, moussing, spritzing, spraying, and applying five pounds of makeup to have all her efforts summed up in one little four-letter word.”

Flash’s flimsy compliment doesn’t satisfy Lesléa’s desires to be seen, appreciated, and worshipped, and so Lesléa starts from the bottom and works her way up, prompting Flash to compliment her shoes, her miniskirt, and finally her hair in a grand, shimmering pyramid of HFCA. But even as she performs satiation, Lesléa is insatiable. Her antics fail at getting her precisely what she wants from Flash, because there’s always something unsatisfying about getting what you want by asking for it. Lesléa’s desire glows from within the frame of her HFCA, distilled and exposed and unmet.

Can I Come Inside, my high-femme sex game, deals primarily with unmet, outsourced, and circumnavigated desire. In Females(2019), trans lesbian critic Andrea Long Chu argues that femaleness is a universal, existential condition rather than a gender or a sex — a condition of being and of consciousness that involves letting others do our desiring for us. At stake in Can I Come Inside, as well as in HFCA at large, is a femaleness that both craves and rebels against its tendency to outsource desire. In playing Can I Come Inside, I, like Lesléa, ask Tess to do my desiring for me, and Tess in turn defers her desire to me: The game is strictly my desire, one that she insists she does not share. Even though it mandates a performance of aggressive desire from Tess, there’s no doubt that Can I Come Inside is about my desire; it’s my game; I make the rules.

But language, the currency of HFCA, fails to satiate my wish to be wanted; Can I Come Inside reveals a wish to be desired, a wish that wishes so hard that it fails. Like all antics, the game flops because of its own unwieldiness, its own excess of desire, its own desire so big and raw and exposed that it can’t be satiated, but instead must get performed.

 

When I sent Tess the photo of Tess’s ex, R., from that night at Booksmart, I felt giddy, shaking with gleeful impulse. I thought Tess might be thrilled by my description of the standoff I’d had with R. when the movie ended. But I knew I was in trouble as soon as Tess requested a phone call to discuss what I’d done.

On the phone, I resorted again to HFCA: when Tess called my behavior childish and embarrassing, I said that she didn’t understand … drama!; which was to say didn’t understand … me!; that I sent the photo of R. for no reason other than to show Tess what I’d seen — R.’s face burnt by the glow of the big screen, the orange glasses Tess used to dream about, shining like yellow coins — and to show her who I’d been: a sweet girl in a movie theater. I sent the photo to show her what I wanted: Tess, and R., burning together, to conjure that union, which I was still mad about; for the night to be scarred by my antics, like a big rip in the putrid sky; because these are my dykette powers, and no they’re not supposed to work; that has never been the point.

While monologuing, I felt like a psycho playing the role of a psycho. I knew that my implied disavowal of my behavior — Oh, I don’t mean it, I’m just being crazy — actually signified, actually performed, something true: a real lack in me that I couldn’t yet articulate. I knew I was being ridiculous, knew that this was just HFCA, knew that HFCA is always a stupidly obvious overstatement, a theater designed to expose me.

To say that all antics fail at sating desire invokes recent queer scholarship on failure that both acknowledges same-sex desire’s association with “failure, impossibility, and loss,” as Heather Love puts it in Feeling Backward, and offers up failure as a subversive, if counterintuitive, form of resistance. In the case of the Booksmart incident, our failure to speak to each other was obvious. HFCA often figures as a failure of language and a refusal to speak, to say things outright, a wink or a dance rather than a streamlined missive. It’s a queer mode of communication, but it’s also an anti-communication, a reticence; think of Ursula’s resolute silence in the movie Set It Off. Think of the simultaneous over- and under-announcement of these gestures, their loudness, the matter their excesses displace.

 

At issue in HFCA is being seen, being recognized, the long-documented struggle of the femme lesbian. In Andrea Lawlor’s novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2018), gender-shifting Paul has a high-femme best friend, Jane, whose antics include a penchant for flirting with every butch she sees in town.

At one point, Jane bemoans her invisibility in Iowa City’s lesbian scene.

“Do I have to stomp around town in a three-piece suit?” she asks Paul. “I will do it. I will. Who do I have to fuck to get seen around here?”

I will do it. I will. Jane’s HFCA diatribe doesn’t just express desire in words, but also performs it by way of suggestive disavowal. Her hyperbolic fantasy of prancing around in a three-piece suit (butch attire) ironizes femme invisibility, and her insistence that she will do it — I will do it. I will — is funny precisely because she won’t do it, in fact has no intention of doing it. Performances of HFCA negotiate invisibility by going way over the top, often in speech rather than action.

 

I am your spaniel, begins Helena’s plea to Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Feminine antics, feminine ploys for attention, and feminine performances of desire — such as what scholar Bruce Boehrer refers to as Helena’s “orgy of debasement” (The more you beat me, the more I will fawn on you) — that aren’t particularly gay abound. Besides those camp-femme early modern women, there is, for example, every contemporary pop song in America proclaiming Baby it’s okay as long as I’m still the best you’ve ever had and If you want to keep me, you’ve got to love me, love me, love me, harder, harder, harder, harder. We might think of these antics as feminine wiles — games that girls play to ensnare men.

This is all some form of feminine excess, of course. HFCA is not really about being something but, as femme studies scholar Rhea Ashley Hoskin writes, manifests as “a radical invocation of queer femininity” and is, at its heart, “an aesthetic, an erotic, and a politic” rather than an identity. There’s an HFCA sensibility, in other words, in Elle Woods, in Cher Horowitz, in Naomi Campbell, in Lucy Liu, in Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez and Lana Del Rey, all of whom draw from and contribute to the queer canon.

But the difference between HFCA and straight feminine manipulation is ultimately a difference of stakes, orientation, and alignment. We might locate straight feminine antics at their most obvious, and their most sinister, in “white-women tears” — the insidious weaponization of whiteness that happens when white women prosecute racialized evil in order to maintain heterosexual desirability. Straight, white women cry because they think, however naïvely and desperately, that their antics might work for them, win them something, punish someone else, yield morality. The femme is under no such illusions.

In I’m Very into You (2015), for example, Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark’s email correspondence following a brief fling in Australia in the ’90s, Acker and Wark — both women, Acker cis and Wark trans — take on a vibrantly butch-femme dynamic that epitomizes HFCA’s irony. Acker’s HFCA throughout the exchange (manifest in her overstated anxiety about whether or not Wark is into her) gets highlighted by Wark’s put-upon butchness.

Wark, facetiously: “I’ve only had one superfemme in life, actually. She had to teach me how to be butch. But unlike the really butch guys she usually hangs out with I’ve never hit her or tortured her emotionally, and when I got her pregnant I tried to be responsible for that.”

Wark’s missive performs the butch eye’s response to the superfemme’s HFCA, a butchered HFCA that we could refer to as Hard Butch Camp Antics (HBCA). Wark’s campy machismo spoofs 1950s butch-femme bar culture, in which butches used aggression to be taken seriously, and her quasi-stone emotional persona reads as funny precisely because it satirizes a butch-femme tradition that is always already camping itself.

I gave Tess my copy of I’m Very into You, and she marked it up before giving it back to me. In one instance, Acker writes about a friend who is “so 101% femme.”

Tess had underlined “so 101% femme” and written Jenny! underneath.

HFCA is that extra one percent after 100 percent has been reached. The expression “101% femme” is so HFCA. HFCA is the work of a really good student, one who earns 101 percent on all the tests.

I often tell Tess that I want to have her babies, that I want her to impregnate me, that I want her to marry me, that I want her to be my husband. Queer critic Juana María Rodríguez notes that a femme “performs insatiability” as she interprets and digests tropes of straightness such as these. HFCA makes even heterosexuality hot.

That spring, Tess sent me the lyrics to the Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” guessing I’d identify with just wanting some information, please. The question implied in all my tests for Tess throughout the winter was simple: Is she loyal? And it was true — information was all I wanted, please, but I didn’t want it straight up at all.

“She’s loyal,” I joked when Tess assured me that I was much hotter than my ex’s new girlfriend (HFCA) or that I was hotter than any of her exes (HFCA).

Tess went to the Russian baths with her dyke mentor, a performance artist. They sweat onto the wooden benches, wore men’s swim trunks and towels that swung down around their shoulders and covered their pecs. Later that night, Tess participated in HBCA, texting me: dyke mentor asked me if i’m loyal. I never asked how she’d replied.

 

Tess had of course told Amy, her therapist, about Can I Come Inside, and Amy had of course said to Tess, “You poor thing,” which of course made me seethe.

But when I worked up the nerve to confess the game to my own gay therapist, Charlotte, she disagreed. “You felt empowered to ask for what you wanted from Tess,” Charlotte said. “Maybe she feels unable to do that very thing with
you.”

I much preferred Charlotte’s explanation, which exonerated me, but I couldn’t separate Tess’s shame and discomfort at having been asked to play Can I Come Inside from how badly I wanted her to play it with me. We were using our therapists as performed figures of the self, figures who might validate either our deepest
shame or our deepest desire.

“How did you feel,” I prompted Tess, “how did you feel about it.”

“It made me feel like I was taunting a sweet, hot baby girl,” she said, laughing with half her mouth, “a girl who just wanted to be relieved of her performance, who was going so hard into her performance of No, No, No but it was all because she wanted to burst out of that performance, and the only way she could was by me going inside and fucking her and making her make other noises, it’s like breaking a horse, really, it’s like taming a minxy angel.”

As a remedy, Charlotte suggested that instead of saying, No, No, No, I should say More, More, More. But I desired saying No, not More, and I continue to desire it.

I’m still insatiable, still unsatisfied. I’m unsatisfied when Tess agrees to play Can I Come Inside with me, and I’m unsatisfied whenever Tess scores 101 percent on my tests.

“One is often dissatisfied in proportion to the specificity of your desire,” Andrea Long Chu said in a recent interview, remarking on the “murderous exactitude” of desire.

This dissatisfaction is surely at the heart of what HFCA performs: a feminized insatiability that is designed to fail, because it is pure desire exposed, and because desire cannot be sated, it must get performed.

In Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, Professor Voth, a trans man, dates a woman who lies on her back and shows Voth her breasts first thing in the morning (HFCA). He knows how to play this game: the gesture means she needs to be fucked. But on those mornings, Voth, taken by a strange quasi-cult, must first wash his hands in both boiling and freezing water; the girlfriend does not get what she wants, what she needs, from Voth, and time stretches endlessly; and she does not get fucked; and she does not get fucked.

Sometimes the elasticity of HFCA is part of the pleasure, of course, and sometimes it contributes to a crisis. This has to do with communication. When the failure of communication is a queer language game — failure of communication mimicking the failure of desire itself — when the failure begets a real, unresolvable lack, a lack it cannot begin to touch: crisis.

I told Tess that in fourth grade, a bully had taunted me for my close friendship with another girl, calling me a lesbian.

“You’re a lesbian, and lesbians are ugly, so that means you’re an ugly lesbian,” my bully had reasoned.

“Not all lesbians are ugly,” my mother hastened to reassure me when I told her that night. “You could be a pretty lesbian.”

The pretty lesbian’s antics are ornamental — frilly, full of excess — but also full of vulnerability — the vulnerability of being seen, looked at, scrutinized. Femme “makes esthetics [sic] political,” Hoskin contends. Lesbian writer Cherríe Moraga represents the femme body as a turtle without its shell, flipped on its back, waiting to be penetrated. The penetrability — the potential to be punctured — of the femme is explicit and literal, just like the vulnerability of a femme body always is. Can I Come Inside is played on the back, just like Moraga’s turtle. It is also played in bed; it is also about the endless space between wanting and getting.

Here is one last pathetic tale of HFCA: My butch friend E.’s girlfriend, S. lied about having a brain tumor. S. made E. meet her every outside of Sloan-Kettering and escort her uptown. She wrapped her hair, divulged other patients’ prognoses; and, when E. eventually found out that there was no tumor and no terminal cancer, threatened to throw herself out the window of her apartment if E. left. E. — exasperated, manipulated, gaslit, betrayed — did leave the apartment, saying S. could kill herself if she wanted. E. let herself out, rushed into the silver elevator, plowed through the silver lobby. As she walked quickly down the street, a body pounced on her from behind, slapping and sobbing. It was S., barefoot. Instead of jumping off her balcony, she had run down 14 flights of stairs, in a desperate quest to demonstrate her anger and her pain, which to her felt like bare feet against a freezing sidewalk, the furious heart shattering in her chest.

It was only when I heard about E.’s case that I could see the label of HFCA breaking down, becoming the diagnosis that couldn’t, and couldn’t, and couldn’t. I don’t know what E.’s girlfriend was so angry and sad about, or why she lied about having a brain tumor. I guess the name of the game for E.’s girlfriend was probably to secure E.’s love, or to somehow prolong it. But I also think that it was simply to show E. her pain in a way that was as visible as a mass on a radiologist’s screen.

Is desire a lack or a mass? a friend once asked me. The answer, I’m sure, is that it is both.

¤

In early summer, finally sure that Tess loved me, I showed up to the basement apartment in Bushwick with the ultimate HFCA gesture. I carried in my pink satin purse a FINAL TEST for her, a spoof on the many tests I’d administered over the course of our relationship. Tess, of course, got the joke. She filled out the test, laughing at the questions. But a few weeks later, I was mad at Tess, and so I resorted to HFCA, telling her again that she had DECEIVED me.

Tess, getting it, asked, Can I Come Inside?
No.
Can I Come Inside?
No.
Can I Come Inside?
Ask me again.
Can I Come Inside?

Can I Come Inside?

You know how to play this game.
I know how to play this game.
You know how to play this game.
I know how to play this game.
I know how to play this game.
You know how to play this game.
I know how to play this game.
I know how to play this game.

I know how to play this game.

 ¤

Jenny Fran Davis is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. She is the winner of the 2019 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award in nonfiction and the author of the novel Everything Must Go.