Femme Is Fierce

ALISA SWINDELL, Associate Curator of Photography

Femme Is Fierce: Femme Queer Gender Performance in Photography celebrates femmes and femme presentation. The exhibition will open October 1 in the Class of 67 Gallery with photographs from the Hood Museum of Art collection, including new acquisitions and works that have never been on view at the museum. These images illustrate a range of ways in which the idea of femme is performed and presented publicly. Over almost a hundred years and across genders, queer orientations, races, and ethnicities, the subjects of these photographs have embraced femme as an aspect of their self-representation—some subtly, others boldly—whether through donning frilly dresses, wearing prominent eyeliner, or just being in relation to flowers.

Femme is a queer identity that spans genders and orientations but coalesces around embracing signs and symbols designated feminine while separating them from hetero-patriarchal expectations. In fact, femme undermines the strict binary. Aspects of being femme manifest in numerous ways, though it is most often recognized in a person's visual presentation, including their mannerisms. Clothing, accessories, makeup, and other forms of personal decoration are also ways for a person to express their relationship to gender, their orientation, or other facets of their identity.

This exhibition contrasts the gender freedom captured in Andy Warhol's photos of New York's downtown scene with Laura Aguilar's collaborations with Latina lesbians from the West Coast during the mid-1980s. It pairs pandemic-era images of men in Europe and North America, across an ocean and a century apart, living in similar times and choosing similar forms of expression. Darryl DeAngelo Terrell's portraits focus on an intersection of femme ornamentation and Black masculinity. Other works in the exhibition range from vernacular and documentary photography to conceptual visions of self and relationships.

Throughout these photographs, the recurring imagery, parallel attire, and persistent challenges to proscribed gender constructions testify to the long and varied history of femme presentation. At a time when gender expansion and difference is under threat globally, this exhibition invites viewers to think about what it means to express yourself authentically, to take pleasure in subversive feminine adornment. The joyous approach of Femme Is Fierce affirms that femme is not a display of fragility; rather, it is both a performance of one's right to use gender signifiers deemed "feminine" to their own ends and a radical statement that strength is not found only in the masculine.

Written September 16, 2022