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Book Review: Femmes of Power

| Dec 1, 2008
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Blogger Renee KnipeA book review by Renee Knipe

A few months back, Angela asked if I wanted to do a book review. “Sure, what’s the book,” I asked. “Femmes of Power,” she replied. Four months later, you finally get to see that review.


Femmes of Power is part photo-study, part philosophy of queer femininity. It’s a little bit angry and a whole lot mysterious. Which is perhaps why it took me so long to write this review; despite being half photographs, the book is prose-heavy and dense with language whose meaning I sensed more than really understood. It was as if I was missing the context for the conversation, which I probably was, since I don’t identify as queer, even though I probably am. Clearly, the creators of the book – Del LaGrace Volcano and Ulrika Dahl – understand their subject though.

Femmes of PowerI won’t try to summarize what they’ve done here, because in truth, I can’t. Femmes of Power is a celebration of femme-inist (their word, not mine) imagery and thought; it’s huge and varied and covers a spectrum, and to condense it down to a few words inevitably fails to do it justice. But I do think that trans-people should give it a look, for just that reason.

Before starting my transition, and for a while after it was underway even, I labored under some ridiculous notions. I believed it would be necessary to give up things about my earlier life to be “authentic,” as if all of those things – because they belonged to a “man” – automatically gendered me “man.” My love of horror movies, for instance. And this went on for some time because, honestly, our community does not do a good job of dispelling those notions. Eventually, I just had to tell myself, maybe it is rarer, but there are some women out there who love horror movies, and it just so happens I’m one of them.

Going further back still, I avoided even thinking about transition because I didn’t believe that, at 6’6,” it was feasible for me. We’re taught that women are supposed to take up as little room as possible, and on top of that, I had to worry about being able to pass! It took me two months to reconcile the horror movie thing, but two decades to get over my height issues. And when I did, it was pretty much with the same rationalization: I might be a tall woman, but I’m not the only tall woman.

I wish I had had this book when I was a teen. If I had just been able to look at the photo of Charlotte Karlsdotter – a proud Swedish transsexual – and read her story, where she explains why she chooses to keep a full beard, I might have found a little more resolve sometime earlier in life. When questioned about the beard by Swedish officials (apparently a necessity in that country when pursuing GRS), she justified her position by showing them photos of other well-known bearded ladies. And in her own words: “A well-shaped and kept beard is a beautiful ornament that shouldn’t belong to men only.”

And that’s the beauty of Femmes of Power, at least as it pertains to us. It does profile a number of trans-women, like Charlotte, and the somewhat more well-known Candy Darling. And genderqueer revolutionary Kate Bornstein falls into that picture somewhere, too. But more than anything, it vividly depicts just how wide the umbrella of femininity really is, and that there is room beneath it for all of us. And it shows us, as Julie Serano did with Whipping Girl, that femininity doesn’t mean weak, wilting or frail. It can be bold, strong, and brave. In fact, it can be anything at all.

Final Word: This is a fine coffee-table book. It’s a bit much to read in a single sitting, but that’s not its purpose. Pick it up, flip to something that looks interesting, read a few pages, and let it simmer…it’ll make an impression. Leave it where your friends can see it and it’ll start some conversations.

Femmes of Power
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (April 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1846686644
ISBN-13: 978-1846686641
List price: $40.oo

Available from Amazon.com for $30.40.


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Category: Transgender Fun & Entertainment, Transgender History, Transgender Opinion

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