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7 Jul 2006

razzle dazzle 'em!

Singapore's favourite lesbian contest Femme Quest rolls around next week. Like mainstream beauty pageants, it has been accused of buying into the objectification of women. Is it ultimately empowering, not only for contestants themselves, but also for the (lesbian) audience? In partaking in the spectacle, is it an act of subversion or betrayal?

Picture this.

Nine ladies clad in bright bikinis that shimmer in all colours of the rainbow. They lounge by the poolside, looking absolutely lush in the camera's soft-focus.

The Femme Quest 2006 Finals will be held at Zouk on Thursday July 13, 2006. Profiles of the contestants can be viewed at www.herstory.ws. Images courtesy of herstory.ws.

They kick their feet daintily in the water - just enough to splash, but not too big a splash, lest it comes across as unladylike.

The scene dissolves to a children's playground, where the ladies, in their bikinis, glide down a slide in glee. One at a time - good girls always take their turn! - they flash their pearly whites at the camera on the way down.

No, it's not the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search.

It's Singapore's bi-annual lesbian event - the Femme Quest, that has made waves since it started in 2002, and has since become the biggest lesbian pageant in the region.

Well, after Butch Hunt, that is.

The two sister competitions, held by the same organiser, Herstory - take turns once a year to razzle and dazzle the lesbian scene in Singapore and shake it up with the exciting taste of competition.

No other event for the lesbian crowd in Singapore has drawn numbers like this duo.

But fun and entertainment aside, how have lesbian women reacted to the pageants?

And have the contests done harm or good to the way lesbians in Singapore think about themselves, and one another?

Lack of representation
Since their inception, the Butch Hunt and Femme Quest have been a point of contention, for a variety of reasons.

The first issue is encapsulated by the question: where are the in-betweens?

The contests fail to represent the large proportion of lesbians who do not fall in either category, or who do not wish to be categorised.

To be fair, Herstory did attempt an 'Andro Search' pageant in 2004, but it never got off the ground - not to mention that in the Personals section of the Herstory website, Andro is a category itself, right next to the highly ironic 'No Label' label.

But let's move away from the "labels are for jars" sentiment, and back to the pageants.

Another issue raised is that the Butch Hunt and Femme Quest reinforce existing butch and femme stereotypes, which are ultimately limiting.

But while it might be easy to say the pageants are a step backwards, it is important to note that, by their very nature, competitions draw upon stereotypes, and in so doing, perpetuate them.

Any contest calls for a large degree of uniformity among its contestants, so that they can be ranked based on specific variables.

Lesbian pageants are no exception.

A breath of fresh air
Thankfully, there still seems to be some breathing space to accommodate contestants who might not conform so rigidly to the criteria of what makes a butch or a femme lesbian.

For example, the 2005 Butch Hunt saw two contestants, Elijah and Joey, who looked relatively feminine for the contest.

Some reacted aversely to them. But to others, they were a much-needed breath of fresh air.

This year's Femme Quest, however, has no such pleasant surprises.

But another important issue embroiled in all this cannot be overlooked - when using the terms 'Butch' and 'Femme', what kinds of lesbians are we really talking about?

Does 'butch' equate to a lesbian who displays stereotypically mannish behaviour? Does 'femme' equate to a lesbian who displays consistent subordination to a more masculine counterpart?

Not so, it seems. In terms of bending the definitions of butch/femme, instances are aplenty.

One of the contestants in Butch Hunt 2005, Alexius, said on her pageant profile:

"Despite my 'macho' appearance, I'm very attached to those cute soft toys of mine. I treat them like my own babies and you gotta see the way I take care of them� I know this sounds damn stupid but perhaps its just me."

In this year's Femme Quest, one contestant, on her pageant profile, talks about how she made the first move on her first (butch) girlfriend, and soon joined her soccer team.

So it seems like, in the minds of lesbians in Singapore, the definition of butch and femme might not hinge that greatly on physical appearance, and even less on stereotypical masculine/feminine behaviour.

In other words, the butch/femme categories exist to a large enough extent that there is basis for a pageant - yet, they are not so limiting as to stop butch or femme lesbians from expressing themselves in ways that go beyond stereotypes.

Sex objects on display
The Femme Quest has also come under fire for another reason � it buys utterly into the objectification of women by society in general, brought about by mythical standards of beauty imposed on women.

Just compare the Femme Quest to other, relatively more mainstream beauty pageants. It comes with the works - the long tresses, catwalk, bikinis, question-and-answer sessions, and the list goes on.

"Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle," said Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, in 1988.

"From pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire," she said.

Whatever Mulvey said about women signifying male desire, what is significant is that Femme Quest contestants are now on display as sex objects, not for men - but for women.

Is this ultimately empowering or disempowering, not only for contestants themselves, but also for the lesbian audience that soaks it all up?

If you take part in or show appreciation for the Femme Quest, is it an act of subversion or betrayal?

It's a grey area, and this year's Femme Quest might not break new ground. But to be sure, not all feminists are lesbians, and not all lesbians are feminists.

The Butch Hunt, on the other hand, challenges stereotypical representations of women, and so takes on a stronger feminist slant than does the Femme Quest.

Lesbian pride
Still, one can take heart in at least one thing - there are clear positive effects to the two lesbian pageants.

On pageant nights, the sheer amount of lesbian visibility creates a palpable sense of excitement. One can almost sense a proud, unspoken declaration among the women who attend - a declaration along the lines of, "I'm lesbian and proud of it!"

If you have attended any of the pageants, you would know. The atmosphere is amazing.

No doubt, this lends a huge boost to the self-esteem and confidence of women whose lesbian identities are not even acknowledged, what more accepted, in their daily lives.

And for all the talk about stereotypes being limiting and lesbians not being feminists - the hard truth is, everyone needs to start somewhere.

And for most, gaining a personal sense of empowerment, and building a sense of pride in one's own lesbian identity, is that first crucial step.

The Femme Quest 2006 Finals will be held at Zouk on Thursday July 13, 2006. Profiles of the contestants can be viewed at www.herstory.ws.


Reader's Comments

1. 2006-07-10 05:57  
While I comprehend that obsession with labels can be exhausting and unneccessary, I'd like to mention that the Herstory pageants are held for those who DO believe in the butch-femme dichotomy, or see these "labels" as nothing more than adjectives like "intelligent" and "beautiful" - so you have a pretty good idea of what to expect at both the Butch and Femme Hunt.

It somewhat bugs me that our preoccupation with NOT being labelled, in my opinion, makes us overlook certain key points.

(To simplify the discussion, let's talk about Butch and Femme in terms of labels instead of superficial adjectives.)

1. The state of being Butch, or Femme for that matter usually, but does not always equate to breast binding or little dresses respectively. I believe that it is more of a mindset. The most confident and endearing old-school Butches I have met are self-assured enough to try on lipstick and heels, and I know of daring Femmes who love their tux-and-ties every now and then.

2. Butch-Femme, or nuances of it is more common than many think. In a significant number of relationships, even "same-label" or "progressive" pairings, one partner will just happen to be more Butch than the other without trying too hard or changing herself to be someone else. Hence, the label may not be entirely inaccurate.

3. The assumption that Femmes are passive, docile little girls who expect their Butch to call all the shots in the relationship and lie in bed like starfish annoys me. Perhaps this is what the younger community has grown to expect and that it may indeed have become common, but I know many Butch-Femme couples who defy this so-called heteronormative stereotype. Even heterosexual couples do not strictly abide by this model anymore.

I'd love to see Beauty Pageants open to ALL of the community inclusive of minorities eg. Bisexual or MTF genderqueers, but I foresee that it might pose a slight problem: It is not always easy to compare obviously masculine charm with the outrageously feminine, though they are simply different variants of charisma and beauty.

In the meantime, I believe Miss Singapore Universe is open to all (biologically born) women, regardless of sexual orientation, as long as you fit age and height requirement - which is another story altogether.
Comment #2 was deleted by its author
3. 2006-07-11 13:25  
immoralfear says: ''3. The assumption that Femmes are passive, docile little girls who expect their Butch to call all the shots in the relationship and lie in bed like starfish annoys me.''

Whose assumption is it? I know many femmes who "wear the pants" in a relationship and are certainly no starfishes.

''I'd love to see Beauty Pageants open to ALL of the community inclusive of minorities eg. Bisexual or MTF genderqueers.''

How do you know there aren't any bis in the Femme Quest or Butch Hunt contest? Sure, MTFs should be able to join however, I think the majority of MTFs are straight, meaning they would be more interested to showcase themselves for the male gaze right? If there's a MTF (not a drag queen) wanting to take part, I doubt the prganisers would refuse...

''It is not always easy to compare obviously masculine charm with the outrageously feminine, though they are simply different variants of charisma and beauty.''

But this is like merging the 'IDOL' and 'So you think you can dance' contests?!
Comment #4 was deleted by its author
5. 2006-08-16 18:59  

Apparently these are common assumptions that my queer friends and I often lament about.How many so-called butches understand, and accept the idea of a femme Dominant/top? I have received a lot of flak for not being passive, docile enough. Check out the threads on Butch-Femme.com if you are skeptical.

However, you are right re: the bisexual part. I do not know any of the contestants personally and hence there is a possibility that one or more may identify as bisexual. I mentioned Bisexual in here because they are among the minority, and am shunned by a portion of the queer community.

Next, being transgender/gender dysphoric does not affect one's sexual orientation. I suggest you check out SgButterfly.org. Most female pageants, including Miss Singapore, is only open to biological females - meaning the intersexed and transgender are not welcome.

Precisely because it is difficult to compare Butches and Femmes that I said it is a "slight problem", if you read carefully.

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