So I recently read a brilliant piece by the very awesome writer, artist and Witch Clementine Morrigan on inter-femme competition and’ internalized patriarchy. And it’s ended up giving me a lot to think about in the context of Phantom and Phanship! She was talking about this issue in the context of poliamorous relationships, and how one must unlearn that inter-femme competition in order to make such relationships work. Because, as she points out, femme folks have been taught, in all kinds of subtle and not so subtle ways, that our sole value lies in our ability to attract. But more than this, we have been taught that we are “a dime a dozen” – that those whom we hope to attract have “oceans of us to pick from”, and therefore that we are easily replaceable if we cease to be sufficiently attractive (Morrigan). And as a result, as Morrigan points out, femme folks are pitted against each other in competition for who can perform femme the most perfectly – for who has the best, most “flawless femme skills”. This messaging is especially strong on those femmes seeking masculine folks. But, as Morrigan again points out, because we all live in a broader society which is still deeply patriarchal, Queer communities aren’t immune from falling into this trap either!
In reading her piece, though, I realized that, for my entire life as a Phan, I’ve been in exactly that kind of inter-femme competition with the character of Christine. Moreover, I realized that this is a significant part of the “gender trouble” I’ve found myself in with regard to Phantom. It’s part of what I meant before about getting tangled up, and perhaps a bit lost, in the details of the heterosexual high romantic idiom in which the story is told. Because, Christine is the quintessential presentation of at least a certain kind of femme. Her femininity is unambiguous (long hair, flawless skin, able-bodied/minded, with nothing to compromise or render ambiguous her gender presentation), and she is innocent and girlish. She is the light to the Phantom’s darkness, the innocence to his harsh experience. AND one gets the impression, at least I did, that these qualities are a significant part of what he falls in love with in her (and certainly many Phanfics portray it that way). Thus, as a young, female-identified Phan, I felt that, in order to access the love-story aspect of Phantom (because my great dream was then and, don’t laugh but, still is to meet someone like the Phantom and have them love me as he loved Christine(, I needed to emulate her performance of that kind of femme. I felt that I had to match Christine’s ability to be that kind of femme – to do it as well or better – in order to be desirable to someone like the Phantom.
The problem, of course, is that I could not then and cannot now perform that kind of femme without having to seriously contort and distort myself. So from the beginning, this inter-femme competition was one I was set up to loose. And not just because of the hirsutism! Although, that has ultimately been what has forced me onto the long and difficult journey of trying to get out of that space. And indeed, I want to thank Clementine Morrigan for addressing this issue! I’d never thought about my struggles with the character of Christine in these terms before, and doing so now has been enormously helpful and liberating! Because, as I said, the hirsuitism has only been the final straw – the thing that made the conflict impossible to ignore. But long before it showed up, trying to perform Christine’s type of femme forced me to choose between my desire for love and my own history. For although I do share with Christine the problem of having remained extremely sheltered well into adulthood (a sadly common problem among Blind and low-vision people because of lack of access(, unlike her, my experience was not one of a care-free idyll. Certainly my childhood home was, thank God, a place of love, safety and support, and indeed my refuge. But my experience outside of home was one of repeated trauma due to medicalization, bullying, and ableism (especially in the education system but also beyond), pierced at intervals by the beauty and joy of music. And this history lead me, when I came into Phanship, to identify much more powerfully with the Phantom than with Christine except as his love object! Indeed, except for one year when my then boyfriend went as the Phantom and I as Christine, I always went “in drag” as the Phantom for Halloween. But not completely in drag! My long hair was tied back, but it was still visible and femme. And as weird as people found that, I wouldn’t have had it any other way! But I didn’t know what to do with that in terms of the love-story, and at every time of year other than Halloween I worked very hard to present as Christine.
As can be seen from the above, though, in order to perform Christine’s type of femme I had/have to split off my identification with the Phantom’s pain, outrage and resistance from my desire to be his love object. Not to mention having to hide or “correct” the various body-mind “abnormalities” that made/make it increasingly difficult to look the part of the ingenue! And as my level of vision dropped, as my CP became more noticeable on account of its side-manifestations (a bent and twisted spine and what I now suspect to be mild dysarthria), and, of course, as the hirsutism appeared, such concealment and splitting off became increasingly impossible. Although, I still tried! Because, of course, I still dreamed of finding someone like the Phantom. AND I didn’t see how that was possible if I wasn’t a Christine.
After reading Morrigan’s piece, however, as mentioned above, I’ve come to recognize in this exactly the kind of inter-femme competition she’s talking about! Like fashion-models or movie/TV stars for so many of my femme peers, Christine became for me the gold-standard of femininity with which I had to compete if I hoped to attract the man of my dreams. It left me comparing myself to her, and, of course, finding myself lacking. It left me fearing that, unable to measure up to that standard, I would be excluded from the love-story.
Realizing the role that inter-femme competition with Christine has played in my life and Phanship has been enormously helpful and liberating! And, as I said above, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Clementine for her article that’s been such a catalyst for me in beginning to work this through! So now my task is to work to unlearn that patriarchal conditioning and liberate my Phanship from it. Because I’m not Christine! I’m no ingenue. I never truly was, and I never will be (although, don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful dresses, beautiful hair and roses as much as the next femme!). So now I have to explore what it really means to be a PhantomFemme – a femme-identified and presenting person who knows and understands the Phantom’s darkness because she’s been there (although, thank God, not to the extremes that he suffered), who shares the Phantom’s drive to resist and carve out a space of dignity and empowerment, and who also shares the Phantom’s deep romanticism and desire for passionate love. And as part of that, I have to teach myself to imagine the love-story in new ways. Though, I freely admit that I don’t have a clear sense, yet, of what those new ways might be!
* Note: Sadly, the piece to which I refer here is only available at present to those who support Morrigan on her Patreon, though I hope she will eventually republish it elsewhere. For now, though, I highly recommend that you join her supporters if you can, so you can read this piece and more of her awesome, inspiring and liberating writing!