Miss Scarlet, in the Lounge, with the Rope: What Clue Taught Me About Gender
Being a girl meant minimizing myself and my needs, but Miss Scarlet embodied glamour, power and possibility in an unapologetically femme package.
Are you serious? How was that okay?
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
By the end of that relationship the next month, I came out as nonbinary and changed my pronouns to they/them. I’d felt inklings of what it might mean to be femme in that relationship, in the way we interacted, so different from my relationships with cis men as a cis woman, and I knew the word from my love for the book Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. I wasn’t sure if it was my word, if I could be nonbinary and be femme; most trans people I knew who’d been assigned female at birth were masculine in some way.
I don’t remember how I learned about Femme Fest, but one morning that November I stepped into Gay City, Seattle’s queer health center, and entered the auditorium space at the back. The fest consisted of a weekend of workshops and evening events, by and for femmes of all genders.
Almost immediately I was greeted by a femme, someone I read as a white woman older than me, with power and confidence that caught my attention just as much as her bright lipstick. She didn’t just greet me; she welcomed me. As the small theater filled up with other femmes, I found a seat and looked around. There were people I read as cis women and folks whose genders I couldn’t discern; there were animal prints and floral patterns and lipsticks in all shades of the rainbow. There were high femmes and sporty femmes, loud femmes and quiet femmes.
The organizers led us through group writing and sharing exercises, and I settled into the space, feeling at home in a way I hadn’t felt before.
“What are the intersections between femme and femininity?” they asked.
We scribbled, heads bent, on the small squares of colored paper they had on hand.
“What does it mean to embody femme?”
“What are your femme roots?”
A root, in a queer context, is the thing in your life that sparked your awareness of your own queerness, often a character who helped you realize that other possibilities of gender, sexuality, and ways of being outside the norm existed. I struggled to think of someone I could call my femme role model. I was still untying “femme” from my association with “cis woman,” so I didn’t want to pick a cis woman as my example. I hadn’t thought about Clue, much less Miss Scarlet, except for still naming the movie as one of my favorites, in years.
Eventually, I landed on David Bowie, whose music and persona entered my life at fourteen. There are more names now, and I can see the throughline of campy, unashamed, fabulously adorned femininity in all of them: from Bowie to Britney Spears to the Sailor Moon characters. But the most influential among them, dug up from my memory to receive her rightful recognition, is Miss Scarlet. She was my first femme icon.
I was twenty-six when that first queer relationship ended. I have been out as nonbinary since then and, after exploring the facets of gender expression available to me, have landed back in femme. Once again, I found affirmation of that identity through a relationship, and over time, without noticing it, a large part of my sense of self and my life shifted to revolve around him. When it ended, I started from scratch: Who was I without a partner? What did my future look like? How could I pull myself from the depths of trauma and heartbreak and heal myself? I gravitated back to a familiar archetype.
“I think this year’s vibe is gonna be ‘gay socialite,’” I wrote beneath a thirst trap posted to my private instagram. In the photo, I lounge in a chair, wrapped in a silky floral robe.
As I excavated myself from the breakup, I came across an essay by a queer woman a few years older than me, about what it was like to be single at her age and the cultural narratives about single women. I knew I’d read it before, and I scrolled through it again. When I finished the essay and got to the comment section, I stopped.
“I too have always had that vision of my future self as a glamorous single [person, now that I’m out as genderqueer],” my 2015 self, newly post-breakup, had written. “Yet I also feel that intense desire for intimacy. I don’t know how to navigate it.”
It has always been hard for me to imagine a future where I could have everything I want: independence and intimacy, self-worth and connection, adventure and consistency. These desires seemed wholly incompatible. In the back of my mind, too, it wasn’t the desires themselves; it was me. I was simply incapable, uniquely unable to access, balance, and sustain them. As a child, and in many of my romantic relationships, I was often punished for or denied my feelings, needs, and autonomy in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Eventually, I learned to deny them to myself, but they would resurface when I couldn’t keep them down anymore. Flipping off my classmate for his sexist comment during Field Day was a Miss Scarlet moment in which I, however clumsily, asserted myself, my power, and my opinion.
“Being femme is like being in love,” I wrote in a later passage of that September 2015 journal entry, before I ended that first (but not last) queer relationship. “You feel good and sexy all the time . . . because no matter what you wear, you’re being you.”
The socialite, the glamorous single person, the Miss Scarlet: I wanted to be surrounded and loved by my community, to be the host and participant of fabulous events, to be confident in myself and all that I bring to the world.
Femme can be so many things: a gender, a presentation, something you feel inside and express on the outside, a role you take in relationships and who you are just for yourself. Femme is inherently queer; it’s femininity on purpose, taken apart and made anew and stripped of social norms and expectations. Femme is inner power, and power that is shared, not power given to others or held over someone else. (Unless it’s consensual. Let us not forget that the Rope can be used for tying people up.) Femme is adornment for my own pleasure and, yes, if I want, for others’ pleasure as well. Choice is an integral aspect of femme identity. As a femme, I choose to let myself be seen and loved for who I am. I choose to see and love myself.
Ray Stoeve is the author of the young adult novels Between Perfect and Real and Arden Grey, both Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections. They also contributed to the young adult anthology Take The Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance. They received a 2016-2017 Made at Hugo House Fellowship and created the YA/MG Trans and Nonbinary Voices Masterlist, a database that tracks all books in those age categories written by trans authors about trans characters. When they’re not writing, they can be found gardening, making art in other mediums, or hiking their beloved Pacific Northwest.