One day, my sister texted me three words: what is cottagecore. I called her immediately.
On the phone, she presented more questions, eager to learn definitions for words and labels that implied she’d recently talked to a lesbian out in the wild.
“And I’m… femme?wp_postsshe asked. “No,wp_postsI replied. “You’re just straight.”
Jenny Fran Davis’ new novel Dykette is about a woman whose jealousies, behaviors, and general High Femme Camp Antics would fit in well with my sister and her friends. It’s heterosexuality 101 — your own group is to be beaten, your desired group is to be won. But to be “straight for butcheswp_posts(her words not mine) is not the same as being straight. The word “queerwp_postsand your partner’s genitalia keep you different, place you in the rich history of butch/femme dynamics rather than the less glamorous history found in 27 seasons of The Bachelor.
If it sounds like I’m teasing, it’s because I am. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. After all, the novel lives in these contradictions, its characters equal parts delicious and dull.
Sasha, our central femme, is on a Christmas getaway with her butch partner Jesse, Jesse’s butch friend Lou, Lou’s femme girlfriend Darcy, and the couple who own the Hudson Valley hideaway, Jules, butch, and Miranda, femme. Jules is loosely based on Rachel Maddow. Sasha and Jesse seem inspired by Jenny Fran Davis and her partner based on the essay that preceded this novel. Lou and Darcy’s inspirations will remain unspeculated in this review.
Despite thinking of myself as an online queer, I missed the Twitter discourse surrounding Davis’ HFCA essay. (I was, perhaps, preoccupied with my own holiday season antics with the transmasculine couple I lived with.) So I went into the reading of that essay and the reading of this book with only my personal opinions to form. The key to that viral essay seems to be in Sasha’s response to her in-book viral essay. “Sasha was playful, engaging with persona, being funny,wp_poststhe third person limited voice protests. “It was funny! This was all fucking funny!”
From the opening pages, Dykette presents Sasha with a hefty dose of self-awareness. In fact, it feels important to Sasha, and therefore Davis — important to Davis and therefore Sasha? — she be portrayed in a way that could result in someone rolling their eyes and muttering, lesbians.
The early chapters suggest that what makes Sasha’s behavior worthy of an eye-rolled lesbians rather than an eye-rolled women is not just the gender variance of her partner but the sheer height of Sasha’s actions. A jealous straight woman would announce to a room that her boyfriend is not allowed to remarry upon her death. A jealous queer femme adds that if her boyfriend were to remarry, she “would come back as a ghost and kill the mistress in her sleep, a feat she’d perform in her ghost outfit.”
The book is not exactly a celebration of this behavior. Even in this moment, it’s clear Sasha is exhausted from feeling this way, or, at least, from feeling the need to announce she feels this way. Davis writes, “She felt herself verging on some manic performance, a delirious whim that forced her to embody a hyperbolic persona with lots of attitude and gesticulation.”
Sasha is our protagonist, so it’s fair the experience of doling out High Femme Camp Antics be centered over the receipt of them. But what I struggled with more while reading the book wasn’t the antics themselves, but everything around them.
Transmasculine people have a wide-range of feelings about Kimberly Pierce’s Boy Don’t Cry, the Oscar-winning fictionalization of Brandon Teena’s life, rape, and murder. Sasha — and Davis — focus on the sex scene. To them, Brandon’s girlfriend played by Chloë Sevigny is the protagonist. “She smiles because she loves him and what he is,wp_postsDavis writes of Sevigny’s character. “And she smiles some more, because she knows that this is her role, she knows all this and this is why she smiles.”
Later Davis will bring up Leslie Fienberg’s classic Stone Butch Blues in reference to the moment when a femme teaches the protagonist how to use a dildo. There’s nothing wrong with ignoring the heaviness of these texts to focus on pleasure. It’s even okay that Davis centers the femme partners in these moments. (Chaser discourse when referring to cis men interested in trans women is silly in its reduction, and I have no interest in replicating that when discussing cis women’s attraction to trans people of all types.) But Sasha’s obsession with her femme-ness, her obsession with herself, often erases the experiences of the objects she desires. The question becomes whether this is a Sasha problem or a problem with the book.
Some of the most overtly painful moments are also when the text comes closest to being in opposition to Sasha’s worldview. Most notably, this occurs in a flashback of Sasha telling Jesse that his braid makes him look like a pedophile. The book says it “mired Jesse in gay shame.wp_postsI wonder what would change for Sasha, for Davis, if the book admitted this was more likely “trans shame.wp_postsIs there even a difference? If the answer is no, I still think the question should be asked.
Instead this conflict drifts back to Sasha’s own frantic gender performance, a performance all too reliant on those around her. “The real reason Sasha didn’t like the braid was that it reminded her of something she herself would have worn,wp_postsDavis writes. “Was she jealous of the braid, resentful that Jesse had found it first?”
If femmes are to be envied and butches to be desired, any deviation by Jesse from her assigned role interrupts Sasha’s delicate worldview. Her boyfriend is now enviable and must be shamed — gay shame, trans shame — until he returns to his box.
“I don’t want to live in a world where people say exactly what they mean,wp_postsSasha cries out toward the end of the novel. It’s in this moment, the book reveals itself to be less about gender and more about people crumbling under the weight of constant performance and analysis, always trying to be an undefinable thing, with “bewp_postsin quotation marks as proof of a fictional cool. Or, maybe, for Sasha, that is gender.
While the book is pointedly in Sasha’s perspective, this perspective goes unchallenged in some of the ways it needs to most. Lou’s Blackness and the transfemininity of Sasha’s best friend Sylvie are mentioned in passing yet never engaged with. It’s understandable if Davis didn’t feel equipped to explore these perspectives, but race and transfemininity are both intrinsic to questions of femmeness and butchness. It would have been better these identities remain excluded rather than presented only to hover around like a specter of missed potential.
Sasha’s self-perception is reliant on being the most tragic person in a room. This is confronted in contrast with Jules and Jesse’s transmasculinity and even with Darcy and Miranda’s alternate versions of cis femininity. It’s never presented aside Lou’s race or Sylvie’s transness. This feels especially glaring with Lou who is ostensibly one of the six main characters yet is granted no characteristics beyond being laid back and also butch. (The word “studwp_postsis not written once in this 300 page book about gender dynamics among lesbians.)
Part of my frustration is that the novel is at its best when Sasha is forced outside of her solipsism. The chapter where Darcy’s veneer of cool girl perfection dissipates after an accident is the novel’s flash of brilliance. This book is worth reading because it’s thought-provoking even in its flaws — it’s also worth reading for this one divine short story of a chapter.
Unfortunately, this chapter shifts nothing in Sasha’s relationship toward Darcy or Darcy’s character moving forward. Other events escalate Sasha’s jealousies, and soon enough they’re squabbling about which European ancestry makes them more persecuted.
For better or worse, the book feels like a frantic rebellion against a world where being a wealthy white cis woman — even a queer one — does not elicit the same uniqueness or oppression it once did, a uniqueness and oppression Sasha for some reason desires. It’s as if Sasha — and, less generously, Davis — are looking at our crumbling society and yearning for a place in its harshest suffering.
“And I’m… femme!wp_postsshe seems to shout. “Yes,wp_postsI reply. “You’re femme. Now what?”