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Rust Belt Femme: An Interview with author Raechel Anne Jolie

April 19th, 2020     by Andi Schwartz     Comments

Photo courtesy of Raechel Anne Jolie. Book cover by Belt Publishing.

Raechel Anne Jolie is one of my favourite Instagram femmes. She is an educator, writer, and former podcaster who, via social media, has taught me so much about anti-capitalist politics and walking the talk of class solidarity — all while her epic selfies remind me daily to take my hair vitamins. When I picked up her memoir, Rust Belt Femme, which came out last month, I wasn’t sure what the “Rust Belt” of the U.S. was — turns out it’s an industrial region surrounding the Great Lakes and stretching to the midwest — but I did know that just a few hours northeast of it, in a rural community in Southern Ontario, I had grown up femme, too.

I saw so much of myself reflected in Raechel’s story; both our shared reverence for our grandmother’s glamour and our timely introductions to punk music shaped the gender and sexuality we grew into: femme. Raechel’s story differs from mine, too, and Rust Belt Femme traces the specificity of growing up in Ohio in the aftermath of a devastating car accident, living through poverty with her mom, and becoming politicized in the wake of September 11.

With the global COVID-19 pandemic spreading around us, I was grateful to sit down and, through our computer screens, talk about something else for a while: femme, class, and writing a memoir.

Andi Schwartz: It’s a weird time. I’m sure it’s pretty stressful having just put out your book.

Raechel Anne Jolie: It’s been a bummer. Thankfully, and this might change down the road, I’m able to trust that this doesn’t mean it’s the end of the book’s life and, for better or worse, there’s just bigger things to worry about, like my mom’s health and the fact that I can’t be in Ohio with her. You know, perspective.

AS: I’m so excited to get to talk to you about this book and I’m so happy that we get to, despite everything that’s going on. The first thing I wanted to ask you about is why you decided to write a memoir?

RAJ: I would probably say it’s my favourite genre. I do like a good academic theory book, but in terms of pleasure reading memoir has absolutely been what I gravitate towards. It has felt, without trying to be too hyperbolic, life-saving to be able to read books that make you feel less alone. To have books by Michelle Tea and Amber Hollibaugh to talk about working-class femme life made me feel so seen, and it’s felt like such a gift to potentially do that for other people, too. I just sort of knew this was the first book I had in me. There was something in my gut that said, “Don’t turn your dissertation into a book, that’s not your book for right now.” I just knew I needed to get this story about my life in Ohio out on paper.

AS: Is there something about femme and memoir that go together?

RAJ: I don’t want to be essentialist in this notion of femininity because I definitely believe that femme means so many different things to so many different people, and it doesn’t have to look like the mainstream understanding of feminine. With that caveat, I do think there’s something femme about sharing vulnerably. Telling your story as a means of connection feels like such a tenet of femme-ness. Connection is such a big part of being femme, for me, whether it’s with other femmes or thinking about butch/femme dynamics, or whatever else. Can I ask your thoughts on that?

AS: Yeah, I agree, totally, with what you’re saying. What’s great about that answer is that femme is a style, but it’s beyond that, too. It’s a way of relating to other people. The other way I think about it is that memoir is sort of dismissed as a genre. It’s not seen as serious literature, and that’s such a shared experience with femme.

RAJ: That’s so it. And wanting to lean into what’s not taken seriously anyway because you can’t imagine any other way is so femme.

AS: When I started doing my research on femme in academia, I found that there’s so much academic writing on butch and female masculinities and even trans masculinities, and so much less — and it’s changing now, definitely— but so much less about femme. The essential femme texts are memoirs. I’m so happy femmes are still writing them. It’s such a lineage of femme thought.

RAJ: There was certainly a moment when I was like, “Okay, Michelle Tea already exists, I don’t need to write this book,” but I think that’s something marginalized people have to deal with, like “oh, there’s that token person already, so we can’t tell anymore stories.” Even though white, cis straight dudes never think about not writing their stories. I think it’s important to know femme still exists and to keep telling new stories about the same identity and to know we’re not being wiped out.

AS: Your book really gets at that intersection of class and sexuality and gender, like many older femme memoirs. When I read Amber Hollibaugh’s and Joan Nestle’s memoirs, they all have that analysis in it. I think it’s so important to remember that femme really does come out of a working-class environment or community.

RAJ: There’s a scholar, John D’Emilio, who wrote an article in the early 80s called Capitalism and Gay Identity. He’s making the argument that the conditions of capitalism actually enabled gay identity to flourish in the post-agrarian, Industrial Revolution. Now we have people outside of family units coming together in these shared spaces, and they’re specifically coming together because they have to work. There’s such a second-wave feminist narrative of women not being in the workplace, which is, like, hilarious because poor women have been working forever. So, we have specifically working-class, poor women who are in these early, turn-of-the-century workplaces, and D’Emilio points to the beginning of these gay bars. That’s so often the root of butch/femme culture — it’s gay bars. But to me it feels important to be like, “yeah, but specifically gay bars that were full of working-class people.” It’s just historically where it came from, it came from the working class. My experience of growing up working-class meant that I learned that I didn’t fit in and my nuclear family didn’t fit into standard, hegemonic decorum. So much of that had to do with what the scholar Nadine Hubbs would describe as the overlap between the “slut” and the working-class woman. Obviously, black and brown women are hypersexualized regardless of their class, but I think we can make the argument that white women are often disproportionately hypersexualized only when they’re also working-class or poor, or perceived to be that way. I’m always fascinated by the discussion of the Kardashians as “trashy,” even though they have so much money. Their hypersexuality all of a sudden turns them into trash. As I was coming into my femme identity, I was able to no longer associate the women I grew up around or even just the way they dressed with shame, I was able to associate that with pride and pleasure — specifically, pride in not conforming to these norms that are oppressive.

AS: I’m really interested in this idea of hypersexualization. Do you see femme style drawing on working-class symbols or codes of style?

RAJ: Totally. This is where it starts to feel like slippery territory because we can find exceptions to this everywhere. There’s going to be pious, working-class church culture, which is really different than the things I’m trying to pay homage to, so there’s a lot of caveats. But, yes, I do think short skirts, tight clothes, cleavage, not feeling the need to cover up “appropriately,” I do think that’s disproportionate to the working class. Even if we just look at the different kinds of jobs in different class statuses: you can’t get away with that in white-collar, upper-class jobs, but that is exactly how you would want to dress as a waitress, for example, as it might benefit you. We could do this materialist analysis and ask, “how are you making your living in the world and how does that influence how you’re dressing?” You could do an analysis even in pop culture: how do they denote a character is poor or trashy? It’s very much marked by leopard print, by short skirts, by big hair, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not that poor people are always already inclined to wear short skirts, but if you’re growing up around a bunch of cocktail waitresses or people who do some kind of sex work, you might see clothes that are “sluttier.” Society at large now links low-income to a particular type of style, and I think a lot of femmes lean into that.

AS: Who were your femme icons growing up?

RAJ: I definitely give a lot of credit to Drew Barrymore, especially in Poison Ivy. She always had dark lipstick, leather jackets, just so fierce. Fiona Apple, it wouldn’t be the femme style I identify with now, but just the fact that she wore a lot of eye make-up, and the “Criminal” video was just so sexy. It was controversial because it was teenagers being sexy, but as I talk about in the book a lot, it feels important to not shy away from the fact that teenagers and children have a sexuality. Winona Ryder, definitely. The 90s movie women were big femme role models for sure. My grandmother, in a very different way, because she was a little more classy but in an extravagant way. My grandmother wore like costume-y, but not slutty things. And then just my mom had an amazing circle of friends, of women who wore leather jackets and short cut-off shorts and tied flannel shirts below their boobs. And just the women in the rural-ish part of Ohio I grew up in that rode motorcycles and went to the racetrack and worked as bartenders and cocktail waitresses and stuff like that, they definitely shaped me. I don’t think anyone I named would identify as femme, but that definitely still shaped me.

AS: When I was reading about your grandmother, I thought of mine. My mom is definitely a very working-class woman and then my grandmother on my dad’s side — I don’t think they were working-class, just rural — but she would wear all of these accessories, like this gold jaguar belt, to keep the kids’ attention when she was teaching. My mom loved getting dressed up and stuff like that. And neither of those people were queer, but they were doing excess in such a glamorous, seductive way that it was still really femme somehow. How do you navigate your ongoing ties to working-class communities while now living in a city and having a PhD and all of those things?

RAJ: I don’t always navigate it very well because it feels complicated. Writing this book, I was really worried. When I bring this academic or political Marxist lens to my upbringing, to my community that I grew up with, it already feels a little bit othering to talk about them in language that may or may not be accessible to them. My mom can talk to me about Marxism because I’ve been talking to her about Marxism for like, ever. My cousin read the book and she wasn’t like “I don’t understand what capitalism is” — working-class people are not idiots. But it does make me nervous that it might come off as though I’m trying to analyze the people in my story. Even though it’s clear in the book that I think this community is amazing, and I model who I am today after it, that’s a little othering and it romanticizes them in a way I get a little nervous about.

AS: I think that’s such a tricky thing about memoir. I always wonder how writers navigate that.

RAJ: It felt important to me that the characters that are talked about at length in the book all read it and gave their blessing. My two best friends from back home read it, and the two boyfriends that feature most prominently read it. I’ve been desperate this whole time for my mom to read it, but she actually still has not read the book. She just carries a lot of shame for the things that she felt like she did wrong, I think it would just be too hard for her to re-read about some of those things in my early life. That said, she’s been incredibly supportive and I did ask her for her permission to write the book at all. But if she had read the draft and said she wasn’t comfortable with something I would have changed it for her. It’s hard to write about other people, and yet I still think memoir is such an important genre and we should all work through those complications if we feel compelled to do it. Almost everyone who reads the book says how clear it is how loving she was and how much I love her and that I write about her very compassionately.

AS: I think that in your book your mom does seem like such a supportive person. I think that was such an interesting thing about your story, it really worked to dispel the myth that rural or working-class people are not safe for queer people to be around, or that queerness doesn’t exist in these communities. It wasn’t a story about “I had to get out of my working-class community,” which is a story we’ve heard and is a true story, but why do you think it was important to offer another reality?

RAJ: I’m glad that came out as a strong theme because that definitely felt important for me. A couple people see that title, Rust Belt Femme, and there’s an assumption that it’s a coming out story about how hard it was for me to be a lesbian in the Rust Belt. And it’s not either of those things. I didn’t know I was queer until later and the Rust Belt gave me my femme identity more wholly, and more fully, and more beautifully than anything else. So, I can’t speak to growing up queer in the hometown I grew up in, because I didn’t know I was queer then. But there is this person from my dad’s race car crew in the book who was gay, and is gay. He’s only in the early part of the book, but he was a hugely important part of my life. It was important to talk about him because I saw how this white, working poor guy who worked on this race car crew was both terrified in that space to be himself, and also had these people — my mom included — amongst the same culture, same community with whom he could be out and safe and protected. It just felt important to say there is no monolithic, bigoted, white working-class person. I feel like certainly in the U.S. that coastal society blames this archetype, this figure they’ve created for the success of Donald Trump. And it’s like “okay, well my mom hates Trump more than anybody else I know on the planet and my gay babysitter is not the image of this person you’ve developed in your head.” It felt sort of timely in that moment, too. If we’re going to defeat fascism and conservative strains of power, we have to recognize that oppressed people need to be part of that and can be part of that, and they’re not always already duped into believing that people like Trump are good.

AS: I think that is really important and it is really clear. I think you said something like “maybe here we don’t have this language of ‘solidarity’ but we know what it means to look out for each other.” I think that’s such a necessary interjection. Similarly, I was struck by the compassion you held for your younger self in writing about one of the major breakups. I think you wrote something about later when you were feeling very feminist and very gay you were like, “why did I care so much about this boy?” but you had a really tender, compassionate way of writing about it. How did writing these stories help you to develop more nuance in how you think about your past?

RAJ: I don’t think I could have written this book if I hadn’t processed a lot of my actual trauma. I couldn’t have written about the sexual assault I experienced if I hadn’t done that work in therapy. In terms of things that were not traumatic but were painful, it was really lovely to write about those things and feel just gratitude more than anything else. Sitting down to write this, I was overcome with warmth and gratefulness for how much these people shaped me. That was really the writing process, it was really organic for me. I’m not much of an outliner. All the weird chapters that aren’t consecutive, that were just about like a random thing, that’s just what I wrote. Like, “that thing reminds me of this thing and now I want to write about the printing press.” And it was a similar thing writing about these boys, like “let’s see what comes out.” Even the boyfriend that you’re talking about, he was kind of a dick and that’s evident in the book. But it was also like, the best. It was what I had and I was grateful that I had it at all. I almost never use the word “regret,” I’m not in a place where I wish things were different, even. It’s not like I’m glad my dad got hit by a car, I’m not glad I got assaulted, or that I ever got broken up with, but I’m not sitting here in bitterness or anger. Because that was my life. I’m glad a lot of people use the word compassionate when they talk about the book.

AS: What do you think is the role of media and creating media in the social and political changes we want to see?

RAJ: Writing about femme in particular helps illuminate class, which is such an important discussion to have, and I really feel like talking about gender identity outside of trans and non-binary identity — it’s like gender studies 101, we all have a gender, we all perform gender — is really important. That’s really important when we’re trying to grapple with toxic masculinity, for example, because it helps us name what we’re talking about with masculinity and femininity. That also feels important right now. I don’t think there’s any example of any social movement that has existed or any cultural shift that has existed without storytelling and stories about individual or communities’ lives. I think memoir in particular breeds empathy. Storytelling and empathy are necessary facets of social change, along with all the structural stuff.

Rust Belt Femme is available from Belt Publishing. You can find out more about Raechel on her website.

Tags: books, class, femme, gender, interview, memoir, raechel anne jolie, rust belt, rust belt femme

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