Miss Universe and Boston's Femmes

So come on, fess up. What did you watch on Monday night? Miss Universe or the Patriots game? Perhaps we should create a Boston personality test with this as the opening question. But in truth, Miss Universe is a serious business, and not just for the women involved. Viewers are pushed into believing that “beauty” is about looking a certain way — and, by now, we’re all pretty aware of the dangers.

But for an antidote to such pageants, look no further than Boston’s Femme Show. With its roots in Jamaica Plain, the Femme Show takes the form of a variety show, and the fifth annual tour hits the Cambridge YMCA on Friday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 1. The show gets its title from the term ‘femme,’ which refers to feminine expressions, regardless of sexuality, body shape or biological sex. The Femme Show’s performers range from Stella Streamline’s femme burlesque to the gender-bending Johnny Blazes who combines clowning with drag. “We use our performances as an opportunity to tell our stories,” says artistic director Maggie Cee. She hopes the audience will recognize something of themselves in these narratives, whether they are queer, straight, femme, or otherwise.

Of course, we’re all free to choose the Miss Universe aesthetic, as long as we remember it’s only one style — a style that shouldn’t be restricted by sex, body shape or gender. (Check out Oprah’s interview with fashion model Lea T for a mainstream example of transgender “Miss Universe style” chic). “Femme identity is all about choice,” says Cee. But Cee is quick to remind us that the standard of beauty in Miss Universe pageants is usually centered on an ideal that all cultures don’t necessarily find attractive. No offense to this year’s winner, Miss Angola, but it seems Miss Universe’s beauty is far from universal.

Cee adds that feminist critiques of beauty pageants sometimes cross a line. “They can wind up critiquing the women themselves as stupid, as fem-bots, as dupes,” she says. A wise point, considering how damaging stereotypes can be.

Besides, isn’t it a better world when everyone’s free to choose sequins? Clearly, it’s time I released my inner femme.

The Femme Show will appear at the Cambridge YMCA on September 30-October 1, 2011. You can buy tickets here.