Three Femmes and Three Mascs Go to the Woods, What Could Go Wrong?
Jenny Fran Davis explores domesticity, camp antics, social media celebrity, and generational clashes in her novel "Dykette"
Jenny Fran Davis’ debut novel Dykette is indisputably, vibrantly, hilariously queer. Dykette follows three couples (and a charismatic pug) on a ten day, pressure-cooker trip to Hudson, New York. The oldest of the couple, Jules Todd (a news anchor who reads like a fictional Rachel Maddow) and her partner Miranda, a therapist who seems perpetually wrapped in a cashmere, invite two twenty-something couples to their upstate house to admire the domesticated bliss of conventionally successful middle aged dykes. The third-person narrative closely follows the high femme, PhD in “the feminine miniature” candidate protagonist Sasha and her boyfriend Jesse, a very nice, handy and resourceful butch and Darcy and Lou: cool, beautiful, artistic, down for whatever, vaguely internet famous as they spend the holidays together.
Three femmes and three mascs go to the woods, what could go wrong? If you answered “a lot” you’re correct. Dykette reads like gossip from your favorite, albeit somewhat messy, friend—it’s full of cunty observations, bizarre situations, performance art, high femme antics and jealousy. There’s competition amongst femmes, butch/femme dynamics, photo shoots with the sexy Grinch filter and a lot of gay sex. Yet at its heart, it’s about flawed people who are desperately trying their hardest to be liked by one another, to find in each other the queer utopia that is community.
I spoke to Jenny Fran Davis by phone about being femme, desire as a driving force and the allure of the butch/femme dynamics.
Ariél Martinez: The book opens with a sexy Grinch filter photo shoot. What does the Grinch mean to you?
Jenny Fran Davis: I feel like the Grinch didn’t hold particular meaning for me as a kid. I don’t really remember thinking about the Grinch until the Grinch filter came along. The Grinch filter was pretty pivotal for gays in general in the past few years. I began to think about the Grinch as bitterness and cockiness and just having all around a bratty attitude. And I think that’s probably part of why we as gays think that the Grinch is so sexy. I was also thinking of the Grinch and his redemption arc as being aspirational to Sasha in the book. His heart can grow two sizes and he comes around at the end and sees the beauty of Christmas or whatever. That was fun to play with also and just thinking about this character that we’re supposed to see evolve in a pretty specific and wholesome way. I was thinking along those lines in terms of Sasha’s arc, playing with whether she was able to embody the same loving, forgiving, wholesome attitude of the Grinch. And I don’t necessarily think she does, but I think that is an interesting aspiration for her, at least at the beginning of the book.
AM: I haven’t read that many books with a blatantly queer femme protagonist like Sasha. Can you talk about your relationship to being femme and how that factored into the writing of the book?
JD: I’m so happy to be talking to a fellow femme about this. It’s so interesting because being femme feels so native to me. It just feels like the lens through which I see everything, think everything, say everything, experience everything. So in a way I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was just feeling my way through it. And I think that was a really interesting way to practice writing and maybe something I haven’t done as much in the past, but letting myself be more impulsive and perform a little bit more dramatically on the page and really channel this character of Sasha who definitely resembles me in a lot of ways, but also isn’t quite me. Navigating writing this character who in some ways is an exaggerated version of myself in some ways, but has different motivations, yet shares this fascination and obsession with being femme was really interesting to play with. And it gave me a lot of leeway to experiment and try things out and take ideas and impulses a little bit further.
In terms of being femme in general and the femme protagonist thing, that’s something I feel like I’ve been thinking about more since finishing the book and thinking about its reception. Throughout the process of writing, it really just felt normal and unremarkable just because it’s so in my bones. Starting to contend with how people read the book and experience the book and then taking it a step further in how they will experience or think about me as the writer has been a more explicit way of thinking about being femme and the way that I’ve been afraid to express myself in certain ways for fear of derision and judgment and all of these things that I’m sure writers of all genders feel.
AM: Another thing that struck me in Dykette is the different women and their very different iterations of being femme. I was wondering how you thought about these characters and their relation to their femininities.
JD: The dynamics of the femininities among Miranda, Sasha and Darcy was the most fun I had writing this book. Part of what’s so fun about being femme is sort of scrutinizing other femmes. That’s been such a joy of my life and my work and my writing is just studying how other people are doing that and being envious and in awe of, and judgmental of, and jealous of and oftentimes extremely turned on or turned off by something another woman is doing. It consumes so much of my personal thinking and writing. And it was so fun to to think about how these characters are relating to each other in all of these different ways and trying on different parts of each other, seeing what might work for them, what they might want to take, what they might want to reject in themselves, what they recognize and hate, what they recognize and love.
A big part of writing this book was leaning into things that feel trite and frivolous and superficial and stupid and taking those things if not seriously, then at least spending time thinking about them and putting them on the page. That was a way that I wanted to both resist the urge to shy away from writing about things because I thought they were trite, but also to not to not try to make what feels trite and frivolous feel unnecessarily weighed down or serious, like let those things be light and fun.
AM: I wanted to ask you about humor. Are you just a funny writer or was it something that you consciously brought into the writing process? Did you always envision it as being funny?
JD: It was really important to me to write something that felt joyful and fun. I want it to feel like dessert or gossip. Like those things that are so delicious and so fun because to me being gay is so fun and so funny. I wanted to translate the joy and the manic humor that I often feel with my friends onto the page. And that was an important thing for me to not lose. Not that writing the book was translating a real life story, but I feel the way that I was thinking about what I wanted to faithfully represent from my own life was the element of joy and fun and lightness.
There’s so much humor and double edged serious and funny elements to all of my friendships and relationships and also to my relationship with myself. I find that embracing humor eases every feeling. And that was important to me to translate into writing. Even in the super tense or serious situations among the characters are real feelings of betrayal and jealousy and loneliness and pain. And all of these things are rarely, at least for me, just that. I was trying to capture the way in which there can also be a perverse joy to feeling jealous. It was important to me to capture the complexity of some of these feelings. It ended up opening a lot of doors in terms of plot and structure also.
AM: I feel like desire is so present in this book in so many different directions. Did you think of desire as being a plot force?
JD: Totally. Desire is kind of the plot force in this book. It’s kind of a cliché of writing fiction. Like, think about what the characters want and that has to be the most central thing. I don’t know that I explicitly started out thinking in those terms but very quickly, it became clear that every interesting thing I was writing had to do with what a character wanted and what they were willing to do to get it. I think all of the characters want multiple things. It’s not like they each have this one desire. Sometimes you really want two things at once. And pursuing one of those will mean that it’s a lot harder to get the other things. I feel like that opened up a lot of doors too, just embracing the complexity of desire. Both really wanting something but also not wanting something at the same time. Desire was super, super top of mind as I was finishing the book and then revising and making sure that desire was both thematically and plot wise, woven into basically everything the characters do and say and feel.
AM: There’s a lot of sex in the book, and then there’s also these kind of nebulous sexual experiences too. Did you know you wanted queer sex in the book? And did you want to see these more nebulous situations?
JD: I definitely knew that there had to be sex in the book. I was also really nervous about that because it’s so easy to be so cringe and to write the most humiliating sex scenes. I was really scared of being cringe. I was experimenting with writing sex without a ton of editorializing and kind of just saying what happened without overwriting the meaning or the feelings surrounding it. I was interested in the mechanics of the sex that was happening. I thought especially because the book is written in the third person, what if I withheld that a bit and just described the acts that were happening without immediately divulging what the characters thought and felt about those acts. I think that was a way that I thought around feeling so cringe as I was writing and also tried to capture the ambiguity or ambivalence of a lot of those sex scenes.
AM: What did you know you wanted to communicate in writing butch/femme dynamics and what obstacles, if any, did you face in writing those?
JD: Butch/femme dynamics are… I love them. I think they’re so fun. I think they’re so fun to be in and experience and play with in my life. And also so fun to write and read about. So I knew that that would be a big part of this book.
Contending with the recent and past history of the way that people think about butch/femme dynamics as mimicking heterosexuality, which I definitely want to mostly reject, is really interesting. I think there is sometimes a joy in perverting heterosexual dynamics, even when that looks like imitating them in some ways. Playing with them would be a better way of putting it. I think that aside, the more intellectual debate or intellectual legacy of butch/femme dynamics aside, I just think that they’re very definitely underexplored. I know there are a lot of really amazing representations in literature, but I guess I’ve found that in recent queer fiction, I just haven’t come across many depictions of it. Not that my project’s goal was at all to represent everyone or to include every possible iteration of queer relationships. But I also didn’t want butch/femme dynamics to be the only queer dynamics that I explored.
And so although that dynamic is really present for the protagonist, Sasha and her boyfriend Jesse, I don’t think that that’s necessarily the case for Jules and Miranda or for Darcy and Lou. It was fun for me to think about how the really, really strong butch/femme dynamic of Jesse and Sasha is being seen by other queers and delighted in but also challenged at certain times. And just the way that this dynamic exists within a relationship, but also how it kind of works in the midst of other queer relationships that don’t necessarily have that same masc/femme thing going on. I was really interested in that dynamic being subject to the pressures of the current moment that it finds itself in, but also the friends surrounding that relationship and the other dynamics surrounding that relationship and the coexistence and push and pull among all of these relationships and how they change in response to one another. That was something that I was really excited about exploring. I wanted to write such a joyful and fun butch/femme dynamic because in my experience it is so joyful and fun. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its challenges and that it’s any better or worse than any other sort of dynamic. It was really generative and fun for me to write about, like all of the ways that it’s such a delightful dynamic because in my experience, it really is.
AM: I was describing your book to a friend and my friend who—I love them so much but they’re not a big reader—was like, wait so is it Rachel Maddow fan fiction?
JD: Oh my God. I was about to say that.
AM: I thought that was so funny but can you just talk me through how Jules came to be?
JD: I think Rachel Maddow fan fiction is a really great way to put it, but also because I’ve never met Rachel Maddow, it’s also just all of the sexy 40-year-old butches that I’ve ever known in one person who’s also total dork and really cringe, but also irresistible to Sasha in that way of being being 15 years older and having a successful career and being kind of famous and having a bunch of money and having this sexy, distant partner who Sasha’s really intrigued by. It is totally fan fiction. And then as things happen between them, there’s a disillusionment with Jules. It was really important for me to work through that in the writing because people are very rarely how we think they’re going to be or how we want them to be.
AM: What’s your favorite part of the book?
JD: I think the part where Jesse is accusing Sasha of trying to be a reality star. I feel like that gets at a lot of the inner workings of their relationship. And it’s also this moment where things between them come to a place where the performance hasn’t quite ended. I think that part of the book shows that we’re always performing and something can be both very performed but also very real. When Jesse yells out “who do you think you’re trying to be? You’re not Stassi Schroeder from Vanderpump Rules. You’re not this reality star brat caricature.” That’s a breakthrough moment where it punches through some of the overperformed dynamics between Jesse and Sasha. But it also brings us back to the reality TV world that we live in where we’re all performing ourselves all the time. And even in that accusation, I feel like Jesse is performing something too. That spat between the two of them really opened up something that I had been writing towards the whole time. And then in that moment of extreme tension and anger and hurt between the two of them, something gets exposed but also doesn’t get exposed to a point where they’re no longer performing. We see the performative nature of even vulnerability and raw emotion.