Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal

Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal

by J. Jack Halberstam
Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal

Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal

by J. Jack Halberstam

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Using Lady Gaga as a symbol for a new kind of feminism, this “provocative and pleasurable romp through contemporary gender politics . . . is as fun as it is illuminating” (Ariel Levy, New Yorker)

Why are so many women single, so many men resisting marriage, and so many gays and lesbians having babies? Gaga Feminism answers these questions while attempting to make sense of the tectonic cultural shifts that have transformed gender and sexual politics in the last few decades. This colorful landscape is populated by symbols and phenomena as varied as pregnant men, late-life lesbians, SpongeBob SquarePants, and queer families. So how do we understand the dissonance between these real experiences and the heteronormative narratives that dominate popular media? We can embrace the chaos! With equal parts edge and wit, J. Jack Halberstam reveals how these symbolic ruptures open a critical space to embrace new ways of conceptualizing sex, love, and marriage.
Using Lady Gaga as a symbol for a new era, Halberstam deftly unpacks what the pop superstar symbolizes, to whom and why. The result is a provocative manifesto of creative mayhem—a roadmap to sex and gender for the twenty-first century—that holds Lady Gaga as an exemplar of a new kind of feminism that privileges gender and sexual fluidity.
Part handbook, part guidebook, and part sex manual, Gaga Feminism is the first book to take seriously the collapse of heterosexuality and find signposts in the wreckage to a new and different way of doing sex and gender.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807010976
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 09/03/2013
Series: Queer Ideas/Queer Action , #7
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

J. Jack Halberstam is the author of four books, including Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure. Currently a professor of American studies and of ethnicity and gender studies at the University of Southern California, Halberstam regularly speaks and writes on queer culture and gender issues and blogs at BullyBloggers.

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction

One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is.
—Erma Bombeck
Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky.
—Fran Lebowitz
Excuse  me,  sir, but  you’re  sitting  on my  body,  which  is also my face.
—SpongeBob SquarePants
I have a couple of kids in my life, my partner’s children, and they were quite  young  when  I met  them—three  and  five  years  old. Both were at an age when gender is not so fixed, and so, upon meeting them for the first time, I got what was for me a very predictable question from them both: “Are you a boy or a girl?” When I did not give a definitive answer, they came up with a category that worked for them—boy/girl. They said it just like that, “boygirl,” as if it were one word, and, moreover,  as if it were al- ready a well-known  term and obvious at that. Since naming has been an issue my whole life (as a young person I was constantly mistaken  for a boy; as an adult,  my gender  regularly  confuses strangers),  this simple resolution  of my gender ambiguity within a term that  stitches boy and girl together was liberating  to say the least. Boygirl I am and boygirl I will remain.
Of course, as time has passed, both kids, a boy and a girl, have recognized that the world sees me a little differently than they do. When people ask if I am their “mum,” they look baffled; when people call me “sir,” they seem comfortable; when a teacher refers to me as “she,” they roll with it but they persist in calling me “he” and their “stepdad.” The little girl happily told one of her friends that she had a dad and a stepdad, at which point she gestured proudly toward me. The little friend seemed slightly confused, but then she also rolled with it: “cool,” she said and turned to her mom: “That’s her stepdad,” she explained.  The mom looked at me; I looked at her and shrugged.  Life is complicated, genders are complicated, families are complicated, and yet we have so few words for these new and often quite welcome complications that accompany massive social shifts. And so we make do. We let kids who have not yet learned the appropriate languages for indeterminate identities name what escapes adult comprehension.
Children nowadays actually have a fantastically rich archive of wacky representations from which to draw as they make sense of their worlds.  If SpongeBob SquarePants is anything to go by, and I believe he is, then children can find all kinds of examples of ambiguous embodiment in the materials that TV and cinema market to them. SpongeBob  SquarePants  and  his crew of spongy life forms all experience a soft relation  to reality, and while life in Bikini Bottom bears some resemblance  to life above the water,  it also operates according  to its own set of rules, code violations,  morality, and propriety. The villain of the piece is the money-grabbing Mr. Krabs, but SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick also often square off against a mean-spirited octopus named Squidward. The significance of SpongeBob SquarePants to contemporary gender norms,  I believe, cannot  be overstated; while earlier generations  of boys and girls were raised  on  cartoon  worlds   populated  by  cats and  mice,  dogs  and  rabbit chasing each other across various domestic landscapes, this generation has come of age to an animated mythological universe populated by characters with eccentric and often simply weird relations to gender.  And so we take SpongeBob SquarePants as our guide, following the hedonistic and cheerful sponge whose body, as he reminds one chap who sits on him, is also his face, in looking for fun, in mistrusting people who only want to make money, and in tracking down treats made with peanut butter.
SpongeBob  aside,  this  book  tries  to  grapple  with  the  shifts and changes that have transformed the way we live our genders and sexualities  over the last twenty years. While in universities, philosophers and queer theorists, including myself, have for years pondered the meaning of gender norms and studied the development of sexuality within matrices of normativity and perversity. We scholars don’t always explicate clearly or accessibly. And that is unfortunate,  because the fact is, this world within  which  we live, work, and love has changed  dramatically since our parents raised us, and we all need a guide to the new social and emotional structures that support these changes. Just to name a few of the most obvious  changes that have impacted  our daily experiences of sex and gender, in the late twentieth century and early twenty- first century, we have seen a massive decline in the prevalence and dominance of monogamous marriage and a huge rise in divorce and  diverse households. In the United States, we have also witnessed a new and startling visibility of transgender communities and individuals as well as new levels of acceptance for normative gays and lesbians. Gay marriage is on the horizon and the homo- hetero binary seems less definitive of sexual orientation than it did at the turn of the last century.

What has brought   so many changes on and so quickly? The answer is: everything! In other words, change has occurred on account of the boom/bust economy; advances in computer technology;  new medical research; increased mobility; new forms of social contact and social networking; new modes of media including Twitter feeds; new levels of media surveillance and intrusion and new forms of social control; etc., etc. Obviously,  there is no need to pinpoint one singular narrative  to account  for the massive changes that  we have experienced  in our lifetimes; and in many ways, it would be weirder if our ideas of family, desire, the normal,  the  ordinary, the extraordinary did not  change  as everything else around  us shifted,  evolved, developed,  and col- lapsed. That things change should neither surprise nor alarm us; it should  interest us, however,  and should  engage us enough  to spur  a reconsideration of the terms,  the names,  the  categories we use to understand our bodies,  our relationships, our bonds with others,  our connections to strangers,  our intimacies within and beyond  biological relation,  and our imagination about  the future. Change, indeed, is the air that children breathe, which may be why they are more flexible than adults.

But before I launch into a child-centric  account  of new genders, let me acknowledge that the child has all too often served as a justification  for the most wretched  forms of social and political conservatism  in the United  States since  at least the mid- nineteenth   century.  A lesbian  couple  I  know  who  live in San Francisco,  just to give one example, became alarmed,  after the birth  of their  daughter, about  the amount  of sexually  explicit material  in the shop windows  in  their  very gay neighborhood, the Castro.  Suddenly, the same environment that had made them feel excited about living in the city became the source of discomfort and concern.  They quickly pulled up stakes and moved out to a suburb where the child would, according to them, be safe from the impact of openly displayed sexual materials.  This is a couple  that  for years  had  engaged  in a polyamorous  relationship and  had incorporated all kinds  of sex toys  into their  sexlife. Suddenly, however, on behalf of their infant daughter, they rushed to avoid the very materials that had nurtured their own very queer desires.  We all know  of the “protect  the children” ruses that  religious Americans  have used to censor all kinds of materials that feature any kind of open discussion of sexuality— remember  that  in the 1970s  Anita Bryant  created  a “Save Our Children” campaign  that was designed to counteract a pro–gay rights initiative in Florida, and this was followed in 1978 by the Briggs Initiative  in  California, which sought  to ban  gays and lesbians  from  the  classroom.  Now  that  California  has passed a  resolution  requiring  that  gay and  lesbian  history  be taught in the schools,  we can tell ourselves  that  we have traveled  far from these paternalistic measures;  and  of course  we  have,  but the problem  is that  the exact  sex-negative attitudes that  fueled antigay  sentiment  three  decades  ago now sneak new forms  of sex negativity  back into dynamic social systems—but  this time via gays and lesbians themselves!

While we currently train teenagers to think of sex in terms of all the bad things (pregnancy,  sexual diseases) that could happen  to them if they actually “get lucky,” many children are more wily and more canny than  their parents  think,  and it is this generation of kids—kids  growing up in the age of divorce,  queer parenting, and economic  collapse—who  will probably  recognize, name, and embrace new modes of gender and sexuality within a social environment that has changed their meaning forever.

Along these lines, let me give another illustration of the inventiveness of the child mind in relation to new material. My partner’s son surprised me the other day. He caught me off guard. The conversation began as many others have, with him asking: “Jack, can I ask you a question?”  The  first  time  he  used  this approach, I was sure that  some big life question  would  follow; or something  about queerness, or sex, or something  messy and unanswerable. But actually,  the first few times that  he used this lead-in,  the question  turned  out to be about  turtles,  his favorite topic at that  time (now it is octopuses;  octopi?). “Jack, can I ask you a question?” such conversations typically go. “Sure, shoot.” “Well, ah, hmm. How long do you think a turtle can live?” OK, so on this day, I expected another turtle question and tried to line up some turtle facts. In fact, I had been reading up so as not to be caught off guard again: turtles have been on earth for about 200 million years. Turtles cannot leave their shells. Turtles can sometimes outrun humans (helpful to know!) . . . or stick their tongues out (less helpful) . . . they can, however, climb well (who knew?). Groups of turtles are called “bales.” That should cover it!

“Shoot, ask me anything you like,” I said blithely.  And he did: “Do you have a penis or . . .” While I tried to grapple with the first part of the question, he continued seriously, trying to come up with the female equivalent of penis . . . “or do you have, you know, a . . . well, the thing that girls have?” He scrunched up his eyes as if he had just asked a very serious and important question about planetary motion or turtle mating habits. OK. A penis question  . . . “I have what girls have,” I said quickly.  Silence. And then: “Well, then Jack, I hate to tell you this but you are basically a girl!” True, I am basically a girl, how to respond to this while not giving up entirely on the truth of the “boygirl” moniker?  Well, I didn’t have to think too long.  The little girl jumped in now, sensing that her older brother had reached the limits of his knowledge of such things. “Of course he has a girl thing, he is a girl!” Pause. “A boygirl.”  She said this while looking at her brother as though he had just failed a spelling test. “I know he is a girl,” he answered quietly. “I am just saying, does he have a penis or . . .” I paused for a moment, wondering how to resolve this for him—the mixture of pronouns and gender categories probably needed to be sorted out. Was this the time for

A quick lesson on gender, anatomy, and social meanings? Should I try to address the elephant (or turtle) in the room by raising the topics of lesbianism, transgenderism, cross-gender identification? Should I use as my example the little girl in his class who played with the boys and had recently declared girls’ games to be “dumb”? I began to answer the kids’ questions, thoughtfully and slowly . . . but, as it turns out, too slowly. The little guy got there first: “Jack, can all turtles swim?” he asked with great import.  And just like that, the gender crisis had been raised; ad- dressed, and dispatched and we were back to the turtles.

Children are different from adults in all kinds of meaningful ways. They inhabit different understandings of time, and experience the passing of time differently.  They also seamlessly transition between  topics that  adults  would ordinarily not connect  in polite conversation (turtles and sex, for example); and often, they place the emphasis differently than adults might by making questions about  sex and gender as important or as inconsequential as questions  about animals, vegetables,  and minerals.  The training of children is as much about teaching them where to place the emphasis as it is about giving them information. But the training  of  children  would  proceed  much  more  smoothly  if there  were more exchange and if adults were willing, in the process, to be re- trained  themselves. The whole notion of a generational exchange as a one-way process informs our ideas of parenting, and it keeps us stuck in profoundly limited and conservative models of the family and childrearing. If postmodern theory has taught us any- thing, it should have impressed upon us the idea that time is not linear and therefore that generational differences are more loopy and complex than we imagine when we plot them out along the straight lines of chronological age. This book advocates  for more twisty, curvy, more relative notions of time, age, and difference, and  it does  so on  behalf  of an  adult-child  dialogue  that  is not invested in a misguided  and sentimental notion  of childhood innocence nor on account  of a naive investment  in the idea of truth  issuing  from  the  mouths  of babes  . . . it is more  a  sense that the pre-socialized,  pre-disciplined, pre-restrained  anarchic  child comes at the world a little differently  than  the post-shame, post- guilt, post-recognition, disciplined adult. And this anarchic sense of time and relation should be and easily could be a better model for change than the ones with which we currently live.

While  the  adult  filters  his  or  her  responses  to  sex,  love, emotions  through  the thick  haze of training  that  has  installed shame and  guilt  as appropriate barriers  to unfettered  and  antisocial  explorations of the body,  in public,  private,  and every- where else, until a certain age, the child does not yet know what the  difference  might be  between  appropriate and  inappropriate, legitimate  and  illegitimate,  important and  silly. Not only do children not know the difference, but in fact the differences between these things register very differently for them. What the adult considers inappropriate (eating with an open mouth,  far ing,  touching  one’s genitals  in public, touching  other  people’s genitals in public,  telling someone  their breath smells) may not be inappropriate for the child. And, as Freud pointed out long ago in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, the fact that adults prohibit behavior that children want to indulge, creates a complex matrix of desire, taboo, repression, and expression out of which sexual personalities evolve. And as scholars like Michel Foucault  and Judith Butler have reminded  us, the forbidding  of certain activities endows them with more meaning, and actually makes them part  of the child’s sexual psyche rather  than eliminating the desires altogether.

The topics that I will take up in this short book emerge as a series of “what if” questions, some of which have good and practical answers, some of which remain unanswerable at this time.

Table of Contents

A Note from the Series Editor
PREFACE Going Gaga

One:  Gaga Feminism for Beginners
Two:   Gaga Genders
Three: Gaga Sexualities: The End of Normal 
Four:   Gaga Relations: The End of Marriage 
Five:   Gaga Manifesto


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Jack Halberstam—the king of feminism—has managed to make sense of pregnant men, Lady Gaga, gay marriage, and the advent of the bromance in this provocative and pleasurable romp through contemporary gender politics. Gaga Feminism is as fun as it is illuminating.”Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs and staff writer at the New Yorker

“Like the remixed and mashed cultures that produced her, Lady Gaga defies simple logics and explanations. Perhaps no scholar is better equipped to go there with Gaga than J. Jack Halberstam, whose work, like Gaga, resists categorization. If Gaga Feminism is a politics of free form and improvisation, Halberstam bravely lets loose the reins.”—Mark Anthony Neal, co-editor That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader
 “In this important and spirited manifesto, Jack Halberstam’s signature wit, depth, and wide-ranging cultural appetites are on full display. Amid Halberstam’s stories about the many-gendered world we live in, this book gives us hope that we might move toward ever more liberated modes of living.”—Sara Marcus, author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution

“Jack Halberstam’s wild, playful intelligence wreaks dazzling havoc on pop culture and feminism and gender—from butch fish to deadbeat dudes, marriage, hetero(in)flexibilty, rom-coms, global capitalism, and, of course, Lady Gaga. Halberstam is the crier for and contributor to a gleeful anarchism that begins in the streets or the universities or maybe the television, and comes raging into our most intimate spheres.”—Michelle Tea, author of Valencia 

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