Book review

Gaga feminism: Sex, gender, and the end of normal, by J. Jack Halberstam

Anne Kustritz

University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands

[0.1] Keywords—Lady Gaga; Popular culture; Queer theory

Kustritz, Anne. 2014. Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, by J. Jack Halberstam [book review]. In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15.

J. Jack Halberstam, Gaga feminism: Sex, gender, and the end of normal. Boston: Beacon, 2012, hardcover, $26.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0807010983.

[1] It's an easy mistake to make, but Gaga Feminism by J. Jack Halberstam is not about Lady Gaga. Instead, it might best be considered the populist companion text to his previous book, The Queer Art of Failure (2011). Much of Halberstam's early work centered on drag kings, female masculinity, butch identity, and rural queers, using these largely overlooked subjectivities to challenge the limitations of queer theory and construct theoretical frameworks like "queer time" to make sense of nonhomonormative lives. These concerns have not disappeared, but in Halberstam's recent work, popular culture takes center stage. Thus The Queer Art of Failure argues for creating accessible scholarship that steals from the academy to benefit "life's losers," those systematically relegated to failure by capitalism and social normativity. To do so, Halberstam explores what he terms the "silly archive" of popular culture, especially animation, both because of its relevance to many people's everyday cultural life and because he finds there a kind of anarchic, childish ability to forget or refuse understanding of social systems and thereby to invent new modes of life unhampered by adults' learned social assumptions. Yet The Queer Art of Failure itself is highly theoretical, engaged in a direct rebuttal, or at least a strong modification, of queer theory's negative turn, argued most prominently in Lee Edelman's No Future (2004). Even its readings of cartoons serve largely academic ends, and its rallying cry largely urges academics to think beyond the normative career path and disciplinary boundaries of the university.

[2] In Gaga Feminism, Halberstam attempts to put the theoretical insights and social prescriptions of The Queer Art of Failure into action, directly addressing a broader public audience and centering on questions of popular culture and politics rather than academic debates. He therefore approaches the same perilous crossroads of academic and popular audiences, popular culture and academic theory, where fan scholars often work. Gaga Feminism can thereby become a good addition to fan scholars' theoretical tool kit, offering timely and accessible approaches to popular culture, gender, sexuality, and public scholarship, as these themes repeatedly surface in fan studies. The book builds a model for public political engagement using the metaphor of Lady Gaga, although often in tension with the specific actions and positions taken by the actual person of Lady Gaga. Rather, what Halberstam identifies as useful in the Lady Gaga phenomenon is, first, her ability to speak directly to a new generation of "women," broadly defined, and second, her mind-bending propensity to twist expectations: to turn meat into dresses, an awards show into performance art, sexploitation into feminism—to generally take the assumptions of normal life and go gaga.

[3] The preface, introduction, and first chapter of Gaga Feminism outline a tentative definition of gaga feminism and situate it within modern politics as "the feminism (pheminism?) of the phony, the unreal, and the speculative," engaged not in second-wave "coming to consciousness" as women but in unbecoming women in the wake of destabilizations of the gender system wrought by the visibility of trans people, the economic collapse, and alternate family structures (xii). Halberstam frames the project as a timely form of feminism for postcapitalism. He then goes on to outline the book's central paradox: that recent demographic transformations such as the rise of divorce, women's entrance into higher education and the workforce, and the increased visibility of gay, lesbian, and trans people should help us all rethink normative standards for a successful life path and for satisfactory family and living arrangements. Yet often these very transformations increase dissatisfaction with heteronormative marriage and nonetheless reinforce and reinvest in marriage's hegemony, despite its acknowledged flaws. At this juncture, Halberstam takes up the figure of the preenculturated child who has not yet internalized or understood social hierarchies and categories, nor the shame of living outside their boundaries, and so engages in fanciful and imaginative improvisation to make sense of the unpredictable world. In the childish ability to accept and accommodate all human variation, and to constantly question accepted common sense, Halberstam sees a potential model for retraining adults in a practice of critical nonsense that refuses to yield to the authority of social discipline. The first chapter ends with a list of five tenets for gaga feminism: first, discard "basic assumptions about people, bodies, and desires"; second, "transformation is inevitable" but is often invisible in everyday life; third, "think counterintuitively, act accordingly"; fourth, "practice creative nonbelieving," because Halberstam ties the political entrenchment of religion to the major historical disasters of gender and sexuality oppression; and fifth, gaga feminism requires a bold, abrasive refusal of shame and an embrace of the outrageous (27–29).

[4] Chapters 2 through 4 deal with case studies organized by gender, sexuality, and marriage. Chapter 2, "Gaga Genders," frames its argument with a discussion of the media frenzy surrounding Thomas Beatie, who was billed as the first pregnant man. Halberstam reminds readers that trans men had babies before 2007 without alerting the media, but he continues to tease apart a variation of the theme outlined in the introduction: given the existence of artificial insemination, why have so few social gender norms surrounding reproduction and parenthood changed? Via feminist scholar Shulamith Firestone, Halberstam presents a vision of a future free from any theoretical connection between biology, gender, reproduction, and parenthood roles. Halberstam skewers romantic comedies like The Switch (2010) and The Back-up Plan (2010), in which women utilize alternative reproduction technologies only to nonetheless be reincorporated by the narrative happily-ever-after of heterosexual monogamy. He then champions the radical possibilities raised by butch fatherhood, as distinguished from the more media-friendly "two daddies" or "two mommies" framework. Reading against The Kids Are All Right (2010), Halberstam argues that butch-femme parents present "authority without patriarchy" and "gender polarity without compulsory heterosexuality," providing their children an education in the "arbitrariness of all gender roles" (58). From this basis, Halberstam argues that the butch-femme dynamic can denaturalize heterosexuality by offering an alternative that is just as—if not more—compelling, equitable, and sexy.

[5] In chapter 3, "Gaga Sexualities: The End of Normal," Halberstam explores sexual fixity versus fluidity over a life span and questions how the combined challenges of divorce and straight men's persistent preference for younger women as partners might lead some straight women to seek lesbians or trans men as partners. Halberstam questions the universality of the gay/straight binary and calls attention to popular press reports that women's desires are commonly flexible. He concludes by suggesting that straight men might learn from butch masculinity to regard gender identity as constructed, and, as it is in the animated 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, constantly contingent and subject to transformation.

[6] Chapter 4 lays out Halberstam's critique of the mainstream gay and lesbian rights movement's positioning of gay marriage as the preeminent political priority. Under five headings, Halberstam points out that the marriage push is not a universal priority among queer people. First, he states that "reactive politics are weak politics," arguing that gay marriage only became central because of right-wing opposition (104). Second, under the dictum "inclusion maintains the status quo," he questions marriage's deliberate decoupling from a broader civil rights agenda, indicating that marriage will only benefit gays and lesbians who already benefit from race and class privilege (104). Third, examining the bundle of health care and parental rights wrapped into marriage, Halberstam asserts that "rights should not be marriage-dependent" (108). Fourth, arguing that "alternative intimacies are not served," Halberstam explores the many models for allocating rights, responsibilities, and resources that people might devise if freed from the hegemony of the marriage system, allowing people to share health care, child rearing, and homes in any way they see fit (109). Finally, Halberstam argues that "marriage is an oppressive ideology," noting that a radical critique of marriage has been central to the history of feminism, making it "ironic to see marriage as an unquestioned good and a worthy goal in a gay imaginary" (111–12). He then reviews the many romantic comedies that excoriate marriage as a trap for both genders and then uses that dissatisfaction as merely an illusory obstacle for the happy couple to overcome on their inevitable path to wedded bliss. He argues that this outcome sutures the fissures within marriage caused by demographic shifts and the legacies of feminism, ideologically insisting that despite a changing world, marriage must remain sacrosanct. For Halberstam, gay marriage rhetorically strengthens marriage just when other social changes might have led to its ultimate decline and transformation.

[7] Chapter 5, "Gaga Manifesto," sums up Halberstam's intention to create a feminist platform for the contemporary world, wracked by uncertainty and danger, by championing not a return to safety but instead further commitment to instability, crisis, and inventive new dreams emerging from the ruins of business as usual. He finds shared purpose with the Occupy movement (which began in 2011), anarchy as imagined by the Invisible Committee, and Lady Gaga's live performances. Returning to formulations from The Queer Art of Failure and The Wire (2002–8), Halberstam explains that by recognizing the ways the social game is rigged in favor of the powerful, "gaga feminism is for the failures, the losers, those for whom the price of success is too high"; the inevitability of defeat thereby lends itself to bold action under the principle that if you're going to lose, then lose big—lose fabulously (147). Halberstam therefore calls for a process of social unlearning inspired by the anarchy of children and for alternative models of family. He advocates an ethos of flexibility, improvisation, and inclusivity in solidarity with multiple global revolutions. As he began, Halberstam ends by reminding readers that this book is not about Lady Gaga and that "what is gaga today will be something else entirely tomorrow," requiring that gaga feminism constantly reinvent itself to remain just at the edge of what is currently unnamable at the horizon of a queer new future (149).

[8] Although Gaga Feminism's greatest strengths are its personal approach, engaging writing style, commitment to popular culture, and unabashed appeal to general audiences, these very characteristics often undercut its coherence and persuasiveness. Gaga Feminism often seems like only the punch line to a larger story, or a sequence of coded references for which The Queer Art of Failure serves as the decoder ring. This sense of déjà vu is compounded by the fact that many of the examples and close readings in Gaga Feminism were first performed in The Queer Art of Failure. When it is read in isolation, popular audiences may find aspects of Gaga Feminism inspiring, exciting, and relevant, but it is also likely that full understanding of crucial sections of Gaga Feminism hinges on having previously read The Queer Art of Failure. Further, although the introduction decries earlier generations of feminists' refusal to engage with contemporary popular culture and figures that contemporary young women find inspiring, such as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, Gaga Feminism ultimately finds very little to celebrate in the person of Lady Gaga apart from the music video for "Telephone" (2009) and a metaphorical spirit of inventiveness. This selectiveness and critical rejection of so many staples of popular films, although perhaps well deserved, may also alienate precisely that popular audience that the book originally targeted by centralizing Gaga and the popular pleasures she represents.

[9] Likewise, the fact that many of the chapters are framed by personal anecdotes makes Gaga Feminism an enjoyable read. Yet it also raises the specter of nongeneralizability; because Halberstam stages each argument through the lens of his own experience, readers may wonder how many of these insights are limited to his own life and are not applicable to other people's. This limitation becomes particularly evident when Halberstam explains his theory that unenculturated children's anarchic subjectivities allow them to construct unexpected and novel ways of inclusively understanding human variation, as represented by his own experience being accommodated into the sex/gender system as a "boygirl" by his partner's children and their friends. He explicitly states that this formulation acknowledges the danger in using children as a political cipher of innocence, but one might also easily imagine that encounter going very differently with a different group of children. Would a group of cruel children who exclude a gender-variant playmate prompt us to reconsider the entire politics of unlearning that Halberstam advocates? Perhaps not, but that possibility also calls into question this founding metaphor of childish progressive anarchy in a space sealed off from the taint of adult culture and shame.

[10] Of similar theoretical concern is the way that Halberstam's centering of butch identity stigmatizes and erases other social and sexual possibilities. Butch identity hardly holds institutional or social sway, and in that sense the description of political and social possibilities tied to butch subjectivities is welcome and necessary. However, it is unfortunate that these moments often occur at the expense of other often sidelined sexual and gender subject positions. By constantly returning only to butch identities and butch-femme relationships as the most important engines of social change and possibility, Halberstam undermines solidarity with numerous other life paths, embodiments, and relationships. This particularly becomes an issue in chapter 2, when Halberstam evacuates any political or social utility from gay and lesbian parenting that follows a same-gender model as "gay daddies or lesbian moms." Although these styles are more often portrayed in the media than butch characters, and in that sense could be argued to have been reincorporated into the system, that does not mean such arrangements cannot teach straight couples or other same-sex couples something worthwhile about how gender could function differently. Capitalism, as the saying goes, sells everything, including the rope for its own repeated ritual hanging; if we insist on finding political utility only in things that can't be sold by Hollywood, we will never do politics again. Halberstam acknowledges this in most of the book as he finds such productive pleasures in Pixar and Gaga.

[11] Further, the entire book commits a rather curious erasure of bisexuality, a term that appears only twice: once in the editors' foreword and once in a quotation from another scholar. Halberstam includes the requisite B in LGBT, but when he actually spells out the identities of nonheteronormative people, he writes only "gay, lesbian, and trans people," leaving bisexual unstated. This is especially ironic because bisexual most closely describes Gaga's own sexuality, so its lack is keenly felt in a book bearing her name. One can only speculate about this conspicuous absence and wonder how the discussions of straight, gay, lesbian, and trans lives would have been complicated or further elucidated had Halberstam also addressed bisexuality. This suppression of bisexuality becomes especially problematic in chapter 3, when Halberstam seems almost to invent the concept of bisexuality from scratch in his thorough description of people who desire more than one gender or whose desires fluctuate over their life span; yet he does this without ever actually using or engaging with the word bisexual. In part this elision becomes a critical part of the argument, as Halberstam argues that men's sexuality is fixed while women's is fluid, with the exception of the stone butch. Yet this dichotomy is only possible precisely by ignoring bisexual men and men who identify as gay or straight but have sex with both men and women. Rather than critique the quasi-scientific foundations of the popular press study that asserted that men's arousal follows a rigidly homo-hetero binary, Halberstam accepts that assertion and reinforces the biphobic notion that real bisexuality is a myth.

[12] Thus, in sum, Gaga Feminism successfully addresses a popular audience in tone and structure; yet in doing so, it often undercuts the depth of its arguments and may seem unsatisfying to academic audiences already familiar with Halberstam's other works. However, scholarly work suited to pressing political issues and responsive to the challenges of average people's lives remains a worthwhile goal, and Gaga Feminism may offer lessons and inspiration to fan scholars who likewise seek to engage a hybrid audience of academics and fans. Gaga Feminism may motivate other academics to go gaga and reimagine how theory can serve the public, and how academic work might be repurposed to engage with the everyday politics of modern life.

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