The Chronicle Review

Queer 2.0

Judith 'Jack' Halberstam complicates gender

Todd Bigelow for the Chronicle Review

In her new book, Judith "Jack" Halberstam calls her approach "low theory," and she finds room to discuss popular culture and even to add some humor.
January 01, 2012

Masculinity has a bad reputation. It is not entirely undeserved, and the strength of feminist criticism, especially as it arose in the 1970s and 80s, was pointing out the masculine bias of our society and its cultural artifacts, like literature. So it was something of a surprise when, in the late 1990s, Judith "Jack" Halberstam resuscitated masculinity. It was not the usual idea of masculinity, however: It was what she termed, in the title of her 1998 book, "female masculinity." In her turn to an aspect of gender that had been largely ignored in both feminism and queer studies, Halberstam represents a second generation of queer theory, underscoring the transitive nature of gender, or "transgender."

I interviewed Halberstam, a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and gender studies at the University of Southern California, amid the bustle of last year's Modern Language Association convention, to ask how she came to do this kind of work. Part of her motivation was familiar to most scholars: She wanted to correct customary thinking in the field. "There was a gaping hole in feminism. One subject for whom feminism has always had a hard time speaking is the masculine woman," she recounted. The topic "fell out of the universalizing category that feminism assumed."

Moreover, talk about masculinity did not usually "extend beyond the boundaries of maleness," according to Halberstam. Even after the advent of queer theory in the early 1990s, the masculine woman was considered "abhorrent and pathological," a "real taboo" among feminists, and a figure that "grossed out and threatened" most men.

Halberstam is not an unconditional proponent of masculinity—she noted that "it can be a bit toxic" and excoriated the "laddish culture" of the middle part of England, where she grew up—but she pointed out that it makes sense that women would want to adopt masculinity: "In a male-dominated society, masculinity has a lot of value, and a lot of the really fun activities get allocated to men. That's where the action is, so I think it's a lot easier to explain girls' and women's attraction to masculinity than it is to explain male attraction to femininity in a culture that devalues femininity."

Another element of her motivation was personal. As she writes in Female Masculinity (Duke University Press), "For a large part of my life, I have been stigmatized by a masculinity that marked me as ambiguous and illegible. Like many other tomboys, I was mistaken for a boy throughout my childhood, and like many other tomboy adolescents, I was forced into some semblance of femininity for my teenage years."

Even in her adult life, Halberstam sometimes faces that stigma, and in her book she tells a story about going into a women's room at the Chicago airport, when two guards banged on her stall door. (They retreated when they heard her voice, which is almost fluty at points, with a soft British accent.) Using that anecdote, she encapsulates the issue of gender as "the bathroom problem." Though we consider ourselves to have made progress about gender and sexuality, there are still only two public categories to which one can belong. Halberstam's work aims to remedy "the bathroom problem," so that we might recognize not only men and women but also the various genders that people actually have.

A fundamental insight of feminism was that gender is not the result of nature, indelible and given; rather, it is the result of culture and history. Although this seems like an old saw now, it was a discovery that shook the world, both inside and outside academe.

If the era from the late 1960s through the 1970s saw "the rise of gender," in the words of one feminist historian, the 1990s saw, in the title of Judith Butler's landmark book, "gender trouble." Black, postcolonial, and gay and lesbian scholars, among others, criticized the limitations of feminism, charging it with speaking largely for white, middle-class, heterosexual women. Butler's insight in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990) was to understand gender as a performance. Whether gender was constructed or natural, it implied a given content; a performance suggested a temporal act. Butler's prime example was the drag queen, who emphasized the way in which gender was posed, and also the way it deconstructed.

The deconstruction of gender precipitated a shift from feminism and gay and lesbian studies to queer studies. The category of gender seemed inadequate, issuing identities, whether straight or gay; the category of sexuality became more central through the 1990s, indicating practices and suggesting the instability of identities. A heterosexual person, after all, might perform queer acts, and queer theory influenced several fields in this period. Queer became a new way to see culture.

Halberstam works in queer theory, focusing, for instance, on drag-king culture and the way in which it complicates notions of gender and sex. But in her contribution to Keywords for American Cultural Studies (NYU Press, 2007), she also returns to gender, explaining its pragmatic relevance: "Socially sedimented categories are hard to erase, and efforts to do so often have more toxic effects than the decision to inhabit them." Thus, she says, "we are probably not quite ready to do away with gender." She diverges from much queer theory, too, in her style, which is refreshingly direct and often includes jokes, and in her range of reference, which frequently descends to mainstream popular culture.

In our interview, Halberstam acknowledged Butler's work, which she said displaced "the confessional feminist politics" that had surrounded her in graduate school at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in the late 1980s and "opened up a lot of doors intellectually." But she also made a point of saying that Gender Trouble was not the only book to complicate womanhood, and in particular praising Esther Newton's Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (Prentice-Hall), a 1972 ethnography of drag queens. Halberstam held up Newton as a model, commenting that her "work on queer issues didn't do her any favors in her career. She spent her whole career at SUNY-Purchase and never had grad students, yet she minted people like me and countless others in the profession, in an act of completely selfless generosity. I think, in the contemporary scene of academia, that's a dying art. People are driven by their own concerns and their own careers." She added, "I learned from Esther not to write things just to get a certain kind of critical acclaim, but to stick to projects you think are important and then to turn around and try to hold the door open for other people."

Like many people in her—and my—academic generation, who received graduate training in literature in the late 1980s and got their first jobs in the early 1990s, Halberstam is versed in postmodern theory, but she also seeks to reach a wider public audience. (I've called this the "posttheory generation," arising in the wake of high theory and pinched by shrinking jobs, as well as the culture wars.) As she put it, "A lot of academia is about talking to each other, but I like to work in both directions," public and private. She recognizes the value of "doing the difficult work of turning commonsensical ideas into something unfamiliar," but adds that "there's something snotty and elitist about the idea that bringing something forward in an accessible way is less valuable."

In our interview, Halberstam criticized the sometimes self-involved stance of academic work, reflecting that "I'm often at talks where people seem oblivious whether you're awake or not. They're in their own little world." She offered this quick ethnographic analysis: "Academia is full of people who were the nerdy kids in class, who did all of their homework and aced all their exams."

"Well, that's not me. I'm not worried about always being the smartest person in the room." In fact, she first came to America because she had failed her qualifying exams in England, and her father, a math professor, had just moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so she enrolled there for a year, eventually transferring to the University of California at Berkeley for her undergraduate degree, which she finished in 1985.

In her new book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011), Halberstam calls her approach "low theory." She draws the phrase from a founder of cultural studies, Stuart Hall, who rebuts a prominent line of Marxist thinking that describes social structures at a high level of theoretical abstraction and eschews individual phenomena as empiricism. Hall, according to Halberstam, "says you can't shoot too low if you're a committed intellectual." Rather, according to Hall, we should be engaged with people on the ground, and a major element of Halberstam's work has been looking at subcultures—for example, drag kings, in a book she collaborated on with the photographer Del LaGrace Volcano, The Drag King Book (Serpent's Tail, 1999), as well as in a collection of her essays, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (NYU Press, 2005), which examines the sliding status of gender, rather than masculinity per se, in films like Boys Don't Cry.

Another dimension of low theory is discussing popular culture. She calls this her "silly archive," and remarks about humor that "I wish I could read more of it in academia." For instance, she titles one essay "Oh, Behave! Austin Powers and the Drag Kings" and peppers her talks with vignettes from, say, Dude, Where's My Car? It is not frivolous, she adds, because "the smile that you sometimes bring up is both humor and also recognition, and humor can be quite good at bringing up that kind of recognition."

There's a downside to low theory and accessibility. Halberstam has been criticized for what some say are simplistic pronouncements, but she hasn't backed down. "I've developed a reputation for speaking my mind or being too blunt. It's a way to make enemies in the profession," she said. "But if you're not making enemies, you're trying too hard to please."

Halberstam's bluntness stirred up a controversy that reached the pages of Harper's Magazine in the fall of 2010. In "American Electra," Susan Faludi depicted a divisive struggle between generations of women that she called "ritual matricide." One piece of evidence was a conference she attended at the New School at which Halberstam also spoke, and she used Halberstam as a prime example of the flaws of "theoretical and consumer-saturated academic feminism," because Halberstam held that "pop stars are where the inspiration for feminism is going to come from," in Faludi's rendering.

Halberstam filled out the story. After hearing complaints about younger feminists, she wanted to connect to the largely undergraduate audience, many of whom clearly weren't familiar with some of the older versions of feminism. "I said, 'Well, here's a fresh breeze with Lady Gaga.' That gets turned into 'Lady Gaga feminism' and parodied as me saying, 'Forget about real life politics, just listen to Lady Gaga, have a little pleasure, and relax.''' By contrast, what she really said was, "Lady Gaga has a very open set of sexual politics." Halberstam's point was that the performer often uses her platform in political ways; for example, she refused at one point to deny rumors she was a hermaphrodite because that would stigmatize transsexuals.

The problem, for Halberstam, was not simply that Faludi missed those nuances, but that she resorted "to beating a dead horse, suggesting that feminism is driven by mother/daughter tensions." Instead, Halberstam observed, "Mother/daughter relationships, because we live in a male-dominated society, are notoriously conflictual, laden with negativity, and never have been a good model for feminism. You only have to see Black Swan to see the toxicity of that bond. There are a lot of tensions built into mother/daughter dynamics particular to coming of age in societies that are built around demands on femininity that are impossible to meet. So my point was, let's get rid of this old chestnut of the mother/daughter relation!"

Halberstam responded to Faludi's argument on a blog to which she regularly contributes, Bully Bloggers, and is now finishing a book for Beacon Press called Gaga Feminism: Pregnant Men, Heteroflexible Women and the End of Normal. It meets Faludi's charge head on, finding Lady Gaga to be a mascot for new sex and gender models in the information age. Rather than anger, though, she expresses disappointment about the affair, recognizing that "Faludi has written two very good books—Backlash was excellent, Stiffed was excellent­—so I was superexcited that she was going to be at that conference. But she didn't do herself any favors in that piece."

Halberstam's challenge is not just to Faludi. It is to the notion that gender is singular, giving us men and women or sons and daughters. Her insight is that gender is multiple and variable. She herself, though given the name Judith, also goes by the nickname "Jack." It is a litmus test of what you think about gender if you call Halberstam her or him.

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Until 2010 he was editor of the minnesota review. His books include Critics at Work: Interviews 1993-2003 (NYU Press, 2004).