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Gaga Feminism: The End of Normal

J. Jack Halberstam

(Beacon; US: Sep 2012)

It’s not often that a scholar comes along who has a brilliant critical eye toward contemporary culture while also finding role models in cartoons (here, she discusses both the Fantastic Mr. Fox and the queer value of Dory inFinding Nemo) and discussing the pornographic nature of films like Bridesmaids.  Enter J. Jack Halberstam (also known sometimes as Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity).  (Note: Since Halberstam does not seem to care which pronouns are used to refer to her, I am choosing to use feminine pronouns.) 


I heard Halberstam speak at a cultural studies conference. Her topic was the damaging nature of the narrative of March of the Penguins and how Bride of Chucky presented a much more healthy model of relationships.  By the end of her talk, I was convinced and simply ready for my knight-with-bendable-joints to arrive.


Gaga Feminism is no less sharp and witty. For those who suspect this book may revolve too much around our meat-wearing friend, fear not. Halberstam is content to take many topics to task, though Mama Monster does make frequent cameos. A lot of the Gaga discussion centers around the Themla-and-Louise-esque video for Gaga’s “Telephone”, starring Beyoncé as sidekick. Her description and critique of the video are detailed and thought-provoking. Halberstam re-examines the word “telephone”, to mean “receiver”, as woman are passively cast. “It is a question of answerability,” says Ronell. “You picking it up means the call has come through,” Halberstame quotes The Telephone Book author, Avital Ronell.


There are, however, afew flaws to Halberstam’s argument. One is Halberstam’s argument that the video showcases a fragmented society despite prolific communication tools has been done to death, so it wasn’t anything new on Gaga’s part.  That critique is admittedly true of the video, but Halberstam could reach deeper. Further, when she namechecks female pop stars who offer interesting gender commentary, she references” Lil’ Kim or Rihanna or Nicki Minaj or Jenni Rivera or even Ke $ ha” as “women who use sex boldly in their music”. While these women do use sex boldly in their music, no mention is made of the problematic nature they sometimes embody, such as Ke$ha’s appropriation of native American culture. (And perhaps even Ke$hsa’s subsequent claim to have had a love affair with a ghost, which admittedly isn’t anti-feminist, but come on!)


Halberstam notes that the “Telephone” video was directed by Jonas Åkerlund, not by Gaga herself, so let us not give Gaga too much credit for “Telphone”‘s subversive nature and social commentary. Further, Jonas Åkerlund was also the director for such videos as Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, which is not to imply he does not have feminist leanings, but to indicate that, while he can make a video like “Telephone”, he clearly isn’t wedded to making music videos as a form of, well, gaga feminism. 


Off the subject of Mama Monster, Halberstam is brilliant, as usual. She proposes “heterosexual studies” in academia, though that has been countered with proposed “male studies” and “white studies”. Halberstam is nothing if not gutsy, unpacking why it is we should study heterosexuality with the same critical lens with which we focus on queer studies.  Halberstam namechecks a variety of media—” Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope  (1948), Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), and John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967”—to show that while we have a legacy of films where the mere mention of homosexuality is taboo, but heterosexuality is not examined at all.”  (Halberstam later reinforces this in her analysis of The Kids Are Alright a film about a lesbian couple who are aroused by male porn.)


One of the most surprising arguments of Gaga Feminism is that the Gaga camp, if you will, is too concerned about gay marriage rights. As she rightly points out, marriage has long been defined by its exclusion of queers and its maintenance of the status quo. Rather than fight for universal healthcare, Halberstam illustrates, these activists focus on getting healthcare that extends to same-sex spouses—in a climate where, for the most part, GLBTs are ‘not allowed’ to marry. In a changing marital landscape where many couples cohabit for years (regardless of their gender) and many relationships are too complex to fit into any standard mold of marriage, is marriage really the “stand-alone” right for which we should be fighting? “While feminists of a certain stripe have spent years opposing marriage and trying to unseat marriage from its central place in the gendered imaginary, it is ironic to see marriage as an unquestioned good and a worthy goal in a gay imaginary,” Halberstam says.


Further, Halberstam argues that gender orientation is not the main determining factor when it comes to parental rights, which has been another touchstone of the LGBT movement’s push for marriage. Rather, families of color are, as she cites, much more likely to have their children removed from their homes, and 42 percent of children in foster care in the US are black. “The main problem with a politics of inclusion, where a group of people seek to be folded into existing institutions like marriage, ultimately lies with the economic divisions that marriage politics ignore.” 


Halberstam focuses a more pop-culture-directed eye on weddings in romantic comedies, going so far as to say, that the “wedding is the ‘cum shot’ of the romantic comedy.” She describes the rom-com genre as being a kind of porn for women who have been fed the fairy-tale-future-myth, critiquing films from the first Sex and the City movie to Bridesmaids. Of the latter, she writes:  “And in this film, the rom-com comes as close to a porno flick as it is possible to come without naked unconvincing sex to 1980s music.” She moves on to discusses neighborhood-friendly ways to buck capitalism: “Swap meets, co-ops, neighborly exchanges of labor and goods are all examples of informal economic systems that stand outside of profit-oriented systems.”


Halberstam concludes with, what else, a manifesto. Hers is not written in the traditional style of a manifesto—there are no numbered lists or bullet points; it is more of a summation of the preceding text. In this manifesto, Halberstam refers to The Wire as a portrayal of the thankless, fruitless task of trying to oust corruption.  She states that gaga feminism acknowledges the persistence of this corruption:  “Therefore, the only way to advance toward total disruption of inertia and complacency is to steal from the rich, undermine the religious, and upset the moralists.”  These suggestions are more extreme than her earlier references to swap meets and co-ops, a schism that Halberstam never quite repairs. 


Further, Halberstam uses a vague definition of gaga feminism to paint an overly-rosy picture of its possibilities: “When you are open to a new feminism, a gaga feminism that joins forces with the oppositional movements sweeping the globe, you will finally realize that we are already living in the future that we have always tried to imagine, a time and a place where the many say no to the few, the queer counsel the straight, the children teach their parents, and the lunatics, as the saying goes, have taken over the asylum.”  Halberstam makes a case for gaga feminism, indeed.

Rating:

Erin Lyndal Martin is a poet, fiction writer, music journalist, and music promotional writer. She runs http://www.euterpesnotebook.com and can be reached on Twitter @erinlyndal.


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