Gaga Feminism Part 2

This was the LGBT/Feminist Reading Club’s reading for July 20.

By Kyudon Choi

Last time, we pictured gaga feminist’s anarchist take on “the end of men” with Lady Gaga’s music video, Telephone. Don’t be in the prison of a fixed category such as “woman”, move just like your mobile phone, kill any shackles such as men, and then, run far away, never come back to the past of heterosexuality. Gaga and Beyoncé may represent a lesbian couple.

Gaga Sexualities: The End of Normal

Halberstam, then, asks a question. Why is the butch depicted by mainstream media simply as a replacement of male partner for a divorced woman, while heterosexuality is assumed to be natural? It is the representation of butch masculinity as a miserable perversion of the “real” desire which normatively forces a young girl not to even imagine the possibility of dating a butch. However, Jack points out, alternative representations can be workable to children, opposed to the naturalization of heterosexuality. For example, in Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003), Dory, a forgetful butch fish, exhibits an alternative mode of being female and parenting, inspiring others to effectively rearrange their forms of relations. “Once you stray from (formulaic) representational modes, surprisingly new narratives of life, love and intimacy are bound to appear. That these narratives do appear in animated films for children comes as no surprise.” (67) Let’s turn back to the question about divorced women in relation to their butch partners. What happens with those straight women? While best-sellers insist to imbue straight women with heterosexual marriage obsession, scientists such as Meredith Chivers, a psychologist, report that women’s sexual orientation, whether straight or lesbian, are situationally changeable rather than fixed to a specific category of objects of love, or fetishes.[1] In other words, divorced straight women can undergo changes of their sexual orientations towards, for instance, from masculine bodies to female or transgendered bodies.  Is heterosexuality natural? Do you think a domestic male horse spontaneously knows how to get into the mare? The reality is that, while somebody holds the mare at one end, another guy guides the stud into the mare’s vagina at the other hand. Halberstam, then, concludes, “And that what seems natural in humans and nonhuman animals is totally a fantasy…the concept of ‘normal’…Heterosexuality…is rife with external influences, some coming from within which the relationship occurs…‘normal’ is just the name we give to the cleaned-up versions of sex that we wish to endorse on behalf of social stability and moral order.” (73-74)

Halberstam points out that “normal”—heterosexuality and even categories such as gay and homosexuality—is actually only the western standard. You may find elsewhere than the United States and the Western Europe that the notion of gender is so flexible that gender categorization as in the western world can not be applied. For example, “Dari” in Afghanistan is dressed and raised as a boy until marriage, because an agricultural family needs male labor. In the family without a son in Albania, many girls are grown to be the “man of the house”, even permitted to take wives, under the wars and poverty. Onabe in Japan are women serving as hosts to straight women, et cetera. They are situational or working on the basis of some others than sexual identity. Identity is no more than the western categorization. It is not a good idea to impose the western categorization of, for example, LGBT, outside the U.S. and Europe. Rather, we need to decolonize global queer studies, respecting local forms of gender and sex. We need to “think about sex and gender in a more ecological kind of framework, understanding that changes in one environment inevitably impact changes in other environments.” (81) We can anticipate interconnected elements to interact with each other eventually to bring the normative sex and gender crumbling down. (82)

Approving of Lisa M. Diamond’s proposal in Sexual Fluidity (2008) that female sexual orientation fluctuates even for a single woman during her lifetime, Halberstam adds that, unlike male desire, butch masculinity is much more flexible, not fixed to specific categories of objects of love. For instance, lesbian couples enjoy fantasies of various genres of pornographies ranging over men, women, heterosexual, and homosexual, etc.

Now, suppose straight masculinity to be a fixed category. Would it really be unchangeable? Halberstam claims that masculinity has been already overthrown. For example, the myth of size has changed men’s briefs into package enhancers without any opening—inconvenient—subverting the logic of use with the logic of size, resonating with the logic of self-expanding capital, the bigger, the better. But, in reality, how many straight women would love big penises? Being a man, nowadays, in many senses, is never what is welcome for the lonely dudes surrounded by straight ladies buzzing off together. Males unavoidably have to change. Jack argues, “Men would do well to learn from butches how to see their masculinity as culturally constructed, contingent, and hard-won.” (91) The 2009 animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox tells the story of a patriarchal male fox which lost his tail, one of the symbols of masculinity, stealing chickens, in an encounter with the farmers. But, he eventually comes to know improvisationally how to live without it, and to be able to be happy with a detachable tail his sissy son gets back from the farmer, liberated from his phallic burden.

Gaga Relations: The End of Marriage

Halberstam warns those sex minorities who believe they could change the system through gay marriage enactment, “before you change it, it changes you.” (97) Actually, there is a strong dispute against gay marriage movement within queer activist groups. “In fact…the participation of LGBT couples in state-sanctioned marriages lends credibility to the very institution that has acquired meaning precisely through excluding gays and lesbians, among others, from marriage in the first place.” (100) Jack argues that such an exclusive institution “should be dismantled rather than expanded.”

There is a notorious misconception that gay rights movement represents all history of LGBT—for example, the beginning of LGBT movements is a single event, The Stonewall Riots (1969). But, Halberstam says that LGBT histories are all different depending upon classes, races, genders, and cultures. A history of white bourgeois gays is actually no more than what scholars have had to be committed to due to its abundant archival material. The truth is that gay rights movement is only one part of queer activism. Gay marriage is what seems easy to valorize in terms of heterosexual values.

Tax benefit is one clear economic reason for white bourgeois gay and lesbian couples to push gay marriage enactment. But, what can it do for queer people in poverty? More basically, why should we aspire to marriage, such an assimilationist politics? “Many queers today still believe in social movements far less focused on marriage equality and far more interested in changing the structures of intimate modes of relating, belonging, and cohabiting altogether.” (102) Jack, then, briefly summarizes the opposition to gay marriage. First of all, gay marriage has become a big issue as a reaction to right-wing Christian’s furious opposition to it. Such a reactive politics can not avoid being defensive rather than progressive. Second, gay marriage does not intersect with other issues of social justice. It is an inclusion politics which maintains the status quo rather than changing the society, only demanding “a bigger slice of the pie.” (105) The libertarian tax benefit to a handful of rich white gays and lesbians does not appeal to the majority of LGBT people in poverty or struggling for social justice. (Q4) Third, rights should not be marriage-dependent. In other words, please, be aware that marriage benefit is an inequality before seeking the benefit. Fourth, marriage is itself an exclusive fixed model, not permitting alternative forms of family. Do not forget marriage sets the family and the couple in competition against everyone else. What is more, it is a very powerful tool for isolating and dividing people’s social solidarity. Last, marriage is an oppressive ideology. It establishes a formula of life; the goal of life is reproduction, shutting down alternative life paths particularly for young women. “While feminists of a certain stripe have spent years opposing marriage…it is ironic to see marriage as an unquestioned good and a worthy goal in a gay imaginary.” (112)

Marriage tramples out varied queer counter-cultures. “Why not think beyond marriage, especially at this moment when marriage is a floundering institution even for heterosexuals?” (114) In other words, why should we be seeking marriage at the end of marriage? The recent Hollywood romantic comedies such as Bridesmaids (2011), The Hangover (2009), Sex and the City (2008, 2010) exhibit the depletion of plot, confined in only a few poor formulas. “While the screenplay writers get rich by feeding this shit into a machine…the marriage myth grows while the divorce rate rockets upward.” (120) Raising the critique of marriage—as a device representing the obstacle to marriage—burying it later, they are always destined to happy endings. Maybe, “just as the happy ending in porn is male orgasm, so the happy ending in the romantic comedy is female orgasm symbolized by the wedding…(despite disappointments, coercive aspects, despite everything)…the bridesmaid dreams of being a bride, the bridegroom makes a stand and then falls in line, and gays and lesbians march in the streets for the right to enter into the mayhem and mishap of holy matrimony.” (121-122)

Halberstam concludes the chapter with some proposals of an alternative politics. First, Jack cites a trans activist, Dean Spade, the gay and lesbian organizations seeking the security given by the state institutions are actually collaborating with the very law reproducing inequality. Gay marriage is only for white bourgeois gays and lesbians. Alternative modes of struggle should “include fighting on behalf of much broader social projects with benefits for a much wider swath of the population, and abandoning identity politics in favor of joining forces with the struggles of those who experience the greatest impact of state-authorized and –issued inequality and discrimination.” (125-126) Second, Jack learns from J. K. Gibson-Graham, a visionary duo of feminist political theorists, just as we already engage in noncapitalist modes of exchange, for example, swap meets, co-ops, and neighborly exchanges of labor and goods, so do we establish new forms of connections, or intimacies, for example, single, polyamorous, and threesomes. Finally, Jack finds it in a visionary scholar Fred Moten’s essay, “Gestural Critique of Judgment” arguing for ‘the right to refuse rights’, in relation to GuantanamoBay prisoners. Some people may want to refuse state forms of regulations. “…the right of refusal could be deployed to refuse the battle for the right to marry, to refuse the presumed connection between marriage rights and liberation, to refuse to succumb to the idea that coupled monogamy is the best way to practice intimacy. To refuse to ask for the rights that have been refused to you is to turn your back on the carrot dangled by the state and to go looking for nourishment elsewhere.” (128)

Gaga Manifesto

Halberstam claims, it is time for revolution. “As the environmental crisis turns from bad to worse, as wars break out like wildfire across the globe, as bankers and corporate gamblers take higher and higher shares of the global markets, and as the social rituals that formerly held communities together lose their meaning, it is time to go gaga. In a crisis…do agitate, do make things worse, do run screaming through the street, and do refuse to return to business as usual.” (132) Gaga revolution is not like any goal-oriented revolutions in the past. The new forms, as in Occupy Wall Street, “turn politics into performance and combine anarchist mistrust of structure with queer notions of bodily riot and antinormative disruption.” (133) A Republican may ask, “What’s your demand?” But, not surprisingly, its demand has to be indefinite; because they are 99% whose failure benefits 1% of the population, refusing the rules of powers from neoliberalism, capitalism, imperialism, (hetero-) sexism, racism, etc., etc., and thereby, all the more threatening to the system. The prevalent discontent has to be anarchistic, but with a strong solidarity, establishing new forms of connection, i.e. communication, for example, through IT networks, and social relation based upon “mutual aid” replacing competition. “Mutual aid…or new notions of exchange actually flourish already in the worlds…open-source exchanges on the Web, cooperative food collectives, subcultures, new modes of kinship, and different understandings of our mutual responsibilities exist already for the purpose of exchange and not profit, and this notion of working with others rather than in competition is the only thing that will save us from the greed of free-market economies. And it is this gaga spirit of anarchy.” (137)

Going gaga is a “creative anarchy” to find and reorganize new ‘we’, instead of ‘I’, by constructing alternative forms of connection (rather than marriage) after undoing every hegemonic categorization or individuation, “tweeting, texting, using every medium available”, just like Lady Gaga as “singing about, but indeed becoming a phone” in Telephone.  (139-140) It is a revolution to hinder the flow of the seamless evolution, for example, of capital only “repackaging”, and thereby, sneakily “extending the old.” (141) Do not be quiet. Do not be a collaborator of the normal systems. Please, shout, be crazy (like Gaga). It is an anarchy, but clearly not like neoliberal projects of assimilating people to the system under the name of diversity and individualism. Note that the concept of individual, as in the lyric of Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”, is what has been created as “a functioning cog in great machinery”, designed in order for subjection of people to capital after individuation, or isolation. (141-143) Gaga anarchy “does not sacrifice the whole for the part, the group for the individual, the multitude for the singular.” (141) But, it is all the more an anarchy because, unlike deterministic socialism, going gaga “does not need to know and name the political outcome of its efforts.” (143) It does not go back home next morning. It is to establish the transformative forms, for instance, “new forms of relation and family, resisting the legitimizing structures of marriage and kinship, and finding creative spaces within which to go gaga and in the process catching a glimpse of the something else that we call the queer future…celebrate variation, mutation, cooperation, transformation, deviance, perversion, and diversion…these modes of change…negative connotations.” An MTF transgender, undergoing body transition, is not a failed man but a newly generated gender.

Then, Halberstam concludes. “Gaga feminism recognizes that the world rewards the corrupt, the cheaters, and the liars, and that dishonest pays. Therefore, the only way to advance toward total disruption of inertia is to steal from the rich, undermine the religious, and upset the moralists. You cannot win in a world where the game is fixed, so resign yourself to losing. Gaga feminism is for the failures, the losers, those for whom the price of success is too high and the effect of losing may even be to open more doors.” (147-148) We need a revolution. Gaga feminism is not to lead us “into the playing field of a future that we cannot yet see, that we refuse to predict, and that will frame a new set of dreams.” (149)


Q1. I often find transgendered people tend to accept binary heterosexual categories as natural, simply saying, “the God made mistakes in His sex assignment to us.” But, why would they stick to “the God’s mistakes” in order for justifying their sexualities as “naturally abnormal”? Can’t they deny natural sexualities? They may well think they could be protected by civil rights only when they claim they were born “the God’s mistakes”, and therefore, their sexualities are inherent, but not their freedom to choose. But, what if they would claim, human sexualities are “social” constructs, but not their individual preference, and thus, transgender is also a “social” construct, not the matter of individuals? Wouldn’t it be still what should be protected by civil rights based on equality?

Q2. OK. We know gender and sex are actually something like detachable tails or dress codes in fashion. Jack says, “…gender categories always threaten to run wild, and with every shift and change in cultural meanings and mores, endless new possibilities emerge for love, life, and liberation.” (93) Also, we understand the farmers (e.g. neoliberalist big capitalists) deprived the small male fox of the tail (e.g. the patriarchal state welfare), produced a lot of loser guys, and injured men’s pride. But, still, Halberstam’s message seems insufficient. How can we transform for the revolution those loser guys who still stubbornly keep their masculinity?

Q3. It is not just a popular misconception that “gay” represents all queers, but also a tangible power structure within LGBT community. Assimilated by neoliberalist multicultural politics in the forms of gay celebrities, same-sex marriage, and huge markets targeting gay consumers, gays and lesbians are criticized for establishing a new subnormativity induced from heteronormativity within LGBT community. Susan Stryker, an MTF transgender theorist, effectively summarizes those critiques: Lisa Duggan, an NYU gender historian, identifies it as “homonormativity”, a politics that supports heteronormative institutions, and Halberstam states female masculinity is “as readily disparaged within gender-normative gay and lesbian contexts as within heteronormative ones.”[2] Stryker argues ‘homonormativity’ refers to the imposition of gay and lesbian norms over the concerns of transgenders. She says gays and lesbians categorize sexual orientations as stable on the ground of biology—homo, hetero, bi—which is based on similar understandings of binary heterosexual matrix, marginalizing other kinds of queers, securing gay and lesbian privilege. What position will you take about transgenderism if you are a gay or a lesbian? Do you sympathize with Duggan’s, Halberstam’s, and Stryker’s critiques to homonormativity? Will they destroy the solidarity of LGBT community, causing a clash between homosexuals and transgenders? Or is it gay representativeness which makes troubles?

Q4. Halberstam says that gay marriage struggle is absolutely different from black civil rights movement. The latter, struggling with racism, clearly has changed the entire society. There are actually conflicts between white bourgeois homosexuals and communities of color. Jack points out that basically there is “racism within white gay and lesbian communities.” (106) Flag Wars (2003), a documentary, shows the gay and lesbian white landlords’ housing discrimination against people of color and the gentrification of a Columbus, Ohio neighborhood by rich white gays and lesbians. Jack says, “They never link their own experience with oppression to the economic disenfranchisement that they see all around them.” Judith Butler makes a very important statement, “Gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. As a result, it becomes impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained.”[3] How do you understand this statement?

Q5. So, what is your opinion about same-sex marriage?

Q6. What Halberstam refers to by “business” reads as “normal” or “usual” to which carnival, or protest, is expected to go back next morning. But, for Halberstam, the change based on business is not actually a revolutionary change. For example, “Putting women in positions of power is not what gaga feminism wants.” (132) For a woman in power is no more than “an inclusion and extension of the status quo, just demanding a bigger slice of the pie.” (104-105) We need a revolution at this moment. Do you want to succeed in, or overthrow, the present social system?

Q7. So, how did you read Halberstam’s message for gaga feminism, comprehensively?

[1] Halberstam, ibid., pp69-71. Halberstam cites the New York Times Magazine’s article by Daniel Bergner, “What Do Women Want?” (2009) quoting Meredith Chivers’ studies.

[2] Susan Stryker, “Transgender History, Homonormativity, and Disciplinarity”, Radical History Review Winter 2008, p145. She cites Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Beacon 2003, p50, and Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity, Duke UP 1998, p9.

[3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge 1990, p3

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