Words by Katie Walsh
Illustration by Liesl Klinkerman
“Welcome to the gagapocaplypse,” J. Jack Halberstam states in his most recent book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and The End of Normal, a work that engages in the theorizing of contemporary gender relations and their cultural narratives, and the practice of calling for a chaotic upending of normative categories in an act of sociopolitical anarchy. Halberstam embraces the figure of Lady Gaga as a pop-political representational icon of this messy new kind of gender-bending and expectation-thwarting, and calls upon the idea of “going gaga” as a new model for cultural evolution. A rigorous interrogation of the old, broken down system of relational gender expectations and their prescribed behaviors, which no longer fit our needs leads to a compelling call to action to embrace the chaos and burn our highly policed systems to the ground. Halberstam’s deft synthesis of varied political theory from queer and feminist practices to economic and legal rights analysis, coupled with a deep reading of the media images and narratives that reflect both the old model and the new, more flexible one creates a manifesto for a new generation both academic and otherwise.
Halberstam’s first point of entry into this idea of relinquishing the tight grip society keeps on gender structures is through children. His main argument is that the training we receive is internalized so early and so steadfastly, that it is more important to consider retraining our adult selves, looking to children for inspiration. Halberstam asserts 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.” Children enter into a world of pre-existing identity-creating conditions, and Halberstam’s attempt to break down these systems from the top down rather than the bottom up suggests that adults must take an active role both in recognizing the limits of gender norms, and in reconfiguring and accepting new formations and categories instead of continuing to re-inscribe the same norms we have been taught to continually diminishing returns. In fact, Halberstam posits that the damage done by socially constructed norms is not necessarily so dangerous for children, who can more easily embrace alternative, fluid models of gender identity, but for the adults who have been taught to expect a certain kind of rigid gender performance and find it disillusioning and disturbing when this does not happen to not be the case at all.
Halberstam does not waste time in laying out the main idea of Gaga Feminism, stating that practitioners will:
… see multiple genders, finding male/female dichotomies outdated and illogical. Gaga feminism is a gender politics that recognizes the ways in which our ideas of the normal or the acceptable depend completely upon racial and class-based assumptions about the right and true…
Not only must Gaga Feminists reject normative principles of the gender binary in order to allow new, more expansive models to flourish (and to even suggest a “model” is a kind of limitation), but must also recognize the injustice in allowing ideas of nature and “normalcy” to be the foundation for constructed systems of inequality based on race, class, and gender. Beyond this main ideology, Halberstam also lays out five points of Gaga Feminism easily incorporated into one’s own daily life and cultural navigations. These tenants are:
- Wisdom lies in the unexpected and the unanticipated.
- Transformation is inevitable, but don’t look for the evidence of change in the everyday; look around, look on the peripheries, the margins, and there you will see its impact.
- Think counterintuitively, act accordingly.
- Practice creative non-believing.
- Gaga Feminism is outrageous… impolite, abrupt, abrasive and bold.
By making this ideology and its practice simple, but simply necessary, Halberstam asserts a type of feminism that is accessible to anyone and feasible by all.
At the heart of Gaga Feminism is the rejection of the shackles of what we have been taught “right,” “true,” and “good.” Once we are able to let go of these oppressive ideals, only then is there the possibility to escape the systems of gender relations that simply aren’t working, and haven’t been. Instead of returning to older models, as dating books like The Rules, or marriage-obsessed romantic comedies suggest, we need to be embracing new forms of gender expressions and new behaviors in how we romantically and sexually relate to and interact with others. But in fact, as Halberstam asserts, many of these expressions and behaviors are not “new” and have existed in the subculture all along. In much of her work, Lady Gaga unearths these existing expressions and brings them to the fore in the imagery and themes with which she engages. In her “Born this Way” video, Gaga, in skeleton makeup, a tuxedo and pink ponytail dances with an identically dressed (minus the ponytail) “Zombie Boy” Rick Genest, a model known for the skeleton tattoo that covers his entire face and body. In rejecting accepted norms of public appearance and male beauty, Genest embodies an anarchic expression toward these naturalized structures, derived from a distinctly sub-cultural gutter punk aesthetic that Gaga both borrows from and legitimizes in the video, in which she extols the virtue of expressing whatever you are, devoid of hegemonic ideology.
This concept of escaping normative training and rejecting the idea of “good” is also reflected in works such as The Curse of the Good Girl, by Rachel Simmons, which is a parenting advice book to help parents raise more “authentic girls with courage and confidence,” as the subtitle states. Asserting that girls are taught the concept that in order to be “good,” one must be nice and liked by many, Simmons reveals that these “good” qualities are rather self-effacing, and that stereotypical “bad” qualities such as being opinionated, outspoken and assertive are the real skills that girls need to learn in order to succeed. Both Gaga Feminism and The Curse of the Good Girl advocate for a rejection of perpetuating gender behaviors that limit the expressions of individuals, and create a call to action to be loud and to be bold. While Gaga Feminism comes from specific sociopolitical project and The Curse of the Good Girlcomes from a psychological, therapeutic perspective, both books identify the uselessness and danger of the way that these normative structures function in modern identity formation.
Gaga Feminism is a relatively short book that is packed with ideas both radical and, not only plausible, but obvious, and makes them accessible in a way that any lay person can pick up this volume and find their world view altered and inspired to embrace the practice of gaga feminism in their own daily lives. As Halberstam states in the book’s closing chapter, “Gaga Manifesto,” “To go gaga is to be loud in a world full of silent collaborators, to be crazy in a room full of nice and normal people, to be unpredictable in a world of highly structured systems of meaning.” This makes gaga feminism available to any person who feels disenfranchised by the utterly ineffective norms into which we have been indoctrinated. But it’s not just the availability of this gaga practice that resonates; it’s the urgency with which Halberstam communicates the necessity for razing these institutions to the ground.
The argument for a destruction of institutions is best expressed in the chapter “Gaga Relations: The End of Marriage,” where Halberstam absolutely takes the institution of marriage to task, demonstrating its futility and danger for both gay and straight people. First, he lays out why the campaign for gay marriage denies truly queer goals, saying, “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.” Seeking approval from an institution that defines itself by its exclusion of your group seems backwards to Halberstam, and the proposal that we should get rid of marriage rather than fight to expand it seems a realistic solution, especially in light of the failure of marriage within the straight world as well. Using examples from current mainstream romantic comedies, Halberstam deconstructs the true hysteria that makes up the “comedy” of these films, but reveals a very real anxiety about the institution on the part of both men and women, who wildly resist the restrictive notion of marriage, but still traffic in its modes of race, class, gender performance and expectation. Citing examples from such successful films as Bridesmaids and The Hangover, Halberstam shows how these stereotypical characters almost physically reject the idea of marriage (the women of Bridesmaids literally get violently ill while trying on bridal wear, while the groom gets drugged and lost in The Hangover), and yet while these films engage with the play of rejecting marriage, they always end with a normative heterosexual coupling that renders any of the previous anarchy not only meaningless but neutralizes it into the safe zone of a white wedding.
Halberstam’s arguments and examples are compelling for the most part, though there are a few that seem shoehorned in without enough consideration for what they truly mean. The example of Dory, the Finding Nemo character who forgets gender norms is a fine example of the ways in which children’s media is allowed to play with these ideas, but the analogy of Mr. Fox losing his phallic tail in Fantastic Mr. Fox seems tacked on in a way that it doesn’t fit with the argument holistically. The best work is done in the deconstruction of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video, where Halberstam reads a queer/anarchist feminist meaning into its symbolism, ie. the telephone—the representation of the torturous heterosexual dating game in which society forces people to participate—which Gaga cheerfully wears for a hat as a she happily poisons the abusive boyfriend of her lesbian lover, Beyoncé. A deep deconstruction of the “Born This Way” video might also serve this volume well, as it is where Gaga deals with ideas of nature, science and collectivity, and has been taken up as an anthem by the new generation LGBT youth, and also by the anti-bullying movement, which encompasses bullying victims of all gender and sexual identities.
Ultimately, Gaga Feminism is only the tip of the iceberg for the Gaga Feminist movement. But within this short manifesto, Halberstam is able to establish this movement, legitimize it, and hammer home the main beliefs. The book is written in such a way that any person can have their minds opened and expanded by it; to become motivated to initially tear down these structures and revel in the chaos, swirling about in the identity muck in order to emerge with new, expansive and inclusive forms that do not rely on or buy into the institutionalized and sanctioned expressions of identity. And in taking on a sociopolitical project such as this, to embrace play, whimsy and the chaotic, circus nature of it as a powerful force and location for change. Halberstam has created a powerful work that fits in with this cultural and political moment where anarchy seems to be a legitimate solution to oppressive regimes (Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street), and extends this to include gender expression and relations as a part of the revolution. Both Halberstam and Lady Gaga implore us to embrace the little monster within, and through the lens of Gaga Feminism, that just might be the most revolutionary thing one can do to change the world. Put your paws up. ◥
Halberstam, Jack, J. Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. Print.
Simmons, Rachel. The Curse of the Good Girl. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.