18 February 2016
Gaga Feminism: Radical or Realistic?
Lady Gaga has become an iconic 21st century figure through her radical costumes, performances, and songs. Author J. Jack Halberstam argues that if society follows her push against normality and continues forward with a rebellious attitude, an unstructured society will emerge in which equality is a reality for everyone. By eliminating all social norms, there will be no such thing as a social outlier or ‘freak.’ Halberstam argues that many of the modern feminist and gay-rights movements actually reaffirm society’s need of a ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ way of life, which ultimately only benefit the ‘white’ feminist and gay culture.
Halberstam breaks his argument down into three main points: ‘Gaga Genders,’ ‘Gaga Sexualities,’ and ‘Gaga Relations.’ He then uses the arguments made in these three sections to create his overarching idea of ‘Gaga Feminism’ and what it would mean for society to take on these ideas. For Halberstam, the entire point of going Gaga is to express the most radical parts of yourself so that eventually it will not be seen as ‘heroic’ to have radical self-expression. Instead, this will be understood as everyday expression and there will no longer be limiting sexual, gender, or relationship categories to which people must belong. Instead, people will just be seen as people. The constraining labels forced upon us by society will no longer have a purpose and everyone will “value mutation and uniqueness, no longer investing in the normal and the lack of difference, because there will no longer be a ‘normal’ to identify with” (141).
Jack Halberstam is a known gender theorist and professor. Self-identifying as gender-fluid, he has transitioned from female to male, but retained the name Judith, as well as Jack. Jack is in a relationship with a self-identified queer female, who remains unnamed throughout the book, but whom he often looks to when creating personal narrative and dialogue. As a gender studies professor, he has visited numerous countries, and often draws on these experiences to portray the differences in American gender and sexual relations from other countries around the world. However, Gaga Feminism is more closely directed at the American public, using examples from movies and television shows that are primarily American to illustrate his different points.
In order to make his points relatable to his reader, he uses examples that come from Hollywood that seem to ‘push the boundaries’ of subject material. Instead of praising these movies and shows that finally seem to highlight scenarios other than the ‘typical nuclear family,’ he criticizes them by explaining how putting them on display actually codifies that specific type of relationship, so that any variant of that relationship is perceived as atypical.
With new technologies becoming available that make it easier for non-traditional families to become pregnant and have children, society must reevaluate the different boxes it has for gender and each gender’s reproductive capabilities. In the section titled Gaga Genders, Halberstam reflects on societies obsession with breaking out of the typical gender roles and recognizing famous variations in these roles. In examples such as the “first pregnant man” and the movie The Switch, Halberstam points out how society believes it is being progressive for showcasing these non-traditional families. In the movies such as Switch Up, society is tricked into believing it is promoting female liberation from men, and celebrating the newfound independence of women in the 21st century. However, Halberstam points out “these new narratives about female independence tend to be white, because it is white women who see single motherhood as an opportunity rather than a burden” (40). These narratives are necessary, because they are “correct in predicting that when shifts occur in the realm of reproductive technologies, social change is inevitable” (35). However, when these narratives only look at the “white stereotypical lesbian” and are encouraged by the general population, a sense of ‘correct lesbian’ and ‘weird lesbian’ is embedded in societies mind.
This is a strong point made, as much of the feminist and queer activist literature is produced with racial blind spots. Halberstam does a good job of critiquing the typical feminist approach, applying his approach, and then explaining how his approach will help those of color instead of ignoring or hindering them. For example, when talking about gay-rights and social activism, Halberstam brought up the issues faced in San Francisco in the early 1970s. In order to try to achieve social equality, many gay-rights activists argued for further protection of the San Francisco queer population. However, “this drive to make the streets safe for white queer people resulted all too often in increased policing for people of color” (106). By adopting Halberstams policy and ‘going gaga sexually’ there would no longer be a need for protection for specific individuals. The idea of sexuality itself would be completely reimagined in which there were no categories of gay, straight, or lesbian. Instead, people would be individuals, with a fluid sexuality, in which people would appear to be located on different parts of the spectrum, but this spectrum would be identical for everyone.
Similarly, Halberstam takes a stand against the legalization of gay marriage. He argues that marriage as an institution is plagued with historical hatred and exclusivity. Instead of promoting the “pricey and pretentious wedding ceremony” (96) he supports the idea of a completely new system, dismantling the old system. Legalizing gay marriage within the classical marriage system would create two separate ideas of ‘homosexual marriage’ and ‘straight marriage’ creating a sort of “speciation within the homosexual and heterosexual people” (99).
I will agree that marriage as an institution has a long history of class exclusion, racial segregation, and religious purity. However, I do not think that it is reasonable to call for the complete disbandment of marriage ties. Socially, this is an idea that will never take hold. Too many of our social relations rely on the idea of a marriage vow, and I believe Halberstam underestimates the importance today’s youth puts on the marriage title. He tries to make the argument that in a sexually fluid society, it would be considered normal for individuals to live together without any title. This social community would be inclusive for all individuals, no longer having the ‘typical’ families that are arranged by marriage. This argument is set up for a communistic society, could never flourish in America. Couples are too dependent financially, and often time’s marriage is able to relieve some of the burdens. In addition, individuals are already living together free of the marriage title, however, many still desire this state recognition of their love.
By going Gaga, Halberstam is arguing for more than agreeing with the ideas that Lady Gaga promotes in her speeches and songs. Instead, he is promoting social chaos and becoming a “wretch in the machinery that is society” (140) that she embodies in all her social expressions. Society cannot advance with individuals sitting around complacent and falling into compartments that are created for them. Halberstam does a good job explaining how these compartments could be eliminated from society. However, the complete elimination on the scale that he is looking for is not one that I believe can be achieved. With everyone trying to ‘clog the machinery’ society would break apart. Anarchism would rise and there would no longer be a society in which to function. In a hypothetical world, Halberstam has created the ideal living situations. However, in reality, these situations cannot be produced.
 The book in which Halberstam makes these claims is Gaga Feminism.
Halberstam, Judith. Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Print