I Like To Go Neck Deep Into The Internet. This Is What I Found This Time: Gaga Feminism

I do this thing, pretty much every day, where I get lost in the Internet. People say I type fast, co-workers mostly, but I’m pretty sure that it’s just the sound of my tendons eating away at my own arms. (I may be the first case of True Life: The Internet Gave Me Severe Tendonitis.) I can’t remember when it was I found this book, but I think it was around the time I was cruising the LA Weekly blog when they did that “very clickable” The 20 Worst Hipster Bands article. Or it might be something I found through NPR. Ann Powers is currently working on a book about music and sexuality, I tweeted at her about this book and – I’M DYING – she tweeted back at me that she already knew about it and that the author was her neighbor at the time.

If you Google J. Jack Halberstam, you will find that she is also a man and that he is also a woman. On what terms, I am unsure, I am just following what I’ve now read in his book and what I’ve read on her wikipedia site. Judith and Jack Halberstam wrote this book called “Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender And The End Of Normal.” I had found it by way of the LA Times Review of Books. Keeping it on my bookmarks for months and then adding the title to my Christmas list, I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift, from my hetero-feminist-firecracker of a lawyer, sister, Zoe (and her husband Dre.) Having finished it this morning – since my body has decided to wake me up at 8:27 every morning no matter what day of the week it is – I knew I needed to write about it. I have been putting some excerpts over on my tumblr from the book, but it’s just too good not to blurb here too. And by blurb I mean….

Maybe it was the cover that drew me to it. Sometimes that can happen, you will judge a book by it’s cover. It will convince you to read it because you cannot bear to look away, or it might be so vile that you can’t look away and it draws you in despite the fact that you have no interest in the subject. Judging the book by the cover is very much a thing. I definitely did that here, but for all the right reasons. I mean, just look at it.

Everything about that cover made me want to read this book even more than it’s subject matter. Once I got a few pages in and was marking it up every few lines, I knew I had made the right decision.

This book is 149 pages and I get the sense if it were longer it would get repetitive and that no one would want to read it. You can read this book on a long train ride or when you want to escape your actual real life (and then begin to question it.) Either one works.

Halberstam discusses the title and uses popular culture from SpongeBob to The Wire to tell us everything we need to know about this new/growing form of Feminism. When I tell people that I’m reading this book, I gave them a quote that she used to open the Introduction: “Excuse me sir, but you’re sitting on my body, which is also my face” – Spongebob Squarepants. It makes perfect sense as gender and sex identity of any human being is how we behave – whether you like it or not – whether you are male, female, both, neither or something else. Halberstam then goes to discuss the story of her partner’s children who have named her “boy/girl.” By letting children identify her and never correct him, she lets them ask questions like “do you have a penis,” and accidentally lets the other answer when his silence has gone on too long.

Halberstam uses media as a center of this book, beginning with cartoons. She talks about generational differences, “…while earlier generations of boys and girls were raised on cartoon worlds populated by cats and mice, dogs and rabbits chasing each other across various domestic landscapes, this generation has come of age to an animated mythological universe populated by characters with eccentric and often simply weird relations to gender.” Halberstam uses SpongeBob as the guide to discuss the shifts and changes of the gender role through personal sexuality and identity, marriage – straight and gay, families and “making piece with the anarchy of childishness.” (“Only universal health coverage would really allow everyone access to the benefits that some people seek through marriage and civil unions…the “family wage”, which emerged in the nineteenth century, assumed that men earned the money and then shared their resources with their wives and children in ways that made women and children structurally dependent upon men.”)

I’ve been questioning marriage pretty much for the first four years of my twenties. My happily married sister is a great example but for every great example of marriage, there is a great example of divorce. (Halberstam says, “Why not think beyond marriage, especially at this moment when marriage is a floundering institution even for heterosexuals?”) Close friends of mine who have been dating for five years of so told me they don’t want to think about marriage because the institution itself is a failure and – more importantly – they don’t want to be a part of something that isn’t equal to all. Which totally had me at hello, until I read Halbertstam’s chapter, “Gaga Relations: The End Of Marriage.”

He discusses the many facets of late popular movies from He’s Just Not That Into You  to Forgetting Sarah Marshall to Bridesmaids and The Hangover clearly laying out that Judd Apatow and company has made the unappealing slacker step up to fit the social norm of the acceptable husband, Knocked Up, and has helped the nerd become the new sexy, Superbad. Talking about female fronted comedies Halberstam uses media coverage to remind us of both sides to the argument surrounding Bridesmaids: quoting Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon “who called Bridesmaids “your first black president of female driven comedies.”” And reminds us of “critic Michaelle Dean at The Awl that Bridesmaids was hardly a feminist breakthrough because 99 percent of the discussion between women focused on marriage, family and weddings.” Going on to site the typical characters from Sex and The City (“In which whiny women are desperate for love and marriage and randy men are desperate to escape both.”) 1.) The Shrew – Carrie, 2.) The Maid (of Honor) – Charlotte, 3.) The Ugly Chick -Miranda) and 4.) the Other Woman – Samantha, Halberstam also breaks it down for men by way of The Hangover 1.) The Best Man (Bradley Cooper) 2.) The Henpecked Husband or Husband-to-Bed (Ed Helms) 3.) The Loser (Zach Galifianakis) and 4.) The Bridgegroom-to-Be (Justin Bartha.) Halberstam also discusses the facets in marriage (including racial issues) in a more compelling way then I’ve heard before. Through racial norms in marriage by way of movies, “…even Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Samuel L. Jackson are almost never cast against white heroines.” Pointing out to us that in the movie Hitch, “Will Smith’s wife is played by Eva Mendez, not a white woman.” Halberstam discusses marriage in the best way I’ve seen yet showing us that marriage isn’t just an option or opinion, it has become the only option or opinion, “…and while in previous decades the romantic comedy (When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, Moonstruck) was about Mr. and Mrs. Right finding each other, now the genre dispenses altogether with the foreplay of finding each other and heads right to the wedding.”

As someone who is married to a woman, Halberstam talks about instances of being stopped on the street – due to his butch looking features – to help support gay marriage in the State of California. When she yells something like, ‘bugger off – go do something more productive with your political activism’ then he starts to explain herself. “This process that began by making fundamental assumptions about human difference by distinguishing between people with homo and people with hetero desires comes full circle when homo people asked to be recognized just like hetero people.” Halberstam calls and proclaims marriage “an institution that has been defined through such exclusions and that has been enforced as a system of class alliance, of racial purity, of religious sanction, should surely be dismantled rather than expanded!”

“As LGBT people…in turn embrace the very cultures that previously rejected them…[their] participation in state-sanctioned marriage lends credibility to the very institution that has acquired meaning precisely through excluding gays and lesbians, among others, from marriage in the first place. In other words, marriage has been an exclusionary system rather than an inclusionary one.”

She had me at hello.

Halberstam at no way excludes discussing men in this book. While they are not at the forefront, they are also not ignored. Including the above comparisons from The Hangover Halberstam quotes Susan Faludi’s book “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man,”: “the potentially feminist male who realizes that if heterosexual women needed feminism in order to navigate a toxic terrain of male privilege  heterosexual men need their own gender politics to understand the shifty landscapes of manhood and masculinity.”

This book goes on to discuss what it is to be heterosexual in the world as well as being homosexual in the world. “…notice when a woman stops dating other female-bodied people and takes up with a biological male, people then refer to her as “going back to heterosexuality,” as if she had been on a short vacation, strayed away from her regular life but was now back on track. Women who are lesbians, then marry, then date women again, are rarely thought of as “going back to lesbianism,” suggesting that lesbianism can never be either an origin or a destination – in other words, it can never be a primary mode of identification, nor can it be the goal a woman might shoot for.” And concerning heterosexual women, “…heterosexual women, who, after all, so often have been forced to function as a model of conformity, a symbol of subjugation and the whipping girl for anything that goes wrong with sexual morality.” 

Through all this media, the best and most important comparison in the book is when Halberstam discusses why the Dory character in Finding Nemo is the most perfect example of someone or something that “remains outside the nuclear family”:

“Indeed, [Dory] is a marriage resister who, in rebuffing the seemingly inevitable narrative conclusion of romantic marriage to Marlon and parenthood to Nemo, finds common cause with many other kinds of creatures and unites with them against the biggest threat to their shared future: man, capitalism, and ecological collapse. She literally forgets family, forgets to get married, forgets to become a mother, and in the process opens herself up to a new way of being. I suggest we do the same.”

Halberstam defines and discusses Gaga by way of Lady Gaga and by gaga itself: “It is a word associated with nonsense, madness (going gaga), surrealism (Dada), the avant garde, pop, SpongeBob; it means foolish or naive enthusiasm, going crazy, being dotty;it sounds like babbling or idle chatter. Gaga Feminism…is a form of political expression that masquerades as naive nonsense but that actually participates in big and meaningful forms of critic.” 

She argues that you need to “be the fly in the ointment” and uses Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues” as a song of reminder: that we need to continue to be unique – even as society will continue to shun those who “act out” – Halberstam cites the Occupy Wall Street movement as, he says, “an inspiration and a source of hope.” She tells us that “Gaga Feminism recognizes that the world rewards the corrupt, the cheaters, and the liars, and that dishonesty pays. 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.” 

As a single, young woman myself I argue for and stand with all of this. We need to find a new way to live peacefully not only in acceptance but in understanding. We just need to let people become who they are without trying to nail down a definition of everything. Halberstam wants the new normal to become a reality, but unless EVERYONE starts acting upon it, we cannot find a new normal. Where boys and girls, women and men, and any living human on our planet can be treated with respect and be whatever they want to be regardless of the social norm. The social norm is our problem and looks like the root of all evil. We are hardwired a certain way, and unless we ALL start thinking (AND ACTING) differently, it will never change.

It’s a “Saturday morning” at noon. Do you know where you sexuality is? ….better yet, Do you know where your feminism is?

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