‘Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal’ By J. Jack Halberstam
Author: Chase Dimock
November 20, 2012
From the Flower Power protest songs of the 60s to the socially conscious hip hop of groups like Public Enemy, popular music has long had the capacity to voice the desire for social revolution in rhythm and melody. In Gaga Feminism (Beacon Press), J. Jack Halberstam makes a case for Lady Gaga to be considered in these terms for the potential of her masterful subversion of gender and sexual norms to bring about a possible “end of normal” altogether. Describing the project of gaga feminism, Halberstam explains, “Gaga feminism proposes to be a new kind of gender politics for a new generation, a generation less bound to the romance of permanence (in the form of marriage, for example), more committed to the potential of flexibility (in the form of desire, for example), more tuned in to the fixity of power relations (in the form of capitalism), and less likely to buy the broken ideologies of uniqueness, American dreams, inclusivity, and respectability.”
Now, what exactly does any of this have to do with a pop singer in a meat dress? For Halberstam, the popularity of a decidedly avant-garde performer devoted to surreal spectacles that blur the line between homo/hetero and male/female signals a moment of potential transformation, perhaps even revolution, in the way we conceive of gender and sexual politics;
To be clear, what I am calling ‘gaga’ here certainly derives from Lady Gaga and has everything to do with Lady Gaga but is not limited to Lady Gaga. In other words, just as Andy Warhol was a channel for a set of new relations between culture, visibility, marketability, and queerness, so the genius of gaga allows Lady Gaga to become the vehicle for performing the very particular arrangement of bodies, genders, desire, communication, race, affect, and flow that we might now want to call gaga feminism.
Gaga feminism is not the gospel of Lady Gaga the individual, but more like a channeling of her transgressions against gender and sexual norms toward a politics of revolution that challenge all forms of institutional or cultural authority that enforce an oppressive status quo.
Although Lady Gaga is Halberstam’s muse for conceptualizing sexually transgressive politics, she is not Halberstam’s god or cult leader. In fact, Lady Gaga the individual herself is not even immune to Halberstam’s critique. Halberstam counters Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” anthem with Simone de Beauvoir’s existential principle “One is not born a woman” and takes issue with Gaga’s explicitly stated support of marriage equality and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As Halberstam argues, “we should not confuse the representational mayhem that Lady Gaga has been able to wreak in her videos with her actual politics. I am not saying that Lady Gaga should stop talking about gay causes, but I am saying that what makes her interesting, what makes her gaga, has very little to do with the clichéd political positions she takes.”
While Lady Gaga herself may support gay marriage, gaga feminism recognizes the long history of marriage as an oppressive ideology and advocates seeking “alternative intimacies” and social arrangements.
Indeed, the desire for marriage completes a long process by which LGBT people, having been separated from normative society and called pathological, are now embraced and in turn embrace the very cultures that rejected them. In fact, I would take this point further: the participation of LGBT couples in state-sanctioned marriages lends credibility to the very institution that has acquired meaning precisely though excluding gays and lesbians, among others, from marriage in the first place.
For Halberstam, gaga feminism is not about achieving equality under the law, but it is about criticizing how the law itself creates inequality. Halberstam further clarifies this position, “While the civil rights struggles against institutionalized racism sought to transform the whole society, the marriage equality activists seek to maintain the status quo while demanding a bigger slice of the pie.”
Although the critique of gay marriage will certainly ruffle the most feathers, Halberstam also brilliantly “goes gaga” on a wide archive of cultural materials from the cheap sentimentality of romance comedies and the surprisingly subversive and inventive imaginations of gender and community in children’s entertainment to what straight men could learn about masculinity from butch lesbians. Halberstam’s hallmark as a scholar has always been the use of “low theory” and pop culture examples to illuminate the often abstruse and overwrought language of queer theory. Much like Halberstam’s most recent book The Queer Art of Failure, Gaga Feminism is accessible to those outside of the academy because it uses humor, irony, and nerve to make a firm point in places where other scholarly tomes would drone on for pages. With the urgent, declarative pacing of a manifesto, Gaga Feminism is Karl Marx in fishnet stockings, imploring those who have labored under the tyranny of normality to rise up, not to create a “new normal,” but to go gaga and annihilate normal altogether.
Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal
By J. Jack Halberstam
Hardcover, 9780807010983, 192 pp.