Feminism Goes Gaga

Jack Halberstam, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and gender studies in USC Dornsife, has written a new book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal, to be published by Beacon Press in September.
ByAndrew Good

On stage and off, Lady Gaga seems to be an ever-evolving performance piece dominating the media landscape. But in Gaga’s anarchic, gender-bending public persona, Jack Halberstam sees a mirror — one reflecting a decades’-worth of social changes.

Halberstam, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and gender studies in USC Dornsife, has written a new book in which Gaga plays a central role.

Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal (due out this September from Beacon Press) is a cultural survey of sorts, looking at the way gender roles are evolving faster than society can define them.

In large part, the book examines how mass media is struggling to keep up, broadcasting conflicting messages about how men and women are supposed to act, love, marry and raise children. It’s all becoming more liquid, Halberstam said, “because the social forms that held all those categories in place are dissolving.”

So where does Lady Gaga fit in? Or feminism, for that matter?

For Halberstam, she is symbolic of a new kind of femininity and a new kind of feminism — and more than that, she is a new icon of gender. Those only dimly aware of her media-savvy theatrics might not have seen the music video for “Telephone,” in which Gaga and Beyonce Knowles embark on a jailbreak and a Thelma and Louise-style getaway. Gaga has counteracted Internet rumors of being a hermaphrodite and toyed with the media at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, appearing in drag as “Joe Calderone,” a tough-talking Jersey boy.

That surreal, Bowie-like knack for shifting identity — including gender identity — symbolizes many of the changes Halberstam sees happening off the pop star’s stage.

“A Gaga feminism isn’t tracing back to Gloria Steinem,” Halberstam said. “It’s trying to scramble and mix and reimagine the meaning of sex, gender and the norm.”

The narrative about what’s “normal,” Halberstam continued, is very different than what’s really happening across America. Men are told to be sexually aggressive pursuers, then docile dads at home. Women are told to pursue independence and careers, but they are simultaneously encouraged to invest in traditional domestic arrangements.

In Judd Apatow films like Knocked Up, the average-looking stoner-slob can attract a beautiful girl, though you’d be hard-pressed to find a film in which a dowdy woman hooks up with a gorgeous guy.

Most telling are recent rom-coms about in-vitro fertilization. The women in these films start with careers and the desire to have children without men. In the end, their male pursuer — who might even happen to be the accidental sperm donor – marries them so everyone can live happily ever after.

“These life narratives we build very early for men and women are completely altered when you consider the reality of what it means to be in a marriage today,” Halberstam said.

Statistically speaking, couples are waiting longer to marry — and many are not marrying at all, he said. There’s a high probability that those who do marry will divorce, and the women in those couples may not marry again.

And while gay marriage has touched off rancorous public debate, it’s traditional straight marriage that’s in crisis. True love; soul mates; staying married the rest of your life; wanting babies at the same time; wanting to have sex with one person for the rest of your life; all are cultural givens that are being challenged in practice, Halberstam said.

“We’re basically going to have an opposition in this country not between gay and straight but between traditional, monogamous households and alternative ones,” he said. “And, frankly, the alternative ones will probably eventually outnumber the traditional ones.”

In his last book, The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam said he tried to use the idea of failure to rethink the culture’s view on success and achievement being measured solely in terms of money and property. Gaga Feminism is a similar critique, this time aimed at the culture’s traditional views of relationships and gender.

“In this book I am building on the potentiality of failure to say that if marriage, long-term relationships, the couple form and family itself are all failing as social forms, then instead of grieving their collapse, we should revel in the new opportunities for relationality, connection and kinship that are suddenly and startlingly available to us in the world today.”