Halberstam, Judith

Assigned: Halberstam, Judith Jack. From Female Masculinity, from Chapter 1. “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men”(2527-49). Also read the editors’ introduction (2525-26).

From Female Masculinity (1998)

From Chapter 1. An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men

The Real Thing

1. On 2527 (“What is ‘masculinity’? This has…”), Judith Jack Halberstam opens by insisting that “masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects.” What relationship between “female masculinity” and “male masculinity” does she begin to sketch at this point? In other words, what does the first-mentioned variety teach us about how the latter variety is constructed? What program of investigation does Halberstam set forth by way of separating the concept of masculinity from “maleness”?

2. On 2527-28 (“Masculinity in this society inevitably…”), Halberstam elaborates on her investigative plan going forward. For what reasons is she uninterested in centering her project on “the white male middle-class body” (2258) or on male masculinity more generally? Why, in Halberstam’s view, is it more productive to concentrate on “female masculinity” (2528)? What brief delineation of this category does she offer at this point?

3. On 2528-30 (“How else to begin a book…”), Halberstam suggests that “modern masculinity is most easily recognized as female masculinity…” (2528). How does her analysis of the action hero James Bond in the 1995 film Goldeneye support this proposition? How is masculinity represented in Goldeneye, not simply in the persona of James Bond but, more significantly, in other characters such as Bond’s female boss M and Agent Q? (2528-29) Furthermore, what insight does Halberstam offer on the so-called “bad guy” (2529) in Goldeneye and in literature, fashion branding, and cinema generally? How does this persona of the rebellious “bad guy” complement the figure of the male action hero? (2529-30)


4. On 2530-32 (“What happens when boy rebellion…”), Halberstam poses the question of how relocating rebelliousness in a female “tomboy” rather than in a young male affects outcomes and perceptions in everyday life and in artistic representation. What version of the tomboy is generally considered acceptable to, say, anxious parents or conventional-minded filmgoers? How does the period of female adolescence turn into an opportunity on the part of society to impose “[g]ender conformity” (2531) on many tomboy females? According to Halberstam, how does the Carson McCullers novel and film The Member of the Wedding illustrate the power of the societal push towards gender conformity? In what way is the protagonist Frankie Addams both heroic in her quest to resist this imposition and yet ultimately unsuccessful? How does Frankie enlist language in this seemingly doomed quest? In Halberstam’s view, what grounds author McCullers’ pessimism and accounts for Frankie’s heroic failure? (2531-32)

5. On 2532-33 (“My book refuses the futility…”), Halberstam rejects “the futility long associated with the tomboy narrative” and instead pursues “the opportunity to recognize and ratify differently gendered bodies and subjectivities” (2532). What value does she find in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of “nonce taxonomies” (2532) from her 1990 study Epistemology of the Closet”? (See Leitch 2283-90.) What explanatory and illustrative potential does Halberstam find in the concept of “female masculinity”? How has this category generally been received by promoters of heterosexuality and feminists alike? Finally, rather than directly “taking up a position against masculine power” (2533), in what sense does Halberstam plan to proceed by way of studied indifference to it? (2533)

Queer Methodologies

6. On 2533-36 (“This book deploys numerous methodologies…”), why does Halberstam reject “methodological consistency” (2533) in favor of a “queer” approach to methodology—what does the term “queer methodology” mean in the relevant context? Why, in addition, does she reject the traditional social science practice of using surveys to “squeeze truth from raw data” (2534)? What basic problem, according to her and the researcher R. C. Lewontin, makes this approach impracticable in the area of sexuality? (2534) Why does Halberstam take issue with certain authors when they appear to assert that queer theorists pay almost exclusive attention to texts rather than to material reality? (2535-36) Finally, since Halberstam promotes an interdisciplinary “scavenger methodology” (2536) for queer studies, what does she consider a key virtue of that methodology?

Constructing Masculinities

7. On 2536-38 (“Within cultural studies itself…”), Halberstam criticizes the intellectual underpinnings of a 1994 conference on masculinities she attended in New York City, the proceedings of which were subsequently published as a volume titled Constructing Masculinity. In what way did the substance of this conference, according to Halberstam, encourage the longstanding link between masculinity and biological maleness? (2536-37) To what two main factors does she attribute “[t]he continued refusal in Western society to admit ambiguously gendered bodies into functional social relations…” (2537-38) or, in other words, the continued insistence that masculinity is reducible to biological maleness?

8. On 2538-40 (“In case my concerns about the…”), Halberstam turns to a critique of Paul Smith’s 1996 anthology Boys: Masculinities in Contemporary Culture. In her view, how does this author’s introduction to the anthology pay superficial attention to masculinities other than those connected to biological maleness, and yet always return to that connection? Why does Halberstam take issue with Smith’s principle that “dominant masculinity” (2539) should be the starting point of critical investigations of masculinity? What feminist counter-authorities does Halberstam invoke to criticize what she sees as Smith’s “slightly old-fashioned feminism that understands women as endlessly victimized within systems of male power” (2539; see also 2540)?

9. On 2540-41 (“Smith’s attempt to shore up…”), Halberstam continues her criticism of editor Paul Smith’s introduction to the anthology Boys: Masculinities in Contemporary Culture. What issues does she have with Smith’s analysis of the 1995 O. J. Simpson case in Los Angeles, California, and especially with what she sees as Smith’s use of “O.J. as shorthand for a model that is supposed to suggest power and disempowerment in the same location” (2540)? In Halberstam’s view, what is the most predictable path that “studies in male masculinity” (2541) take, and what does such an approach fail to account for when it comes to the great variety of masculinities? Finally, how does she explain her own personal stake in, and experience with, the topic of her book? (2541)

The Bathroom Problem

10. On 2542 (“If three decades of feminist…”), Halberstam confronts a difficult question: why have “three decades of feminist theorizing about gender,” for all their sophistication, apparently not greatly affected the “male/female” binary opposition that still retains much power in the United States and many other countries? In what sense does “gender’s very flexibility and seeming fluidity” actually work to reinforce the binary system of male/female gender identity? How does Halberstam use her own experience at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to illustrate the gender scrutiny non-binary people often face in public restrooms?

11. On 2542-43 (“It is no accident, then, that…”), Halberstam explores the difficulties people she refers to as “gender deviant” (2543) face when they use a public restroom. Which group of “gender-ambiguous women” (2542-43) most often escape being confronted in such a situation, and why? What reception do gender-ambiguous women who do not fit within this category face, and in what sense is their presence in a women’s bathroom sometimes alarming to conventionally heterosexual, feminine-looking bathroom occupants? (2543) Why, according to Halberstam, is the concept of passing as a woman in such scenarios unhelpful to “gender-deviant” people?

12. On 2543-44 (“I want to focus on what I am…”), Halberstam uses Butch Blues, a novel by Leslie Feinberg, to suggest the depths of the “bathroom problem” for people who don’t fit into normative gender categories. In the novel, what happens to gender-ambiguous Jess Goldberg when she must make an emergency trip to the women’s bathroom? What insights does Halberstam draw from this fictive account regarding “gender policing” (2544; the phrase quoted appears at 2542 bottom)? How, according to Halberstam, is the gender-normative women’s behavior in this account based on something very different from fear?

13. On 2544-45 (“Another chronicle of butch life…”), Halberstam uses Nice Rodriguez’s 1993 short-story collection Throw It to the River to extend her commentary on “the bathroom problem.” What insight does she draw from the story of the butch bus driver Remedios, who suffers violence on account of her need to use a public women’s bathroom? What “cardinal rule of gender” (2545) does Remedios break that leads to the violence she faces? More broadly, how does Halberstam analyze the different dynamics of women’s room interactions and men’s room interactions for those who don’t conform to gender or orientation norms? If the women’s bathroom is about enforcing gender normativity, what is the men’s public bathroom’s agenda, so to speak? How do both types of bathroom, according to Halberstam, amount to nothing less than a “gender factory” (2545) in the United States?

14. On 2545-47 (“Marjorie Garber comments on…”), how does Halberstam analyze Marjorie Garber’s concentration in her 1992 study Vested Interests on the difficulties faced by both female-to-male and male-to-female cross-dressers and transsexuals? Which group, according to Garber, must deal with harsher consequences, and why so? (2545-46) What insight does Halberstam draw from Garber’s reliance on Jacques Lacan’s concept of “urinary segregation” when it is applied to restroom gender markers; i.e., “restroom signs” (2546)? At the same time, on what basis does Halberstam criticize Garber’s attempt to use the category of the transvestite as something that “creates a third space of possibility within which all binaries become unstable” (2547 top)? In Halberstam’s view, what further possibilities does such analysis shut down? (2547)

15. On 2547-49 (“So what gender are the…”), Halberstam poses the question, “why have we not begun to count and name the genders that are clearly emerging at this time?” (2547) What two preliminary responses to this question does she offer? (2547-48) What options for the near future in gender relations and definitions does Halberstam set forth at this point? What questions does she find it most pertinent to ask going forward? (2548) Finally, why does she concentrate mainly on “queer female masculinity almost to the exclusion of heterosexual female masculinity” (2549)?

16. General question: In our selection from Female Masculinity, Judith Jack Halberstam spends considerable time on “the bathroom problem”: that is, the persistence of bullying and harsh scrutiny when it comes to transgender or otherwise non-binary people using the restroom they consider most appropriate. This seems to have become a prominent issue in the 1990s, and Halberstam’s book was published in 1998. To what extent has progress been made in this contentious area of public life since then? There has been some legislation on transgender people’s bathroom options in various states, so do some research on the Internet and assess the current state of this issue. Which way do things seem to be tending—towards greater accommodation, or away from such an outcome? What may account for the trends you identify?

17. General question: In our selection from Female Masculinity, Judith Jack Halberstam concentrates intently on one aspect of LGBTQ+ rights: women who exhibit what Halberstam calls a “female masculinity” that challenges the traditional link between maleness and masculinity in potentially change-inducing ways. At the same time, she acknowledges the often harsh reality in store for those who are gender-ambiguous in the United States. By her analysis, what factors have long enforced an essentially binary gender system, one that compels even those who clearly don’t “fit in” to accommodate the norms of American culture? On the whole, does Halberstam seem optimistic about the future of gender rights and relations, or pessimistic? How would you respond to that question in your own right, and why?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake