Interview: J. Jack Halberstam

Jack HalberstamJack Halberstam is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. Halberstam is the author of five books including: Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of MonstersFemale MasculinityIn A Queer Time and PlaceThe Queer Art of Failure, and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal and has written articles that have appeared in numerous journals, magazines and collections. Halberstam is currently working on several projects including a book on Fascism and (homo)sexuality.

Halberstam has co-edited a number of anthologies including Posthuman Bodies with Ira Livingston and a special issue of Social Text with Jose Munoz and David Eng titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” Jack is a popular speaker and gives lectures around the country and internationally every year. Lecture topics include: queer failure, sex and media, subcultures, visual culture, gender variance, popular film, animation. (bio from Jack’s website).

TCJWW: How did you come up with the idea for Gaga Feminism?

Halberstam: Well, like many other writers and bloggers and academics, I had been puzzling about what form feminism should take in a new era of gender politics. I could see that my students were uninspired by the versions of feminism that we read about in class and so Gaga Feminism was my attempt to offer a new gender politics for an era when gender relations, notions of embodiment, the family, marriage and desire—nevermind reproduction—had all changed.

TCJWW: My understanding of Gaga Feminism is that it is not tied to maintaining tradition but is adaptive and willing to come up with new ways of doing things. How do you think this differs from other queer theory?

Halberstam: In this book, my emphasis was on gender relations and their shifting meanings in an era of transgenderism, IVF, the end of marriage and new forms of kinship and family. Queer theory does not have an object of study in the same way that feminism does. This book falls squarely within feminist theory rather than queer theory.

TCJWW: You talk about divisions of labor based on ability rather than traditional gender roles. If folks began to divide work like this, how hard do you think it would be, or how long do you think it would take, for society to actually change from dividing work based on gender?

Halberstam: Society has already changed in terms of traditional gender roles and the workplace. Of course, the news is not all good—people in female bodies still do most of the service work around the world and the child rearing and do still receive way less in compensation than their male counterparts. So we need to stop simply recommending marriage to women as a way out of poverty and start offering single women with children in low paying jobs some kind of standard state compensation. The child benefits that used to be paid to women with children in welfare states should be a basic component of our understanding of reproduction and child rearing.

TCJWW: Is the term “heteroflexibility” one that you came up with or is it commonly used in queer theory?

Halberstam: It is used by Lisa Diamond and others to describe new understandings of desire as a flexible mode of embodiment over the course of a life span. This idea breaks with psychoanalytic formulations of frozen forms of neurosis and perversion that develop early in the life cycle and remain fixed.

TCJWW: You talk about a lot of different popular films throughout your book, specifically romantic comedies. Do you think that these films, instead of describing romance, have come to create the rules by which romance is governed? Do you think that if these films changed their narratives, society would also be changed?

Halberstam: No, I don’t believe in one-to-one or cause and effect relations between representation and “reality.” My reading of Rom Coms was not to advocate for a new template for romance, but rather to suggest that there is nothing remotely natural about romance, heterosexuality, and desire, and that these films have to work incredibly hard to make outrageous narrative trajectories that depend upon chance, coincedence, and luck seem likely and even probable. As many theorists have said, the operative modality of romance is fantasy and so we should read these films in terms of robust understanding of fantasy.

 

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