Gender, a movable incarnation: Jack Halberstam and the trans

The CCCB’s Politics of Desire lecture series invites us to consider sexuality as a possible resistance to heteronormativity. In February 2017, Jack Halberstam gave a lecture on “Trans* bodies”.

Photo: Albert Armengol

The North-American thinker in the foyer of the CCCB.
Photo: Albert Armengol

As part of the exhibition 1.000 m2 de desig (1000 m2 of desire) commissioned by Adélaïde de Caters and Rosa Ferré, and which proposes a modern revision of Western architecture and spatial design in relation to sex, the Politics of Desire lecture series at the Barcelona Contemporary Culture Centre (CCCB) invites us to consider sexuality as a possible means of resistance (or acceptance) to the rules and control imposed by heteronormativity. Within the context of this series, this February the writer Jack Halberstam (1961), Professor of American studies, ethnicity, gender and comparative literature at the University of Southern California (USC) gave a lecture on “Trans* bodies”.

The reaction was impressive, even though Halberstam is not widely known in Catalonia or in Spain. The only one of Judith/Jack Halberstam’s books to have been translated into Spanish is Female Masculinity (1998), under the title Masculinidad femenina (2008). In 2004, I myself translated “The Transgender Look” for the article “Cossos, gèneres, tecnologies” (Bodies, genders, technologies), which appeared in number 10 of Lectora. Revista de dones i textualitat (Lectora. Magazine on women and textuality), analysing the treatment of trans subjects in the films of the 1990s.

We could speculate that the public knows of Halberstam because of these translations or through other means, or even that what attracted people in such huge numbers to the CCCB was the subject matter. Jack Halberstam is a queer and trans theorist who has worked on the variability of gender, as embodied in diverse or non-conforming bodies (ranging from the monster to Lady Gaga, not to mention butch women, trans people and animals and other creatures from animated films supposedly for children).

The way we think about the trans phenomenon today is shaped by Halberstam’s reflections. One of the traits that make Halberstam’s theories more attractive is the critical perspective, resistant to stabilising and complacent fixations; a mistrust that is maintained even before the “positive” mood that seems recently to have been attributed to the trans body, as the future of gender or the sign of the revolution that is already under way. There are two elements that add even more to the current, provocative proposals of this queer thinker: firstly, direct language that seeks to ensure communication and understanding on the part of the reader; secondly, capability as a reader of mass culture, for which he is skilled in terms of developing analyses and ambitious suggestions, all the while breaking down the barriers that in the academic world (still!) exist between high and low culture.

The concept of gender has changed and Halberstam has contributed to this transformation. Nowadays our concept of gender and sex is different to what was usual in the 1970s, linked to biology and to the genitalia of the anatomical body.

The construction of the monstrous body

In 1995, Judith Halberstam published an essay dedicated to her parents – Skin Shows. Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters – which focused on the construction of monstrous bodies and their representation, based on 19th century novels, such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and contemporary films, such as The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991). Of these monsters, not completely alien to certain queer bodies, we learn that the monstrous condition arises from a defunct discourse in the face of a resistant body that can only be labelled as monstrous. The field of representation is, therefore, the battlefield.

Photo: Albert Armengol

In Female Masculinity, his second book, Halberstam defines what is known as “the bathroom problem”, the gender binary, which sees man and woman as two mutually exclusive and complementary categories, something which takes tangible form on a daily basis on toilet doors.
Photo: Albert Armengol

Three years later she published Female Masculinity, where she established a documented genealogy of biological female masculinity or, in other words, the embodiment of masculinity in a female sexual body. Halberstam shows that these women existed before under the umbrella of gender variations, and also shows the subordinate place that this masculinity without men occupies, not only in the world of biological males but also in the field of feminism and lesbian demands, from which, she points out, these bodies have been ignored and belittled because they embody the butch stereotype.

In the introduction to this volume, Halberstam defines what is known as the “bathroom problem”, that is, the gender binary system, whereby men and women are two exclusive and complementary categories that materialise daily and repeatedly on the two bathroom doors, and of which supposedly only one is right and proper for us. This is a false choice for everyone (one that is unnecessary, on the one hand, but also disciplinary in nature) and for someone who is trans it involves a risk of exposure to possible violence. Above all, it is proof of how docilely we accept (and are made to accept) this discriminatory dualism as obvious and necessary.

In 2005, Halberstam published In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (from which the aforementioned excerpt translated in the magazine Lectora was taken). The essay examines the concept of a queer time and space that works to resist the institutions that seem intent on taming trans lives (such as heteronormativity, the family and reproduction). Following in the footsteps of Michel Foucault, Halberstam argues for a queer way of living, one that consists of a network of dissident relationships, alternative alliances and trans bodies in relation with the usual incarnations of gender. It is not about a way of life that is derived unquestionably from an identity: Halberstam disassociates queer-trans actions from the politics of identity, and envisages a critical imagination-reinvention that is both transformational and deconstructive.

This line of thinking takes its ultimate expression in the next book, The Queer Art of Failure (2011), an essay about failure as a form of disobedient, dysfunctional art in the face of certain demands of a system based on triumph and success. A creative lack of discipline that Halberstam detects in children’s films – like Toy Story (1995), Chicken Run (2000), Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003) – but also in the artistic work of the Cabello/Carceller collective, among others. Borrowing from Stuart Hall, Halberstam proposes the term “low theory”, defined as the audacity of losing one’s way in order to find and make a road full of detours and open to surprises. The social worlds we inhabit, he concludes, are not inevitable: in the process of producing this reality, many others have been left on the sidelines.

The use of popular culture as a space for critical thinking is present in Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012), the first work he signed as Jack. Halberstam uses Lady Gaga as a symbol of 21st century feminist expression of sex-gender (that is not to say that Lady Gaga is feminist, but that she supports and allows feminist readings). In her performance of sexual fluidity, she generates narratives that collapse norms and normality. “I’m not real. I’m theatre”, says this media monster while destabilising the boundaries and pushing them further and further.

Photo: Albert Armengol

Jack Halberstam, during his lecture at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), February 2017.
Photo: Albert Armengol

Jack Halberstam’s latest book came out in February. Titled Trans*. A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability, it insists on an analysis of the trans phenomenon as a gender variation and examines the representations and incarnations of other possibilities for generating and gendering bodies.

Judith/Jack Halberstam invites us to think about sex-gender as a phenomenon that not only involves the body but also the cultural-emotional dimension. Above and beyond who you are, it’s about how you live or how you try to live, how you can articulate yourself politically in your daily life by means of a queer resistance that, far from implying a stabilising guarantee of identity, actually means quite the opposite: constantly questioning the labels, discomfort in the face of complacent self-evidence and a warning as to what that means (as in the case of trans children). We need other trans-queer contexts that do not rewrite the dual gender narrative; other narratives that take on gender as a movable incarnation, without trying to solve anything.

Meri Torras

Body and Textuality Research Group. UAB

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