Pop culture and queer fish
|One of the main characters in the movie Finding Nemo is a queer fish by the name Dory. She is knowledgeable even though her memory is bad. Hidden beneath the surface of pop culture are many liberatory impulses, says Judith Halberstam, professor of literature and modern culture at the University of Southern California. FORUM met her in Copenhagen, where she recently lectured on masculinity|
|By Annette Nielsen ||
FORUM/Copenhagen 20.12.2004 – In Denmark Judith Halberstam is known for her book Female Masculinity from 1998, that explores women who have or who cultivate masculine expression. While many people love the spectacle of female masculinity in for example 'metrosexual' men who explore their feminine sides, or drag queens like Dame Edna who entertain vast audiences, there is, according to Halberstam, a taboo surrounding masculine women:
- They are found in certain professions, sometimes in sports, sometimes they are lesbians. But wherever female masculinity is found, it is played down or muted or masked. In Female Masculinity I question why it is so difficult to talk about women's rugby or women in suits. There has been a bit of play in fashion magazines, where very obviously female, feminine and very beautiful women wear a man's suit just to emphasize how womanly they really are. There are also certain sports heroes, who go right to the top despite being heavily muscular like tennis star Martina Navratilova. It's pretty rare, however. It wasn't until my book that this whole cluster of female expression was accounted for.
Backing off from feminism
Judith Halbestam is one of the masculine women about whom she writes: Short hair, loose jeans, shirt with no visible concessions to what is ordinarily ascribed to female expression. She speaks with a West Coast accent, but a few words betray her UK roots. When we meet, she is enthusiastic about being in Copenhagen on such a wonderful cold and grey winter day. "There are never any days like this in San Diego", she comments having lived for many years in the United States.
- When I got to the States [in the 1980s, ed] there was this feminist thing going on and I thought: Maybe I am a feminist. Perhaps I was a feminist before I consciously admitted that I was queer. Then I got turned off from feminism, because it was so moralistic at that time and because I knew that I wasn't a woman in the way that feminism construed womanhood. I had to back off from feminism and Female Masculinity was a response to a version of feminism that I found very oppressive.
- From its early days feminism was very troubled by the possibility that feminists would be accused of being a) man haters and b) men. This charge has always been levelled at feminists and therefore the issue of masculinity of women has been pushed to the side quite carefully. In many feminist groups the charge of male-identified was often levied against women who did indeed seem much too in touch with their masculinity. There is an anxiety about heterosexual womanhood within feminism examplified by statements such as "I am a feminist, but I like men", which is fine. There is no contradiction there. But this anxiety meant that there had to be a scapegoat and that scapegoat was that masculine woman who stood for everything that the hetero-feminists didn't want to be.
Masculinity has always been a visible sign of lesbianism, according to Halberstam, but there is not necessarily a clear link between masculine expression and sexual orientation:
- The link to lesbianism goes back to the early 20th century when scientists wanted the body to give signs of its hidden perversion. There was a desire that lesbianism should unmask itself so that you could easily identify them. It was never an inevitable link but it was a link. At the same time there are many versions of female heterosexuality. For example women who work on farms. In the Midwest you will see women who look like they are lesbians but they are in fact just examples of womanhood and femininity of women who do manual labour – rather than women who work in offices.
Judith Halberstam does not think that female appropriation of masculinity is liberating in itself. Rather she terms it "disruptive", but it is liberating to acknowledge that female masculinity exists, she says:
- This was the promise of feminism. That your sex, that your bodily sex and your social role were not necessarily essentially connected. Womanhood itself was not supposed to be just having babies and getting married.
Why do many women who identify as lesbians seem to be more interested in exploring their masculine side rather than their feminine side and distance themselves from femininity?
- That is a good question and I think that there is less critical and analytical attention paid to it. It seems as if lesbians are romantically interested in masculinity and that they are not interested in resignifying femininity. However, I am not sure that that is true. There is more work being done now on lesbian femininities partly because of the question you ask. I think femininity has potential for both men and women. That is what I think is great about queer culture. It can take attributes that seem organic and given in an ordinary context and make them mean something different. When a lesbian is interested in her femininity, she is going to do it pretty differently than a straight woman who may or may not be interested in her femininity but who feels that it is part of her job and that she is not going to attract men unless she does.
- Now a days, I am more and more back to feminism. As you say there is a glorification and elevation of masculinity in lesbian a context that is a bit dangerous. There is also a movement towards transgenderism and transexuality that I am very supportive of, that I write about and which I have considered myself. However, I think that for me personally, I would rather "do" my masculinity in the body I have, than actually walk around in the world as a man.
- You know, each historical moment that we occupy demands different responses. Some things demand really tough feminism and really I find that myself going back to it.
Time for a grand, feminist response
The United States used the rhetorics of women's rights to jusitfy the war in Afghanistan, and according to Judith Halberstam this implies that feminism has been neutralised as a force, because the rhetoric can be used without the US government having any intention of taking care of women in Afghanistan. Halberstam feels that time is ripe for a "grand, feminist reponse" to the political events on the global scene:
- I would say that the feminism we are crafting now, is a feminism that responds to a global reassertion of something we used to call patriarchy. Whether it is the return to control of women's bodies by government in the US or the rise of religious fundamentalism with prescribed roles for women or gay male culture being reinvested in really troubling forms of masculinity or just the general disregard for women's issues and trivialisation of concerns that seem to be about women in so many different contexts.
The importance of pop culture
Judith Halberstam's field of research is gender and sexuality as expressed in popular culture, particularly visual media, because popular culture is an important sounding board for the concerns of mainstream America.
- Popular culture gives you immediate access to a set of interests that people may have and that they may want to explore but that they do not have a language for. You can have very complicated discussions that you could not have, if you were doing it across a poem people had not read, or if you presume that you cannot talk about culture, if people have not read all of Shakespeare.
- The US election was a global event and if you look at election results and the official narrative you realize that the US is completely out of step with the rest of the world. The US begins to look like a weird backwater of religious orthodoxy. Yet when you look at popular culture, it's not obvious. Pop culture has a lot of progressive and liberatory impulses in it.
Although American pop culture contains many progressive and liberatory impules, one must according to Halberstam take into account that television is produced to satisfy the "normative viewer". Most television is deeply conservative because producers imagine this normative viewer and try to create programmes, that can satisfy this imaginary viewer's needs. An interesting example of how popular culture can be interpreted is Judith Halberstams reading of various marriage reality shows. In their own intention, these shows simply depict marriage as an inevitable scenario and just help young men and women to find each other.
- What the shows actually show is how marriage is a completely media constructed event whether it happens for the kids on TV or in real life. There is a kind of pressure to speak the language of romance but the participants actually deploy much more instrumentalist kinds of tactics when they are looking for a mate. The marriage reality shows are quite fascinating because even though they don't mean to they reveal marriage as not at all organic or natural. It basically looks like arranged marriage.
In the article Pimp My Bride in The Nation (July 2004) Halberstam writes on the show Average Joe: "While the goal of these parasite shows is to demonstrate that the participants really value relationships over fame, TV exposure, money and quick sexual encounters, in each case, greed and looks win out over other more abstract markers of compatibility. On Average Joe, for example, the producers send in a group of male models to confuse the bachelorette halfway through her process and, sure enough, each season, she jumps at one of the models and dumps the average Joes!"
- I think that that does damage to the institution of heterosexual marriage at a time when people are clearly very concerned about heterosexual marriage, which is why so many voters turned out to vote against gay marriage. What is the meaning of marriage if it extends to people who are not reproductively coupled? When you say that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, what you are actually saying is that marriage is not romance, marriage is reproductive coupling for the purpose of procreation. It's not soul mates, companionship, friendship. The notion of modern marriage as something that is freely chosen is exploded.
- That is really where an academic comes in to find the little opening and pry it apart. You watch the marriage shows and think, what is this about? Here is a reading that might help you unpack some of the contradictions that you are watching on TV. It is actually pretty complicated stuff.
Stupid as genre
Judith Halberstam is currently working on a short book on various films that point to "American stupidity":
- It is stupid as a genre: Dude where's my car… and Dumb and Dumber and people love them. The films are about Americans being stupid, explicitly stupid. And I ask: What is the function of stupidity in American culture and play that out in relationship to debates about the future of the university.
- I take up films like Finding Nemo - that seem to be non-serious, but which are actually pretty smart about unconventional ways of being. For a kid's movie a film like Finding Nemo is a radical little cartoon about a non-conventional family and it has this queer creature in it - Dory - who is not part of any family unit. I contend that queer characters are coded into these films to illustrate different ways of being and different ways of knowing. That is what Dory does. Some of these films also offer visions of collectivity that are unusual in the US. In Finding Nemo there is an episode where Dory says to all the fish that they should swim down to get out of the fishermen's net. The film Chicken Run was about organising to break free from oppression. These are coded narratives that have very social tendencies in them and that could never appear in regular mainstream American feature.
- I offer these readings of seemingly neutral pop cultural texts as other way of knowing. The book is designed to be fun and readable for maybe folks outside of university who want to know why should we care about academic culture and where we can find others kinds of knowledge than what we find on CNN or in the New York Times. The book is called Dude, where's my theory?
Feminism and anti-sex
Just like in the Nordic countries, sexuality seems to ooze into every conceivable aspect of American life but Judith Halberstam challenges that this is a new development. Sexuality has always been prevalent in the public arena, and public opinion against it has to do with the political climate in the US:
- In the US we have only recently begun to make a big deal about it, and that has to do with the puritanical climate in the US right now due basically to the rise of Christian fundamentalism. Things that might have gone by the censor in the recent past are being seen as indecent or as morality issues. The issue of sexuality in the media is being fore grounded to get away from more troubling issues such as the war in Iraq.
- An article in the New York Times recently described about how curious it was, that exit polls during the last election showed that Americans were voting on moral values issues, when the programmes that Americans like to watch on TV are far from the moral values campaign being waged. On the one hand, people will stand up and say how outraged they are after a big event like the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl. On the other hand if there is something slightly salacious on their favourite TV show they're tuning in to watch it.
Feminists cannot afford to be anti-sex, says Halberstam. When feminists in the US in the 1970s became anti-porn, it was no less than a catastrophe:
- It makes feminists look like moralists rather than political activists. It is not that feminists are prudish about sex, it is because we understand that sex is a tool being used to represent women in a negative light or discount other kinds of contributions by women.
Judith Halberstam sees it as an important part of her academic work to talk about complicated readings of popular culture, sexuality and literature so that a wider audience can understand it. She sees herself as a kind of bridge between the academic work and the more genereal public.
Judith Halberstam sees herself as a kind of bridge between the academic world and the genereal public. It is a vital part of her academic work to bring complicated readings of popular culture, sexuality and literature into contact with a wider audience.
- I am one of those people that was never convinced by the high-culture low-culture split. I do not think that academics can afford to set themselves up as either tastemakers or people who are constantly evaluating good culture versus bad culture. I am very interested in taking complicated ideas beyond the university and into other communities particularly because the university is not really a place of access anymore. Not too many people end up going, in the States you have to pay for it it's expensive.
Annette Nielsen is Editor of Forum for Gender and Culture