There’s Hope in Going Gaga, and Going Gaga We Will Go

Hannah Ky McCann
This review essay looks at J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012), a guide to queer reading, re-thinking the ordinary, and going gaga.
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Review of Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. 2012. Jack J. Halberstam. Boston, MA: Beacon Press ISBN: 978–0–8070–1098–3.

“The significance of SpongeBob SquarePants to contemporary gender norms, I believe, cannot be overstated…And so we take SpongeBob SquarePants as our guide, following the hedonistic and cheerful sponge whose body, as he reminds one chap who sits on him, is also his face, in looking for fun, in mistrusting people who only want to make money, and in tracking down treats made with peanut butter” (Halberstam 2012, xviii).

Released in 2012, J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal is as significant to questions of feminism and queer theory as ever. Gaga Feminism brings new insights to familiar territory, such as questions of marriage equality and the family unit. But it is also unafraid to chart new terrain and explore questions about what constitutes normality, how heterosexuality can be understood queerly, and (of course) the lessons we can learn from pop star Lady Gaga.

Currently a Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, Halberstam has been prolific and highly influential in the field of gender studies for over two decades. His first book Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995) explores the figure of the monster in literature and film in relation to the history of sexuality. While this work was well received, it was his later work Female Masculinity (1998) on sexuality and gender presentation that truly placed Halberstam on the queer theory map. Since this seminal text, Halberstam has released In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005) and The Queer Art of Failure (2011), which both consider questions of sexual norms in society and the possibilities for resisting the dominant heterosexual regime.

Running throughout Halberstam’s body of work has been a concern around the nuclear family, the limits of capitalism, and the heteronormativity that oppressively binds the modern world. Gaga Feminism does not diverge from this path of interrogation, but rather adds to it. While Queer Time and Place examined transgender lives as a site of resistance, and Queer Art of Failure looked to children and popular culture, Gaga Feminism builds upon both of these strands and takes seriously the queerness of the heterosexual woman, as encapsulated by the figure of Lady Gaga. Open to the queer possibilities of the “normal”, Halberstam writes, “Gaga feminism is, above all, concerned with reconfiguring the meaning of sex and gender in ways that may favour heterosexual women in particular” (2012, 82). For Halberstam, the heterosexual woman has been society’s moral “whipping girl” whose sexuality and femininity ought to be reconsidered for its flexibility and radical queer possibilities. Halberstam’s sentiments here connect implicitly with Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007), which also explores feminism’s relationship to feminine gender presentation and female sexuality. As both Serano and Halberstam argue, heterosexual women and their femininity have long been dismissed as representing gendered oppression, rather than queer possibilities.

Lady Gaga acts as an exemplar for Halberstam, of seeing the queer in the “normal”. Far from understanding Gaga as merely a product of the popular culture spectacle, Halberstam differentiates between Gaga the woman and gaga the philosophy, using her as a jumping–off point for theorising a new queer feminism. In other words, Halberstam argues that it is not the specifics of who Lady Gaga is that ought to be attended to, but all that she represents—pushing limits, rupturing expectations and going “gaga”. Halberstam elaborates the key elements of gaga feminism, such as looking to the unexpected and transformative, thinking counter–intuitively, rejecting belief systems, and being outrageous (2012, 27–28). Yet, as Halberstam defines gaga feminism:

“This punk or wild feminism hints at a future rather than prescribing one; it opens out onto possibilities rather than naming them; it gestures toward new forms of revolt rather than patenting them” (2012, xiii).

In this way Gaga Feminism offers both a set of guidelines for action, yet no definitive stipulations. Perhaps Halberstam is recalling Judith Butler’s ever wise words that, “The effort to name the criterion for subversiveness will always fail, and ought to” (1990, xiii). Halberstam does not make the mistake of prescribing action, but rather, entertains the potential for a queer future through noticing sites of rupture. As Halberstam argues, social transformation is only traceable when you look for its effects, “don’t watch the ball, watch the crowd” (2012, 27).

One archive of transformative possibility that Halberstam draws on in particular is children’s television. He suggests that children now have an abundance of characters to look to for unusual representations of gender. This includes SpongeBob SquarePants, “whose body…is also his face”, and Fantastic Mr Fox, who becomes more gender flexible rather than emasculated through the loss of his tail (2012, xviii, 92). In the introduction, Halberstam illustrates the queer openness of the child, recounting an interaction with his partner’s young children, who asked him whether he was a boy or a girl. The children come to the conclusion that Halberstam is a “boygirl” (2012, xvii), which he remarks upon as an imaginative solution. For children, ambiguity does not always need resolution. “Gaga” connects with discussions of the child because, as Halberstam explains, it is “a word that stands in for whatever the child cannot pronounce” (2012, xxv). Gaga is the frontier of a new world, where one can not only go gaga in order to “[be] the fly in the ointment” (2012, 141), but where aspects of gender remain unknown, and unpronounceable.

Halberstam offers an explicit challenge to conservative constructions of the family, to the idea that every child needs a mother and a father. Halberstam argues that children may do well with exposure to both masculine and feminine role models, but that this could come from people of various identifications. Along these lines Halberstam suggests that the butch and femme lesbian couple might pose an ideal parenting partnership, for the gender possibilities that they model (2012, 58).

On the highly topical issue of same–sex marriage, Halberstam takes a radical queer approach, calling for an end to the institution of marriage altogether. He argues that advocacy for marriage equality is reactive, narrow and complicit in maintaining heteronormative (and homonormative) structures (2012, 104). Halberstam makes an important case for recognising who is left behind in the marriage equality debate, arguing that marginal identities are eliminated from view. However, his argument misses some of the impact that marriage equality might have. After all, if we are to “watch the crowd” as Halberstam suggests, the equal marriage fight may carry more transformative possibility than his argument allows for.

With the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court to legalise marriage for homosexual couples across the country, there was both widespread celebration in the left and mainstream, and backlash from the conservative right. There were also critiques within queer communities who made arguments similar to Halberstam, that marriage isn’t all there is, and shouldn’t be. However in the “crowd”, one noticeable effect was that people were encouraged to speak their support for queer people out loud. This visually manifested in a rainbow filter that people applied to their profile pictures on Facebook. While some saw this as a cheap promotional stunt by the social media company, the effect was an online social space full of rainbows, with people coming out against discrimination. The image superimposed on everyone’s profile pictures wasn’t a wedding ring, but the gay pride flag. Rainbows were imprinted on all the faces, straight couples, friend pictures and strange memes that people use as their avatars. One wonders what Halberstam made of this, and whether he would agree with fellow “Bully Blogger” Lisa Duggan who has been public at this time in highlighting those queer lives left in the shadows in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling (2015). Whether the Supreme Court decision creates such a blind spot, or whether it opens up greater space for discussion, will be seen in time. In any case, we get the impression in Gaga Feminism that Halberstam’s utopian future is one in which marriage is abolished altogether.

However Halberstam’s future is a hopeful one—hopeful for the end of gender restrictions, the collapse of the heterosexual matrix, and the fall of inequitable economic and social systems. In the book’s final chapter, “Gaga Manifesto”, Halberstam argues for agitating from within crisis, rather than seeking to leave altogether. It is in this chapter we understand the book as conceived within the milieu of the Occupy movement in the United States. Halberstam argues that Occupy provides a different kind of politics, one that does not label itself as such, but demands attention: “The 99 percenters simply show up, take up space, make noise, witness” (2012, 134). Here we see that Halberstam cannot be reduced to an advocate for simple identity politics. For him it is not merely a case of being your non–normative self and creating communities outside of the mainstream that retreat to the margins. Rather, the periphery must push in, trouble, and go gaga.

Halberstam’s hope for a different, queer, future, connects with the late José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009). Muñoz advocates for keeping an eye to the queer horizon. While Muñoz argues that “queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1), according to Halberstam transformation is inevitable and “a coming insurrection” might arrive any day (2012, 148). However both Halberstam and Muñoz share a positivity that is in contrast with some of their queer contemporaries, such as Lee Edelman, who insists in seeing the value of queerness as its resistance to a reproductive future (1998, 2004). In contrast, Halberstam examines the liberatory promises of reproductive technologies into the future, and what these have already yielded for challenging gender and familial norms.

Halberstam’s critique of the intertwining between capitalism and heteronormativity also calls to mind Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011). While Berlant highlights the systemic and toxic attachments that maintain the everyday, Halberstam puts out the resounding call to shake this system up. However, Halberstam openly identifies as an anarchist, and as such differs from Berlant and Muñoz’s subtly Marxist overtones. What this amounts to is less focus on the structural from Halberstam, and more attention to the specific. This approach yields an amazing array of re–readings of popular culture texts, acting as a kind of how–to guide for seeing the world differently. Gaga Feminism presents endless examples of seeing where things are “going gaga”, finding the cracks in popular representations that would otherwise be dismissed as reinforcing the dominant paradigm.

Halberstam’s idea of “gaga feminism” is thus a direct challenge to queer feminism, to use the tactics of queer theory—such as queer reading strategies—as a way to open up new avenues. Gaga feminism is queer, but also anti–capitalist, anarchist, and pro–SpongeBob SquarePants. Halberstam’s approach fits within an apparent turn toward the “normal” in queer theory in recent years. Scholars such as Heather Love (2011) have made a case for valuing rather than simply critiquing queer identities. Similarly Annamarie Jagose (2010) has questioned queer theory’s focus on the subversive and obviously transgressive, arguing for a view to practices that are seen as ordinary (or even oppressive, as in her analysis of fake orgasms) in terms of sexuality. Halberstam’s work adds to this conversation, making a strong case for attending to those arenas of everyday life where we wouldn’t ordinarily seek the queer (such as children’s television), and finding it in abundance.

Gaga Feminism is the perfect text if you’re looking for a case study for your gender studies class, need a handbook on how to do queer readings, or are seeking a new way of understanding contemporary life that does not dismiss popular culture as part of the problem, but instead makes an entire manifesto out of it. The book provides a loose framework that one can apply to all kinds of scenarios. It suggests asking: Is this gaga feminism? Who is going gaga here? How can we make this go gaga? However aside from its relevance to all of the feminist and queer theorists out there, Gaga Feminism is an inspiring read and a call to action for anyone that cares to listen. Though Occupy may have dwindled since the book was published, global capitalism and the exclusionary gender norms within it remain as precarious as ever.


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