Review: Female Masculinity by Jack Halberstam

Countdown to the Butch Voices NYC Conference: 1 Week!

I’m counting down the Fridays with classic and modern butch book titles that I highly recommend because the Butch Voices Regional Conference in New York City (and then in Portland and LA) is coming up in just a week.

If you haven’t registered yet, you better get to it! We probably have something like twenty tickets left, and it’s filling up fast. The workshops and the schedule, and don’t forget that there are other events on Friday and Saturday nights. More information on those events (open to the public!) shortly.

This week’s book is the classic text Female Masculinity by Jack Halberstam. See how I called it a “text” instead of a book or a pile o’papers? Well that’s ’cause it’s pretty academic. But don’t let that stop you—it’s an important, classic piece of writing on masculinity and femaleness, and deconstructs gender in ways that paved the way for gender activism and theory in the years after. It was first published by Duke University Press Books in 1998.

I know it sounds like it’s unreadable and intimidating, but it’s worth struggling through. I haven’t read it since college but it kind of blew my mind. I should add it to my list of books to re-read, especially with all this butch stuff coming up, I’m inspired to delve into the theory again.

Here’s the description of the book:

Judith Halberstam’s deft separation of masculinity from the male body in Female Masculinity. If what we call “masculinity” is taken to be “a naturalized relation between maleness and power,” Halberstam argues, “then it makes little sense to examine men for the contours of that masculinity’s social construction.” We can learn more from other embodiments of masculinity, like those found in drag-king performances, in the sexual stance of the stone butch, and in female-to-male transgenderism. Halberstam’s subject is so new to critical discourse that her approach can be somewhat scattershot–there is simply too much to say–but her prose is lucid and deliberate, and her attitude refreshingly relaxed. Essential reading for gender studies and a lively contribution to cultural studies in general.

In addition to this book, Halberstam is the keynote at Butch Voices LA on October 9th! She’s scheduled for 1:30 – 2:30pm on Saturday, and boy I would love to be there. I had to pick between the LA Butch Voices conference and the Talking About the Taboo conference at the CSPH, and with other travel I’m doing, it made sense to stay in the region. Plus, Megan is kickass and the lineup at the CSPH conference is going to be fantastic, and I’m attending two other Butch Voices conferences, so … not much of a contest. But if you’re going to LA, know that I am envious! And I hope her keynote is amazing and inspiring.

Jack Halberstam currently writes online at Bully Bloggers. Here’s her recent bio, lifted from there:

J. JACK HALBERSTAM, Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Gender Studies at USC. Halberstam works in the areas of popular, visual and queer culture with an emphasis on subcultures. Halberstam is the author of Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Duke Up, 1995), Female Masculinity (Duke UP, 1998), In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (NYU Press, 2005). Halberstam was also the co-author with Del LaGrace Volcano of a photo/essay book, The Drag King Book (Serpent’s Tail, 1999), and with Ira Livingston of an anthology, Posthuman Bodies (Indiana UP, 1995). Halberstam is currently finishing a book titled “Notes on Failure” and beginning another on “Bats”…yes, the ones with wings and teeth.

Pick up a copy of Female Masculinity from your local independent queer feminist bookstore (if you want it to be around next month, ya know), or, as usual, if you must, from Amazon.

psst … post script, on eye candy

Part of the deal of me posting eye candy is that you, as readers and appreciators of the butch/femme dynamic, which I assume you probably are if you are visiting this site, are required to comment about how hot the butch is.

Hey, it’s hard to be objectified as “eye candy.” It’s hard to be judged purely on sexiness and looks and hotness and female masculinity appeal. So we must give these butches lotsa love.

And Dani is particularly hot. See what I’m getting at? There should really be more than two comments on that post.

I’m not usually toppy or controlling about comments, but part of the entire point of posting photos of butches is to celebrate female masculinity, especially in the face of a community that often villifies butches with nothing short of blame for the entire oppression of women, feminists, lesbians, dykes, etc. Cause that’s all our faults, you know. If we were only a little more of a “real woman” (read: conforming to our prescribed societal gender role) we wouldn’t be so oppressed.

So please, spoil the eye candy, will ya?

I’ve been thinking lately about how to do an equivalent of femme eye candy series. It might be called something like “femme not straight,” but I’m not exactly sure how to do that without it becoming “photos of pretty girls” which, though that’s awesome, is I think a cheap blog trick. Any interest or ideas?

Speaking of eye candy, I’ve got some good ones coming up. A filmmaker, and a butch on a motorcycle, great photos both. Keep sending ’em in, or tag ’em sugarbutch on flickr.

In Response to a Rant Against Female Masculinity, Guest Post by Jesse James

A response to the girl who posted that awful rant against female masculinity on Craigslist from The Closet Musician, one of my very best friends. Thank you.

I feel like there’s no way to properly respond in this particular forum that would have much of a chance of softening the angry girl’s mind about any of the angry things she said. So, what do I do? It’s obvious that all of this hurt and fear is in her from somewhere, and her default reaction is to put it back out in a hateful, anonymous add that anyone, from anywhere, in any place or state of being can run into.

So, what do we do?

Personally, I tucked right back into that slightly tougher skin of mine, so not to have my heart impaled by a hateful, cowardly stranger on Craigslist. This is that thicker skin that queers, people of color, disabled people, anyone different from the “norm,” have been wearing since the dawning of time. The one that at some point, we all have to learn to throw on at the drop of a dime, at any moment, for an immeasurable amount of unpredictable moments of attack. In this case, the one that all of us queers grew or will grow at some point: when we first cut our hair short, the first time we shop in the clothing dept. that doesn’t coincide with our biological sex. This is the skin we put on before we go into a public restroom, or when we are awkwardly sir-ed in a crowded place, or spat at, or threatened, beat up, ignored, laughed at, or when a really close friend or perfect stranger or parent or lover says some of the same things that the angry girl on Craigslist posted. This is the skin we wear when we aren’t butch enough, too butch, faggy, not gay enough, wear makeup, wear a suit, when we are insulted, rejected, fired, not hired, gawked at, thrown out or any of the other plethora of things that happen to us because people like this girl cannot or will not deal with their own internal issues of hurt and insecurity and so shove it on us somehow, carelessly and spitefully in the form of hate and discrimination. This is nothing new, right? We are just taken off guard, angry and offended and confused and hurt … again … or maybe for the first time.

Most of us aren’t counting the hits anymore, but there are some of us that ran into this post and got hit in that soft unarmed place, where our true and fragile identities are trying to bloom, for the first time. Some of us just cut our hair really short yesterday and then walked down a busy street, some of us just admitted to ourselves that we’re queer and that this was okay, some of us braved our first gay bar last night, some of us just had our first queer kiss, some of us just came out to someone and it went ok, some of us finally went out in a tie or a skirt for the first time and were told we looked handsome or pretty for the first time ever, by a pretty girl or cute boy or a parent or a friend or a stranger – and then we read this post and got hit in that soft place for the first time – and that thicker, tougher skin, that I’ve been wearing for a few decades now, that filters what can and can’t get into your heart, started to grow. And this makes me mad, this makes me very, very sad.

I wonder, even though it’s pointless, I wonder why she wrote most of everything she wrote. It didn’t really have anything to do with anything and was so careless and aimless. She just opened fire on anyone who ran into it. She hurt a lot of people.

Regardless, it’s out there now, for most of us as a reminder, for some of us as a harsh awakening, that our identity, our self understanding is just that: it is our own and it is deeply personal and sensitive and pliable and impressionable, breakable, insecure, vulnerable, real and very, very… very important. And as you discover you, you have to wear it, claim it, right? It’s who you are.

And I think that when who you are is hit with hate, go ahead and feel it, give yourself permission to react, just chose your reaction consciously so that maybe the hatred going around will lighten up and so that maybe insight and acceptance can have some room to get somewhere, and so that maybe this girl, who, like it or not, is everywhere, might learn something from you … and …but … maybe she won’t. But, for all of us who are brave enough to be who we are and let our identities free to style our hair, dress us, create our stride, our speech, and any and all of the infinite possibilities of potential expression for the identities we claim – good for us!

Audre Lorde said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” As a boi, butchy, lesbian, dyke, girl, androgynous, top, bottom, sister, partner, writer, daughter, friend, gardener, Cher-loving, liberal, sexy, funny, handsome, cocky, fragile, political, sensitive, angry, kind, self-loving person, I really like that quote.

And now my comment directed to the girl that wrote the original ad on Craigslist:

Angry, Anonymous Girl,

If your misplaced hatred is at all removable and you are even slightly open to things that don’t make sense to you, I (by myself) or some of my friends and I (a lovely bouquet of butches, bois, dykes, fags, hags, trans, femmes, studs, bi’s, queers, and straighties) would be more than willing to have an open discussion with you. If you promise to leave your sword at the door, I’ll take off my thicker skin and talk to you from an honest place: girl to girl, lesbian to lesbian, boi to however you so choose to self identify at that particular moment.

If you are going to respond to this letter with hate, please warn me first, maybe in the title, so I can put on a layer first.

Thanks for listening.