I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, the Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”
Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity (“You can have eggs, bacon, and spam; spam, eggs, spam, and sausage; or spam, spam, spam, and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature, and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation, and perceptions of harm or offensiveness have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship, and name changes.
Every few weeks, I get an email from a colleague, a friend or a student asking me what pronoun I prefer. I mostly go by “Jack” nowadays, although people who have known me for a really long time and some family members still call me Judith. Then there are a few people, my sister included, who call me “Jude.” I have debated switching out Jack for Jude to try to compress the name ambiguity into a more clear opposition between Judith and Jude. But then again–and contrary to my personality or my politics—when it comes to names and pronouns, I am a bit of a free floater. This goes against my instincts and my general demeanor—I don’t hang in the middle ground on much, not politically, not socially, not in terms of culture, queer issues, feminism or masculinity. I am a person of strong opinions so why, oh why, do I insist on being loosey goosey about pronouns?
Well, a few reasons: first, I have not transitioned in any formal sense and there certainly many differences between my gender and those of transgender men on hormones. Second, the back and forth between he and she sort of captures the form that my gender takes nowadays. Not that I am often an unambiguous “she” but nor am I often an unambiguous he. Third, I think my floating gender pronouns capture well the refusal to resolve my gender ambiguity that has become a kind of identity for me.
I watch friends, one after the other, transition, mostly from butch to TG male and I wonder whether I am just sitting on a fence and not wanting to jump. But actually, as a real medi-phobe, I don’t see taking hormones, even in small doses as right for me for any extended amount of time. Top surgery? Well, yes please, but then again, would this make it even harder for me to use the women’s locker room when I swim or work out (and I do one or the other almost every day so that would really be something to think about). So, while I could “transition” and still live in the ever-evolving, improvised territory of transgenderism…well, I prefer not to.
Yes, like Bartleby, that wonderful and doleful example of a refusenik who declined to explain his refusal to work, to comply, to communicate even, I prefer not to transition. I prefer not to clarify what must categorically remain murky. I prefer not to help people out in their gender quandaries and yet, I appreciate you asking.
I still use women’s restrooms, and I avoid any and all contact on going in or coming out. If someone looks frightened when they see me, I say “excuse me” and allow my “fluty” voice to gender me. If someone looks angry, I turn away, but mostly I just ignore what is going on around me in the restroom and do what I am there to do.
I wish more people would behave like my partner’s son (he’s 9 years old) and simply ask, politely and without judgement, what pronoun anyone prefers—he rarely presumes and often asks. I also wish more people would adapt to a pronoun system based on gender and not on sex, based on comfort rather than biology, based on the presumption that there are many gendered bodies in the world and “male” and “female” does not even begin the hard work of classifying them.
So, if you are wondering about my pronoun use and would like it resolved once and for all, I cannot help you there. But if, like the UK in the 1980′s, you are ready to give up on the “imperial” systems of measurements in favor of new metrics, then consider my gender improvised at best, uncertain and mispronounced more often than not, irresolvable and ever shifting.
And ps: grouping me with someone else who seems to have a female embodiment and then calling us LADIES, is never, ever ok!
Visit the other stops on the Going Gaga Blog Tour
My Husband Betty Where Jack wonders, "When did 'vagina' suddenly become a fashionable term?"
Queer Fat Femme "Feminism is as much about naming one’s desires with precision and care as it is about expressing desire in more amorphous ways."
Sugarbutch Chronicles "Heterosexual mainstream conversations about desire love to depict women as the ones who create an environment for love and romance and men as the ones who set the whole thing on fire."
The Qu "For the Gaga feminist, in fact, the end of the normal is in sight and we don’t want the same old norms packaged back up for us and sold to us again as new norms!"
Why are so many women single, so many men resisting marriage, and so many gays and lesbians having babies?
In Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, J. Jack Halberstam answers these questions while attempting to make sense of the tectonic cultural shifts that have transformed gender and sexual politics in the last few decades. This colorful landscape is populated by symbols and phenomena as varied as pregnant men, late-life lesbians, SpongeBob SquarePants, and queer families. So how do we understand the dissonance between these real lived experiences and the heteronormative narratives that dominate popular media? We can embrace the chaos! With equal parts edge and wit, Halberstam reveals how these symbolic ruptures open a critical space to embrace new ways of conceptualizing sex, love, and marriage.
Using Lady Gaga as a symbol for a new era, Halberstam deftly unpacks what the pop superstar symbolizes, to whom and why. The result is a provocative manifesto of creative mayhem, a roadmap to sex and gender for the twenty-first century, that holds Lady Gaga as an exemplar of a new kind of feminism that privileges gender and sexual fluidity.
Part handbook, part guidebook, and part sex manual, Gaga Feminism is the first book to take seriously the collapse of heterosexuality and find signposts in the wreckage to a new and different way of doing sex and gender.
Halberstam has co-edited a number of anthologies including Posthuman Bodies with Ira Livingston (Indiana University Press, 1995) 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.
Photo by Assaf Evron.
Follow the Going Gaga! Blog Tour
My Husband Betty
Where Jack wonders, "When did 'vagina' suddenly become a fashionable term?"
Queer Fat Femme"Feminism is as much about naming one’s desires with precision and care as it is about expressing desire in more amorphous ways."
Sugarbutch Chronicles"Heterosexual mainstream conversations about desire love to depict women as the ones who create an environment for love and romance and men as the ones who set the whole thing on fire."