I was a little dubious when I borrowed this book from a friend I made at work. My first exposure to gender theory was literally only two years ago when I started my master’s in education, from the perspectives of women of color, specifically Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress. These women take a rather unorthodox approach to gender theory in the first place, discussing not only both gender and race, but also dedicating significant space to eroticism and emotion, subjects that are to gender theory as mysticism is to religion. I had never read anything from the white queer canon, let alone anything on masculinity. As a feminine woman, I find it a little difficult to warm up to conversations about masculinity at all, since it seems to me that the written word in nearly every field is dominated by men.
(Admittedly, these recent posts have digressed from my comfort zone of Asian American feminism and critical race theory. I think this is actually for my own good, as I’ll explain as this post progresses. I notice I seem to parenthesize a lot in my posts as well. Clearly, I have not yet mastered this Western concept of linear thinking.)
To give you an idea of the potential of Halberstam’s work, I’ll start with a personal experience. While I was a student at UMass Amherst, I remember there was a department known as the Men and Masculinities Center. A lot of people from my program were involved with the programming in that center, so I never felt entirely comfortable critiquing it while I was at UMass. From my understanding, the center was created for men to have a space to deconstruct their masculinity away from the prying eyes of…gee, I don’t know, women? And that’s what annoyed me so much about it. Why the fuck do women’s community centers on college campuses always have to act as though men are allowed, no, invited even, into those spaces, but men are supposed to have their own “private spaces” away from the mean, nasty gaze of feminists? In fact, theirs are justified in not allowing folks of other genders in? Especially when men dominate literally every public space available? How was that fair? How were we paying tuition for that space to exist?
It should be noted, queer masculine people are rarely comfortable entering the Men and Masculinities center even now. Across the board, people I knew at UMass who identified as gay, transgender, butch, or just not as cisgender, heterosexual-passing men, did not ever go to events at the Men and Masculinities Center. I know a part of that is perhaps marketing and misunderstanding, but doesn’t it say a lot when queers actively avoid a space?
In contrast, Halberstam introduces this concept that, far from causing me disgust, actually wins my admiration. She talks about masculinity without men (1998, p. 1), a possibility that is radically simple, yet I had never conceived of it before I read this book. I still can’t say I can define masculinity, but I can commit to this much–the crusading feminine queers who go around demonizing everything that is masculine are, uh, kinda wrong. Yea, I said it. I think we have to consider the likelihood that there are many kinds of masculinity, that as a matter of fact, there are people who firmly identify as women but also identify as masculine, and that not everyone who identifies as masculine has access to the institutional benefits afforded to masculine people.
In the book, the three chapters after the introduction are admittedly rather boring for me (though I understand Halberstam is probably required to lay down this very thorough foundation in order to gain credence in the academy). I did appreciate the history, since I’m still quite new to queer studies. I’m guessing the literary subjectivities were also a necessity for Halberstam’s academic legitimacy, though if I’m being honest, I really wish the academy would do away with this requirement. With the exception of analyses based on journals, most literary analyses literally just seem to me like the author’s way of saying they read a book about this subject at some point in the past. I’m sure you’ll remember this opinion of mine reflected in my reflections on Ingratitude by erin Khue Ninh.
But shit hits the proverbial fan in chapter 5, when Halberstam talks about butch/FTM border wars (p. 139). I especially liked her caustic commentary on Amy Bloom’s interviews of transsexual men. This sentence kind of sums up Halberstam’s opinion of this super-misinformed journalist, “What a relief for Bloom that she was spared interaction with those self-hating masculine women and graced instead by…men!” (1998, p. 158). Bloom didn’t seem aware of her own internalized sexism. As though people who are masculine are not worthy human beings unless they convincingly pass for men. Here, I would insert the eye-roll emoji.
But I also genuinely appreciate Halberstam’s introduction of intersectional politics in this chapter. One comment of note is when she draws attention to the one black FTM transsexual man, who admits he does not expect to be accepted just because he is convincing as a man. Halberstam states, “as in so many other identity-based activist projects, one axis of identification is a luxury most people cannot afford” (p. 159). In my experience, oppression can never be distilled to just one identity. I love that Halberstam is more complicated and experienced than many white queers who scream about pronouns all the time (or whatever the 1998 version of “pronouns” was), but rarely show support for communities of color or the poor. Halberstam has a comprehensive understanding of race and class politics. Maybe I just hung out with the wrong queers (let’s be real, New England is pretty white), but until now, I hadn’t read a whole lot of queer white theorists who were this legit.
She keeps it up, too. She calls out (hard!) people’s ability to afford transitioning, to move homes, to have no home, and even to use metaphors (p. 173). Halberstam points out that there is a reality that exists for white men–one that is highly coveted, and that anyone who can will try to access–where doors magically open to the academy, to jobs, to housing, to health care, and to a great many institutions. Other people cannot even pretend they can gain access to these things because they have to deal with the realities of survival.
The other two chapters talk about butches in film, and drag kings. While neither quite compares to chapter 5 for me, I do think the sheer amount of research Halberstam did is worth mentioning. She cites enough film and literature in her book for me to receive a whole damn education. I can’t imagine how many years it took to watch/interview/read/compile all of these sources, but it’s an incredible repertoire, and one that I definitely plan to tap into.
(Is it rude of me to state here that erin Khue Ninh should take note?)
In spite of some shortcomings, I’m genuinely impressed. While Female Masculinity does suffer at times from the density of analysis (a critique I have of all books on gender theory), I did actually learn something, which tells you there’s enough in there to keep a broad interested.