This interview originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2006 issue of Girls Like Us magazine.
Judith “Jack” Halberstam is a professor, lecturer and punk rocker. She is the author of numerous books and articles in the field of gender and culture studies including In a Queer Time and Place, Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (NYU Press, 2005); The Drag King Book (with Del LaGrace Volcano, Serpent’s Tail, 1999) and Female Masculinity (Duke UP, 1998). Her new book project is titled Dude, Where’s My Theory? The Politics of Knowledge in an Age of Stupidity.
We met and talked on a bright July afternoon in Basel, Switzerland at a warm spot by the Rhine. She shared her thoughts on the intellectual project behind punk rock, what makes The L Word cringe-worthy and hetero-normative German classes.
Where did you grow up exactly?
Nottingham, in the East Midlands.
And did you study there?
I went to grammar school there and then failed all my exams to get into university.
I wasn’t interested in that version of studying – very rote, in the UK at that time anyway. These were the notorious ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, which they have changed a bit now, but I wasn’t interested in those questions. Things like “why do we consider Shakespeare a genius?” or “what is the role of women in Hamlet?” I’m still not interested in those questions. I was not willing to think the way you had to think in order to pass those particular exams and at that time the whole system was oriented around that. Plus when I was in high school I was more interested in punk. I was in high school in the 70’s so that’s what was going on.
What was happening at the time?
Nottingham was a pretty good center for punk, as a matter of fact. There were these great clubs in what was called the Lace District and all the bands would come through. I saw everybody. Everybody. The Sex Pistols, the Damned, The Stranglers – you know, that whole first wave of punk. That was way more interesting to me than anything else.
Was it an accepted culture or very marginalized?
Well you couldn’t say it was really accepted but it was there and everyone knew it was there. It wasn’t that marginalized in the sense that it was the thing that was happening. For me I think it was the set of “fuck you” gestures that punk registered so loudly that was important to me right then, as opposed to a more intricate political critique. Some of the punk scenes did have more intricate political stuff going on, I went to tons of anti-racist events and that combination of punk and ska was really good for a long time. So I felt like I got a political education through punk. I don’t really know how marginalized it was because for me it was so central, I wasn’t really paying attention to anything else for about four years.
Did you actually play music yourself?
No. I did try a little band for a while but I realized that my interest wasn’t in being a musician, my interest was really in being part of a subculture. That’s what has stayed with me, a sense of participating in something that seemed small but was important, had coherence, had a message and wasn’t so constrained by dominant norms, with its own rules and regulations.
Punk seems to have very strict rules about dress code and so on…
Yeah, definitely. But for someone like me, who was not a conventional girl, it was a really good place to be because punk fashion is forgiving for girls. Even the boys were androgynous.
Was there any queer presence in the scene?
There probably was but it wasn’t very visible to me and I didn’t think of punk as queer at the time. Even though when I look back I think there was a very queer element, at least guys who were involved who were queer. The women’s involvement did end up being mostly as girlfriends to punks. The girls with whom I hung out did try to date the guys in the band.
Talking about punk, the last time we saw each other was at the Lesbians on Ecstasy concert in Zurich at the end of May. What’s your connection to the band?
LOE is a band that I have been thinking and writing about. What they are doing is theoretically really inspiring to me because you don’t do “cover” music in the way that they do it without a kind of intellectual project going on. Particularly if you talk to Bernie, she is really articulate about this copy that isn’t exactly a copy and about her, and the band’s, relationship to feminism, music, temporality and lots of different things. When I first listened to their music I really liked it but I couldn’t tell always what songs the band was covering – I couldn’t actually pick out most of the songs. Then I found out what they were covers of and I started thinking about what they were doing and what the performance was about. it’s the kind of thing that makes me excited about being an academic in places other than in the university.
You have also participated in the EMP (Experience Music Project) Pop Conference in Seattle recently.
Yes EMP, it’s amazing! you’ve got to go! The only problem with it is, well…you know how there is this sort of boys ownership of record collecting, that whole stupid protection of the archive and arcane obscure bands? It is also a place where that goes on. So somebody will be talking about some great topic, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar prowess, and about who she played with and where, and then, some guy from the audience, instead of getting what the point is of the presentation, will stand up and say “no in fact she didn’t play there it was so and so.” So there is this nerdy fact-checking going on and people are almost policed by the “fact” boys!
But Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers, who have run the conference for quite a while now, made a concerted effort to include feminist and queer musicians and critics. So about three years ago the whole tenor of the conference changed and it became what it is now, a much more integrated set of issues and papers. You would love it! If it happens next year I’m going to tell you about and you’ll have to come!
Tell me about what you did there.
The first year, 2004, I did a paper on Big Mama Thornton, who is a black, clearly lesbian, blues singer. She made the song “Hound Dog” famous, the one that Elvis Presley then took and recorded. Even there my interest was in this question of originality and copies. How could it be that a black lesbian is the original for what Elvis becomes, how do we think about what Elvis might have taken from somebody like Big Mama Thornton, given that none of the accounts of his early career would ever attribute real influence to her.
In 2005, I did a paper on Lesbians on Ecstasy and the relationship of lesbianism to recycling, derivativeness and inauthenticity that I think the band exploits and turns into something really fun. Other papers on the panel were about camp which didn’t interest me that much – I think camp is an overused trope and can just be another mode of consumption, it’s not always that radical.
How do you define camp exactly?
I define camp as the remaking of a text or a performance that is transformative. So you have a film like “What ever happened to Baby Jane?” which might be considered “bad” in certain contexts and according to certain criteria but then it gets made into something “good” when it reappears in a gay context. In particular, the re-performance of the original with lots of irony and lots of double entendre, feeds into a drag aesthetic. You would think, therefore, that camp might be a helpful way of thinking about the Lesbians on Ecstasy, who take something original and recycle it. But in camp there is a kind of contempt for the original – it was shit and we turned it into something sublime. There is a sense of the Midas touch – whatever gay culture touches transforms into something fabulous. But LOE preserve the object even as they replay it. They go and inhabit it in a new way. I feel like that’s a different thing, there is a different performance there. We understand ourselves in relationship to what we are recycling as opposed to destroying it in order to make something new. To take on a song by the Indigo Girls for example is to say this was important, this represented something, this is important again in another way.
I recently read a quote you made about Bitch magazine calling it “sexy and relevant third wave feminism.” What do you mean by that?
Bitch magazine is sexy in the sense that it doesn’t want to be a feminist magazine that is laying down the law, that is not engaged in prescribing sexual identities and acts, that is not afraid of words like “bitch” that has a deep and fun relationship to topics of sexuality and pleasure. It’s a magazine for women that has an overt commitment to sexuality but doesn’t shy away from being smart. That’s a sexy combo, as opposed to “we are fun and nothing but fun and don’t worry you’re not going to be challenged by anything here.” Especially in the US where everything has to be pre-chewed for a popular audience and the underestimating of audiences is so patronizing and gross. I think Bitch is cool that way. I wrote a piece for them for a special issue on masculinity. Rachel Fudge, the managing editor, asked if I wanted to be interviewed for that issue and I said no, I would rather write something, and so I did. The piece is called “Dude, Where’s My Pinot Noir? Sideways, Spongebob Squarepants and Dumb and Dumber Masculinities.”
You currently teach at the University of Southern California. What do you do there?
For one thing, I’m running a center there called the Center for Feminist Research – that’s really cool. We’re really developing some good stuff. But I ended up in an English Department which has not suited me so well because I don’t really believe in “English” as a project. Here you are in California, 100 miles from the Mexican border, English speakers are a minority, and the focus of the Humanities is still built around the centrality of the literature of the British Isles! I find this stultifying. I want to be part of something like “transnational cultural studies.” I’m still hopeful that I will be able to do some combination of queer studies, gender studies and transnational cultural studies either at USC or elsewhere.
What are some of the projects that are part of the center for Feminist Research?
We do a lecture series every year. Last year we had a lecture series on race, sexuality and popular culture. One scholar came and talked about gender stereotypes in Kill Bill, another scholar talked about the representation of torture in the TV series 24, another talked about “quiet storm” music and Roberta Flack. This year we are going to do a queer feminist film series in the fall combining the films with guest speakers, theorists and academics who will come and promote a discussion after the film. Next semester I am going to do a lecture series on what I’m calling “Theories of Alternatives” and invite various feminist speakers. We also co-sponsor events, develop grants and try to create some off campus alliances with activist groups and art shows.
How has the response been?
Outside of the university – great. Inside the university they seem more concerned with whether we have raised more money for the university than if we made a great connection with a local queer Chicana group. Another project the university will never care about but which I do anyway, involves putting on a dyke salon called DITCH in LA. Whenever I bring a speaker through I also try to create an off-campus events where that speaker will give a more popular version of whatever she is speaking about on campus, followed by a performance and a dj. It’s worked really well. Recently we invited Lisa Dugan who has written about the gay marriage debate. She came and explained to the people at the club why supporting gay marriage may not be in their best interests and why there were more radical projects that were being obscured by the debate. It was fantastic. Another event was a femme burlesque group called “The Miracle Whips,” who are all grad students and professors. They did a combination of strip tease and theorizing. So they would do a little Derrida and then strip and some wet t-shirts and then Foucault.
You see a few celebrities – like Kate Moennig from the L Word, Shari Frilot from Sundance and Kimberly Pierce have shown up from time to time. It’s been a fabulous event and one I hope to continue.
How is life in LA?
The misconception about LA is that it is the fluffy southern California apolitical white gay men and lesbian place and that San Francisco is the place to be. This is a great misconception. San Francisco can really be a parochial place and in the end is a smallish city with a very small group of people organizing events and with a huge divide between SF and the East Bay and Oakland. It’s become almost impossible for poor people, people of color to continue to live in San Francisco because of the real estate boom, and consequently I think it’s a static and dull place. LA on the other hand, is a massive urban sprawl, where white people are a minority. Sure you can go to Girl Bar and see white lovely ladies doing L Word type things, but you can also go to Crenshaw on a Saturday night to the oldest black lesbian club in the country called Catch One and be in a club with like 1000 women of color. Why is that never the representation of queer LA? The L Word has as much to do with New York or San Francisco as it does with LA at this point. The fantasy of LA as blonde, beach and white people is completely belied by the demographics of the place and by what’s actually available there.
What has been the response in LA to the L Word?
This is where I think I would talk about camp in the sense that people love it and hate it. I think that camp absolutely is about the love/hate relationship to a popular cultural text. You have very serious L Word parties, in certain bars where people go and watch religiously and you have very funny L Word parties where people are gathering informally at somebody’s house and cracking up about it. There are lots of people in LA who are directly or indirectly involved with the production so there is a lot of investment in it but there are also a lot of people who think it’s just peddling to the lowest common denominator. There are a lot of very funny L Word parodies going on. So there is a wide response.
Are you involved at all?
No, I’m not. I’m a happy spectator. I try not to make it more than it is. Desperate Housewives no more depicts heterosexual life in the suburbs then the L Word depicts the reality of lesbian life in LA. We don’t watch it for the reality we watch it for the soap opera elements and I am perfectly happy with that. What bothers me is the stupid catering to the hetero porno view of two lovely feminine women together and the cordoning off of any hint of masculinity to the trans character. Whereas Shane should just be a full blown butch, given that there are episodes where she is mistaken for a man. But it doesn’t make sense for her to be played as an unambiguously female/lesbian character and then have some gay guy coming on to her because he has mistaken her for a handsome boy! You can’t have it both ways, you cannot use the butch narrative arc but eliminate the butch!
Wait but doesn’t that critique just fall back on the butch/femme dynamic and not allow for any playful grey area?
No, no, you see, in the 3rd season they set Shane up against Moira/Max, when Moira comes to town and her butchness is taken as a sign of her unsophisticated and class specific sense of queerness. Shane is called “butch” by Moira but renounces any affiliation with that term. What I’m saying is, is that’s fine if the entire cast are set apart from so-called old school categories of butch/femme, but in fact most of the cast are feminine in very, very obvious ways. Then you have this one character for the first two seasons, Shane, who is not obviously feminine and in fact is given a butch narrative line – she dates straight women, she is mistaken for a guy, she is forced to wear a dress which she doesn’t want to wear – but then the minute anyone brings up the possibility that she is butch the whole show sort of convulsively shudders. As I said, you can’t have the heroic narrative of the butch while also articulating deep butch phobia.
What are you doing in Basel at the moment?
I’m teaching a queer theory seminar that I have been teaching for the past two years. It was the brainchild of Ulle Jaeger, she and I met in the US quite a while ago and she was determined to bring me to Europe to do some teaching. She very generously brought me to Basel two years ago. Last year the class was massive and we did the relationship of queer theory to critical theory in Europe, integrating queer into an understanding of the major intellectual movements of the 20th century. This year it’s a smaller group but it’s really intensive. We are reading about race and sexuality as it has been theorized in recent queer theory with a workshop at the end on globalization, post-colonialism and queer studies.
You were invited to Harvard University recently. How was that?
I was a visiting professor there last semester. Harvard is a strange place, because the mythos of Harvard affects everything. Even if you don’t believe in it, they do. The students are really serious for different and sometimes dubious reasons. They are making connections that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. They are the future leaders of the world. Many of them are not so much smarter then students elsewhere, they were just fabulously well educated. But at the same time, teaching at Harvard was invigorating because the students work hard, read everything and really are capable of inspired thinking, so it can be really fun to think with them. It’s less teaching and more thinking with people who have come in with their own commitments. I was teaching one large lecture class that was an intro to sexuality, which I loved, and a smaller class on masculinity which I found more stressful because the class dynamics are strange in a place where people are so high powered and competitive.
Does the mythos of it being a white male institution hold up?
Well many of these ivy league schools have more money for fellowships to increase diversity on campus then a place like the University of California which passed an injunction against affirmative action back in the 90s that has had a long lasting effect. So, almost ironically, there might be more people of color on campus like Harvard or Yale then at a public university. Which is unforgivable. So, no, I didn’t find Harvard to be a white male bastion.
I did find however that I was dealing with only the most activist students on campus. My sense was that the vast majority of the students were more likely to be Republican. And even in my classes, there were people who clearly were uncomfortable with my level of political engagement: for example, I was reading my class evaluations and one of the evaluations complained “the professor was too political” and it implied that I had forced my political opinions on the class; this student then gave herself/himself away by listing as an example of my extreme political bias the fact that I had hinted that I might be pro-choice! For most lefty people, pro-choice is just a basic level of politicization but many of these kids are deeply conservative and are there because they want to preserve the status quo, and will be the future guardians of the status quo.
Do you get the sense that you are an icon in this field of feminism and gender studies?
No, I mean it’s hard to know what your own reputation is. I think sometimes I can be that, because I took a few risks by talking about subcultures and doing stuff that is not necessarily academic all the time. But I also get lots of criticism because I will take a position and I will make an argument that may be unpopular in academia, for example about gay male sexism that doesn’t go down well. So yeah you can be an icon to some people but then it makes you a goat to others. Academia is an unforgiving profession because what is popular is always suspicious and you can be read this year and ignored the next. I think the trick is never to take anything for granted about who you are. I am proud that I can be invited into a subculture space and people might want to listen to something I have to say. To me that is recognition whereas the academic stuff, I understand that that will come and go. When I got critiques as I did from actual drag kings that hurt more. What Del le Grace Volcano and I did with The Drag King Book, we did quickly because we knew it was something important. Then to feel people just wanted to turn around and criticize you, I found that petty.
What was the critique?
That we had looked at some very unrepresentative communities of drag kings in major cities and that we didn’t go to some of the other areas. But, we didn’t have any funding, we went were we went, where we lived basically. Or another critique takes aim at my theories of drag kinging. Which is fine, of course, you must dispute them, but it doesn’t have to be about completely denigrating them. So that’s why I don’t really do the drag king stuff so much anymore. I’m much more into the politicized subcultures, the punk stuff and the music scene seem more politically active to me. A lot of people in academia really do want that academic recognition which of course I’m happy if I get but I really like it when it comes coupled with the subculture recognition.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on this semi humorous and at the same time deeply serious book, Dude, Where’s My Theory? The Politics of Knowledge in the Age of Stupidity. It’s about the function of the intellectual in this moment when the state has withdrawn its interest in education. We currently lack the public intellectual arenas that have always been so important to social movements. The book is about breaking out of the very formulaic ways in which people produce knowledge in the university in order to have a more dynamic relationship between on and off campus intellectual spheres. It’s also a book about thinking of alternatives rather than just offering critique. I’m hoping it’s going to be a fun book and that it could be read by non-academics.
I was wondering if you could tell me about your dapper style…
I look like I have a style? Wow! I actually am a big designer label person, it’s ridiculous. When you’re butch you can never figure out a style because you don’t want to wear women’s clothes but you can’t find men’s clothes or they don’t fit. So when I finally figured out how to buy men’s clothes I really got into it. Men’s clothing has a range of options that women’s clothing doesn’t have.
Most people would say the opposite!
Well women’s clothing cannot be unisexual for the most part, it’s made for women to emphasize that you are a woman but men’s clothing has more flexibility in a way, it is often designed for comfort or practicality.
When was the last time you wore a skirt or dress?
That seems very exact…
It is. I was teaching and I thought that I had to do it. Then I felt like I was in drag so I never did it again. When you’re teaching you do feel a bit self-conscious so when I first started as a grad student I was a bit anxious about it. Then I realized that the neat thing about teaching is that people grant you authority immediately even if you don’t know anything because you are at the front of the room and they’re not. So the trick is to use that authority for everything, if that means pulling off going in a suit then that’s what you use it for.
You’re taking an introductory intensive German class in Basel at the moment, how’s it going?
It’s getting better but the teacher is this incredibly straight and normative German woman teaching us using stupid exercises uber meinen pensionierten Mann and asking about how men and women meet each other in “your country!” It’s just so hetero because everyone is constantly talking about their husband or wife. Someone was telling me that in Berlin there are actual queer classes for learning German. I can totally understand why that is necessary because otherwise you end up with this hetero vocabulary. Learning a language is an interesting experience because you are really being socialized into a culture and trained to think a certain way…
Have you been rebelling at all?
With that one little exercise about how do men and women meet in your country, I said in my very bad German that in California we are no longer living in the 19th century and that men meet men and women meet women and women even ask men out. I tried to be sort of ironic but maybe it came out a little bit aggressive!