Female Masculinity Summary & Study Guide

Halberstam, Jack
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Female Masculinity Summary & Study Guide Description

Female Masculinity Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on Female Masculinity by Halberstam, Jack .

The following version of the book was used to create this study guide: Halberstam, J. Jack. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, 1998.

Female Masculinity begins with an introduction, subtitled “Masculinity without Men,” in which Jack Halberstam sets up the definitions, methodologies, problems, and themes that he will explore throughout the book. As the subtitle informs the reader, much of this introduction focuses on introducing and affirming the validity of female masculinity, or, more generally, the existence of masculinity apart from men. Halberstam takes care to deconstruct the societally dominant white, male masculinity by emphasizing the necessity of alternative masculinities; masculinity only becomes definable when removed from the assumptions associated with maleness. He then explains the cultural phenomenon in which masculinity is deemed appropriate for young girls as tomboys, but suddenly becomes unacceptable once those girls reach adolescence. This creates a void in which adult female masculinity becomes ignored and marginalized. Halberstam then explains the necessity of studying and validating marginalized gender identities by explaining the judgment and violence met by people deemed to be in the wrong bathroom; binary gender choices, like gendered bathrooms, specifically exclude those people who do not fit rigid gender expectations. Halberstam ends the introduction with analyses of the portrait photographs of Catherine Opie and Del Grace; these queer artists portray genders that are purposely unreadable as male or female in an attempt to confront the viewers’ gendered expectations.

Halberstam’s next chapter, “Perverse Presentism: The Androgyne, the Tribade, the Female Husband, and Other Pre-Twentieth-Century Genders,” emphasizes the need to conceptualize historical genders by using the beliefs about gender from the contemporary time. As such, Halberstam argues that using the term “lesbian” to describe pre-twentieth-century female homosexuality is anachronistic; instead, scholars should conceptualize these homosexual relationships using terms such as “female husband” or “invert,” since these were the terms that these women and their contemporaries would have used. To use the term “lesbian” to describe these women, Halberstam argues, would be to apply modern beliefs to the past, thus losing important differences between historical and modern homosexuality. Halberstam then describes “tribadism,” a sexual act that involves a female gaining sexual pleasure by rubbing her clitoris on a partner; modernly, tribadism is rarely discussed, which illustrates Halberstam’s argument that contemporary language is insufficient to properly analyze sexual behaviors. Halberstam then introduces the concept of the female husband, a woman who behaves as a husband to a married woman. Halberstam discusses the diaries of Anne Lister, a female husband, to illustrate the gendered natures of these sorts of relationships; Anne Lister, for example, would not allow her lovers to pleasure her, but rather preferred to always be the sexual aggressor in the relationship.

In his third chapter, “’A Writer of Misfits’: John Radclyffe Hall and the Discourse of Inversion,” Halberstam describes “inversion”: a turn-of-the-century term used to explain why some women were masculine and desired women. To explain inversion, Halberstam turns to Havelock Ellis’s “Sexual Inversion in Women” (1895), which emphasizes a binary nature of gender: a masculine woman simply wishes to be a man. Halberstam then considers the inverts of Hall’s day who either impersonated men or infiltrated male-dominated spaces, like police forces and the military, who conceptualized their genders and masculinities in myriad ways. Hall’s most famous novel, The Well of Loneliness, portrays its protagonist, Stephen Gordon, as an invert who “loves women very specifically as a man would,” thus directly contradicting lesbian theory that lauds the “woman identified woman” (96). This has often led to The Well of Loneliness being dismissed as lesbophobic, but Halberstam insists that Stephen Gordon be recognized as an invert, rather than a lesbian, thus negating these criticisms.

Halberstam then moves on to “Lesbian Masculinity: Even Stone Butches Get the Blues,” in which he considers the identity of the “stone butch,” a lesbian who does not allow her sexual partners to pleasure her. Halberstam first describes the lack of an adequate sexual vocabulary to use when analyzing sexuality: there are simply not enough precise terms to use, perhaps because sex exists within “intricate webs of racial, class, and gendered identities,” (116). In the mid-20th-century, stone butchness was considered pathological because of the assumption that the stone butch hates her female body, and thus hates all females and herself. Halberstam argues, though, that the stone butch is living within a body that is disconnected from her gender: she is masculine but lives within a female body. Halberstam ultimately concludes that the stone butch becomes a viable and coherent identity only when female masculinity is recognized as valid.

In the next chapter, “Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum,” Halberstam considers the relationships between butch lesbians and female-to-male (FTM) transgender men. Halberstam emphasizes the need to eliminate thinking within a “masculinity continuum” that assumes that masculinity increases as one’s gender becomes more male-identified. He offers the category of “transgender butch” to help conceptualize butchness and female masculinity outside of such a binary, transsexual framework. Halberstam then discusses several examples of FTM literature, many of which emphasize a trans man’s need to differentiate himself from a masculine lesbian, and debates against Bernice Hausman’s argument that trans-identification did not and cannot exist without medical and technological intervention. This chapter ends with a reaffirmation of the need to accept genders that do not fit within the typical binary framework of masculine male and feminine female.

Halberstam’s sixth chapter is titled “Looking Butch: A Rough Guide to Butches on Film,” and, as it says, presents a historical guide to the butch characters depicted in film. Halberstam first discusses the intricate networks of viewerships that arise when media is made by, presented to, or depicts queer people, especially in light of the Hollywood Production Codes, which censored queer representation in mid-20th-century film. Halberstam explains the “positive image debate,” which arose during the first aught of the LGBT+ movement; early LGBT+ activists insisted that all depictions of LGBT+ people must be positive, as defined by white, middle-class feminists. Halberstam then lists and describes several types of butch women that have been depicted in film: tomboys, predatory butches, butches in fantasy genres, transvestite butches, butches who are barely masculine, and the contemporary “post-modern butch.”

“Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance” is Female Masculinity’s seventh chapter, in which Halberstam describes the historic lack of lesbian drag culture, and how that fact may be influenced by masculinity’s assumed non-performativity. Halberstam emphasizes the need to accept actual drag kings’ perceptions of themselves while also applying the drag king performances to Halberstam’s own theoretical analysis. To research lesbian drag culture, Halberstam attended several drag king contests, in which he saw many types of drag performances: masculine butch realness, femme pretenders, and male mimicry, to name a few. Halberstam then describes drag king shows, which are theatrical and more similar to the gay male phenomenon of drag queen shows. Halberstam emphasizes that drag kings tend to perform both theatrical and their own masculinity, lending each performance layers of gender, presentation, and theatricality that are not necessarily cohesive with one another.

Halberstam’s concluding chapter is titled “Raging Bull (Dyke): New Masculinities” and begins with Halberstam describing his experience of female adolescence as “the shrinking of my world” (267). He then laments the lack of interest and the outright hostility towards adult female masculinity. Halberstam describes the sport of women’s boxing, and how many female boxers feel the need to assert their femininity, as if engaging in a masculine-coded activity threatens a “natural” femininity. Halberstam ends Female Masculinity with a reassertion that female masculinity stands equal to male masculinity, and is not unnatural or simply derivative.

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