Halberstam, who accepts masculine and feminine pronouns, as well as the name "Judith," with regard to his gender identity, focuses on the topic of tomboys and female masculinity for his writings. His 1998 Female Masculinity book discusses a common by-product of gender binarism, termed "the bathroom problem" with outlining the dangerous and awkward dilemma of a perceived gender deviant's justification of presence in a gender-policed zone, such as a public bathroom, and the identity implications of "passing" therein.
Jack is a popular speaker and gives lectures in the United States and internationally on queer failure, sex and media, subcultures, visual culture, gender variance, popular film and animation. Halberstam is currently working on several projects including a book on fascism and (homo)sexuality.
Halberstam earned a B.A. in English at the University of California, Berkeley in 1985, an M.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1989, and a Ph.D. from the same school in 1991. Assigned female at birth, he uses the pronouns "he/his" with regard to his gender identity and goes by the name Jack, but says that "some people call me Jack, my sister calls me Jude, people I've known forever call me Judith" and "I try not to police any of it. A lot of people call me he, some people call me she, and I let it be a weird mix of things." The name "Judith Halberstam" has also accompanied "Jack" on some of Halberstam's later books.
Halberstam acknowledges that he is "a bit of a free floater" when it comes to pronouns. He said that "the back and forth between he and she sort of captures the form that my gender takes nowadays" and that the floating gender pronouns have captured his refusal to resolve his gender ambiguity. Halberstam does, however, state that "grouping me with someone else who seems to have a female embodiment and then calling us 'ladies', is never, ever ok!"
In Female Masculinity (1998), Halberstam seeks to identify what constitutes masculinity in society and within the individual. The text first suggests that masculinity is a construction that promotes particular brands of male-ness while at the same time subordinating "alternative masculinities". The project specifically focuses on the ways female masculinity has been traditionally ignored in academia and society at large. To illustrate a cultural mechanism of subordinating alternative masculinities, Halberstam brings up James Bond and GoldenEye as an example, noting that gender performance in this film is far from what is traditional: M is the character who "most convincingly performs masculinity", Bond can only perform masculinity through his suave clothing and gadgets, and Q can be read "as a perfect model of the interpenetration of queer and dominant regimes". This interpretation of these characters challenges long-held ideas about what qualities create masculinity. Halberstam also brings up the example of the tomboy, a clear case of a youthful girl exerting masculine qualities—and raises the complication that within a youthful figure, the idea of masculinity expressed within a female body is less threatening, and only becomes threatening when those masculine tendencies are still apparent as the child progresses in age.
Halberstam then focuses on "the bathroom problem". Here, the question of the gender binary is brought up. Halberstam argues that the problem of only having two separate bathrooms for different genders, with no place for people who do not clearly fit into either category to use, is a problem. The assertion is further made that our bathroom system is not adequate for the different genders found in society. The problem of policing that occurs around the bathrooms is also a focal point for examination of the bathroom problem; not only is this a policing on the legal level, but also on the social level. The social aspect of policing, according to Halberstam, makes it even more difficult for people who do not clearly and visibly fall into one category or another to use public restrooms without encountering some sort of violent or uncomfortable situation.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam argues that failure can be productive, a way of critiquing capitalism and heteronormativity. Using examples from popular culture, like Pixar animated films, Halberstam explores alternatives to individualism and conformity.
In his introduction, Halberstam proposes low theory as a way to deconstruct the normative modes of thought that have established uniform societal definitions of success and failure. Low theory is a term that Halberstam borrows from cultural theorist Stuart Hall, using it to undermine heteronormative definitions of success and to argue that failure to live up to societal standards can open up more creative ways of thinking and being in the world. Halberstam points out that queer and feminine success is always measured by male, heterosexual standards. The failure to live up to these standards, Halberstam argues, can offer unexpected pleasures such as freedom of expression and sexuality.
Halberstam clarifies his points encouraging failure in a lecture called "On Behalf of Failure": "My basic point with failure is that in a world where success is countered in relationship to profit... or relayed through heteronormative marriage, failure is not a bad place to start for a critique of both capitalism and heteronormativity."
Halberstam describes low theory as a "utility of getting lost over finding our way". In reference to societal norms and definitions of success, Halberstam asks the reader how to avoid those forms of knowing and being that relegate other forms of knowing to redundancy and irrelevancy.
Halberstam provides several examples of publications, films and popular cultural artifacts in order to aid in explaining the concept of low theory. These include SpongeBob SquarePants, Monsters, Inc., Little Miss Sunshine, and the writings of Monique Wittig and Barbara Ehrenreich among others.
In the first chapter of his book Jack Halberstam focuses on certain animated films and how they inherently teach children about revolt. He then relates this sort of revolt into her idea about Queer Theory. He opens the chapter by simply stating how animated films "revel in the domain of failure". He states how it isn't enough for an animated film to focuses on success and triumph because that it not what happens in childhood. He explains how childhood is "growing sideways," as stated by Kathryn Bond Stockton in her work The Queer Child or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Halberstam goes on to speak about how Stockton has shown that childhood is queer in nature but society trains children to be heterosexual, by our parents placing emphasis and guiding their kids toward marriage and heterosexual reproduction. Simply put heterosexuality is made, not born. Halberstam explains that revolt and rebellion are inherent in children, and if these traits weren't, then society would have no reason to train them. He then makes the transition back to animated films, saying how they address the disorderly child who sees the large world beyond his controlling family. These animated films get to the root of the struggle between human and non-human creatures.
He gives these animated films a name, calling them "Pixarvolt" films. Pixar, referring to the company that created the first-ever computer-animated feature film. Pixarvolts have themes that would never be seen in adult films, according to Halberstam. These films also make subtle and obvious connections between communist revolt and queer embodiment. Halberstam argues that although Marxist scholars have dismissed queer theory as 'body politics', these films do a great job of showing "that alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the struggle against corporate domination" (Halberstam 29). He begins talking about Toy Story (1995), the first movie Pixar created. What made Toy Story such a success was its ability to engage children with the fantasy world of talking, living toys and also capture the nostalgia of older generations by employing the cowboy main character, Woody. He argues that the narratives of the film, past and present, adult and child, live and mechanic, show all the possibilities that this new animation world has created. Toy Story set the themes that are involved in all Pixarvolt film. These films are interested in social hierarchies, the outside world versus the imaginary world, and these films are all powered by revolution, transformation and rebellion. Most Pixarvolt films deal with escape to a utopian freedom. One such film about an escape to utopia is Chicken Run (2000). These chickens escape using a natural solution combined with an engineering solution, which is using all the chicken's flying abilities to power one large plane so they can escape. The queer element of this film is that most all these chickens are female so the utopia is full of free green pastures of chickens with only a few roosters around. "The revolution in this instance is feminist and animated" (Halberstam 32).
Halberstam then speaks of how humans project our worlds onto animals. He explains the term of human exceptionalism, which he defines in two ways: Humans thinking they are more superior, and unique to other animals and Humans using cruel forms of anthropomorphism. He most speaks about anthropomorphism, which is the attribution of human characteristics to an animal. He speaks of a New York Times "Modern Love" article in which the author begins training her husband with the same techniques she saw the trainer in Sea World using on Shamu the killer whale. Halberstam first knocks how committed this shows humans are to failing structures, like marriage, that we think we ourselves are failing and must try different things. He then goes on to explain how drawing on animal behavior makes humans feel heterosexuality is more natural or primal. She imposes her boring domestic lifestyle on the life of this exotic animal, which is anthropomorphism, just to maintain her flawed sense of natural heterosexuality. Halberstam moves on to talk about the successful documentary, March of the Penguins (2005). Like other animal documentaries, this humanizes animal life and reduces animals to human ways of life. He explains how this film perpetuates heterosexuality in a false way. The film leaves out key facts about penguins journey to find love and have a baby. The first fact it leaves out is that penguins are not monogamous; they mate for one year and move on. They also leave their babies after they know they are able to swim in the water. The baby penguins then gain five years of their lives on their own, before starting another mating cycle. Halberstam claims, "the long march of the penguins is proof neither of heterosexuality in nature nor of the reproductive imperative nor of intelligent design" (Halberstam 41).
Lastly Halberstam talks about monstrous animations and their direct connection to the queer way of thinking. Animation started to create these odd human-like figures that were not human, but not animal either. Halberstam goes on to reference the movie Monsters, Inc. (2001). In this movie the corporate world relies on screams of little children to power themselves. When one monster goes to scare a little girl, and she is not scared, it scares him partially. Halberstam relates this to allowing the child to stand up to its 'boogeyman'-type figure, but at the same time form an affectionate relationship with the figure. This bond is queer in that it lets the child control the transgression of its own boundaries. It interrupts the more conventional romantic bond with a bond that seems odd and misplaced. He ends the first chapter by giving the differences on Pixarvolt films versus regular animated films. The main difference is that regular animated films stress family, human individuality and extraordinary individuals. Pixarvolt films focus more on collectivity, social bonding and diverse communities. Halberstam explains that, "Two thematics can transform a potential Pixarvolt film into a tame and conventional cartoon: an overemphasis on nuclear family and a normative investment in coupled romance" (Halberstam 47). He lastly says how Pixarvolt films show the importance in recognizing weirdness of bodies, sexuality and gender, but do it through other animal worlds.
In the second chapter of Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstram highlights things such as stupidity, forgetfulness, and how they have impacted views on Queer culture. The second chapter really illuminates how stupidity is viewed differently upon men and women, and how it can sometimes even be a gateway for the queer culture. He highlights certain movies scenes and novels where stupidity and forgetfulness couple together to actually opens the door for certain groups of individuals such as the LGBT community.
Halberstam begins to define stupidity on page 54 where she says "Stupidity conventionally means different things in relation to different subject positions; for example, stupidity in white men can signify new modes of domination, but stupidity in women of all ethnicities inevitably symbolizes their status as, in psychoanalytic terms, "castrated" or impaired." Stupidity can mean a variety of things depending on the scenario. Right off the bat he gives an example of how stupidity in men is generalized compared to that of women. Stupidity in women seems to be strictly looked down upon, while stupidity in men can be seen as charming. Women have always been oppressed by the idea, which was created by past hierarchy systems, that women are just not as intelligent as men.. "Stupidity is as profoundly gendered as knowledge formations in general; thus while unknowing in a man is sometimes rendered as part of masculine charm, unknowing in a woman indicates a lack and a justification of a social order that anyway privileges men. Though we both punish and naturalize female stupidity, we not only forgive stupidity in white men, but we often cannot recognize it as such since white maleness is the identity construct most often associated with mastery, wisdom, and grand narratives." White males were the symbolization of knowledge and power, not stupidity. The election of 2004, between George W. Bush and John Kerry, was used as an example of how stupidity is beneficial in certain scenarios for men. John Kerry was the well-educated, hard-working, and well-spoken candidate who gets edged out by George W. Bush, a man who sold himself on being a fun-loving, fun to be around type of guy. Bush sold himself to the public in a way to show that he was just an average person like "everyone else". Society loved that he was a Yale student but not a 4.0 kind of student. Stupidity in men does not hurt their chances in society, unlike that of women. In a male-dominated culture, stupidity in men does not have a negative downside. In this case, it actually helped the person. Stupidity can also help shed light on queer culture also.
Halberstam goes on to talk about the movie, Dude, Where's My Car? and how the film used the stupidity and forgetfulness of the main characters, Jesse and Chester, to show that in given situations that would normally be uncomfortable for heterosexual white males, is not uncomfortable at all. The stupidity of Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where's My Car? led to many homosexual and transsexual references throughout the film. Halberstam says that by interjecting this idea of forgetting into Jesse and Chester's characters causes a certain queer phenomenon throughout the film. Jesse willingly knew that he was receiving a lap dance from a transsexual, but forgets the social norms that would typically go along with that. Most white heterosexual men would not willingly accept a lap dance from a transsexual, but Jesse is too stupid to realize what is taking place. His stupidity takes sexual orientation out of the equation because he doesn't think about the fact that it's a transsexual giving him the lap dance. Although Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004, Dude, Where's My Car? was released in 2000.). The film brought light to the gay community using stupidity and forgetfulness as a staple. In 2000, gay acceptance was not nearly what it is today, thus making Dude, Where's My Car? somewhat controversial. It was not until 2015 that same-sex marriage had become legal in all 50 states. Even though it is legal in all 50 states, some states such as Mississippi tried to pass a law that protects those who object to same-sex marriage, but was blocked. The queer culture was brought to light in this film when Jesse and Chester share their convincing kiss at the end in their car next to a heterosexual couple. The stupidity of Jesse and Chester was the gateway into the kiss.
Halberstam says that forgetting is one of the best ways for the queer group to break through. To forget about the past, forget family traditions and start new without having to conform to old societal norms. He goes on to explain that forgetting family as the standard mother and husband is essential to create a gateway for the queer community. We must forget these societal norms in order to make way for equality. Forgetfulness in the case of Dory in the film Finding Nemo brings about a queer version of selfhood. Since Dory's memory is so bad, it causes her to live in the present and forget about the past essentially. Dory cannot remember her past, causing her to forget and live in the moment. Forgetting is a way to keep the disturbing memories of the past, in the past. Forgetting opens up the doors for new things while suppressing the awful memories. Halberstam notes the importance of forgetfulness in the queer community and how positive that can be. Forgetting in this way can help one handle the stress of being oppressed for being part of a community such as the LGBT which is and has been discriminated against. Forgetting simply makes it easier for those to move on and accept a new beginning.
In Chapter 6 of The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam focuses more on the specific works of queer theory scholars, and examines works such as "Kung Fu Panda" and "Disney", to push her points forward. The sixth chapter truly encompasses the way animation is a "...rich, technological field for rethinking collectives, transformation identity, animality and post humanity." A few of the large and popular examples she uses to prove her point and argue those of queer theory scholars are comparison of "George W. Bush" to the "Kung Fu Panda", Disney films and cartoons as a form of revolt, and the depth of form in Pixar films, such as Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc. and A Bug's Life.
In the chapter "Animating Failure: Ending, Fleeing, Surviving", Halberstam starts off by criticizing the view of Slavoj Zizek on Kung Fu Panda. Zizek compares the panda to George W. Bush, explaining that just like Bush, the panda rose to success because of the system, and that it was inherently tipped in his favor. Halberstam states that Kung Fu Panda "...joins new forms of animation to new conceptions of the human-animal divide to offer a very different political landscape than the one we inhabit, or at least the one Zizek imagines..."
In addition to Kung Fu Panda, Halberstam goes in-depth on the complexity of animation, specifically in A Bug's Life, where a new form of "crowd scenes" were introduced. Once the technique behind the animation of the "crowd" is available, you then must make it believable by adding the proper story line. For example, in the film Fight Club, there is a scene of the brain created with much complexity, using L-systems, and is not as much an image of the brain or of cells as it is "an animation of the theory of cellular life". The first step to animation is the technique, a "...heady mix of science, math, biology..." However, without the narrative, it will not be effective, and the inner complexity of the image is what propels it forward to accurately represent what it is attempting to.
Stop-motion animation is the last point Halberstam touches on in this chapter. She goes into examples of "SpongeBob SquarePants", "Mr. Fox", "Chicken Run" and "Coraline" explaining how ideas of racism, entrapment, masculinity and political progression are present heavily in stop-motion films. Themes of remote control and imprisonment are also heavily present in stop-motion animation. The use of stop-motion animation can help evoke different emotions as well. For example, in Chicken Run, the start-stop jerkiness allows the narrative to be even more humorous. Themes of remote control and imprisonment are also heavily present in stop-motion animation. However, we must remember that "...the comedic soul of Chicken Run is not its operatic escape... it's about the viewer's personal relationship with his or her inner chicken."
"Telling Tales" is an essay concerned with the politics of "passing" as well as the ethics of transgender biography. The essay discusses how women who "pass" are often accused of being deceptive, and they are subjected to brutal violations which often terminate their lives. Halberstam poses questions about who controls narratives that circulate about the lives of transgender people. The paper discusses "transgender biography as a sometimes violent, often imprecise project, one which seeks to brutally erase the carefully managed details of the life of a passing person and which recasts the act of passing as deception, dishonesty and fraud" (Halberstam 14). The essay also provides a brief transgender history that is accompanied by a definition of terms such as female masculinity, transsexual, realness, the 'real', female-to-male transsexuals (FTM), butch, and femme. The author thinks that trans bodies have a certain illegibility, and he is suspicious of "experts" who try to read, document, and pin down "lives filled with contradiction and tension" (Halberstam 20).
In Gaga Feminism Halberstam uses Lady Gaga as a symbol for a new era of sexual and gender expression in the 21st century. The book has been noted as "a work that engages in the theorizing of contemporary gender relations and their cultural narratives, and the practice of calling for a chaotic upending of normative categories in an act of sociopolitical anarchy." Halberstam describes five tenets of Gaga feminism:Wisdom lies in the unexpected and the unanticipated.
Transformation is inevitable, but don't look for the evidence of change in the everyday; look around, look on the peripheries, the margins, and there you will see its impact.
Think counterintuitively, act accordingly.
Practice creative non-believing.
Gaga Feminism is outrageous... impolite, abrupt, abrasive and bold.
Halberstam uses contemporary pop culture examples such as SpongeBob SquarePants, Bridesmaids, and Dory from Finding Nemo to explore these tenets.
In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, published in 2005, looks at queer subculture, and proposes a conception of time and space independent of the influence of normative heterosexual/familial lifestyle. Halberstam coedits the book series "Perverse Modernities" with Lisa Lowe.
Halberstam is one of six children, including Naomi, Lucy, Michael, Jean and John. Halberstam's father, Heini Halberstam, and mother, Heather Peacock, were married until Heather's death from a car accident in 1971. Heini Halberstam married Doreen Bramley shortly thereafter, and they had a marriage of 42 years until Heini's death on January 25, 2014 in Champaign, Illinois at the age of 87.
Halberstam is openly attracted to women. After a relationship of 12 years, Halberstam has been romantically involved with Macarena Gomez-Barris, a sociology professor from Los Angeles, since 2008. Halberstam has said that he feels no pressure to marry, viewing marriage as a patriarchal institution that should not be a prerequisite for obtaining health care and deeming children "legitimate". Halberstam believes that "the couple form is failing".
Halberstam has been nominated three times for Lambda Literary Awards, twice for the non-fiction book Female Masculinity.Halberstam, Judith and Del Lagrace Volcano. The Drag King Book. London: Serpent's Tale, 1999. ISBN 1-85242-607-1
Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8223-2226-9 & 0822322439
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8147-3584-3 & 0814735851
Halberstam, Judith and Ira Livingston, Eds. Posthuman Bodies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-253-32894-2 & 0253209706
Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8223-1651-X & 0822316633
Halberstam, Judith, David Eng & José Esteban Muñoz, Eds. What's Queer about Queer Studies Now? Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8223-6621-5
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. ISBN 0-8223-5045-9 & 978-0822350453
Halberstam, J. Jack. Gaga Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. ISBN 978-080701098-3
"F2M: The Making of Female Masculinity." in The Lesbian Postmodern. Edited by Laura Doan. New York : Columbia University Press, 1994. pp. 210–228.
"Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker's Dracula" in Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle. Edited by Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken. Cambridge [U.K.], New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. pp. 248–266.
"Queering Lesbian Studies." in The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A. H. McNaron. New York: Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1996. 1st ed. pp. 256–261.
"The Art of Gender" in Rrose is a rrose is a rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. by Jennifer Blessing with contributions by Judith Halberstam. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997. pp. 176–189.
"Sex Debates." in Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction. Edited by Andy Medhurst and Sally R. Munt. London, Washington: Cassell, 1997. pp. 327–340.
"Techno-Homo: On Bathrooms, Butches, and Sex with Furniture." in Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life Edited by Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert. London, New York: Routledge, 1997. pp. 183–194.
"Between Butches" in Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender. Edited by Sally R. Munt & Cherry Smyth. London : Cassell, 1998. pp. 57–66.
"Telling Tales: Brandon Teena, Billy Tipton, and Transgender Biography." in Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion. Edited by María Carla Sánchez and Linda Schlossberg. New York: New York University Press, 2001. pp. 13–37.
"The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Men, Women, and Masculinity." in Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions. Edited by Judith Kegan Gardiner. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. pp. 344–368.
"An Introduction to Female Masculinity." in The Masculinity Studies Reader. Edited by Rachel Adams and David Savran. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. pp. 355–374.
"An Introduction to Gothic Monstrosity." in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Performance Adaptations, Criticism / Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Katherine Linehan. New York: Norton, 2003. 1st ed. pp. 128–131.
"The Transgender Look." in The Bent Lens: A World Guide to Gay and Lesbian Film. Edited by Lisa Daniel & Claire Jackson. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Books, 2003. 2nd ed. (1st U.S. ed.) pp. 18–21.
"Oh Bondage Up Yours! Female Masculinity and the Tomboy." in Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Edited by Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. pp. 191–214.
"Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum." in Feminist Theory: A Reader. Edited by Wendy K. Kolmar, Frances Bartkowski. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2005. 2nd ed. pp. 550–560.
"Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine." in Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Edited by Anne C. Herrmann and Abigail J. Stewart. Chapter 21.
"Sweet Tea and the Queer Art of Digression." in Two Truths and a Lie by Scott Turner Schofield. Ypsilanti, MI: Homofactus Press, 2008. pp. 9–12.
Danbolt, Mathias."The Eccentric Archive - An Interview with Judith Halberstam" in Trikster – Nordic Queer Journal #1, 2008.
Podcast from Critical Lede October 5, 2011
Interview with Halberstam by Sinclair Sexsmith February 1, 2012
Interview with Halberstam by Elizabeth Heineman on Feb 3, 2012 Link no longer works.