by Jack Halberstam
In American studies and cultural studies, as in the humanities more broadly, scholars use the term “gender” when they wish to expose a seemingly neutral analysis as male oriented and when they wish to turn critical attention from men to women. In this way, a gender analysis exposes the false universalization of male subjectivity and remarks on the differences produced by the social marking we call “sex” or “sexual difference.” Poststructuralist feminist theory queries this common usage by suggesting that the critique of male bias or gender neutrality comes with its own set of problems—namely, a premature and problematic stabilization of the meaning of “woman” and “female.” In 1990, Judith Butler famously named and theorized the “trouble” that “gender” both performs and covers up. In doing so, she consolidated a new form of gender theory focused on what is now widely (and variably) referred to as “performativity.” This focus on gender as something that is performed has enabled new modes of thinking about how the transgendered body is (and can be) inhabited, about the emergence of queer subcultures, and about practices that promise to radically destabilize the meaning of all social genders.
It is easy to forget that until very recently, masculinity was understood solely in terms of the behaviors, activities, and political positions associated with the experience of being a man. So sutured to one another were men and masculinity, in ways that are not true for women and femininity, that there were very few ways of speaking or thinking about masculinity that did not affirm manhood on the one hand and define itself against womanhood on the other. Masculinity, furthermore, named a racial project of power and domination in which normative masculinity attached to whiteness while Black, Asian, or Latinx masculinities bore the weight of representing excess or insufficiency. It is not the case that these hegemonic versions of masculinity are now a thing of the past, and yet the twenty-first century has been marked by very clear shifts in the meanings, functions, and understandings of men and masculinity. Social media–based movements like #MeToo have, in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, offered platforms for deep critiques of the “boys will be boys” mentality that has granted powerful men impunity in relation to unwanted sexual advances on women. And as descriptions and accounts of widespread sexual harassment, assault, and abuse entered the viral world of online circulation, discussions that may have happened in small groups in earlier eras now became loud, ubiquitous, insistent. Meanwhile, trans manhood, once a stealth form of embodiment with only scant visibility, became a legible, credible, and influential new articulation of masculinity and manhood and in some cases offered deep critiques of the gender binarism and its seemingly inevitable connection to compulsory heterosexuality.