Female Masculinity

Female Masculinity

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 38 b&w photographs Published: October 1998

Author: Jack Halberstam

Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Sex and Sexuality, Theory and Philosophy > Queer Theory

Masculinity without men. In Female Masculinity Judith Halberstam takes aim at the protected status of male masculinity and shows that female masculinity has offered a distinct alternative to it for well over two hundred years. Providing the first full-length study on this subject, Halberstam catalogs the diversity of gender expressions among masculine women from nineteenth-century pre-lesbian practices to contemporary drag king performances.
Through detailed textual readings as well as empirical research, Halberstam uncovers a hidden history of female masculinities while arguing for a more nuanced understanding of gender categories that would incorporate rather than pathologize them. She rereads Anne Lister’s diaries and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness as foundational assertions of female masculine identity. She considers the enigma of the stone butch and the politics surrounding butch/femme roles within lesbian communities. She also explores issues of transsexuality among “transgender dykes”—lesbians who pass as men—and female-to-male transsexuals who may find the label of “lesbian” a temporary refuge. Halberstam also tackles such topics as women and boxing, butches in Hollywood and independent cinema, and the phenomenon of male impersonators.
Female Masculinity signals a new understanding of masculine behaviors and identities, and a new direction in interdisciplinary queer scholarship. Illustrated with nearly forty photographs, including portraits, film stills, and drag king performance shots, this book provides an extensive record of the wide range of female masculinities. And as Halberstam clearly demonstrates, female masculinity is not some bad imitation of virility, but a lively and dramatic staging of hybrid and minority genders.


“[Halberstam] steers herself admirably between the subtle and not so subtle interactions between the personal and theoretical.” — Millissa Deitz , Screening the Past

“[R]efreshing . . . . Halberstam forces us to look at familiar texts and problems in fresh ways and leaves room for future scholarship to expand her critical insights. . . . [S]he has taken on a vast project and is clearly committed to sketching the contours of many possible approaches to female masculinity rather than dwelling on one or two . . . .[A]ccessible and enlightening . . . .” — Rachel Adams, GLQ

“A significant contribution to a growing genre of feminist analyses of masculinity. . . . Female Masculinity's greatest strength lies in its scope. . . . [It] should rank among our most important, sophisticated feminist analyses of the way maleness is constructed in Western culture. Because of its focus on specifically lesbian contributions to masculinity, Halberstam's book surpasses its predecessors in its special relevance to lesbian readers. Finally (and perhaps most importantly for Halberstam's peers), because of her book's attention to both popular and high art subjects, Female Masculinity is an important contribution to the growing field of Cultural Studies. Peg this one for a dyke to watch out for.” — Heather Findlay , The Lesbian Review of Books

“Halberstam’s refusal to work within the ‘difference’ paradigm raises a series of exciting questions . . . . Female Masculinity takes on everything from eighteenth-century frictioners (tribades) to mustachioed drag kings like Mo B. Dick and Buster Hymen to transgender dykes. Halberstam argues convincingly that there has been persistent bias against masculine women in the lesbian community and in lesbian criticism. Moreover, she uses the example of the masculine woman to suggest that lesbians need a subtler vocabulary for sexuality and gender. . . .” — Heather Love , Transition

“In this landmark study, Halberstam consolidates her position as a key theorist within Queer scholarship. Female Masculinity is an immensely persuasive, powerfully-written text that imparts exciting and important theoretical ideas. It constitutes a valuable initial challenge to those in feminism and cultural studies who conflate masculinity with maleness, and offers an inspiring start for ongoing study.” — Maria Antoniou , Feminist Theory

“This is a lively read and a wonderful academic contribution, offering the first comprehensive and theoretically developed account of the forms masculinity takes when performed or adopted by female-bodied people. . . . Halberstam has definitely set the terms of the debate on this topic.” — Cressida J. Heyes, National Women’s Studies Association Journal

"‘Campy, trashy, tough, and violent, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown is all you could ever want in a "women’s movie,"’ contributing movie editor Judith Halberstam writes in her recent book Female Masculinity, the first full-length study on the subject. That one quote about an obscure female zombie biker movie reminds me why we’d rather have Judith doing movie reviews than anyone else: she has her finger firmly on the pulse of queer representations in film." — Girlfriends

"[A] unique offering in queer studies: a study of the masculine lesbian woman. Halberstam makes a compelling argument for a more flexible taxonomy of masculinity, including not only men, who have historically held the power in society, but also women who embody qualities that are usually associated with maleness, such as strength, authority, and independence." — Library Journal

"A masculine woman herself, Halberstam states her case clearly and argues it passionately in this book, the first full-length study of its kind. . . . [She] presents fresh counterproposals to stale arguments. Halberstam’s film theory is excellent and . . . her more theoretical discussions are fluid and easy to understand. She’s written a fascinating book, and she’s opened the door for much more to come." — Windy City Times

"Halberstam’s book can be added to the list of important studies of masculinity and femininity. . . . [H]er intriguing and intelligent study covers a wide range of subjects and time periods. . . . Along with Judith Butler, Terry Castle, Sue-Ellen Case, and Eve K. Sedgwick, Halberstam—especially in her previous work on masculinity and lesbianism—is already established as one of the most thought-provoking voices in queer studies. This book will only enhance that reputation. Female Masculinity should find a wide readership. . . ." — Choice

"Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity is truly a pioneering document which disrupts eras of silence surrounding this topic. . . . [S]he crafts her language in a very inviting and accessible manner. She is clearly trying to be understood, which is a refreshing change from too many academic works. In addition, she infuses humor and little personal preferences or irritations (mostly through colorful adjective choices) into the middle of serious analysis, which makes the whole academic process more interesting and less elusive. . . . Whether you agree or disagree with her choices, the ideas are definitely stimulating. It is a book you’ll want to sit down with your friends and talk about. You find yourself overjoyed at one moment that someone has finally written down exactly what you’ve felt but haven’t been able to articulate, and in the next moment irritated because you think she’s mistaken. It is essentially an opening to the major taboo of masculinity in women . . . . [T]he genuine enthusiasm she brings to her research is catchy and this book could very well be the catalyst for expanding a whole field of thought. And, on a personal level, it simply affirms our lives and ideas." — Gay and Lesbian Times (San Diego)

"Judith Halberstam’s new book, Female Masculinity, is an extraordinary and studied work that carefully presents an analysis of gender, and more specifically, masculinity, without over-simplification or narrow definition. . . . This is the most thorough and broad-visioned work on female masculinity that I have yet seen. Halberstam’s work is an essential contribution to our increasing understanding of gender expression and its relationship to biology and sexual orientation, as well as to everything else." — Lambda Book Report

"There is a need for this book; Halberstam’s analysis offers the reader a fresh and positive spin on the much maligned stone butch figure, for example, and the book contains an interesting selection of photos of drag kings, transgender, and butch women. There are long sections detailing butch characters in film and modern drag performers, an area on which little has been written." — Siren

"Female Masculinity is a full-on attack on the idea that masculinity is exclusively—or even primarily—the property of men. . . . [It] aims to help restore a sense of butch pride, and to validate the entitlement of women to their own masculinity. . . . There’s an interesting defense of the stone butch, more often cast as a damaged and dysfunctional figure, and a walk along the debated borders between butch lesbians and female to male transsexuals. An accessible chapter on butch representation in film observes the emasculation of butches in mainstream productions—Fried Green Tomatoes, Desert Hearts—and there’s a useful analysis of what’s at stake in the drag king club acts in America and the UK. . . . [This is] the first full-length study in a crucial area and it’s a great starting point." — Diva

Female Masculinity is a very important work that scholars in cultural studies will be talking about for years. Nothing like it exists, period.” — Esther Newton, author of Cherry Grove, Fire Island

“Thank goodness for the dashing Judith Halberstam! Her new book is a smart, entertaining and informed tour of that most threatening of cultural identities: the masculine female. Oh, yum!” — Kate Bornstein, author of My Gender Workbook


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Judith Halberstam is Professor of Literature at the University of California in San Diego. She is the author of Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, also published by Duke University Press, and writes a regular film review column for Girlfriends magazine.

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Winner, Judy Grahn Award

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2243-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2226-9
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