Within the normative understanding of success, can we ask – what if, in failing, there was a success? What if being queer was the most spectacular failure that could ever be? Jack Halberstam answers some of these questions in The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011). Halberstam, a queer theorist who authored the books Female Masculinity, The Drag King Book, and Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, among others, begins with asking how we can come up with an alternative vision of life, love and labour.
I came across The Queer Art of Failure during my research work for my Master’s thesis when one of the participants in my research told me that we tend to look at not complying with heteronormative ideals as failure, but they’re more than that, they’re queer failure and that makes them awesome. Halberstam refers to Monique Wittig’s idea that as womanhood depends on a heterosexual framework, lesbians are not women as they reject heterosexuality. From a queer feminist perspective, failing at heteronormativity or failing ‘gender’ would offer better avenues for understanding one’s self.
For Halberstam, the movie Little Miss Sunshine illustrates what it means to be a loser in a world that’s only interested in success, akin to being queer in a world that’s only interested in binary, normative identities. This is also an issue within academia, which is rooted in disciplinary correctness that limits knowledge. ‘Stupidity’ within this framework would expose the limitedness of forms of knowledge. Ignorance, then, can lead to alternative knowledge forms especially if we envision failure as a pedagogical technique.
In the book, pop culture is referenced in the most profound ways to decode the idea of failure. For instance, Halberstam turns to animated movies, which they call the “silly archive” of animated films or “Pixarvolt” (meaning animated films that foreground themes of revolution and transformation). And so, Monsters, Inc. is read as a film about the reality of neoliberal education and the queer bond between the monster and the child (queer because it lies outside the normative understanding of families); Wall-e about the rejection of commodity fetishism; Finding Nemo as a family-friendly adventure where community plays the role of family and provides care and support; Chicken Run as a feminist utopia around class struggle; and, Toy Story as a saga about identity through a utopian dream of freedom.
Halberstam turns to Pixarvolt popular animated movies to emphasise how stupidity and forgetting can come to one’s aid. In Finding Nemo, Dory, the fish with acute short-term memory loss, represents a queer temporal mode of knowledge, lying at the very edge of memory. This is a failure in the sense that Dory’s quest is devoid of any narrative, but it is this very absence of memory that leads to newer forms of knowing. Usually, forgetting is also linked with stupidity, and this has been gendered in pop culture (which always favours the male) as female stupidity.
Forgetfulness can be a valuable tool for women and queer people as it offers unique and subversive perspectives to move away from the normative ideals of generationality. Queer lives challenge the normative forms of family and inheritance, essentially breaking away from a heterosexual life narrative. Here, Halberstam interrogates the problem with gay and lesbian marriage politics as it erases other modes of kinship.
To take another case in point that marks the prevalence of heteronormative thought in science and in media, Halberstam looks at the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins, which was widely marketed as a story about the hetero-reproductive family unit. As Joan Roughgarden points out, most biologists observe nature through a lens of socionormativity and ignore transsexual fish, hermaphroditic hyenas, non-monogamous birds, etc.
The movie 50 First Dates (about a woman who loses her memory and is wooed anew day-after-day by the man who falls in love with her) shows how the end goal of life is constructed as marriage and childrearing. In rom-com movies, transpersons have been used as a trope to represent the dangers of living life outside the nuclear family. Finding Nemo offers a better reading emphasising the primacy of friends over family. Dory is not the mother figure and the bond is not patriarchal; she is the queer helper and this idea of collectivity can also be used to look at allyship. Its focus is on an adaptive process of creating a community and not situated in family; it’s about construction rather than reproduction.
From movies, Halberstam moves to texts and looks at work in kinship studies to argue how support for the nuclear and conjugal family can divide progressive groups around same-sex marriage rights. This also makes it challenging to push for recognition of household diversity. Kinship discourses favour longevity and permanence and while queer interventions in kinship studies have taken many forms, not all reject the family as the only valid form of social organization. Marriage-chasing gays run after a promise of what Lee Edelman has called ‘heterofuturity’ – “a form of belonging and security encompassing past, present, and future through the figure of the child.” SCUM Manifesto also discusses how futurity and happiness are cast as foundations of particular subjectivities in patriarchy, countering the ‘truth’ within patriarchy through discussion on men, masculinity, and violence. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century illustrates how childhood is essentially queer. This leads to a new project as in how the father figure providing social stability in straight culture becomes a sexualised daddy-boy in queer culture.
Halberstam also connects capitalism and failure, where queer studies offer a method for imagining alternatives to hegemonic systems. The usage of the phrase “No Future” by the Sex Pistols in their song God Save the Queen is a rallying call for Britain’s dispossessed. The lyrics reject the futurity of the monarchy and question its meaning-making processes, which takes away meaning from marginalised groups, including queers.
Another instance Halberstam uses is the work of Tracy Moffat, who took pictures of people who came in fourth at major sporting events in the Olympic 2000 games in Sydney, highlighting how someone must lose in order for someone else to win. This shows how the idea of success and failure is prominent in many aspects of life. Heading back to a discussion of how lesbians reject heterosexuality, Halberstam decodes the identity of ‘lesbian’ as a failure of all kinds. They use the show The L Word to emphasise the meanings of lesbian and how they are mediated. The show’s success depends on the failure of its queer characters in not being heteronormative, which for the butch lesbian character lies in the sacrifice of femininity.
In a world where queerness is looked at as failure, The Queer Art of Failure allows for many possibilities to make sense of these failures. And even though representation and success stories matter, Halberstam rejects triumphant accounts of gay, lesbian, and transgender history that follow a normative model of success and a model of assimilation. A particularity of this book is that even more than a decade after its publication, its sharp commentary on pop culture and notions of queerness in animated movies just keeps expanding. Adding to this, today, the book is not only read by queer and trans people but also by cisgender heterosexual people who make queer choices in their own life, for instance, by opting to not marry.
As a primarily academic text, it holds immense importance since academia works within a strict discipline where one has to produce a very specific kind of knowledge to be considered ‘valid’, while all attempts that fail are discarded. And even though the idea of learning from failure or mistakes is prevalent, it’s also a means to an end – in this case, to achieve success. The book, on the other hand, hilariously exposes that our normative models of success are downright nonsensical and there’s so much that a failure-focussed perspective can offer us. Halberstam rightly announces: queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life.