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Failing to Get It: Feminist Chickens, a Hebrew Asparagus, and a Halberstamian Political Theology

In The Queer Art of Failure Jack Halberstam asks us “to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to find a limit, to lose our way, to avoid mastery, and with Walter Benjamin, to recognize that ‘empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers.’”[1] To empathize with the loser is a call familiar to theologians who understand God to be on the side of “the least of these” (Matt 25:40, NRSV).  But to underachieve? To avoid mastery? For many of us perhaps nothing could be scarier. Even theologies of liberation find their power in the very hope that they will not fall short, that they will spark a theological and material revolution. However, it is in regard to this presumption of where power lies that we could use a little more queer failure.

In constructing an archive of failure, Halberstam looks to the unlikely source of children’s animation. From within such cartoons as SpongeBob SquarePants, Finding Nemo, and Shrek, Halberstam locates “the antiteleological narrative desires of children.”[2] Counter to theologies that forecast a happy ending (i.e., the kingdom of heaven, either manifested in the next life or here on earth), these cartoons are more interested in rewriting the social script altogether. There are two key characteristics in the animated stories lauded by Halberstam. First, in each the hero stands outside the script of normativity. Shrek is an ogre expelled from the community. Babe is an orphaned pig that thinks he’s a sheepdog. And Nemo is a lost kid with an underdeveloped and so disabled fin.[3] Second, each resists a simple moral lesson about individual acceptance, and instead, “links the struggle of the rejected individual to larger struggles of the disposed.”[4] For instance, in the film’s climactic scene Nemo leads a rebellion of fish that breaks them all free from the fisherman’s net. Instead of being stories of individual triumph and success, what we might expect from traditional hero journeys, the climax of each film turns on the move from individual success to collective struggle. In this way these cartoons present a different type of moral universe—one in which collective resistance trumps individual triumph.

The importance of this switch in the script is further demonstrated by Halberstam’s reading of the chickens in the Claymation film Chicken Run. Halberstam not only finds a similar shift toward the collective, but also an opening to a different kind of politics, one that is loosed from clear political programs and action. When the farmer decides he is going to kill his flock Ginger the chicken—read by Halberstam as the prototypical feminist—declares, “We either die free chickens, or we die trying.”[5] This liberationist pronouncement is resonant with liberal demands for progress and results. For instance, how often was the Occupy movement critiqued for its lack of a clear message? In a 2012 column in Make/Shift magazine Halberstam responded to the warning, made by Slavoj Žižek to OWS, that we should not forget to ask what happens the morning after the occupations when we return to normal life. Against this warning Halberstam noted: “Like many anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements, these movements refuse to conjure an outcome, eschew Utopian or pragmatic conjurings of what happens on the ‘morning after’ because the outcome will be determined by the process. All we know for sure is that the protests announce a collective awareness of the end of a ‘normal life.’”[6] For Halberstam, Ginger’s feminism, which proclaims a choice between two clear outcomes, freedom or death, is too closely aligned with the pragmatic conjurings of the morning after. This is not the feminism sought by Halberstam. Instead, she looks to Babs. When Ginger proclaims they will live free or die, Babs asks, “Are those the only choices?”[7] For Halberstam, Babs’s refusal to affirm the dichotomy between liberation and death is representative of “shadow feminism.” Shadow feminists practice resistance not through becoming but unbecoming, not through doing but undoing. Rather than become what she is told to become, the shadow feminist questions the terms of becoming as offered by mainstream society.

This Babsian feminism may not sit well with those hoping to know what will happen the morning after. Or with those who wanted from Occupy clear demands and a plan of action. Or with those taught to expect a happy ending to their fables or in need of a kingdom of heaven for their theologies. Indeed for many of us, theologians and activists alike, spending time in the uncertainty of Babs’s question is uncomfortable. But why? Why the discomfort with this murkier form of resistance, with this passivity? To answer, let us turn to a different strain of narrative: the book of Jonah.

This biblical story of a “foolish” man who ran from God and was swallowed up by a big fish has been retold many times. One such telling is found in VeggieTales, a popular Christian cartoon series in which adorable vegetables act out biblical stories. The VeggieTales Jonah is not one of queer failure; it honors the adult demands for “sentiment, progress, and closure.”[8] During the movie, when Jonah, a scared Hebrew asparagus, is in the belly of the fish, he is visited by a gospel choir. These veggies, acting out the pre-Christian tale, are shaped like crosses. Chastising Jonah they sing the following:

You’re feeling pretty blue, you didn’t do what God requested o

Yea, I’d be bobbin’ too if I was going to be digested.

This ain’t a pretty picture, no, I said it ain’t a pretty sight.

You ran from God this morning, and you’re whale chum tonight.

But hold up, hang on, not so fast—

You see God’s a God of mercy, God’s a God of love—he’s going to help you from above.

Praise the Lord, he’s a God of second chances

You’ll be floored by how his love your life enhances.

You can be restored from your darkest circumstances.

Our God is a God of second chances[9]

Similarly, another musical number goes: “Jonah was a prophet, ooo ooo, but he never really got it, sad but true, if you watch it you can spot it, doodilydoo, he did not get the point.”[10] These two songs sum up a body of Christian interpretation that reads Jonah as a foolish Hebrew stuck in a theology of vengeance. Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh because he thinks the Ninevites deserve God’s wrath.

Yet through a Babsian lens, the prophetic foolishness of Jonah might be better read as a performance of queer failure. According to Justin Ryu Chesung, we can read Jonah as a postcolonial subject. Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Ninevites in 722 BCE, and according to Nahum 3:1 Nineveh was considered the “City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty—no end to the plunder!” (NRSV).[11] Jonah’s various acts of refusal might, therefore, resonate with those of the character Xuela in Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, which is described by Halberstam. According to Halberstam shadow feminism opts out of the dialectic between colonizer and colonized, a posture that is reflected in Xuela when she “refuses her role as colonized by refusing to be anything at all.”[12] By running away from God’s command to warn Nineveh, Jonah is refusing his role as prophet. Jonah never actively seeks to condemn Nineveh; instead he rejects the position of condemner and that of savior.

At the end of the book, after God has spared Nineveh, Jonah is not pleased. He tells God he knew that God would spare them all along and that is why he fled. It seems that Jonah is angry not only because God would have spared his oppressors (whose repentance seems, at best, too easy and, at worst, inauthentic) all along but also because God has tortured Jonah in the process, threatened his life with a storm and a great fish and then made Jonah responsible for the lives of the very people who slaughtered his people. Indeed, God has sent Jonah into the enemy-victor’s camp. Jonah’s resulting exasperation leads to the following exchange:

“And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:3–11 NRSV).

By refusing to be happy about being coerced back into the role of prophet, Jonah is once again refusing to become what God has demanded. Jonah’s repeated proclamation that it is right for him to be angry—angry enough to die—can be read as an act of masochistic passivity. Jonah does not seek remedy for his passive anger or his discomfort at having been left unshaded in the desert sun. Rather, Jonah persists in his posture of refusal and so resists through his inaction and his affect.

The biblical account of Jonah does not have a happy ending. In contrast, the VeggieTales narrative is one in search of a clear moral lesson. The happy ending provided by VeggieTales is not a happy ending for Jonah but one rather that, at Jonah’s expense, proposes an idealized and uncomplicated understanding of God. Scapegoating Jonah, we are able to say, “Foolish Jonah, it is your kind of attitude enlightened Christians have overcome.” But to refuse to empathize with Jonah’s anger may be to theologically empathize with the victors. In a liberationist reading of Jonah, Miguel de la Torre writes that Jonah has failed to understand God’s message of mercy and instead chooses retributive justice over reconciliation.[13] Yet the request that the oppressed not make waves, that they find peaceable or ‘positive’ ways of dealing with their oppression and the subsequent rage they feel, may allow for the very structures that demand such reconciliation to go unquestioned. Jonah refuses this type of liberal politics. He fails at a theological game, but it is one he can never win and so he succeeds at challenging its rules. His anger signals the end of normal theological life.

The Book of Jonah ends in the repeated question of whether it is right for Jonah to be angry. Jonah asserts that it is, and then God asks one more time, this time with no answer. Could this unanswered question imply an uncertain moral lesson? Read through the shadow feminism of Babs, in this question can we find the refusal of a pragmatic conjuring? In other words, might the prophetic character of this story actually be found in the affirmation of unanswered questions? Could the open-endedness of its moral be a crucial part of the story? Can we find something holy in the unhappy ending? Additionally, might we ask not only if it is right for Jonah to be angry, but also if it is right for God to be angry? Jonah has not renounced God; he does not give up his faith, and yet he persists in his disappointment in God. Even as he is angry Jonah remains engaged with God. Hence, Jonah’s anger represents a refusal to be either the happy servant or the unbelieving sinner. The space created by such a refusal, a space cleared by having the story’s most faithful character be the only one who truly questions God, can shake any stable sense for us of what faith in God might mean. In rejecting the premise of traditional feminism and traditional faith, Babs and Jonah not only open us to the fracturing of the terms but also to the fecundity found in asking for other options.

According to Clayton Crockett’s reading of Gilles Deleuze’s theory of event in Cinema II, “a politics based on action runs into serious problems because the movements become programmed in advance and then reduced to clichés, or else captured by the state and capitalist apparatuses.”[14] What Halberstam finds in Babs and I find in Jonah is a resistance to this type of programmatic political action and state capture. Jonah’s comically melodramatic refusal of God’s plan is the opening up of a different type of prophetic action, one found in losing one’s way instead of towing the line. Reading Jonah with Halberstam asks us to think theologically with her such that we look to those characters written off as fools and failures, and find in them instead a collective voice of refusal that questions even our most benevolent seeming theologies. This voice ask us to question not just the end goal of our salvation, liberation over death or God’s Kingdom over a fallen humanity, but too the very programs of salvation in which we take part. Hence, a Halberstamian theology would not discover its power in a successful political or theological plan, but rather would find its potency in failing to get with the program.


[1] Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011),121.

[2] Ibid., 119

[3] Ibid., 121

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 129

[6] Jack Halberstam, “Riots and Occupations: the Fall of the United States,” Make/Shift, Spring/Summer, 2012, 14

[7] Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 129.

[8] Ibid., 119

[9] Author, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie., Directed by Mike Nawrocki and Phil Vischer (City, ST: Big Idea Productions, 2002), DVD.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Justin Ryu Chesung. “Silence as resistance: a postcolonial reading of the silence of Jonah in Jonah 4.1–11.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34.2 (2009): 195–218, 202

[12] Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 135.

[13] Miguel De la Torre, Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 1.

[14] Clayton Crockett, Deleuze Beyond Badiou: ontology, multiplicity and event (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013),169

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Author:
Karen Bray :
Karen Bray is a doctoral candidate in Theological and Philosophical Studies in Religion at Drew University; an adjunct professor at Eugene Lang College of the New School; and a candidate for ordination with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her dissertation “Unredeemed: political theologies of affect, time, and work” employs queer and feminist theories of affect, temporality, and disability in order to rethink redemption in a counter-capitalist vein.

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