Lady Gaga: Celebrity Feminist?
by Nona Willis Aronowitz
This past summer, I found myself in Chicago's Grant Park amid a sea of zealots. They were pushing and laughing, or cheering with their eyes squeezed closed in ecstasy. They were wearing t-shirts that said things like "He ate my heart" and "Just dance," body paint smeared with sweat in the August heat. There was not a place they would have rather been.They were there for Lady Gaga -- pop star, tabloid dream, contested feminist icon.
I was a few rows from Gaga herself, her chest heaving, her lips right up to the microphone and frozen in an open-mouthed snarl. The show was a tangle of set changes and light tricks and video montages, Ms. Gaga at the center of it, on the floor wearing ripped fishnets and a bubble dress spattered in fake blood, being humped by nearly naked greasy god-like gay dudes, shouting out every few minutes how much she loved us, her little monsters, how we can be anything we want to be!
How did Lady Gaga get here in front of hundreds of thousands of people, just two years after her first album, The Fame, was released? People can't look away, and she won't let them. And with her lightning-fast ascension, she has become the focus of much discussion about how -- or whether -- it's possible to fit pop celebrity and feminism together. During this short time, while I've been immersed in a loose configuration of young feminist bloggers/activists/writers, I've watched Lady Gaga and other feminist-tinged pop culture figures be skewered for not being feminist enough. But I think she is a feminist — as much as you can be a coherent feminist icon and a pop star at the same time. At the very least, she's cheering us on, and she's lightyears ahead of her peers.
Despite how much attention she gets, her music is run-of-the-mill. Her lyrics are mostly boring, and her catchy songs get lost in the crowd. (She does get points for playing real instruments onstage.) The woman used to write songs for Britney Spears, for chrissake. It's her performance that turns my head. And not just the kind of performance I attended in August — although they're epic, more Rocky Horror Picture Show than concert — but her performance as a woman, as a celebrity and as a piece of art. She never wears pants and never wears the same thing twice. Every dress she dons is a statement: made out of fatty, slimy, gory meat, or made out of a million Kermits, or simply see through. She compares herself to Andy Warhol while boasting about her originality (and ignoring comparisons to Madonna and other pop stars). She's not afraid of ugliness. In fact, she embraces it.
She does all of this while simultaneously inducing eye rolls and adoration. I'm a fan, but I don't remember the last time I've listened to one of her songs without watching a video on YouTube at the same time. I stick up for Lady Gaga, but I get tired of her continued attempts to be "original" — which, eventually, just end up being contrived themselves.
The eye-roll/adoration relationship extends to feminism. At first, she clearly had no idea what the word meant; in an interview with a Norwegian journalist, she called out double standards in the music industry, then balked at being called a feminist, saying that she "loves men, hails men!" Later, she told Ann Powers she was "a little bit of a feminist" in the L.A. Times. At that point I perked up, but then she annoyed me and a lot of other pro-sexual liberation feminists when she said, while promoting her Viva Glam campaign, "It's not really cool anymore to have sex all the time. It's cooler to be strong and independent."
Lady Gaga has vacillated on the actual word, but she has a very real opportunity to make feminism go just as pop as she has made herself. Gaga has sold out gargantuan stadiums in this paltry economy, as others have cancelled shows and tours. In terms of numbers and fans, she's up there with the bubblegum good girls of the present and the past -- Beyonce and Taylor, Mariah and Shania. Except she uses the F words —both "fuck" and "feminism."
Strong Women and Pop Music
Not that feminism hasn't gone pop before, albeit on a smaller scale. Since the '70s, feminist pop culture has worked two ways, at least in the music world: On one side you have the call-to-action feminists who use the power of music as an explicitly political organizing tool: the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival that began in 1976, the Riot Grrrl movement of early-to-mid '90s, the softer, hippier Lilith Fair women, like Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole, in 1997. On the other you have the fuck-the-world iconoclasts who flip the bird to gender roles -- Janis, Madonna, Courtney Love. In either case, the mystique and fascination of celebrity is central to the message's success. Gaga is a spawn of the second set, with a big huge exception — the previous women sidestepped the word "feminism," and even politics. Gaga puts herself squarely in the middle of both.
Superficially, she challenges gender roles in a literal, aesthetic way. She embraces traditional femininity — long hair, bustiers, heels, red lipstick — without mandating it. Unlike hypergirly sexpot Madonna, Gaga is androgynous, attentive to gender fluidity and comfortable with the grotesque. In her Paparazzi video, she fetishizes paralysis with a gold-plated back brace. She's worn eyeglasses made out of everything from lit cigarettes to a huge, tentacle-y lobster — none of them, I'm guessing, meant to be "hot." Instead of being shamed by the rumors that she's a hermaphrodite, she explained on a radio show that the whispers were just "society's reaction to strong women." Then she posed with a strap-on on the cover of Q Magazine.
Her feminism extends to the outside world. It's tied up in her general ethos: inclusive, free-to-be-you-and-me. She even latches onto a political cause once in a while -- stressing the importance of condoms on Good Morning America, speaking out against SB1070 at an Arizona concert, advocating for gay teens. Generally, though, she stays on a more abstract, libertarian message: What you do is your business. And it's all okay.
I'm reassured by this, but there's always a devil whispering: when does liberation become "feminism for one," especially given the entertainment industry's insidious relationship to money, power and objectification? Sometimes I feel like Gaga is just milking the girl-rebel image under a vaguely activist veneer, just railing against the status quo in order to distinguish herself from those other lame-ass pop stars — all while giving into the sexist expectations of the industry that manufactured her. She doesn't always please feminists around her, especially when it comes to sex. Older feminists are unconvinced and think her free sexuality is misguided or empty. Even young ones who appreciate Lady Gaga's experimental persona furrow their brow when she betrays her own public narrative and says that having a lot of sex doesn't equal being strong or independent. This coming from the woman who says she wants to free her fans of cultural restrictions?
Lady Gaga's conflicting messages about sex cut to the heart of a deeper feminist debate, whether being sexually objectified is, or can be, feminist. To me, a huge part of feminism is allowing women to express their sexuality and not be punished for it. I don't think sexual objectification is inherently bad in every context, and no one becomes a pop star (male or female) without wanting their body to be put on public display. Still, even as she flouts our restrictive ideas of what's attractive, I get the sense that Gaga's sexuality is less about her fantasies than the pre-packaged bad-girl ones we, as a culture, already have. I like that she's not all about selling sex--she has a whole bag of shockable tricks--but at the height of her performance, she's still dichotomizing naughty and nice, even as she claims to speak for everyone.
In other words, Lady Gaga embodies a lot of what's good about feminism and bad about pop culture; she promotes a sense of joy about life, a hope for a more pleasurable future, with a call for freedom from the bullshit that we get from the "machine." Yet she's part of that machine — the machine that wants its women skinny, naked, vulnerable, sexed up. Gaga flaunts almost every inch of her ever-shrinking frame in music videos like Telephone; she professes to New York Magazine that "pop stars should not eat." She's a walking contradiction, undecided herself about the function of people like her: Are they here to entertain within the limits set up for them, or change the world in which they do their thing?
Gaga isn't an idiot nor a bimbo; she knows she's operating within a mainstream framework, and wouldn't have it any other way. She continues to perform avant garde acts in the center of mass media. But at this point, it's unclear what she plans to do with this knowledge. It's only been two years, not enough time to see if she'll change the way the industry treats and reacts to women, to reveal whether she'll think swallowing the poison of mainstream culture is worth it in the end, or to even know whether her self-objectification is ironic or not. Salon.com's Rebecca Traister said it best when defending Tina Fey: "Ideology and political purity are frequently the enemies of all that is hilarious in the world." In the end, our high hopes for social change cannot rest on a 24-year-old who's thrust in the spotlight - -and paid millions of dollars -- to, above all, entertain us. In the meantime, at least Gaga is inserting these issues into the fore of the cultural conversation, in a venue to which the whole world can't help but pay attention.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is co-author of "Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism", and maintains a blog of the same name, covering pop culture, politics, and organizing. She has also produced for NPR, most recently for a midterm elections series called Pop + Politics with Farai Chideya. She's also currently working on a collection of her mother Ellen Willis' rock criticism,"Out of the Vinyl Deeps", due out in April 2011.
Also see Where Feminism Rocks by Margaret R. Saraco in the Spring 1996 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Desperately Seeking Madonna The Feminist by bell hooks in the Spring 1993 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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