Sunday, March 14, 2010
Lady Gaga and Emergent Feminism
In these days of musical famine, where the industry responsible for bringing new talent to the forefront is very much still hemorrhaging money left and right, the latest buzz frequently focuses on Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known by her stage name, Lady Gaga. But, as often is the case, Lady Gaga's politics and provocative behavior frequently overshadow the songcraft and the melody. Her videos and stage act are sexually subversive and highly controversial affairs, focusing in particular on willfully flipping gender roles and gendered assumptions upside down. She has spoken out vocally on behalf of LGBT rights and is herself openly bisexual, though she has since expressed regret at the admission, stating that she recognizes that the confession might have been perceived purely as a means of attaining cheap attention. When the stigma of being out for much of the community is still a liability rather than an asset, Lady Gaga did not want to be seen as another bisexual-for-headlines celebrity.
Meanwhile, young Feminists are often lumped together into a catch-all umbrella term known as the Third Wave, a construct that satisfies no one and yet has to suffice since no one can think of anything better. It's an unsatisfying qualifier at best, but does nonetheless capture the general sympathies of Generation X and Generation Y women's rights activists. Though its mere existence remains frustratingly lodged under the radar of many people, just as invisible and unknown as the broad extent of its stated agenda, it lives and thrives for those who have tapped into it.
Those committed deeply to its continued health recognize the challenges at play, the sort that keep it in line with a niche interest group rather than a fully integrated part of the discussion. So this is why that a movement desperate to find a point-to spokesperson for its causes has adopted Lady Gaga, even when the woman in question has bristled and hedged a bit at adopting the label for herself. Any organization or movement looking for increased visibility and instant identification in the wider world often seeks a celebrity or highly public figure to call its own and so it is with the Third Wave's courting of Gaga.
Feministing and Feministe, two of the largest, most established, and longest running feminist blogs routinely feature the output of or miscellaneous content pertaining to Lady Gaga. One can be sure that the instant the latest video is posted, Gaga's most recent interview is published, or some snippet of criticism finds its way into the public consciousness that it will quickly appear on the front page of the bigger sites. After being posted, the participation and interest level among readers and regular contributors will very noticeably spike. The purely sensationalist aspect of Lady Gaga's public persona is, of course, to be attributed to much of this massive fascination, but to reduce her to merely a provocateur would be an unfair characterization. She does have quite a bit to say, though how she says it can easily be confused with or sometimes even muted by her means of presentation.
Survey Third Wave communities and one descriptive phrase keeps coming up over and over again regarding Lady Gaga---badass. In such spaces, no higher compliment could ever be paid than that. When so many women feel that their voices are routinely stifled or that they've been conditioned to stay silent while men talk first and act first, young feminists understandably find something courageous and enviable about women, particularly women their own age, who force the world to accept them on their own terms. Furthermore, Lady Gaga's music videos in particular have directly, though a bit clumsily at times, taken on questions of same-sex attraction between women and done so in terms that are far closer to the way it actually exists in reality. The pure fantasy and grotesque parody of lesbianism, itself a construct clearly adopted by men, is at least pushed to the background of her work rather than set forth as the truth.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lady Gaga has recently been the subject of wild, unsubstantiated, often internet-driven speculation as to whether or not she is really a hermaphrodite. In her latest video, entitled "Telephone", she has seemingly put that rumor to rest, so to speak, though I would be shocked if others just as bizarre and scurrilous were not to follow. Feminist communities in the Third Wave have deliberately made room to incorporate queer voices into the discussion, so Gaga's let-it-all-hang-out style resonates well with a group eager to dissect and deconstruct homophobic and sexist attitudes as a means of properly dispensing with the bigotry in an effort towards getting at the truth underneath.
Still, Lady Gaga's output, be it as a recording artist or as an activist isn't a complete, satisfying fit with Feminism. Her entire shtick, be it her music or her music videos, traverse the same basic ground as many others who have come before her. I find what she stands for much more interesting and original than the music itself, which is rather derivative to these ears. I suppose as well that I have a different attitude regarding the objectification of the female form. Far from a prude, I still believe that while it might seem empowering for a woman to make a conscious decision to show off skin for whatever reason, rather than have that decision be forced upon her, the ultimate end is the same.
Gaga's latest video finds her in some version or another of undress, and regardless of the intentions, only a very few will be in on the gag. The average viewer is bound to notice the titillation and miss the commentary. While the obvious statement set forth does speak to the idea that women ought not be subject to nearly constant scrutiny regarding their own sexuality in ways that a man never would be, I'm not sure a brash response, one in effect throwing the sexist assumption back in the faces of those who hold it is the best strategy ever devised.
Still, like my fellow feminists, I can't fault her for her intentions. Rather than lower the boom, I'd rather state that I appreciate anyone who is willing to risk being misunderstood. As I age I find myself increasingly disinclined to split hairs. After all, we come to a greater understanding in our own time, and each of us rests somewhere along that great continuum. Learning continues forever, as does development. Few of us fit neatly into the exacting parameters of any movement, and our unique humanity may be the reason why. Though we ourselves would never appreciate anyone who put us in a confining and vastly limiting box, we are often frustrated when our heroes can't manage the same trick. We may need to understand that there's a certain fluidity with labels just as surely as there is with human sexuality and gender. The same goes with feminists, Lady Gaga, as well as you and me.