the gagafication of femininity

Ok, so let’s get some things straight before I start:

1) I am not a gender studies student, nor the son of a gender studies student, so excuse the simplicity or inconsistency of any comments I make;
2) I am not commenting on Lady Gaga’s music (in fact I am one of those rare males who finds her songs incredibly catchy and enjoyable);
3) I consider myself to be a feminist in a proper sense of the word (as opposed to the singular proper sense of the word which doesn’t really exist, and opposed to more contemporary misuses of the word).

Lady Gaga is no doubt one of the most influential figures in music today. Back in May Time included her in their list of Top 100 Most Influential People, and in June Forbes listed her 4th in their Top Most Powerful and Influential Celebrities in the World. Moreover in July Forbes again added her to a list, this time in the Top Music Earners of 2010 with Gaga at 7th on US$62 million.

Gaga’s influence is probably not the result of her music itself; such music is not all that dissimilar from a great deal of the RnB beat-laden pop currently filling the charts, and her lyrics are far from what you would consider intellectual, creative or inspirational.

On the contrary, Gaga’s influence probably stems from her self-proclaimed “revolutionary” approach to pop music, which in fact is not about music at all, but about an image, a persona, a fashion and arguably a worldview. This is not dissimilar to the place of Madonna in the 1980’s, whose music was arguably comparable with other acts at the time.

Gaga no doubt attempts to use her influence as best as she knows how (at least in one sense) in that she calls her fans “Little Monsters,” emphasising that they are “freaks” and “outcasts” (like her, apparently) and encourages them that they can find true freedom at her concerts (currently called “The Monster Ball”).

Apart from the (apparently unwitting) ridiculousness of her claim – the vast majority of her audience are pop fans, not drag queens or transgender people – there are a number of reasons to question Gaga’s approach to freedom, and in particular in regards to femininity.

Gaga said to Barbara Walters some months back that she wants to “try to be a teacher to my young fans who feel just like I felt when I was younger, I felt like a freak. I guess what I’m trying to say is I wanna liberate them, I wanna free them of their fears and let them know they can create their own space in the world.” In and of itself this is not a negative ambition, though the content of such education seems at best lacking. Assuming most of these young fans are female, what is Gaga wanting to teach them?

Gaga recently pointed out the double standard in both the music scene and wider society when she said to an interviewer:

You see, if I was a guy, and I was sitting here with a cigarette in my hand, grabbing my crotch and talking about how I make music ’cause I love fast cars and f…ing girls, you’d call me a rock star. But when I do it in my music and in my videos, because I’m a female, because I make pop music, you’re judgmental, and you say that it is distracting. I’m just a rock star.

While Gaga is right to point out such sexism, her solution leaves much to be desired:

I’m not a feminist – I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, and beer, and bars and muscle cars.

And in another interview:

I think it’s great to be a sexy, beautiful woman who can f… her man after she makes him dinner. There’s a stigma around feminism that’s a little bit man-hating. And I don’t promote hatred, ever.

This seems, at least to me, to represent a fairly obscure definition of feminism. Feminism is about equality and choice for women, but Gaga’s understanding implies a daft ignorance to this, with her apparent belief being that feminism necessitates being a man-hating, beer-hating, bar-hating car-hating, sex-hating, beauty-hating, cooking-averse female. But this is ridiculous; feminism never precluded women from such things.

More recently Gaga has smartened up her perspective on feminism, saying to Ann Powers:

I’m getting the sense you’re a little bit of a feminist, like I am, which is good… I find that men get away with saying a lot in this business, and that women get away with saying very little… In my opinion women need and want someone to look up to that they feel has the full sense of who they are, and says, ‘I’m great.’

Indeed again we have Gaga with a decent critique (about inequality) but with a poor response (i.e. the implication of herself as a model). Her recent Bad Romance video, which depicts her kidnapping, was meant to show (in her own words), “how the entertainment industry can, in a metaphorical way, simulate human trafficking — products being sold, the woman perceived as a commodity.” So why does Gaga continually allow herself, a supposed model of feminism, to become an utterly disposable commodity in the current market?

(One of the defining moments of Gaga’s objectification occurred earlier this year when she posed for the cover of Q Magazine with only her hands covering her breasts and crotch. This image is even more ironic in light of the revelation that she broke down in tears having felt exploited and uncomfortable, asking that her boyfriend do the photography.)

At best Gaga’s message is cloudy and uncertain. On the one hand she critiques the ongoing social inequality between the sexes, but on the other hand she is blind to the irony that she is ogled by millions of men everyday, many of whom will treat her like a subservient slave in the thoughts of their private space – can true feminism ever prevail in terms of things like fair salaries, equal employment opportunities and maternal rights when men are encouraged to objectify women like Gaga by women like Gaga? Why would you give equal standing to someone you demean in your thought world?

Moreover how do we resolve the fact that Gaga’s stage show depicts her ordering around her “little gay boys” who are dressed in very little themselves? As a “feminist” (or not, I don’t think Gaga knows), what does this kind of objectifying activity communicate? That objectified women should reduce men to a place of objectification in order to even out the field? Or is it that we should objectify the socially marginalised (such as gay males)?

Whatever point Gaga wants to make fades into irrelevance for many in light of skinny white girls dancing in g-strings (and the misogynists remain as entertained as ever).

What is perhaps even more strange is that we in Australia have (controversially) voted in our first female Prime Minister, a feat that is already almost entirely forgotten, and that has managed to make less headway in popular feminism than the plague of discussions regarding Lady Gaga’s inconsistent opinion.

I have no doubt many will disagree with my thoughts, and I welcome the disagreement inasmuch as it opens up contemporary discussions regarding where-to-now? for feminism. It is however strange to me that some see Gaga as the epitome of contemporary feminism. No doubt her appeals to “freedom” are attractive to such people, though I wonder if the irony of Gaga’s apparent freedom-to-be-exploited strikes them as odd.

Personally if I had a daughter I would want her to be influenced by someone in pop culture with something better to offer than such hollow freedom and self-worth. Unfortunately there is a current epidemic of similar (but less spectacular) models for femininity in said popular culture. Haven’t we got anything more meaningful to offer our world about womanhood, equality, worth and freedom?


Posted on September 17, 2010, in Culture & Art, Sexuality & Gender and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Gaga by name, gaga by nature…..your closing paragraph says it all Matt.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. To me feminism is about freeing people (male and female) from the limitations and inequalities of our false social structures of gender (there’s gotta be a better way of saying that!) objectification of people as sexual or economic commodities is the very opposite of everything a healthy feminism stands for. I am horrified every time i see suggestions in the media that empowerment for women is the freedom to fulfil the most debased male sexual fantasies without being called a slut. no it isn’t! Freedom and empowerment is the right to be seen as a worthwhile human being for your own personhood and unique skills, not to be debased to a sex object.

  3. Lady Gaga seems to base her view on the belief that everything is inherently sexual. Only the most ignorant of feminists fall into that trap. If we “fight back” by simply adding to the sexualisation of the world, we make it worse. How about looking at influential women who didn’t let gender get in their way in business, or philanthropy? I don’t know. I guess it’s less interesting to look at, but probably a whole lot more empowering in the end.

  4. Its popular these days to make feminism to become what ever one wants it to be. There have been typically 3 waves of feminism and a 4th area of Black Liberation. But feminism was never originally about equal gender status, nor was it equality amongst women.

    What Christians label as feminism actually belongs in the civil rights movement more than it does in the feminist movement. The first wave feminism was upper class females interested in the upper class females allowed the vote…while both genders in the lower classes were not allowed.

    The 2nd wave of feminism was typically anti men and had a high level of anger towards men…

    Both waves of feminism excluded blacks, Hispanics and other ethnic women as being equal….hence the movement labelled black feminism which came under the Black Liberation Gospel.

    However it was the civil rights movement which called for and fought for the gender inclusive vote regardless of social distinction and race and the same for gender / racial social equality and freedoms.

  5. Hey Craig, thanks for the thoughtful comments as always.

    It certainly raises some important questions. For me, perhaps one of the most important is how to define feminism in light of all the different *feminisms* (a point I implied at the beginning of my post). Moreover, can a movement evolve over time? And if so, should we therefore define it by its original intention/goals, by its most contemporary intentions/goals, or by some other standard?

    In saying this, I acknowledge the existence of waves of feminism, though I am looking for a common theme/thread/goal that runs roughly through them all. Perhaps you are right that such a goal (equality and choice for women) is on par with the civil rights movement, though I would add that these both movements are related inasmuch as they both seek for the rights of a certain group.

    Allowing the narrowness of certain stages of feminism to become the defining factor is to do more contemporary feminism a disservice in my view. For example, while first wave feminism may have concentrated on white women, the fact is it still fought for the rights of a certain group (even though you and I would wish it to be wider in scope) – which then is the defining characteristic; the cause, or the scope?

    Obviously I have opted for the former.


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