Why Lady Gaga's Music Is Feminist - Part 1
Lady Gaga - The Fame (2008) on (Streamline/Konlive/Cherrytree/Interscope)
Oh snap. Yes, I just said it. Lady Gaga's music is feminist. Why do I say such things? Because I can back it up. And because I love her music, videos, and persona. She is the reason I have actually started to listen to pop music again. So, let me tell you about feminist music....
Why do I say that her music is feminist? Whether or not she herself claims to be a feminist, her work criticizes gender, sexuality, the body, pop culture's representations of women, and the nature of power. This in itself is a feminist act. Now, feminism, I guess we must define in some form, considering most representations of it are: man hater, bra burner, lesbian, ugly, want power over men, bitchy, hate children.....not true. Feminism is the political and social movement for women's social, political, and economic equality. In that social part lies music, and Lady Gaga knows exactly what she is up against in the music industry. Feminist Music therefore, can be made by anyone, male/female/trans, as long as it fulfills the goals of fighting for equality and justice based on gender.
How does she present feminist ideas? I will give you a few examples.
1. Paper Gangsta
"Midnight rush with a pen in my hand
Inkin Lincoln sand-script with a fan
Remembering me before it began
Sometimes I felt so def in the jam
But the ones who loved me told me to stop
Like home girl can’t catch shit if it drops
A superwoman chick you know that I am
Some shit don’t fly by me in a man
‘Cuz I do not accept any less than someone
Just as real, as fabulous"
These lyrics first speak as an individual as an active subject of their reality. Lady Gaga is not being talked about as an object, through the Patriarchal Gaze, as someone who does not have any ideas, emotions, or power of her own. She is not a tool. Instead she proclaims herself a superwoman, she won't stop being who she is, and that she knows what she wants in a man. She then states what she wants, not what she thinks she should want to please someone else. She will not accept anyone who is less than "real."
The chorus then, I think sums this statement of independence and freedom.
"Don’t want no paper gangsta
Won’t sign away my life to
Someone whose got the flavor
But don’t have no follow through
Don’t want no paper gangsta
Won’t sign no monkey papers
I don’t do funny business
Not interested in fakers
Don’t want no paper gangsta
Don’t want no paper gangsta"
Once again, someone here who is real in the sense that they are not your typical dominating player. She will not accept someone who just puts on a show to impress her. She will not "sign her life away." Basically, she will not commit to a relationship that will just use her. Hence, a "paper gansta" is someone who uses tradition patriarchy to get what they want from her. Criticizing that, and fighting against that IS feminist.
Finally, the last verse:
"Got something really shiny to start
Want me to sign there on your range rover heart
I’ve heard it before yeah the dinners were nice
‘Till you diamond words melted in to some ice
You should have been rapping to the beat of my song
Mr. California paper gansta
I'm looking for love not an empty page
Full of stuff that means nothing but 'you've been played'"
Here, her themes of empowerment and independence from power are clear. At first, all the attention from a man seems great. Yet, his intentions were not honest, not "real." The man in question was not "rapping to the beat of her heart." He was not looking for love, but it seems a good time. Hence, if she signs (stays) with him, she's been played. She knows this. She refuses this traditional masculine power structure as defined in relationships. She will not be a tool. She will be herself, and anyone who wants to be fabulous with her, must be true to her heart, to the beat of her song. She knows what she wants. She will not accept anything less. She is smart, confident, and is an active authority in her life. That IS feminist.
2. Her female-form distorting outfits
If you are just going to continue to judge women's intentions, ideas, value, and indeed empowerment based on their appearance and how they dress, then that is still SEXISM, no matter if they are wearing a bustier or a habit. Valuing women as “less than” via what they wear is one of the pillars of domination. Most criticism I have seen about Lady Gaga has been on her appearance. Typical. That is first thing anyone goes at when it comes to female musicians. Their value is still based off how they look, not how talented they are, or what statements they are making or what they doing. For women who are musicians, you are in a double bind. If you do what they guys do, you're a freak. If you do what women are supposed to do, well, that just proves how much you are not as good as the guys. You’re just a girl after all. Know you place, be a little sex kitten, ready and willing, talentless and voiceless. But Lady Gaga defies it all by reversing the Patriarchal Gaze of how we view women in pop culture. Like Madonna before her, it is a fine and hard line to walk. Most people see her half-naked and assume negative from the start. But her image is carefully crafted for a purpose. And that purpose is not objectification.
For example, her outfits reveal skin, but often distort things that out culture associates with being a feminine woman. Long legs, big breasts, full lips, figure eight body shape, hips ect. This distortion catches you because it is not what you expect or want. We want the pornified female form. The image she presents is not pornified, but an exaggerated caricature of femininity. Thus, she is taking the things pop culture wants women to be, reveal and stretches it so far so that we can see how silly and confining it is. She cinches her waits to the extreme, extreme high heels, overdone makeup to make you see how made-up women are. She wears masks and sunglasses, a symbolic hidding of parts of her herself, so you can't see....but she can still see you. She is the one doing it; it is not being done to her. She is returning the gaze, looking at you looking at how you look at her, and she is laughing in your face. She is deciding about her, not you. She is not duped by the patriarchy just based upon her looks. Assuming that women have no agency is sexist. She is purposefully throwing back femininity in your face, and it is not the kind you want. That IS feminist.
3. Paparazzi Video
The Paparazzi video does this extremely well too. Lady Gaga's form is distorted in her outfits that twist her feminine body in ways that are extreme. She is portayed sexed up, even when in a neck brace and bloody. This video is a criticism the violence against women in pop culture.
It is extremely fashionable to show women dead, being beater, or assumed violence upon them in popular media. Whether it is to sell vodka, shoes, video games, or security devices, violence against women in advertising is everywhere. It is often sexualized, and combined with objectification. What this means is that often if violence is enacted upon women in ads/videos, it is made to be sexy, appealing, what the women want, and hence deserve. It is sexy to be violent, and women love it. This is the paparazzi video in a nutshell.
Lady Gaga’s rise to fame in the video coincides with her being abused. She refuses the man’s advances in the video, hence she is called a “c*nt” and tossed of the balcony. If she won’t give into male entitlement to her body, and use of it to take pictures for his gain, she will be punished. Hence she “dies” and comes back her body broken. The sequence continues, showing her with a neck brace and crutches while showing other images of glamorous looking women dead. The images of women being murdered are everywhere in the video and they are everywhere in our pop culture. Just look at the Hitman ads as an example.
In the video, the female dead bodies are sexed up. But it does not stop there, even when she is alive on the couch, she is being sexed up, and in some cases licked up. Finally, near the end of the video, she is back with her old flame (disguised as the “new” girl toy”), in her yellow outfit. She is the newest disposable female body for this guy. Or is she? She quickly reassumes her agency, poisons her boyfriend’s drink, and acts all feminine and coy. Oops! Even her outfit, a sorta Minnie Mouse hides her revenge. Appearances are deceiving in this video. If may seem in this video that women are helpless, powerless and just tools to be used. But underneath it, lies a women’s refusal to succumb to that end, hence Lady Gaga freeing herself from her boyfriend via poison. The end is also very telling when she is arrested for enacting the same type of malicious violence against her boyfriend. He got away with it, she doesn’t, symbolizing the double standard in so many ways. Lastly, she poses for the camera for her mug shots, does so with exaggerated sexiness, which we see then is being directed at her to do. Finally, the cameraman tells her to walk away.
This video blatantly reveals violence against women in pop culture. Lady Gaga analyzes it, shows the impact of it, and symbolically comes back from the dead to take justice for it for her and all women. Her arrest in the end reveals the double standard of treatment for not only her actions, but also that when a dead male body shows up in pop culture it is rare, and not sexualized, but a tragic event. Oh no! Can’t have any of that. This type of video-activism, playing with these ideas, yet still remaining artistically valid and not further objectifying women IS feminist.
So, that’s all for this post. I will continue with more on her work from The Fame and The Fame Monster. Thanks!