Up today, the work of Lady Gaga, which is inseparable from Gaga herself since Gaga is a persona. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta created Gaga as a personality, and it’s important to remember that. Lady Gaga is a character.
Gaga is, undeniably, a pop icon. Some interesting things come up in discussions about feminism and Gaga’s work. The first is that she is not universally embraced as feminist, and in fact there is rather a lot of heated debate on this topic, as you will find if you enter the words ‘Lady Gaga’ and ‘feminist’ in a search engine.
Here’s what Gaga recently had to say about the matter:
Yes. Yes I am. I am a feminist. I reject wholeheartedly the way we are taught to perceive women. The beauty of women, how a woman should act or behave. Women are strong and fragile. Women are beautiful and ugly. We are soft spoken and loud, all at once. There is something mind-controlling about the way we’re taught to view women. My work, both visually and musically, is a rejection of all those things. And most importantly a quest. It’s exciting because all avant-garde clothing and music and lyrics that at one time were considered shocking or unacceptable are now trendy. Perhaps we can make women’s rights trendy. Strength, feminism, security, the wisdom of the woman. Let’s make that trendy.
Well, that seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? Yet, a lot of people who think that they are the judges of who is feminist or not have weighed in on Gaga. I personally don’t think it’s appropriate to deny people their identities, but Gaga’s work is not without flaws; I’ll call her a feminist because that’s how she identifies, and I will even call some aspects of her work feminist, but I will also challenge things in her work that I find problematic. I will question who gets to define feminism and why, as well.
It’s been pointed out that she appropriates a lot of things from musical traditions created by people of colour and nonwhite people. That her work contains transmisogyny. That she appropriates the experiences of people with disabilities. These are all things that I don’t think of as feminist acts—note that I am not saying that Lady Gaga is not feminist (because I don’t think it’s up to me to decide that), but rather that I am saying that her actions do not always mesh with the identity she has chosen to claim. The same could be said of many other people who identify as feminist, including myself, however. Let those in glass houses…
On the flip side, she embraces and supports her queer fans. She’s outspoken on topics like safer sex. She challenges ideas about beauty ideals, something admittedly fairly easy to do when you are a conventionally attractive white woman. She’s a woman who has really harnessed social networking to propel her career; she’s made it in an industry that is hard on women. And I think that her own approach to feminism has evolved; in earlier interviews, she explicitly identified as not feminist, and she’s only decided to claim that label relatively recently.
I think that reflects the evolution of personal belief systems that happens over time, and also the pressure she’s experiencing. As people alternately celebrate and abuse her, it’s kind of hard not to pick a side.
I spent a long time not identifying as a feminist because I internalized a lot of really terrible things about feminists and what feminism is. Judging from the way Gaga talks about feminism in older interviews, I suspect that the same holds true for her. As she was exposed to other kinds of feminism, to the myriad and varied facets of feminist activism and the feminist movement, I think she started to identify the feminist themes in her own work and in the way she approaches the world.
It’s impossible to escape the appropriative aspects of the Gaga persona, though. The feminist aspects of her work are deeply tangled with the anti-feminist parts. We probably wouldn’t be seeing Gaga’s work at all if she didn’t meet certain beauty standards applied to pop stars, if her work wasn’t appropriative—the crispy feminist interior is wrapped up in a shit sandwich.
It isn’t Lady Gaga’s fault that appropriation and conventionally attractive women are popular in pop culture and that both of these things are pretty much necessary if you want to be a pop star. And I don’t blame Germanotta for creating a character like Lady Gaga to break into the pop scene, because who doesn’t want to be a star?
Now that Lady Gaga has gotten there, has built a mythology around appropriation, how exactly can she back down from that? Not that I don’t want to see her try, not that I don’t want to see her honoring the people she’s imitating and appropriating from, but she’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Either she abandons the anti-feminist aspects of her work and falls into obscurity, or she tries to strike a balance when it comes to disseminating some feminist messages and staying popular.
Like a lot of work subjected to lively debate about whether it’s feminist or not, Gaga’s contains a mixture of feminism, outright anti-feminism, and everything in between. I think it’s great to see people talking about and challenging her work, but I wish such intense scrutiny was applied to many other works identified as ‘feminist,’ and that people talked more about the dominant voices defining feminism, and that people also talked about why Gaga in particular attracts such ferocious debate while other creators get a pass.
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