First, a confession: I want to like Lady Gaga and be able to enjoy her music, ideally as something of a pop confection: sweet, not very long-lasting, and ultimately disposable. As a person who listens to a wide (and admittedly weird) variety of music, this is something that I would like to strive for. As a person with disabilities, however, I am left wondering about what, exactly, I should find at all progressive about Lady Gaga’s representation of (temporary) disability in the video for “Paparazzi.” Other bloggers–most notably Wheelchair Dancer–have covered the now-infamous 2009 MTV VMA performance of this song; however, the promotional clip is also worth examining at length, particularly due to its messages about (temporary) disability, race, and the public/private binary.
The disability-related segment of this video starts at about three minutes in and lasts for about 50 seconds.
For those who need a description: Around the three-minute mark, Lady Gaga emerges from a limosine, the door of which is opened by a tuxedo-clad man. She is dressed in a reliably over-the-top manner, complete with a bejewelled neck brace. Three other tux-clad male dancers–all men of color–break dance and “vogue” around her as they remove her from the limo and place her in a wheelchair that one of the dancers has rolled out as the music starts. Lady Gaga is then wheeled down a purple carpet and into a lavish mansion. This sequence is intercut with shots of an apparently able-bodied Gaga lounging on a plush couch and lip-syncing, and shots of an anonymous model sprawled in an empty bathtub. After Lady Gaga is wheeled into the mansion, her male backup dancers remove her clothing to reveal a black catsuit underneath. The male dancers outfit her with a very Metropolis-esque molded gold bathing-suit garment as female dancers, all outfitted in navy dresses, come into the frame and begin to dance. One of the backup dancers delivers a sleek pair of arm crutches to her, and she gets up from her wheelchair with some difficulty as all of the dancers move around her. Lady Gaga uses the crutches during her dance routine, in which she moves in a rather stiff, avant-garde manner. This is intercut with more shots of dead-looking anonymous models.
There are a few things about these 50 seconds that are somewhat promising in terms of disability representation, not least of which is the fact that disability and persons with a wide variety of disabilities are sorely underrepresented in popular culture, particularly in music videos. As someone who uses a cane, witnessing Lady Gaga’s use of shiny silver arm crutches in this sequence makes me wonder if there might be a market for crunk canes (a la the Crunk Cup). Decorated wheelchairs (with the caveat that Lady Gaga’s wheelchair in this clip is not quite as bejewelled as her attire, or as fantastically bizarre as her hair)? Yes, please.
However, there are some things with which I have issues, one of which is that Gaga’s disability in this video is temporary, and it’s clear that we as viewers are supposed to know that. The representation here lasts for less than a minute. Her temporarily-disabled status has also been caused by someone else: at the beginning of the clip, she is pushed off of a ledge by her partner as paparazzi photograph the two together, and she exacts her revenge at the clip’s end by poisoning him (while wearing a very confusing outfit that seems to take its inspiration from the Bee Girl in that Blind Melon video, Mickey Mouse, and Bjork). Are we supposed to pity her, since her disability has stemmed from her intimate partner’s actions? Should viewers side with one of the sensational newspaper headlines–“LADY NO MORE GAGA”–that appears right before the music begins, implying that she just isn’t as fabulous as she was before her dis-ablement?
No dance video would be complete without a heaping helping of skeevy racial issues, and “Paparazzi” certainly delivers. Without question, Gaga’s “assistants” in this video are amazing dancers; however, save for a few seconds, viewers are not supposed to focus on them. The privileged white woman, of course, is the focus of this video, and people of color are reduced to little more than dancing window-dressing who help Gaga with her “recovery.” Given the long history of widespread exploitation of the labor of people of color–in both the public and private spheres–this representation is not particularly transgressive.
Interesting, too, is where we see the temporarily dis-abled Gaga: she is wheeled into her mansion from a limo, and wears giant sunglasses so that she, presumably, cannot be recognized by photographers. The disability scholar Susan Wendell argues that individuals with disabilities make clear the split between public and private; in “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability” (1989), Wendell writes that “[t]he public world is the world of strength, the positive (valued) body, performance and production, the able-bodied and youth,” while “illness, rest and recovery, pain, death and the negative (de-valued) body are private, generally hidden, and often neglected.”
Wendell’s argument about the disabled body as not public gets to the very crux of why the “disability chic” representation in “Paparazzi” is so problematic: the temporarily disabled Lady Gaga is hidden not just from the paparazzi, but also from public space. The only time that viewers see her in the wheelchair is as she is being wheeled down a purple carpet–an ostensibly “public” space–from her limo (private), into her mansion (also private). The mansion (private home) is where her highly stylized “recovery” takes place, with the “help” of people of color. The split between public and private is yet again reinforced in the guise of disability-as-chic representation. The overall message: Disability can be “cool,” but only if it is temporary, not shown to the public, and that your eventual recovery from it can be portrayed through the timeless medium of dance! Oh, and be sure to have people of color around to assist you with your wheelchair and with your “recovery”-cum-dance routine.
While I certainly do not expect one music video to change the light in which many people view persons with disabilities, there is much about “Paparazzi” that wavers between potentially subversive and downright troubling. Ultimately, Lady Gaga’s small steps (and rolls) for “disability chic”–with the uneasy racial and ability-related messages that are also part of this video–may not exactly signal a giant leap for disability representation in modern pop culture.