Lady Gaga has been a powerful force in recent popular culture, often challenging the position of women in the music industry and images of female sexuality. She draws on longstanding feminist arguments to call out the double standard placed on female performers who are expected to be sexual but only up to a certain point, while male rock stars are given free license to being complex sexual agents. And she’s right – the sexual double standard continues to constrain both female pop stars and women alike.
But while her sexual rhetoric appears progressive and refreshing, Gaga’s stance on feminism itself raises questions about the nature of empowerment that she promotes. While adopting the language of feminism and acknowledging the inequality women continue to face in popular culture, Gaga's insistence that she is not a feminist is worthy of discussion.
Media scholars Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill call these contradictory gender politics indicative of a "postfeminist" media culture, where feminism is acknowledged, yet dismissed as unnecessary to today’s young women. Empowerment then becomes more about a stylized performance, often through the display of sexy clothing coupled with the language of feminism, rather than actual social change. Is Lady Gaga then the quintessential postfeminist star?
Lady Gaga benefits from feminism, which has arguably opened doors for her to become a successful businesswoman, and has allowed her to play with ideas of gender and queerness in her performances. But while Gaga offers up the image of a supposedly liberated woman, few of Lady Gaga’s markers of empowerment really challenge the status quo, such as normative beauty standards. In short, she often seems hesitant to equate female empowerment with anything beyond the ability to embrace a public sexuality that coincidentally conforms to the directives of Maxim.
This clip raises questions about the place of feminism within contemporary pop culture. Do we need to retain the word feminist or is it outdated? What are the implications for replacing feminism with empowerment? Should we be encouraging girls to identify as feminist or can they become empowered without feminism? And finally, is it even problematic that Gaga refuses to embrace the feminist label?
Perhaps it is Lady Gaga’s assurance that she is not a feminist that allows her to be palatable to the public – she is performance and style but not necessarily social change? Or maybe we’re just asking too much from our pop stars?
feminism, Lady Gaga, and Sarah Palin
Great piece, Jessalynn! The furor of contentious definition and conflicting uses around the term "feminist" is important to always keep in mind, and I wonder if perhaps Lady Gaga is avoiding that label because of her knowledge of such tension. Perhaps Gaga is trying to distance herself from recent coopters of the term, such as "Tea Party Feminists" and notably Sarah Palin.
Lady Gaga's Changing Colours
Thanks Jessalynn for opening this week's discussion by highlighting Gaga's ambiguous relationship to feminism. Although this clip is from last year and Gaga has incrimentally moved towards identifying as a feminist (see recent comments by Nancy Bauer) I think it marks an important transition in the cultural currency of the feminist label. What has brought about this gradual change? Gaga's response to the inverviewer "I'm not a feminist" seems to me not a rejection of feminism, but an objection to the gendered line of questioning. It opens up another aspect to the question you cogently close your post with- are we asking too much from our (female) pop stars? In addition to this, I would ask if Gaga's shifting allegiances could constitute a seduction of the mainstream into feminism?
Thanks, Jessalynn, for a really thought provoking piece. If Lady Gaga fails at being a feminist, I'm really curious about who you would nominate as a proto feminist singer/artist? And then, how would we compare Gaga the bad feminist to the good feminist artist/singer?
Hi Jessalynn! Thanks for a great post to start the week and for centering on such an intriguing, controversial topic. I imagine that the topic of pop/feminism will only get richer as the posts for this week proceed. I am intrigued by your response to Dom, because I would have asked you how you would define (and limit) feminism--or, for whom does feminism apply and by which standards? While I understand arguments about postfeminism and/or concerns about a "feminist free for all" (extending into popular discourse by people like Ariel Levy), I wonder where there might be room for feminists who choose to embrace the "feminine." Does Gaga offer images (of herself, objects, and/or her relation to objects) in such a way as to subvert "normal" femininity--or is it merely a cyclical process whereby things coded "feminine" might never be feminist? I think that this also might tie into your question about the role of men/males in popular culture. For example, does the "Pussy Wagon" in Tarantino's Kill Bill function differently than the version we confront in Gaga's "Telephone"?
Why Gaga Could Save Feminism
Jessalynn, I quite enjoyed your piece, and the lively responses it has provoked. What I find perplexing here, as I always do, is the immediate equation Gaga makes between being a feminist and hating men. Your title makes reference to this slippage, and to the recirculattion of a media-driven construct (ie, feminists as castrating shrews) that has little relationship to the actual history of American feminism.
Given that she herself is so interested in the production and circulation of media images, I cannot help but wish she were a little more well versed on how the image she references is here too a media construction, one desperately in need of the sort of incisive, ironic, critique she has brought to bear on concepts like celebrity and performance. My plea to Gaga: take Women's Studies 101, and save the image of the feminist.
revisiting the image of the feminist...
Hi Suzanne, and thanks for your insightful comments! Like you, I am troubled that being a feminist is still equated with hating me. And I am somewhat disappointed that Gaga continues (continued?) to promote this idea to her fans. I am probably more troubled by this unfair chracterization of feminists than by her rejection of the label itself. This also implies, in my opinion, that there is not necessarily a more complex analysis going on here -- and that really, Lady Gaga just does not (or did not?) understand feminism or its history.
Or maybe I'm just being a shrewd feminist with no sense of humor or irony?! :)
I'm not sure I buy the idea that Gaga's image conforms to Maxim/FHM standards of female sexiness or pulchritude. Indeed, her make-up, outfits, hair are all monstrous deformations, for the most part, of normative idea(l)s of female beauty (the dress Madison discusses in his post is a fine example). As Dom rightly points out, it is her destabilizations of hypostatized identities which constitutes her "subversive force". It seems to me that her video performances as well as her live shows are spaces where Gaga performs a kind of hyperfeminine drag (one we would associate more with drag kings or trans performers) which unsettles what we think of as being conventionally beautiful.
A different set of questions...
I think this debate centers around the kinds of questions being asked, as well as acadmic background. While I understand that her performances have been read as "hyperfeminine drag" I don't think that's the only way to read her. Furthermore, while this definitely seems true in certain performances I don't believe that this is always the case. She has in numerous circumstances (including my link to Maxim above) seems to have given into rather conservative, corporate interests in order to gain publicity. (And, I'm sorrry, why is she like 90 pounds?!) And while there's nothing necessarily wrong with this (what celeb doesn't do this?) I'm not sure there's a radical critique behind it. And that's fine. But that's my reading -- and it highlights the problem with academics doing textual readings of these types of texts. Others read it differently. My own questions, stemming from my girls studies background, revolve around how girls interpret Gaga's discourse of empowerment and how it relates to that in their own lives. It is impossible to discover that here... or with the aid of a dogged-earred copy of Gender Trouble. We really need to ask them.
My questions center less upon academic theorizing amongst ivory tower folk and more about a popular audience engaging with Gaga -- the thirteen year old girl who sees the Alejandro video on YouTube, for example. She's not referencing Butler. But she is seeing Gaga's interviews, which along with her performances, comprise Gaga's star text. It is from this more practicial, on-the-ground perspective where my questions about Gaga ultimatley stem from and what I'm personally most interested in.
Who is feminism for?
I'm sorry but your rhetoric disregarding the importance of Judith Butler's work in an informed discussion strand related to Lady Gaga and queerness misses an opportunity to address the question of feminism today. Instead, you fall back on outmoded metaphors such as "waves" of feminism which historicize and ignore very practical ever, present issues related to the status of women (such as sexual violence and economic inequality) and worst of all, legitimize (by virtue of naming) a "post"feminist condition.
Do all/any 13 year old girls read Butler? I couldn't say, but experiencing Lady Gaga now, will make "Gender Trouble" easier to grasp later on. The distinction between theory and practice is not set in cement. This website is evidence of the attempt to bridge more popular conversation topics with philosophical ideas. That is a good thing! I think in limiting your interest to a small demographic of consumers, who are not a unified block anyways, you risk passing over the fact that Gaga successfully operates in the mainstream and subcultural spheres. I don't think a Maxim photoshoot cancels out an avant-garde performance with Terence Koh, or vice versa. How is the potential for social change measured? Over what period of time and what kinds of correlative relationships can actually be assessed with something as slippery as representation? Girls do grow up, and at some point are confronted with the question who is feminism for? Even though I don't agree with it, I really appreciate your post Jessalyn because it brings up ideas that are important to me. For the time being, however, I think these need to be allowed to remain open ended questions. Only then can we think in terms of quantifying the possibilities for a radical critique. Thanks.
Do teenage girls read IMR? I hope so.
I think it is unfortunate to try to close off the potential conversation between teenage girl readers (who may well be reading Butler, who may well be reading In Media Res), girls studies scholars and "ivory tower" theorists. Perhaps you could share some of the responses you have had from teenage girls you have talked to about Gaga Jessalynn? What do they say about how Gaga relates to them?
Hi all! Thanks again for your
Hi all! Thanks again for your comments. Dom, I think you've raised some interesting questions in your response.
I think I've been a bit misunderstood... I am by no means disregarding the importance of Butler's work to this debate (or suggesting that girls haven't read Butler, won't read Butler, etc)... My point was to try and think about Gaga's rhetoric from a more practical standpoint by looking at (only one of, mind you) her interviews.
This, in my opinion, was about trying to bring girls into the conversation (not shut it down as suggested!) since they hadn't really come up in any discussion up to that point. All comments were useful and thought-provoking, but I wanted to highlight the practical aspect of the conversation we were having -- what does this all mean for Gaga's fans?
I also think this conversation speaks to differing views on feminism, always an interesting topic. The "outmoded metaphors" that I apparently fall back on are, in fact, not outmoded to many young scholars in the field and become useful to think about feminism(s) today. Some people will disagree with this useage (which I openly admit has its problems) -- and that's fine. This is also true of the term "postfeminism" (also called "enlightened sexism" by Susan Douglas) -- it is not without its problems. I chose this term mainly because of its useage by prominent scholars such as Anglea McRobbie and Rosalind Gill, and the length of the post did not give me adequate space to address the potential problems with this term. However, an insistence that these are the wrong way to look at feminism and pop culture (and that they apparently know the right way!) unfortunatley shuts down the discussion any denies any potential progress from being made.
K&M: I'm in the middle of research currently, but it will be interesting to see what they say. From my work at GRCA, I know that many girls are huge fans! If you encounter anyone else working on a project like this, please let me know! :)
Thanks again everyone for their contributions to this lively debate that seemed to take on a lot of different topics! I look forward to reading the rest of the week's entries. Best, Jessalynn (I probably won't have time to respond to any more posts on here due to another project, just an FYI, but feel free to comment away if you want!)
Waves of Feminism
I would like to back Jessalynn up in arguing that the 'waves' of feminism are certainly not 'outmoded'! There has been a lot of really interesting recent (especially European and Australian) scholarship on the potential discursive platforms the generationality of feminism creates - see, for example Rosi Braidotti & Claire Colebrook's special issue of Australian Feminist Studies:
In a way, the emerging tendency to look at feminism in terms of multiple intersecting and intermingling discursive processes is another interesting stage in the development of feminist scholarship - and I think your post, Jessalynn, sheds light on the importance of considering these issues.
One quick note--the part of this discussion that jumps out at me is the question of time. As one commenter noted, this video is already outdated--Gaga and her persona are in constant transition. Consider how her shift to decreasing levels of undress has seemingly run its course, with the apogee being the "Alejandro" video--that video itself already signaling a past moment for Gaga. To capture Gaga as an image of feminism (however defined) is therefore rather challenging. But I expect that in the long run, her career may allow an engagement with one woman's conflicted relationship with pop feminism. I'm interested in Gaga for the long con.
The recent NY Times article that questioned whether Gaga was simply surface image without any depth seems to me to miss the point. The discussion here demonstrates how many questions arise when a woman consciously plays with gender, persona, and sexuality--and the value of those questions being open, as Dom noted.
Gaga as Postfeminist Primer
I want to second Jessalynn's post, and particularly her defense of the term "postfeminism" which has, in fact, been an incredibly useful way for self-proclaimed feminist scholars to diagnose the contemporary media landscape. The term was coined by the media but effectively describes its own assumption that female equality has basically been achieved. In the process, feminism as a movement is deligitimized, while its insights--particularly regarding women's labor and sexuality--are handily appropriated.
I understand the discomfort the term produces, but seen in this light, Gaga is a postfeminist figure--one who benefits from feminism without being consciously aware of it. The critique she offers in this video of the double standard regarding rock stars is a textbook feminist analysis, even though she disavows that, literally in the next breath. I can't think of a better primer on postfemnism than this one, because she inadvertently justifies feminism while outwardly decrying it.
Must we paint Gaga with the postfeminist brush?
This is too important to leave without a response and I invite and appreciate any replies. I'm troubled that this discussion has indeed turned into a "feminist free for all", one that leaves Gaga as a "postfeminist" intact. That is why my opinionated comments do not ascribe to an anything goes ethos. Jessalyn, yes, there are actually "wrong" ways to read feminism, if your goals are to examine the more "practical" implications of Gaga in specific instances/performances/interviews. One that springs to mind is not minding the gap between relativism and universals.
Suzanne makes an excellent point supporting your reading of this clip as seemingly enacting a post-feminist rhetoric. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Gaga directly speaks for feminism, girls, or women- in this interview she is rejecting this very assertion (I'm a rock star). If she did/was then she would run this risk of being labeled a 'feminist' pop icon creating 'feminist' works. As Karen pointed out using the example of Nancy Baeur's nytimes article, this misses the mark of more interesting debates and forecloses readings. Instead it lies with the media literate (scholars, 13 year old girls, whomever) to debate the ways in which Gaga's work/personas could engage with feminist ideas. If we identify Gaga as a "postfeminst" we preclude this possibility.
What I am basically getting at is that the variables being considered in this debate preclude and enact Gaga as a "postfeminst". I'm not arguing that Gaga is a feminist, I'm saying her work can be read under the broad umbrella of feminist thought. Powerful as it is, it cannot stand for or represent (more or less than anything else) "feminism" or feminists.
Karin and Michael (and also Karen)- Yes, I agree there is good stuff being written on the wave metaphor in relation to feminist historiographies. Luce Irigaray's Conversations also springs to mind where she weighs in on various pros and cons, but ultimately suspects that the problem does not lie with developing other notions of time. So much more can be said on this, but I'll just say that many of the figures and works that feature in so called "first and second waves" are more relevant than ever. Hence my problem with waves as useless in developing working feminist frameworks. I look forward to reading the articles in your links, and take heart in your flagging of upcoming scholarship which presents "feminism" as multiple, intersecting, and intermingling discursive processes.
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