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 Do we need to retain the word feminist or is it outdated?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?