Lady Gaga and the High Heels of New Feminism

Curator's Note

Lady Gaga showed up at the 2010 Grammy Awards in a dress that was as fabulous as it was hazardous. Designed by Armani Privé, the dress is made of galactic, glitter-filled interlocking circular tubes that hula-hoop around Gaga’s body; she stands at the center of her own image. We knew that the Gaga Lady would show up in an outrageous outfit. But if we set the explosive nature of this outfit aside, I think we can focus on the broader question the look is posing. Can a feminist embrace glamour? 

Gaga's greatest tool is her ability to be glamorous and grotesque at the same time, a split personality that revels in the glamour but that's also critical of it. Take a closer look at this outfit: despite how spectacular it is, it’s also very frightening. First of all, the Lady doesn't smile once, wearing a deeply severe look all over her face, despite the nearly comical outfit. The look relies on the bass notes of drag and the seriousness of camp to get its point across, and in that way we're looking at the glamour of Old Hollywood mixed with the volume and drama of French couture. But with that clutch of spikes, we're warned that even though we’re possessing her by looking, she’s still the master of her own image. 

The most surprising thing about Gaga's Grammy look is that as a work of fashion, in this situation that is the apex of images, she reveals her very constructedness. Her wig is unnaturally yellow, a "blond," satirizing the beauty and sex appeal of blond pin-ups.  But if you look even closer, you'll see that she's wearing a head-to-toe body stocking, and her wig is deliberately placed to reveal the part of the stocking that's on her head.

This move is especially poignant when thought alongside the current debates about models and Photoshop. For instance, laws have been proposed in Europe to curb the use of airbrushing and Photoshop in fashion images, placing a warning that the image has been altered. But Gaga wastes no time: in this look, she’s an image playing at being an image. 



A funny story in appreciation of your analysis Madison:

Anticipating your post well before it dropped, and given other comments already made about defining feminisms, I consulted wikipedia on "new feminism". To my great surprise this particular styling of "new" is related to recent trends in Catholic philosophy that appear to rely on the alarm ringing notion of complimentary gender roles. It is admittedly somewhat of a relief to discover that your post has nothing to do with this appeal to biological determinism.

Not to entirely abandon my mistaken identification with the new, I wonder if there is something to be gleaned from the fact that the dialogue in the clip is two men discussing Lady Gaga's puzzling and fabulous outfit? However defined, those high heels are big shoes to fill. Is it enough to be the master of your own image, if others continue to speak for you?

Thank you Madison! This is a very interesting perspective on Lady Gaga's continual becoming-image. I want to continue down Dom's line of thought: is Gaga master of the event just because she is master of her image? And - more  importantly - is 'mastery' necessarily what Gaga (or the more general feminist subject) is trying to attain? Judith Butler uses a rather Hegelian dialectic in her discussion of 'drag' in Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, but I think that you can read more complexity into Gaga's 'drag'. She creates herself as image (and not just one image - continually mutating images), not to take control, but to open up a new potential set of relations between images, (objects) and (multiple) selves. As Kris suggested in yesterday's discussion, she doesn't become an object to have her revenge on objectifying practices, but to explore them!


While your findings that yes, Gaga embraces the glamourous AND the grotesque seem right on, the question seems a bif off, or at least loadged in a feminism somehow before the post or new feminism Gaga performs. How might we stage a question about Gaga's feminism that begins from her glamour and anti-feminism?

Madison and friends, I'd like to point out another tool that Gaga uses in her image play- collaboration. Whether in videos with high profile directors and costars, performance art, or fashion an already established culural player is never far from Gaga's latest production. Butler's "Undoing Gender" stresses the importance of a call and response element to performativity, which can be seen in both her collaborations and the mainstream success. Like a true star Gaga's gravitational pull draws objects, glamour, the grotesque, and various participants in her orbit.

As to whether Gaga relies on prior understandings of feminism (instead of creating entirely new ones) this mode of production suggests her methods utililse what is already there. Through these collaborations Gaga raises questions about feminism/anti-feminism variously through her own image, through objects associated with her image (the spiky clutch), and the attraction and repulsion dynamic with both. Karin and Michael have introduced another way to think about what Gaga (un)does by becoming and privaledging objects in her work to complicate Butler's gender as a "drag" performance. Beyond existing as a theoretical object, I wonder what potential or pitfalls Gaga's queer glamour holds for doing "feminism" now?

Thanks for this interesting post Madison. My quick and simple response to your question if a feminist can embrace glamour is a definite yes! But my follow up question would be what is partiularly feminist about this image? Is she indeed satirizing beauty norms? And if so, how can this be read against her more general star text, as well as instances where she appears to be conforming to beauty norms? Is she ironically posing for Maxim? Or, is it this seemingly contradictory approach indicative of the messiness of third wave feminism?

Thanks, everybody, for your thoughtful comments. To start, @ Alex, I take your point that the question should part from the possibilities of feminism beginning with glamour, and that's actually what I thought I was getting at in the piece. @  Dom, why is it that because two men (at least one of them gay) are narrating the outfit, how does that take away from whatever power she's wielding as an image? Think of it this way: this outfit was so explosive that it was narrated from a number of news outlets, by both men and women. I think that this outfit DOES (and MUST) speak to her power as an artist who wants to be obsessively visual, and what's excessive visibility if not a certain kind of power? Beyond that, Gaga's many works of fashion and her performances speak to a long line of artists who are engaged with the very question of beauty and images of women. to name a few: Orlan, Cindy Sherman, Sylvie Fleury, Josephine Meckseper, Martha Rosler, Marilyn Minter. Wendy Steiner argues in a fabulous book called VENUS IN EXILE about how throughout 20th century art, there was a return to the grotesque, the ugly, this idea that connecting women to images a beauty was bad. Gaga challenges and critiques that, showing that beauty and glamour is at once as entrancing as it is frightening. @ Jessalyn, Gaga is absolutely satirizing beauty norms! Remember that when she first came out, her face was almost always covered or obstructed in some way. Do you think that a babe like Megan Fox, whose commodity is her face and sex appeal, would ever give an interview with her most precious commodity entirely blacked out?

Hate to be controversial but that's actually not true -- if you look very far back Gaga maintained a very, very stereotypical, girl-next-door appearance. She began covering her face quite a bit farther down the road, after she was already a star. She did not become a star by covering her face.... only after the fact. This is actually an interesting topic to explore further, but her star text, including her appearance, changed quite dramatically after she became famous. (Not sure what this exactly means... but it's something to consider.)

Thanks again for a thought-provoking piece though! :)

 You're not being controversial at all - it's quite clear that she morphed from the girl next door to this mega-fashion icon robot thing she has since become. There is even a difference between her very first music video, where she had interesting fashion but was nowhere near as out there as she has become, and the stuff she wears now. In the fashion community, it was the paparazzi video that really launched the pad, and then bad romance that really upped the ante. So much that, in fact, the single "Bad Romance" premiered at the late Alexander McQueen's fashion show. I think the transformation from girl next door to mega pop fashion queen is most fascinating, especially given that she was turned down for record deals, dropped from previously signed deals because she wasn't marketable, wasn't conventionally "pretty," wasn't a blonde, etc. When you know all that, you see how with her obsessively blonde hair or experiments where her face is covered or where she's bleeding that she's definitely commenting on pop cultural standards of beauty in performance. 

Madison: You are absolutely correct that excessive visibility is a kind of power and in pointing out that Gaga shows us that beauty can be simultaneously entrancing and frightening. Does Gaga's glamour depend on a kind of queer sublime aesthetic? While Gaga wields power as an image, the men in the clip (regardless of sexual orientation) wield the power of discourse, the very language that will make a chain of verbal signifiers that either celebrate or villanize the image. The power of Gaga's performance perhaps remains in her ability to transgress into the territory of contemporary art. This line of reasoning crosses over into your discussion with Jessalyn about the covering of Gaga's face. I wonder if this tactic has something to do with emphasising the music and if any links could be made with semi veiled performances of other singers, such as Grace Jones in the 1980s and more recently Pash(ly)?

Madison, for some reason the still image for your clip keeps reminding me of David LaChapelle's image of the transgendered Amanda Lepore as Warhol's Marilyn which brings us back to some of the issues around art and pop raised in Kirsty's post yesterday as well as reinforcing perhaps the idea that Gaga is uglifying the face. Here is the image I'm thinking of:


Should we really term Gaga's extreme experiments with hyper-femininity and object-ness an 'uglification', Michael? The female-to-female drag here does certainly give Gaga a transgender appearance (something I think the beginning of Telephone comments on) - and I agree that there are similarities between this still and the Amanda Lepore pictures, but I think it is important to point out that neither of these images are necessarily 'ugly' or 'uglier' than the normative images of beauty. Especially Gaga creates a beautifully experimentative dis- and re-assemblage of these images - with stunning effects!

I love the notion of "uglification" because it demands a consideration of normative standards--standards that may change over time but that generally remain outside the ability of one person to alter.  

Uglification also invites a question of the influence of heteronormativity--to what extent must Gaga be desired/desirable and by whom?  Would anyone paste a photo of Gaga to a locker door or bedroom ceiling?  The fact that Seacrest finds her threatening here delights me, but it also makes me ponder the spectrum of desirability with pop stars, in particular P!nk, or even the trainwreck that is Ke$ha.  

Thanks for your post Madison--and I can see that it has already started a tremendous dialogue!  I was interested about your discussion about her "face"--taken up by others in the comments--but also implicated by your comments regarding the stocking that covers her head.  If I were to probe various people who have written here, I wonder what it might mean for us to consider the notion of "face" more broadly--possibly theoretically.  We are talking about how she looks, how she might be feminist or not, how she might be glamorous or not, etc. but, what is her face?  Who is she facing?  And, is she attempting to inter-face with someone/thing/etc.

I think that all of these questions can also be expanded to consider/complicate how we are addressing/framing Gaga (e.g. temporally as Jessalynn points out, through similarities as Karen points out, or though homage as Dom & Michael point out).  When /we/ face Gaga, it might be easy to imagine and/or suggest that it is a "vision of excess", but reading her through an "inter-facing" requires us to recognize and/or complicate what it means to give an account of "the other" which is always, already implying that we must give an account of ourself (as Butler/Levinas/etc. would suggest). Further, it allows us to consider in what ways Gaga (as the other who is being explored/analyzed/critiqued) might do an about-face and not allow us to face her (or see her face, in the instance of her covering it).  If this is one instance where we cannot interface, might it offer an opportunity to consider what it might mean to address fashion sans Gaga--is there something to what we see if Gaga's body were not filling it out? Can we face the fashions without her body, her performances, her (potential) feminist position, filling the cloth?

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