Lady Gaga's Gender/Queerness [August 2-6]

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Monday August 2, 2010 – Jessalynn Keller (University of Texas at Austin) presents: “I’m not a feminist… I love men”: Rethinking Lady Gaga’s Postfeminist Rhetoric and its Potential for Social Change

Tuesday August 3, 2010 – Kirsty Fairclough (University of Salford, United Kingdom) presents: Mainstreaming the Avant-garde: Gender and spectacle at GAGAKOH

Wednesday August 4, 2010 – Madison Moore (Yale University) presents: Lady Gaga and the High Heels of New Feminism

Thursday August 5, 2010 – Karin Sellberg and Michael O’Rourke (University of Edinburgh and Independent Colleges of Dublin) present: Lady Gaga’s Phallicity

Friday August 6, 2010 – Dom Nasilowski (Concordia University) presents: Answering the Feminist Call: Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” as Pop Art


Theme week organized by Kristopher Cannon (Georgia State University)

  • ”I’m not a feminist… I love men”: … by Jessalynn Keller

  • 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?

  • Mainstreaming the Avant-Garde: … by Kirsty Fairclough

  • Lady Gaga clothed in white, bridal and barefoot, walks slowly in a procession inspired by a stately Shinto wedding parade along a busy Tokyo street to nightclub Tabloid, the performance space that she is about to share with artist Terence Koh. What follows is part pop, part avant-garde and part promotional tool. Here at the Gagakoh charity event sponsored by cosmetics company MAC, she appears as Koh’s bride, passive and willing, oscillating between performance art and pop; the atonal Gregorian-esque chant from Koh, the gay kiss, the white paint and powder covering their bodies, the pseudo-religious imagery ending in the symbolic consummation of their marriage of pop and art. Gaga appears to have found her art alter ego in Koh, both are flamboyant, press hungry performers who share a queer sensibility.

    At Gagakoh, Gaga is spectacle. Indeed, she exists as spectacle, both on and off stage. Here she appears to be pushing against the boundaries of a mainstream pop performance. Operating as both a marginal and central figure, playing the art performer off against the pop performer, Gaga is seemingly inviting the viewer to consider that she not only exists for and is aimed at, a mainstream audience, but also aspires to operate in other cultural spheres. By drawing on avant-garde techniques she is aligning herself with a more serious set of practices, here Koh’s art credentials, which permit her to function simply as an icon, straddling the worlds of art and pop with ease.

    In this context, as a totally constructed identity, Gaga is freed of normativity, and can both revel in heteronormativity and subvert it. It may be impossible to read her as straight as she consistently highlights gender performativity; she plays male and female, queer and straight. Add to this her professed love for the monster and the grotesque, she can be placed firmly against mainstream pop princesses and can be read as interrogating the performative nature of both gender and sexuality, and their relationship to stardom and celebrity in contemporary culture.

    The pop-queer persona, the ferocity of her image and performance style, exemplified here in particular, operate as a rich signifier asking us to use her image in whatever ways are necessary. Yet before we rush to label Gaga as the only progressive mainstream pop star of the twenty first century, we must first consider that the surface mirroring of every environment she encounters may well only speak to self-reflexive mimicry with no purpose.

  • Lady Gaga and the High Heels of New … by Madison Moore

  • 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. 


  • Lady Gaga’s Phallicity by Karin Sellberg and Michael O’Rourke

  • What has Lady Gaga got to do with the future of queer theory, gender theory and the phallus? We argue that the first 2 minutes and 13 seconds of the uncut version of “Telephone” engineers a fascinating play with the enduring fantasies and fictions of an absent/present or constructed phallus. In several interviews Gaga evades questions as to whether she possesses a penis (she has told Jonathan Ross that she has a “really big donkey dick”: and in this video clip her genital region is continually suggestive of phallic plentitude while simultaneously deflating that imagined female phallic presence.

    Gaga’s phallicity creates a space for re-thinking the phallus beyond or alongside both the dominant psychoanalytic and gender/queer theoretical positions. For Lacanian psychoanalysts there is a seemingly ineffaceable slippage between the fleshy penis and the phallus as universal signifier. Queer theory draws on this account and unsurprizingly tends to emphasize the infinite repeatability of the failure to collapse the distinction between penis and phallus. Both sets of accounts make the mistake of anthropomorphizing the phallus, materializing it, even re-transcendentalizing it as master signifier. Gaga’s tele-dildonics promises something different.In this clip, her girlboner is what Butler calls a “transferable phantasm”, since it never returns to the gendered body as origin. Gaga’s phallic queerings particularly reterritorialize the female body as the phallus metonymically slides from crotch, to anus, to breasts, and  to other objects, including the  telephone she suggestively slips out of a fellow inmate’s jeans. “I told you she didn’t have a dick”, the ambiguously female guards tell us but Gaga’s blurred crotch offers no such certainties as to whether she has or is the phallus.

    The very plasticity of Gaga’s “dick” depends both on a displaceability (we can read the phallus off other body parts) and a demystification (we cannot be sure that any particular body part actually symbolizes the phallus). Gaga’s expropriable phallus plays with theoretical fictions which Butler would agree are useful ones. On the one hand her slippery tele-member confounds the penis-phallus distinction without materializing a tangible phallus.  Gaga’s cock is one we just can’t get our hands on. On the other hand, Gaga’s forcefully reiterated deprivileging of the phallus is an equally dissatisfying de/revisualisation of her (phoney) dick. And this is precisely because the female phallus is no/thing, and can never be seen.

    Gaga’s phallicity, or, the felicity of her phallic recirculations and visual vacillations, is that the phallus is not real, is merely an idealization, but that it is still really useful. It is not so much a question of whether Gaga has a dick, but rather what she does with it.

  • Answering the Feminist Call: Lady … by Dom Nasilowski

  • After being bailed out from prison by Beyonce ‘bad girl’ Lady Gaga returns the favour, lending a hand in the plot to kill an abusive boyfriend. From their respective positions of the serving kitchen and the breakfast table, both women poison the offender incidentally killing all the diners. The pair (backed up by the kitchen staff) erupt into a choreographic spectacle complete with costume changes recalling, among other things, comic book superheroes. What, if anything, can be gleaned from the heavy layering of pop cultural references in this video? 

    Some interpret Gaga’s videos as just another cheap sell of sexuality, while others view them as viable assertions of women’s empowerment. Is the violence and excess in Telephone a symptom, sickness, or cure for what ails feminism today? To avoid confining it to limiting comparisons with other female pop stars, I propose its curation within a wider cultural context. That Lady Gaga is part of current feminist discourse is a given, however, her enactment of gender through excess, irony, and sexuality also redefines the boundaries of pop music. These themes present to varying degrees in all her videos comprise a defining feature of her work.

    In Telephone the performative aspects of gender can be read differently for their intersections with pop art.  The lines between person, art, and commodity become blurred when they are embodied by Gaga in this clip. Consider the use of product placements: diet coke cans in her hair, a Virgin Mobile phone, and lit cigarette sunglasses. These items are not employed in a directly promotional way; they figure as odd extensions of Gaga’s body drawing connections to her status as a fetishistic object of consumption. Yet Gaga embraces consumerism much in the same way Andy Warhol did when he used coke bottles, soup cans, and celebrity images in his silkscreen paintings, albeit to a markedly different effect. Gaga’s body, however complicit in conflating gender with processes of self-objectification, also repackages pop cultural references as products for pop music.

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 02 Aug 2010 04:01:00 +0000