“Sometimes it is difficult to find words to make a critique when we find ourselves attracted by some aspect of a performer's act and disturbed by others, or when a performer shows more interest in promoting progressive social causes than is customary. We may see that performer as above critique. Or we may feel our critique will in no way intervene on the worship of them as a cultural icon. To say nothing, however, is to be complicit…
- bell hooks, from “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?"

The blogosphere has hailed Lady Gaga as the empress of the queer revolution. She has been called the “queer army’s” most devoted soldier for her various engagements on behalf of the U.S. gay rights movement. And her latest video for the song “Telephone” has received almost universal praise as “a cavalcade of queerness” and an embodiment of Judith Butler’s attempts to theoretically decouple the phallus from the penis. Some writers have even tried to overlook Gaga’s ignorance about feminism, deeming her to be one of those closet feminists, who adheres to the ideology without taking on the much-maligned label.

Amidst all this fawning, critical voices have barely been heard. This is why I would like to pose a series of questions about Ms. Gaga that will hopefully move the discussion somewhere beyond the realms of sycophancy. How progressive is Lady Gaga’s message for women? How can we characterize her engagement on behalf of “the gays” (as she calls them)? What role does the pink dollar play in her devotion to LGBT rights? Is her advocacy for the queer cause genuine, informed, and critical, or is she “bluffin’ with our muffin” – adopting queerness in a cavalier manner for the purpose of fanbase development?

This post is unfortunately not based on an exhaustive study of Gaga’s oeuvre and public persona. Its purpose is to use anecdotal insights to stimulate more debate and inspire people to engage critically with her. In a dialogue about Paul HaggisCrash, bell hooks said that this fairly racist film is seductive to African-American audiences because “[their] pain and suffering…is being ignored. Black viewers [are] moved by the fact that someone would take the time to portray [their] sense of violation.”

Similarly, I would argue that LGBT communities are likely to be so moved by someone who bothers to stand up for them that they might then uncritically accept such a person as a symbol of progress and a leader of the movement. It is with this insight in mind that I present the following observations about Lady Gaga. While her advocacy for LGBT rights is certainly admirable, I am skeptical about the extent to which she can be called a revolutionary and I doubt that she is substantially different from other pop stars, such as Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Rihanna.

“There’s a stigma about feminism that’s a little bit man-hating…”

Perhaps the most objectionable aspect of the Lady Gaga persona is its ostentatious anti-feminism. She has, at various stages, proudly proclaimed that she is “not a feminist,” because that would prevent her from being a “sexy, beautiful woman who can f--- her man after she makes him dinner.” Feminism would also imply being “a little bit man-hating” and Gaga “[doesn’t] promote hatred, ever.” Not only does she abhor hating men, she “love[s]” them and “celebrate[s] American male culture, beer, bars and muscle cars.”

Does she realize, however, that the straight men’s U.S. culture she adoringly refers to is riddled with homophobia? The symbiosis between American masculinity and hatred of queers is nothing new, and it should not take reading Michael Kimmel’s excellent article, “Masculinity as Homophobia,” to understand this. If Gaga’s commitment to the gay community is as unwavering as she says, how can she then laud a cultural institution that is, to a large extent, founded on homophobic practices?

Furthermore, it is crucial to ask: in what ways, exactly, is her message progressive for women? Does she expand women’s role in pop music away from the obligation to take their clothes off, gyrate sexually, and dabble in touchy-feely-smoochiness with the nearest female? Gaga appears to embrace these imperatives of heteronormativity and patriarchy. In fact, in the majority of her music videos, she capitulates to at least one of these requirements of modern female pop stardom, which puts her on a par with the Britney Spearses and Christina Aguileras of this world. Her fashion choices may be kooky and experimental, but at its core, the message is the same: strip off, dance around seductively, dabble in a bit of bisexuality, and you will find your way to stardom. Obviously, this does not explain all of her success (a lot of quality singing, dancing, and art is involved as well), but the notion that a certain amount of sexualization is the sine qua non of being a woman in pop music goes unquestioned.

Nevertheless, the situation may be somewhat more complex than this. In a recent interview with Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times, Gaga claims that she infuses her music videos with a sense of grotesqueness, thus undermining what would otherwise be a standard sexualized portrayal of a female artist. She moves beyond it by questioning the presumed naturalness of feminine beauty standards and exposing the violence inherent in the way the music industry treats women. The video for “Bad Romance,” Gaga says, is about “how the entertainment industry can, in a metaphorical way, simulate human trafficking -- products being sold, the woman perceived as a commodity.” In the video, Gaga appears in various states of undress, being sold into sex slavery. But her form is given reptilian contours and any sexualized voyeurism is tempered with monstrous scenes, such as the brutal killing of the man she is eventually prostituted off to.

But while Gaga does show that there is something seedy and disgusting about the way pop music sells and sexualizes women, she does not present any real alternatives. The current system might have some serious downsides for women, but ultimately, there is no real solution in sight. And she operates comfortably within this exploitative system, as the following statement from the Ann Powers interview shows: “Me embodying the position that I’m analyzing is the very thing that makes it powerful.”

It has also frequently been noted that Lady Gaga’s clothing and style is inspired less by the sexualized feminine fashions of mainstream pop stars than by drag queens, artsy designers and other oddball subcultures. She is clearly not meant to be sexually attractive in the same way that other female pop stars are. But while there is no denying that Lady Gaga is unique, I wonder whether her difference can have any progressive impact within the context in which she performs. Ultimately, she is staged as a mainstream pop performer and her rootedness in this milieu makes a progressive interpretation of her act very difficult to achieve. As Susan Bordo points out, “subversion is contextual, historical and above all, social. No matter how exciting the ‘destabilizing’ potential of texts, bodily or otherwise, whether those texts are subversive or recuperative…cannot be determined in abstraction from actual social practice” (“Postmodern Subjects, Postmodern Bodies,” 172).

Lady Gaga's audience is thus likely to focus on those elements of her performances that the popular music context has already made them familiar with, such as the hyper-sexualization of women and femininity, the racy outfits, and the girl-on-girl action. Take the media’s response to Christina Aguilera’s latest video: many people seem to think that she is ripping off Lady Gaga. This suggests that Gaga’s own oeuvre is being perceived as more-or-less following the same old scripts for female artists.

This story from her beginnings in the music industry further illustrates this common dynamic between the performer and her audience:

“Things weren't going well for young Stefani Germanotta, an 18-year-old from the Upper West Side, at the Bitter End. It was Friday night at the famed Greenwich Village club…Set up on the piano’s soundboard, Germanotta’s own portable disco ball spun tiny shards of light and her laptop spat out beats, but no one was listening… Fuck this, thought Germanotta. I’ve got to do something. So Germanotta shrugged her shirt from her slender shoulder and pulled it over her head. She tugged off her skirt. The little Italian firecracker sat on stage in the Village in her fishnets and her underwear and sang. The audience was gape-mouthed and agog, unsure whether this was part of the act or not. They gawked and, almost unwittingly, began to nod their heads to the music. They were hooked. Later, Germanotta would identify that moment as a turning point.”

“…because of the gay community, I’m where I am today…”

How does Lady Gaga fare on the issue of LGBT rights? On this topic, there is more to admire. Her commitment to last year’s National March for Equality was impressive, especially since other queer and queer-friendly celebrities, such as Madonna and Elton John, were not involved. And she has made no secret of her affinity for gay culture. “I feel intrinsically inclined toward a more gay lifestyle,” Gaga said in an interview with Out, and went on to add: “I always sort of joke that my real motivation is to just turn the world gay.” This frank queer-friendliness is not limited to interviews with LGBT publications. For instance, Gaga is famous for ending her award acceptance speeches with an emphatic thank you to “God and the Gays.”

But is all this really that different from what other celebrities have done in the past? After all, Madonna has spoken out in favor of gay rights during her concerts, written queer-themed songs, and incorporated queer culture into her performances. Christina Aguilera has voiced her opposition to California’s ban on same-sex marriage and written favorably about gay rights. In fact, if we look at the number of celebrities who have come out against Proposition 8, it becomes clear that supporting the LGBT community is no longer such an outlandish thing to do. Gaga is, therefore, definitely not a trailblazer.

Furthermore, we have to ask, how much of Lady Gaga’s support for queers is motivated by fanbase development? Aside from mentioning the “it’s always wrong to hate, but never wrong to love” argument, she seems to justify her support for LGBT rights as a form of payback to her gay devotees. “The turning point for me was the gay community,” Gaga quipped in an interview for MTV, “I’ve got so many gay fans and they’re so loyal to me and they really lifted me up. They’ll always stand by me and I’ll always stand by them. It’s not an easy thing to create a fanbase…” She says virtually the same thing in an interview with Out magazine: “When I started in the mainstream, it was the gays that lifted me up. I committed myself to them and they committed themselves to me, and because of the gay community, I’m where I am today.”

To be sure, there is nothing necessarily bad about this approach. In fact, it is a confirmation of Harvey Milk’s theory that gays can basically use their strength in numbers (and corresponding economic clout) to leverage support from society. But this is not the most earth-shattering strategy. While Lady Gaga’s loyalty to her fans is laudable, her support for them is, at least to some extent, founded on economic and artistic interests, and not on a desire to radically reconfigure the gender and sexual order in society. Furthermore, when Gaga tries to justify LGBT rights on ethical grounds, she actually marshals some very conservative arguments. For instance, in response to the controversy surrounding the “Telephone” video’s queer aspects, Gaga answered: “There are transsexual women and transgender women and suddenly it becomes poisonous because there are some people in this world that believe being gay is a choice. It’s not a choice, we are born this way."

And while her appearance at the National March for Equality was admirable, we have to ask: did her speech (below) have much substance?

"Hello my friends, I have seen and witnessed so many things over the past two years. And I can say with such certainty that this is the single most important moment of my career. I am humbled to stand before all of you here today. I know that some of you have been fighting or doing advocacy work that stems all the way back to the Stonewall Riots. And I salute you. And you know I love Judy Garland. I am also inspired by all the masses of young people here today – the younger generation, my generation! We are the ones coming up in the world. And we must continue to push this movement forward and close the gap. We must demand full equality for all. They say that this country is free and they say that this country is equal, but it is not equal if its only sometimes. Obama, I know that you’re listening. ARE YOU LISTENING?! We will continue to push you and your administration to bring your words of promise to a reality. We need change now. We demand actions now. And to Barney Frank, we are putting more than pressure on this grass and today this grass is ours. We will come away today and continue to do the work in our own backyards, with our local politicians. And as for my backyard: as a woman in pop music, as a woman with the most beautiful gay fans in the whole world… To do my part, I refuse to accept any misogynistic or homophobic behavior in music, lyrics or actions in the music industry. I am so very honored to have this platform here today. And I will continue to fight for full equality for all. I love you all so much. Bless God and bless the gays!"


It is not my intention to perform a character assassination of Lady Gaga, to suggest that pop stars should be experts in feminist ideology, or to claim that she has not had any positive influence. I am simply concerned by the increasingly common perception that Lady Gaga is a revolutionary figure, someone who has fundamentally transformed the gender and sexual landscape in pop music and taken an unprecedentedly favorable stance to the LGBT community.

As this post has shown, it is more accurate to view Gaga is a typical pop star. Her activism for the gay community is motivated (at least in part) by fanbase development, and she has done little to challenge the hypersexualization of women in mainstream pop culture. Finally, her generally pro-LGBT stance is not out of the ordinary in this day and age, and while her commitment to the rights of sexual and gender minorities is laudable, this does not make her an extraordinary figure.

Nevertheless, there is potential for improvement. Indeed, Gaga has shown a promising ability evolve and adjust her understanding of major social and cultural issues. She has recently been willing to think more carefully about feminism, telling Ann Powers that she considers herself to be “a little bit of a feminist” and commenting on the silencing of women in the music industry. She has also shown a willingness to confront homophobia in “[her] own backyard” (as she promised in her National March for Equality speech), characterizing 50 Cent’s homophobic comments as “sad,” and pouring a drink over someone who attacked her for befriending “that faggot,” Adam Lambert. She also claims to have offered the following proviso to Kanye West before going on tour with him: “I just want to be clear before we decide to do this together: I’m gay. My music is gay. My show is gay. And I love that it’s gay. And I love my gay fans and they’re all going to be coming to our show. And it’s going to remain gay.”

Lady Gaga is indeed a promising figure. But does her latest video, for the song “Alejandro,” live up to the potential? Initially, I was very impressed with it. I had read that Gaga sees the video as “a celebration and an admiration of gay love, [as a confession of her] envy of the courage and bravery [her gay friends] require to be together.” And it is indeed possible to interpret “Alejandro” in this way. The funeral scene could be perceived as a symbol of mourning for the victims of homophobic violence, while the forceful physical interactions between the male dancers could represent the undercurrent of competition and homophobic violence underpinning relations between men in European and American societies. The fact that these men are able to cavort around on beds wearing high heels in a subsequent scene (and later, touch each other) pays homage to the “courage and bravery” that men have to display in overcoming homophobic masculinity and becoming sexually linked with other men.

But the more I watch “Alejandro,” the more I am convinced that this interpretation is highly questionable. It has nothing to do with the lyrics of the song, which are about a woman managing the ups-and-downs of love affairs, and on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the video also focuses on this theme. In the funeral scene, Gaga positions herself as an abandoned wife or girlfriend, stricken with grief over the literal or figurative loss of “Alejandro,” who is represented by the man sitting on the bed, holding a gun to his crotch. The video then explores two possible responses to this loss: indulgence in sexual pleasure or embodiment of saintly virginity. The former is represented by the Gaga who ogles the muscled male dancers, engages in pretend S&M games, and is finally, enthusiastically stripped naked by the a horde of men. The latter response is embodied by Gaga lying in bed in a red nun’s outfit, holding a rosary, and finally, eating the cross.

The video thus represents a dialogue between two of the stereotypically feminine responses to the loss of a lover: unrestrained sex and dedicated virginity. What is interesting about the video from a feminist perspective is that Gaga seems to be breaking down the distinction between the two, showing that there is indulgence in virginity and holiness in sexuality. This is suggested by the fast juxtaposition of black and white images of the sex scenes with the images of Gaga holding and eating the rosary – the message is that the two options (“Virgin Mary” and “Whore of Babylon”) are not as different as they seem.

Overall, the “Alejandro” video seems to be more about this than about celebrating man-on-man love. It is also perhaps more about paying homage to Madonna’s “Vogue” and Cabaret’s Liza Minelli than about developing any specific theme. Indeed, if there is a consistently “gay” topic in “Alejandro,” it is probably Lady Gaga’s own desire to get in on homoeroticism and man-on-man sex (and the assumed impossibility of doing so). As she herself said, “In the video I'm pining for the love of my gay friends - but they just don't want me.” And in that statement, she unwittingly hits on the central theme of the “Alejandro” video: herself. It would be a mistake to view it as a selfless ode to her gay friends because she puts her own persona front-and-center; her fantasies, her lyrics, her (heterosexual) love stories, and her ambitions. At the beginning of the video, she puts herself on a throne, assuming the role of a queen overseeing her subjects, and the video basically serves to further promote the idea that she is pop music royalty. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but it should not be mistaken for a pioneering piece of activism.

***For More Information***

For an excellent analysis of pop culture, and its relationship to gender, sexuality, and feminism, I recommend bell hooks' video series "Cultural Criticism and Transformation." Her dialogue about the movie Crash, aptly titled "Talking Trash," can also be found here. For an analysis of the symbiosis of masculinity and homophobia, Michael Kimmel's work is definitely worth checking out. Susan Bordo’s review essay, “Postmodern Subjects, Postmodern Bodies,” critiques Judith Butler’s theory of parodic acts (such as drag) having the potential to undermine presumably natural gender norms in society. She argues, along with Viviane Namaste (see the book, Invisible Lives and her numerous articles), that the subversive potential of a performance or an act is contingent on the context in which it is being performed. It would indeed be interesting to further explore the differences between Judith Butler’s approach to subversiveness and more contextualist theories, using Lady Gaga as a case study.

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