Saturday, 20 March 2010

"Bless God and bless the gays!"

Plenty has been written this week about Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’, a ‘homoerotic rampage of capitalistic ultra-violence’ . From the Tarantino, Meyer and Thelma and Louise references, to the ‘Baby One More Time’-esque dance routine, to Gaga’s crotch, the video – on its way to being the most watched video ever, beyond even MJ’s ‘Thriller’ - has been analysed to death (smelling suspiciously of rat poison).

As LG herself put it, this was for me a super-exciting pop event, and I’ve got to admit I had shivers down my spine (and elsewhere) the whole way through the 9-minute epic (I was on retreat all weekend and couldn’t bear the thought that Ramping had posted it to my Facebook page and I couldn’t get to it. Most distracting when I was trying to be all Lenten). Glorious colours, hot outfits, awesome dancing, Beyoncé pushing her image more than she’s done before (this being the teenager in Destiny’s Child whose mother didn’t let her listen to hip hop because of the cursing; even being Jay-Z’s wife hasn’t shaken the good girl projection).

But... as a feminist? Gotta say it’s not unproblematic.

Tarantino references, nipple stickers, girl-fights, Beyoncé faux-lezzing it up with a Twinkie, Gaga actually lezzing it up, mass-murder, lots of Beyoncé breast shots, the ‘dick’ comment, the unbelievable product placement... Shocking? Not really. Titillating. Probably. Feminist? Well...

Certainly Gaga has been wary about the feminist label, saying in the past that she’s definitely not a man hater. (Though if you want to show your man-loving credentials, probably best not to make a video populated almost entirely by queer women and killing off the men.) Still, one of my (female) friends called the video totally misogynist and couldn’t watch the whole thing; another loved it. What is going on here, and is Lady Gaga exploiting lesbianism/her sexuality/pussy for cheap thrills and selling music? Is this just a slightly more sophisticated, bigger budget ‘I Kissed a Girl’? (Anyone who goes out with Russell Brand: probably not a feminist icon.)

After a brief round of searching ‘Lady Gaga + lesbian’ on google, I discovered that the woman who kisses LG in the prison yard is called Heather Cassils, and is ‘an artist, stunt person and a body builder who uses [her] exaggerated physique to undermine and interrogate systems of power and control'.

She seems very cool and articulate on gender performance, which is clearly her thing. When asked about whether the video was problematic in terms of LBGT representation, Cassils replied:
No, I find nothing problematic about Gaga's video. For some one to say that it is bad to have representation of LGBTQ people in prison in a music is just ludicrous to me. To be able to poke, to parody ourselves means we have come a long way. They are missing the point. In addition, Gaga is exploiting all images in the video, including herself. The structure of the video claims everything from Thelma and Louise to early sexploitation films. My friend Michelle Johnson who is an EXCELLENT filmmaker has made a film recently called Lezploitation, which reclaims exploitation films of this era through a lesbian gaze. While Gaga may not be a lesbian, Gaga is clearly not straight but certainly she is queer. I don't see any problem with her reclaiming these images as well!

Exploiting oneself? My knowledge of performance art is limited, but this is a complicated thing to say, especially when you’ve publicly committed to fighting sexism, as Lady Gaga did at the National Equality rally in October:
We say that this country is free. And we say that this country is equal. But it is not equal if it is [only] sometimes... 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 behaviour, in music, lyrics or action in the music industry... I love you all so much. Bless God and bless the gays!

She argued this week that the video is getting so much attention purely because of the homosexual themes, and clearly putting trans women, lesbians etc. in the centre of the video is a political statement:
There are transsexual women and transgender women [in the video] and suddenly it becomes poisonous and something else because there are some people in this world that believe being gay is a choice. It's not a choice, we're born this way.

It’s hard to walk this line, isn’t it? On the one hand, reclaiming sexist imagery and using your own body to do it can be incredibly powerful (as long as you are definitely the one in control). On the other, there is no way of separating symbol from history and context; how do you use previously exploitative imagery without retaining the original meaning? But this stuff is fun, and it’s sexy. It’s an event. I watch it and it makes me want to be more creative. But it’s also designed to make money – to sell phones and Diet Coke apparently – and this is where using/selling/exploiting your own body becomes so heavily enmeshed with capitalism it’s hard to see the possibilities for stepping out of the patriarchal paradigm even if you do have Beyoncé to drive you off into the distance on Tarantino’s Pussy Wagon.

Gaga claims that the idea behind the video is to say ‘that America is full of young people that are inundated with information and technology, and turn it into something that is more of a commentary on the kind of country that we are.’ This is, then, a statement about, not a critique of American capitalism, and if she wasn’t a burgeoning feminist, if she wasn’t a LBGT campaigner, if she wasn’t the most interesting and articulate pop artist around at the moment (one with money behind her anyway), perhaps it wouldn’t matter. But I expect more.

Lady Gaga told Barbara Walters that ‘I want to liberate [my young fans]. I want to free them from their fears and make them feel like they can create their own space in the world.’ We need more space – and we need a space where we can make out with other women without there being a mobile phone on sale. We need a space where we can look like a fierce blonde Amy Winehouse without it being sponsored by Coke. We need a space where Beyoncé can actually say the word ‘motherfucker’ out loud without it destroying her ‘image’, and by extension, career. We need a space where no one gives a fuck whether Lady Gaga has a penis or not, and she’s still hot.** We need a space where, if we’re lucky enough to possess our own bodies enough to exploit them, we can reach out to others who don’t have that autonomy.

So I expect more. But for now, I’ll have to be content to watch Gaga and Honey B escape into the sunset.

*This is a fascinating story – assuming it’s true – because Heat claims that putting the dildo down her trousers was all her idea. One can speculate that if she was under pressure to be topless and felt vulnerable, this was a was of regaining control.
** Though one could do a bunch of Freudian stuff with the video and LG’s explicit lack of a phallus...

1 comment:

  1. Ok if she's so up for space that isn't dominated by consumerism then why all the product placement? And is that comment? Is that parody? Well, sorry but really no. In a sense she's a natural offspring of the late Malcolm McLaren, only not quite so provocative. Her images don't really challenge stereotypes, but transform people including herself into images like diamond dust shoes. There are perhaps interesting questions about who these objects, these images, are for - are they a last meal for all the poisoned men, men who are choking on the newly quasi-empowered images of their creation? Or are they broken and damaged images that are attempting to pull themselves together for their own sakes? But if so then the femininity they have strung together seems to be only the fragments of the identities that men have given them. And this hits the real problem here that actually, whichever of the above we might presume, we're dealing here with the play of superficial images; images which are ineluctably tied to money - that glorious trinity of desire (sex), money and advertising. And as Roaring points out the language of self-exploitation here IS hard-hitting - at what cost do people turn themselves into objects? Make themselves quantifiable?

    It reminds me of Guy DeBord's *Society of the Spectacle*: "The spectacle is the self-portrait of power in the age of power's totalitarian rule over the conditions of existence", or again, "The spectacle is the bad dream of modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep."

    But do any of us want to live in a society without diet coke and virgin phones? How important is emancipation when you have front row tickets to a great show? How can you be cool and sexy, or like people who are cool and sexy, without reinforcing consumerism and misogyny?

    So Roaring's right - we need something braver, but we might be waiting a long time. I'll still go and see her though.

    Lady Gaga, so hot right now. Lady Gaga.


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