feminism, Matrilineal History, or Girls’ and Women’s Empowerment and the Music Industry

Gaga over Gaga? Girls’ and women’s empowerment in the music industry

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Feminism in America today is often justified by the word ‘choice,’ in the sense that women should have a ‘choice’ in terms of what feminine conventions they embrace or reject. For example, some young feminists say that they are empowered by choosing to wear makeup and high heels and mothers ‘should have a choice’ to work or stay home with their children. So long as there is individual self-awareness, theoretically whatever one does is ‘feminist,’ according to Third Wave feminism. The role of social pressures in motivating such choices — such as being teased if one does not wear makeup, or a lack of affordable childcare and support at home — goes unremarked upon. However, in their essay “Teaching the conflicts: (Re)engaging students with feminism in a postfeminist world,” Meredith A. Love and Brenda M. Helmbrecht argue that consumerism, or ‘choosing’ the right type of body lotion (appropriately validated by the Dove ‘real woman’ campaign) or girl power CD has become a substitute for taking true, abrasive and challenging social action (Love & Helmbrecht 50). Or to quote Katha Pollitt: “it’s not enough to say, ‘Whatever floats your boat,’” for feminism to be successful and to change society (Pollitt, 318, cited by Love & Helmbrecht 46).

The paradoxes of modern Third Wave feminism and post-feminism can be seen in the recent, ironic persona of the musical artist known as Lady Gaga. An unknown barely more than two years ago, Lady Gaga has exploded onto the music scene, seemingly in complete control of her music, lyrics, and stage persona. Her lyrics and videos contain images of bondage, dominance, and submission, both of women under the power of men, and women over men. This flexibility of power relations, as well as Gaga’s seeming control over her musical and media career has caused many to laud her as a feminist heroine for the 21st century. Gaga loves men, loves fashion yet is completely in control of her career, unlike many previous female pop stars. However, by creating an outrageous, unique, and highly individualistic stage persona, Lady Gaga could also be said to embody many of the principles outlined in Love and Helmbrecht’s article.

On the subject of feminism, Gaga herself opined: “You see, if I was a guy, and I was sitting here with a cigarette in my hand, grabbing my crotch and talking about how I make music ’cause I love fast cars and fucking girls, you’d call me a rock star. But when I do it in my music and in my videos, because I’m a female, because I make pop music, you’re judgmental, and you say that it is distracting. I’m just a rock starI’m not a feminist – I, I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, and beer, and bars and muscle cars” (Maloney 2009). On one hand, Gaga points out that male and female musical stars are treated differently in the industry, which sounds like a feminist position. Then, in the same breath she implies that being a feminist means rejecting men. Such contradictions are also seen in her work. In her recent hit “Telephone” Lady Gaga allies herself with Beyonce in ‘dissing’ a man who keeps ‘blowing up their phone,’ turning the convention of the young woman waiting to hear from her boyfriend on the phone upside down. But in “Paparazzi” Gaga states “I’m your biggest fan/I’ll follow you until you love me,” in slavish devotion to her lover.

Writes Noelle Williams for the iconic feminist magazine Ms: “Nobody could describe my relationship with Lady Gaga better than she does: We’re in a Bad Romance. She’ll say something feminist one minute and equate feminism with man-hating the next. Sometimes she seems too skinny, too blonde, too commercial — but then she explains how her Bad Romance video simulates the trafficking of women as commodities in the music industry and I swoon” (Williams 2009). Is the love of muscle cars and men part of her stage persona, and the analysis of female commodification that locates her artistry as part of a larger social struggle the ‘real’ Gaga, a woman who pursed education at NYU? Or is this intellectualism just as much of an act as the blonde bombshell — is Gaga trying to have it both ways? Lady Gaga remains deliberately elusive, a convenient position that encourages both feminists and anti-feminists to buy her music.

Lady Gaga’s persona clearly stresses the ‘put on’ and commodified nature of femininity. In the extended video “Telephone” when Gaga is portrayed as being arrested, she is initially mistaken for being a drag queen. The idea that femininity can be bought and sold suggests that consumerism, not empowerment is at the heart of her ‘platinum blonde beauty.’ “I am not sexy in the way Britney Spears is sexyI just don’t have the same ideas about sexuality that I want to portray. I have a very specific aesthetic — androgyny” says Gaga (Williams 2010). But identifying as explicitly poststructuralist in her orientation is not synonymous with feminism. In fact, it has been alleged that “many in the third wave [of feminism] — in their attempt to complicate and broaden feminism, in their attempt to bring postmodern and poststructuralist theoretical concepts to bear on feminist theory and praxis — run the risk of abandoning feminist politics” (Dicker and Piepmeier 18, cited by Love & Helmbrecht 45). Even while Gaga satirizes bombshell femininity, she also makes it seem mesmerizing and attractive to her fans. Her individual stage persona and strangeness seems to have little to do with a wider social movement, and is more of a postmodern joke or critique of culture. Even her protest that her simulated bondage and submission is a stand-in for the oppression of other women echoes the idea that individualism has replaced collective action in Third Wave feminism.

Yet merely because Gaga shows women in disempowered positions, and addresses women’s anxieties about being in control by showing them prostrate or obsessed by men, as in the song “Paparazzi” which likens a woman’s obsession to her boyfriend to the shallow, fame-driven press who follow celebrities, does not necessarily make her antifeminist. Lady Gaga’s irony does inject satire to the obsession of women with men (to suggest a girlfriend loves a boy like a paparazzi suggests such love is unhealthy and false). “In the 1980s, Madonna employed bondage imagery, and it felt sexual. Gaga does it, and it looks like it hurts” (Powers 2009). And Gaga’s image also acknowledges the reality and existence of inequality. Since many girls think they live in a , where feminism is no longer necessary, despite statistical evidence to the contrary, Gaga might be the answer. And in interviews she has lately been “focusing more on ideas of community, especially the one formed by her core fan base, a mix of gay men, bohemian kids and young women attracted by Gaga’s style and her singable melodies” (Powers 2009).

The problem may lie with contemporary culture more than Gaga. A single artist cannot represent an entire movement. An artist is only that — an individual. He or she will inevitably claim that his or her message is unique, and cannot be subsumed under any political category, including feminism. Cynically, one could say it suits Gaga’s personal purposes not to fully reject feminism, but also not to embrace it, as this allows her to have it both ways — and to have both fan bases, those who identify as feminists, and those who do not. “[U]nlike activism, which tends to encourage coalition building and collaboration, consumerism is a choice driven by marketing and individualism” (Love & Helmbrecht 55). Gaga is a diva, an icon, and as with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, images of icons can be bought and sold. They can represent whatever the consumer wants them to represent. Marilyn might represent childlike femininity or female victimization, and Madonna’s stage personas changed with every album she released.

Gaga says she is different because she is leading a movement, using the tools of celebrity. “I view glamour and celebrity life and these plastic assumptions as the pineapples. And I spend my career harvesting pineapples, and making pies and outfits and lipsticks that will free my fans from their stranded islands” (Powers 2009). But the quest is always of individual liberation “I want women — and men — to feel empowered by a deeper and more psychotic part of themselves. The part they’re always trying desperately to hide. I want that to become something that they cherish,” says Gaga (Powers 2009). On one hand, she sees the impetus of her movement as a collective quest, but that quest is always for individual liberation, and always in furthering her own fame.

Gaga, it could be argued, is ‘all about’ hiding the truth, even though she insists that she uses artifice to tell the truth about women. “Lady Gaga in part because she keeps us guessing about who she, as a woman, really is. She has been praised for using her music and videos to raise this question and to confound the usual exploitative answers provided by ‘the media’ Gaga’s gonzo wigs, her outrageous costumes, and her fondness for dousing herself in what looks like blood, are supposed to complicate what are otherwise conventionally sexualized performances” but this complication does not necessarily lead to a feminist liberation (Bauer 2010).

Still, Gaga has been embraced by a generation of women, some who shun and some who embrace the feminist label. “Lady Gaga idealizes this way of being in the world. But real young women, who, as has been well documented, are pressured to make themselves into boy toys at younger and younger ages, feel torn. They tell themselves a Gaga-esque story about what they’re doing. When they’re on their knees in front of a worked-up guy they just met at a party, they genuinely do feel powerful — sadistic, even” (Bauer 2010). But what about when women wish to have a relationship, beyond this kind of hook-up, transient sexuality? Does Gaga translate into the other goals of the feminist movement, beyond parodying one type of feminine aesthetic?

It is interesting that so many women have found Gaga fascinating, and gay men, but heterosexual men are often left cold, even when Gaga wears skimpy, porn-style clothing. Her films seem to have little to say about heterosexual romance when it is not obsessive and dark. While I personally like Lady Gaga’s music, I have not connected to her persona and stage show in the manner of some of my female friends. For them, Gaga represents more than a collection of songs: she is part of a new way of being a woman, of letting it all ‘hang out.’ But as brave and bold as she may be, Gaga seems to be ‘all about’ doing exactly what Katha Pollitt said was wrong about modern feminism “Whatever floats your boat” (Pollitt, 318, cited by Love & Helmbrecht 46). Gaga suggests that wearing outrageous clothing and makeup and ‘finding yourself’ are the most important aspects of modern feminism.

Listening to Lady Gaga may not be an antifeminist act, but loving Gaga is not a substitute for the type of meaningful political change desired by Love and Helmbrecht. Just like listening to rap music is not a substitute for fighting racism, using an artist to speak for a movement, or even for one’s own position on feminism, only goes so far to foster change. Lady Gaga should not be faulted for wanting to advance her career or even transmitting an ambiguous message in her music, but as well as debating the true meaning of “Bad Romance,” there must also be a focus upon debating the current state of women’s lives in America, lives that have not experienced the meteoric rise of Gaga’s career.

Works Cited

Bauer, Joy. “Lady Power.” The New York Times. June 20, 2010. June 21, 2010.

Love, Meredith A. & Brenda M. Helmbrecht. “Teaching the conflicts: (Re)engaging students with feminism in a postfeminist world.” Feminist Teacher. 18(1).

Maloney, Malori. Lady Gaga: “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men.” Bitch.

August 5, 2009. June 21, 2010.


Powers, Ann. “Frank talk with Lady Gaga.” The L.A. Times. December 13, 2009.

June 21, 2010. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/music/la-ca-lady-gaga13-2009dec13,1,1933920,full.story

Williams, Noelle. “Is Lady Gaga a feminist?” Ms. March 11, 2010. June 21, 2010.