At 23 years old, Stephani Germanotta—better known to consumers of pop culture by her pseudonym Lady Gaga—is establishing herself as the most prominent and misunderstood feminist of her generation. Gaga, as she prefers to be called, uses every aspect of her public persona—her songs, performances, interactions with the media and gender presentation—to reflect society’s conception of capital-f Femininity. She’s provocative, forcing her allies and critics alike to question our values in a way few, if any, pop stars of her caliber ever have.
Gaga’s meteoric rise to fame since the late-2008 release of her album “The Fame” has stunned the world, and just now are we beginning to understand that she is more than a fleeting shock-and-awe side show. She is hyper self-aware, embodying a cultural shift that is both predicated on and staunchly defiant of all that has come before her. We are in The Lady Gaga Moment, and the world may never be the same.
Now, before you write me off as just another gay boy infatuated with Gaga’s severe aesthetic, hear me out and understand that—true to the Gaga spirit—what may seem like my penchant for hyperbole is ultimately honest observation.
Gaga the Musician
Gaga’s relationship to her music is, in itself, a feminist statement. In a December 2009 Los Angeles Times profile, writer Ann Powers noted that Gaga’s “frank talk about how female artists aren’t expected to write their own songs or about how young women are afraid to ask for what they need from their sexual partners inches her toward a new articulation of feminism.”
That Gaga writes her own music and plays it live is but one aspect of how she uses art to empower her fans, many of whom are teenage girls. Her lyrics, which have been criticized for glorifying abusive relationships, in fact shine a harsh light on themes that other pop stars (e.g. a sexualized teenage Britney Spears singing “hit me baby one more time”) have perpetuated without any sense of irony. In fact, I would venture to guess that Gaga would be pleased that a panel of teenagers rated two of her songs, “Bad Romance” and “Paparazzi,” among the top-ten songs with unhealthy relationship ingredients; it’s proof that they get it.
Gaga favors subversion over didactics. Rather than telling us that we’re ugly, she’s holding up a mirror and forcing us to see it for ourselves. Gaga does not pander to her fans or her critics. She says things in a way that can be misinterpreted, but to acknowledge what’s dangerous about her message is to admit that she has something to say in the first place.
Gaga the Performer
Whether or not you’ve ever been to one of Gaga’s concerts—and if you haven’t, it’s an experience you will never forget or regret—it’s easy to acknowledge that she is a singular talent with respect to stage imagery.
In September 2009, Gaga performed “Paparazzi” at the MTV Video Music Awards. At the end of the performance, she was left hanging, blood-soaked and lifeless, above a throng of dancers exulting her corpse. She later told Oprah Winfrey, “Something that some people don’t always know about me is that I put a lot of thought behind all my performances… The VMA performance, for me, that was a commentary about Princess Diana and about being a martyr to fame.”
Later, in November 2009, Gaga sang two more of her hits—“Bad Romance” and “Speechless”—at the American Music Awards. Prior to the performance, blogs and some less reputable publications had suggested that Gaga had a penis. Rather than directly address the rumors at that time, Gaga responded in a typically effrontery manner: Her AMA costume was made of ace bandages, once of which strategically covered her groin. As a result, every time she bent over, the bandage would bulge out and allude to a phallus.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Gaga’s live performances is that she simultaneously showers her audience with adoration while rebuking their encouragement. If her critique of society is that we prefer to victimize female pop stars, then she turns herself into a tragic heroine of Shakespearean proportions. And while we cheer her on, we’re unable to escape the feeling that we’re leading the charge toward our own destruction. As Jason Zinoman observed in the New York Times last month, “... when [Gaga] flirts with her fans, expressing her love for them, the standard pop star cliches clash with the macabre story of the show, which acts out more of a dysfunctional relationship.” That’s the Gaga paradox: She builds us up in order to break us down.
Gaga the Icon
The most common criticism of Gaga that I’ve encountered is that she is antifeminist. And while it is true that she once said she was not a feminist, she has since recanted. Gaga identified as a feminist when she spoke to Ann Powers during her interview for the LA Times piece, and Powers noted that the singer “is growing ‘more compassionate,’ she says, and 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.”
Gaga’s commitment to her community has become more visible in the past few months. In early February, Gaga and Cyndi Lauper embarked on a mini-media tour for the M.A.C. Cosmetics Viva Glam campaign to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. Gaga and Lauper represent the two groups with the highest rates of new HIV infections in the U.S., namely women aged 18 to 24 and 39 to 60. “Us together,” Gaga explained during an appearance on the Today Show, “represents a bond. And it represents the kind of confidence and friendship we want mothers to have with their daughters, for friends to have, for sisters to have.”
Later, speaking directly to young women during the same interview, Gaga brought home the real: “I want you to aspire for a loving and monogamous relationship,” she said. “And I want you to practice safe sex. And when that guy that you’re with is naked in his bed and you go to the bathroom to freshen up… remind yourself to have safe sex… It’s not only OK for a woman to say, ‘Not unless you wrap it up,’ but you have to.”
On top of encouraging young women to embrace healthy sexual practices, she inspires them to question oppressive patriarchal influences. When Gaga appeared on the AMAs, she gave a nod to the rumors that she has a penis. In this month’s Q Magazine (which is encountering a lot of resistance in the U.S.), she confronts them vigilantly. Gaga appears on the issue’s cover wearing a black dildo, and in the article she explains, “We all know one of the biggest talking points of the year was that I have a dick, so why not give them what they want. I want to comment on that in a beautiful, artistic way… When a guy says, ‘Oh I f***ed all these chicks this week,’ there’s a high-five and giggling… But when a women does it and it’s publicized or she’s open about her sexuality or she’s free, or liberated, it’s, ‘Oh, she must have a dick.’ There’s a threat.”
Gaga is in a position to do more than make people just dance. She knows this, and she’s using her power to influence change. Although her methods are disquieting to feminist allies and opponents alike, one thing is sure: Gaga is provoking discussions that others in her position are either too scared or too ignorant to initiate. She admits when she is wrong (witness her reversal on being called a feminist), and she encourages others to be honest with themselves. That way, she contends, we can heal the hurt caused by a society that values conformity over authenticity.
“My art is liberation,” Gaga says in her Q Magazine interview. “Things confine us as human beings. As a society. And I want to free you. I want to free you.”