in which Lady Gaga’s latest video is actually really awesome if I’ve been right all along about her commentary on feminine agency:
The premise is key, so I’ll back up a little and summarize the previous post(s) you obviously should have read about my take on Lady Gaga’s feminist commentary but couldn’t — because I didn’t write them, I just explained them to my long-suffering boyfriend and also my mother:
Lady Gaga has, for some time (and with some backup from Beyoncé), been building a comprehensive catalog and critique of the ways that agency is available to women in contemporary American pop culture. To save time (because “ways that agency is available to blahdee blah blah” takes too long to write and read), I’m going to call these “feminine agencies.” In other words, ways that ladies seize control of their lives and claim full humanity in the face of dehumanizing and disempowering gender expectations and norms.1
In Telephone, we saw a fantastic catalog of feminine agencies. In the opening scenes, imprisoned women of color and of all sizes assert agency (or at least toughness, which is a facade of agency) in the face of economic and literal disempowerment: they lift weights, they taunt each other, they hit on each other both sexually and violently. Lady Gaga strides into the prison yard as the embodiment of their estrangement–wrapped in chains and blinded by cigarette glasses (with cigarettes as both economic signifier of prison bartering and as obvious killer of women by way of performed toughness)–and the women predictably assert their power over her by taunting her, sexualizing her, feminizing her.
But Beyonce’s call shifts the framework of the prison — this isn’t a prison, it’s a club; these women’s assertions of agency are metaphorical as well as realistic. Dance scene! Layered commentary by costuming! The lyrics are pretty simple: the dance floor and the trope of the ladies’ night out, with the familiar presence of the ol’ ball-and-chain chronic-texter boyfriend, offer another obvious and pretty pedestrian setting for women to assert independence and ask for a break from the problematic project of resolving femininity and subjectivity (I don’t wanna think anymore). Plus, Lady Gaga’s body, in her prison cell, is a crime scene.2
But Beyonce bails her out in a stylized-revenge-driven appropriation of Uma Thurman’s stylized-revenge-driven appropriation of an exploitative pimp-mobile, and they briefly play at queering heteronormativity on the way to doing two things:
- Take our parade-of-feminine-agencies to the country; we’ve already seen all the ways poor inner city ladies try to assert femininity in ways that backfire, but let’s go check out all the ways that rural ladies’ agency is crippled by economic and social realities! With dancing and sandwiches!
- Kill people, because that is, no question about it, a badass — albeit futile and self-defeating — assertion of goddamn AGENCY.
I’m going to skim over the rest, but there are two more moments and one more theme I want to highlight:
First, on the way there, Gaga pulls out the [product placement!] Polaroid and snaps Beyoncé’s sassy driving-poses. Coming, as it does, right after their nearly-nonsense3 conversation about shattered mirrors, I think this moment refers to the ways women attempt to control their image and identity by participating in their own objectification and sexualization. In this case, the [gorgeous] pictures Gaga takes of Beyonce are empowering — it’s clear that they are Beyonce just as she would be presented, on the way to exact revenge — but they backfire (they’re left behind, and ultimately may implicate her in the crime she’s committing). That is, the ways we try to gain control over our objectification by participating in it can often backfire and become evidence “against” us — evidence that we are too sexual, too self-aware, or too cognizant of our cultural roles.
Secondly, I think the slutty-American-flag-garb dance scene is unexpectedly interesting. The urban women we started with grasped at agency through violence; in the rural setting of the diner, the means for gaining respect and deproblematizing identity is patriotism. In rural America, patriotism (especially ostensibly uncomplicated patriotism as signified by the flag) is unquestionable and respectable. By literally wrapping themselves in the flag, women claim a solid place in the order of their community, allowing them to potentially transgress in other ways more safely (as long as they still have some T&A showing, of course).
Finally, the thing we can’t very well ignore: the product placements. Consumerism is one way of asserting economic agency, although it also tends to circumscribe femininity in turn. Lady Gaga has, however, found a way to control that cycle: becoming the vehicle and symbol for advertisers. I think she’s aware of the blatant absurdity of her product placements; I think she’s mocking her sponsors, mocking her critics, and mocking/asserting her own celebrity. She’s aware of the complications of consumerism, and she’s flipping them off.
Well, and then they kill the maybe-abusive boyfriend and everybody else because pissed-off ladies are dangerous or whatever and they drive off into the sunset promising a sequel, because this isn’t exactly a story where a happy ending is possible, so no ending is about the best we’re gonna do.
I think that about covers it.
The video is joking, playful, mocking, and bleak: I would (and do) argue that it’s simultaneously a celebration of the ways women control their own identities and ways of being in the world (specifically in American culture) AND an indictment of the cultural futility of attempting full subjectivity or meaningful agency within the limitations of American femininity. In other words, HOLY SHIT, Gaga: nobody’s done gender theory so publicly, so irreverently, and with such complexity in recent memory. Nice. Work.
1. I know that women statistically are outpacing men in academic performance and beginning to be the majority in the workplace. However, I’m going to assume here (because I think it makes sense) that “male” is still normative for “human,” as well as that being female requires a more concerted and problematic grab for agency to achieve subjectivity without losing one’s [gendered] social identity.
2. The video even points out (via some hilarious product-placement) the ostensibly-masculinized prison guard’s online dating profile, thereby reminding us that she is also and equally feminine.
3. Disclaimer: my pop cultural knowledge is pretty holey. I suspect there are many music video and movie references in this video that I am completely missing. Feel free to help out if you know what they are.