Posted by: Rajesh Shukla | August 9, 2010

Lady Gaga: Lady Power


If you want to get a bead on the state of feminism these days, look no further than the ubiquitous pop star Lady Gaga. Last summer, after identifying herself as a representative for “sexual, strong women who speak their mind,” the 23-year-old Gaga seemed to embrace the old canard that a feminist is by definition a man-hater when she told a Norwegian journalist, “I’m not a feminist. I hail men! I love men!” But by December she was praising the journalist Ann Powers, in a profile in The Los Angeles Times, for being “a little bit of a feminist, like I am.” She continued, “When I say to you, there is nobody like me, and there never was, that is a statement I want every woman to feel and make about themselves.” Apparently, even though she loves men — she hails them! — she is a little bit of a feminist because she exemplifies what it looks like for a woman to say, and to believe, that there’s nobody like her.

There is nobody like 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.” Powers compares Gaga to the artist Cindy Sherman: both draw our attention to the extent to which being a woman is a matter of artifice, of artful self-presentation. 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.

In her “Telephone” video, which has in its various forms received upwards of 60 million YouTube hits since it was first posted in March, Gaga plays a model-skinny and often skimpily dressed inmate of a highly sexualized women’s prison who, a few minutes into the film, is bailed out by Beyoncé. The two take off in the same truck Uma Thurman drove in “Kill Bill” — à la Thelma and Louise by way of Quentin Tarantino — and stop at a diner, where they poison, first, a man who stares lewdly at women and, then, all the other patrons (plus — go figure — a dog). Throughout, Gaga sings to her lover about how she’s too busy dancing in a club and drinking champagne with her girlfriends to talk to or text him on her telephone.

Is this an expression of Lady Gaga’s strength as a woman or an exercise in self-objectification?  It’s hard to decide. The man who drools at women’s body parts is punished, but then again so is everyone else in the place.  And if this man can be said to drool, then we need a new word for what the camera is doing to Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s bodies for upwards of 10 minutes. Twenty years ago, Thelma and Louise set out on their road trip to have fun and found out, as they steadily turned in lipstick and earrings for bandannas and cowboy hats, that the men in their world were hopelessly unable to distinguish between what a woman finds fun and what she finds hateful, literally death-dealing.  The rejection by Gaga and Beyoncé of the world in which they are — to use a favorite word of Gaga’s — “freaks” takes the form of their exploiting their hyperbolic feminization to mow down everyone in their way, or even not in their way.

The tension in Gaga’s self-presentation, far from being idiosyncratic or self-contradictory, epitomizes the situation of a certain class of comfortably affluent young women today.  There’s a reason they love Gaga.  On the one hand, they have been raised to understand themselves according to the old American dream, one that used to be beyond women’s grasp:  the world is basically your oyster, and if you just believe in yourself, stay faithful to who you are, and work hard and cannily enough, you’ll get the pearl.  On the other hand, there is more pressure on them than ever to care about being sexually attractive according to the reigning norms.  The genius of Gaga is to make it seem obvious — more so than even Madonna once did — that feminine sexuality is the perfect shucking knife.  And Gaga is explicit in her insistence that, since feminine sexuality is a social construct, anyone, even a man who’s willing to buck gender norms, can wield it.

Gaga wants us to understand her self-presentation as a kind of deconstruction of femininity, not to mention celebrity.  As she told Ann Powers, “Me embodying the position that I’m analyzing is the very thing that makes it so powerful.”  Of course, the more successful the embodiment, the less obvious the analytic part is.  And since Gaga herself literally embodies the norms that she claims to be putting pressure on (she’s pretty, she’s thin, she’s well-proportioned), the message, even when it comes through, is not exactly stable.  It’s easy to construe Gaga as suggesting that frank self-objectification is a form of real power.

If there’s anything that feminism has bequeathed to young women of means, it’s that power is their birthright.  Visit an American college campus on a Monday morning and you’ll find any number of amazingly ambitious and talented young women wielding their brain power, determined not to let anything — including a relationship with some needy, dependent man — get in their way.  Come back on a party night, and you’ll find many of these same girls (they stopped calling themselves “women” years ago) wielding their sexual power, dressed as provocatively as they dare, matching the guys drink for drink — and then hook-up for hook-up.

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.  After all, though they don’t stand up and walk away, they in principle could.  But the morning after, students routinely tell me, they are vulnerable to what I’ve come to call the “hook-up hangover.”  They’ll see the guy in the quad and cringe.  Or they’ll find themselves wishing in vain for more — if not for a prince (or a vampire, maybe) to sweep them off their feet, at least for the guy actually to have programmed their number into his cell phone the night before.  When the text doesn’t come, it’s off to the next party.

What’s going on here?  Women of my generation — I have a Gaga-savvy daughter home for the summer from her first year of college — have been scratching our heads.  When we hear our daughters tell us that in between taking A.P. Statistics and fronting your own band you may be expected to perform a few oral sexual feats, we can’t believe it.  Some critics of “hook-up culture” have suggested, more or less moralistically, that the problem is that all this casual sex is going to mess with girls’ heads.  But whatever you think of casual sex, it’s not new.  What’s mind-boggling is how girls are able to understand engaging in it, especially when it’s unidirectional, as a form of power.

Jean-Paul Sartre, taking a cue from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, proposed in “Being and Nothingness” that what moves human beings to do things that don’t quite square with one another is that we are metaphysical amalgams.  Like everything else in the world, we have a nature:  we’re bodily, we can’t control what happens around us, and we are constantly the objects of other people’s judgments.  Sartre called this part of ourselves “being-in-itself.” But at the same time we’re subjects, or what he, following Hegel, called “being-for-itself”:  we make choices about what we do with our bodies and appetites, experience ourselves as the center of our worlds and judge the passing show and other people’s roles in it.  For Sartre, the rub is that it’s impossible for us to put these two halves of ourselves together.  At any given moment, a person is either an object or a subject.

The Cartesian dualism that drives Sartre’s understanding of human beings as metaphysically divided from themselves is decidedly out of fashion these days.  Most contemporary philosophers of all stripes reject the idea that we possess selves that are made of more than one type of metaphysical stuff.  But we shouldn’t forget that the claim at the heart of Sartre’s picture is thoroughly phenomenological:  it’s not so much that people are split as that they experience themselves as such.  Notoriously, Sartre was convinced that we are inclined to deal with the schism by acting in “bad faith.”  On occasion we find ourselves pretending that we’re pure subjects, with no fixed nature, no past, no constraints, no limits.  And at other times we fool ourselves into believing that we’re pure objects, the helpless victims of others’ assessments, our own questionable proclivities, our material circumstances, our biology.  Sartre’s view gives us a way to understand how a girl might construe her sexually servicing a random guy or shaking her thong-clad booty at a video camera as an act of unadulterated self-expression and personal power.  But this interpretation comes at the cost of an epistemic superiority complex, according to which young women are hiding from themselves the ugly truth about what they’re “really” doing.

Leave it to Simone de Beauvoir to take her lifelong partner Sartre to task on this very point.  If you have it in your head that “The Second Sex” is just warmed-over Sartre, look again. When it comes to her incredibly detailed descriptions of women’s lives, Beauvoir repeatedly stresses that our chances for happiness often turn on our capacity for canny self-objectification.  Women are — still — heavily rewarded for pleasing men.  When we make ourselves into what men want, we are more likely to get what we want, or at least thought we wanted.  Unlike Sartre, Beauvoir believed in the possibility of human beings’ encountering each other simultaneously as subjects and as objects.  In fact, she thought that truly successful erotic encounters positively demand that we be “in-itself-for-itself” with one another, mutually recognizing ourselves and our partners as both subjects and objects.  The problem is that we are inclined to deal with the discomfort of our metaphysical ambiguity by splitting the difference:  men, we imagine, will relentlessly play the role of subjects; women, of objects.  Thus our age-old investment in norms of femininity and masculinity. The few times that Beauvoir uses the term “bad faith” she’s almost always lamenting our cleaving to gender roles as a way of dealing with what metaphysically ails us, rather than, à la Sartre, scolding women for doing the best they can in an unjust world.

The goal of “The Second Sex” is to get women, and men, to crave freedom — social, political and psychological — more than the precarious kind of happiness that an unjust world intermittently begrudges to the people who play by its rules.  Beauvoir warned that you can’t just will yourself to be free, that is, to abjure relentlessly the temptations to want only what the world wants you to want.  For her the job of the philosopher, at least as much as the fiction writer, is to re-describe how things are in a way that competes with the status quo story and leaves us craving social justice and the truly wide berth for self-expression that only it can provide.

Lady Gaga and her shotgun companions should not be seen as barreling down the road of bad faith.   But neither are they living in a world in which their acts of self-expression or self-empowerment are distinguishable, even in theory, from acts of self-objectification.  It remains to be seen whether philosophers will be able to pick up the gauntlet that’s still lying on the ground more than half a century after Beauvoir tossed it down:  whether we can sketch a vision of a just world seductive enough to compete with the allures of the present one.

Nancy Bauer is associate professor and chair of philosophy at Tufts University. She is the author of “Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism,” and is currently completing a new book, “How to Do Things With Pornography.”

from NY times here>>>

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