by Rhian Sasseen
We’ve come a long way, baby. In the twenty-first century, the American woman has a bevy of career paths and a plethora of domestic options from which to choose. She can try and fail to have it all. She can start a lady blog. She can even, if the mood strikes her, take her cues from Lady Gaga. The only thing the contemporary American woman can’t do, it would seem, is be overtly political – after all, feminism is about having fun, right?
American feminism, in all its various waves and iterations, has long held an uneasy truce with pop culture, but these days it’s us, not them, that are doing the co-opting. The era of de-fanged riot grrls and empty invocations of “girl power” has come to a close; in its place, the third wave’s relationship with mainstream pop culture, particularly pop music, is that of fawning adulation – or Stockholm Syndrome. “Subversion,” a term borrowed from the ivory tower, is now ascribed to every female singer with a 4/4 beat and a hook about drinking, though it is in the context of one figure that this particular hypocrisy stands out the most: the oft-mentioned Lady Gaga. As a twenty-two year old woman – a member of the exact demographic that so many older third wavers try to pander to – I fail to see anything revolutionary about a thin, blonde, upper middle class white woman with a penchant for ripping off Madonna (herself an earlier example of this trend.) But don’t tell this to Jezebel. Don’t tell this to Salon. And whatever you do, don’t tell this to the theorist J. Jack Halberstam, author of the recent Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal.
There’s always something a little sad when an academic tries to be hip, and Halberstam’s latest effort has more than a whiff of the midlife crisis in its pages. What exactly makes Lady Gaga such a worthy symbol for this brave new feminist world? Halberstam’s not exactly sure; on one hand, we are supposed to admire Gaga for her “power as a maestro of media manipulation, a sign of a new world disorder,” as though manipulation and influence, rather than concrete political change and power, haven’t always been the forms of authority assigned to women. (xii) In this same preface, Halberstam also admits that “this is not necessarily a brand-new feminism, and Lady Gaga herself is certainly not an architect of a new gender politics.” (xiii) So why go Gaga? Well, apparently the kids just love it:
Forget about “Born This Way” and focus on the rhythmic free fall accomplished by Lady Gaga…Lady Gaga’s music might not itself stray far from pop, but when she performs in crazy costumes and with wild abandon, we have a sense of the new world order that she opens up, for young people in particular. (137)
In other words, gaga feminism is nothing more than fauxvant-garde chic, the banal and the ordinary masked as the new: twitchy dances moves and mermaid costumes can only provide so much of a distraction from a music and a politics that offer nothing radical or interesting. “I’m not a feminist,” said Gaga in a 2009 interview. “I hail men. I love men.” – Not exactly the words of a true gender revolutionary. It’s almost as though Halberstam, entranced by Gaga’s cartoonish showmanship, has never experienced the pop culture sugar rush that is MTV – or the Internet.
What Gaga Feminism is very clear about, however, is its distaste for activism, progress, or change. Gaga feminism “is not about sisterhood, motherhood, sorority, or even women.” (29) Then why call it “feminism?” This is social justice as a game, as affectation: Lady Gaga-style feminism reduces identity to shock tactic. Even Halberstam, when confronted with Gaga’s use of gay rights as self-promotion, has to admit that “Lady Gaga’s words in political speeches are ordinary…for this reason, I build gaga feminism in the bedrock of the outrageous performance archive that Lady Gaga has created and not in relation to her speeches on behalf of marriage equality or gays in the military, positions that offer no critique of marriage on the one hand or the military on the other.” (103 – 104) Gaga feminism offers no critique of contemporary gender relations or the state of American feminism; delighted with the distraction of bright colors and loud noise, it instead gives us nothing more than a politics of self-congratulation, which mimics a femininity constructed by a capitalist patriarchal culture rather than seeking to destroy it.
Pop culture-style feminism has come to dominate the American feminist blogosphere, as typified by Jezebel. Again, it is the obsession with Gaga as some kind of role model that grates; even when the attention turns moderately critical, as it did in a September 26 post entitled “When the World Is Your Therapist: Lady Gaga’s Eating Disorder Is a Double-Edged Sword,” it is still attention paid to a figure that does not deserve it. As feminists, who would we be without our celebrity obsession? – What would we talk about? – Maybe, just maybe: our rights.
It is the year 2013 in America, and the Equal Rights Amendment has not passed, women still earn less than a man’s dollar for the same amount and type of work, and we just suffered through an election in which a woman’s right to bodily autonomy was questioned daily. Gaga feminism, however, sees rights as irrelevant. “You cannot win in a world where the game is fixed,” Halberstam argues, “so resign yourself to losing.” (147) For a younger generation, gaga feminism offers not hope but instead, a deeply cynical politics of failure. When Jezebel dedicates itself to the whereabouts of movie stars, it wastes valuable time and space and squanders its far-reaching influence for women the world over. Pop culture feminism is feminism as frivolity, feminism as accessory: by commodifying our rebellion, we have only served to further oppress ourselves.
There is something deeply ironic to Halberstam’s brief invocation of the Invisible Committee, a French political art group in the vein of the earlier Situationists, when considering Lady Gaga’s own embodiment of the theory of the Young-Girl, a concept conceived of by Tiqqun, a collective related to the Invisible Committee. Cultural figures such as Lady Gaga, arbiters of an easily consumed political dilettantism, are, like the (male or female) Young-Girl, Spectacle in its ultimate form, the lie we cannot look away from:
The Young-Girl is an article of consumption, a device for maintaining order, a producer of sophisticated merchandise, an unprecedented propagator of Spectacular codes, an avant-garde of alienation, and also, an entertainment. (114)
When we as a movement allow our politics to become entertainment, we mute our rebellions, turning any real rage or subversions into a costume, a trick, a grimace. A joke. Lady Gaga knows what we want to hear: she tells us that we are unique, that we are monsters, that we were born this way. That our fates are inescapable, that nothing can be done. Exhausted by an ever-expanding world of distractions and depressions, and raised in a decade characterized by post-9/11 fear and paranoia, it is perhaps easier to give up, to sit inside, to stare at music videos all day and tell ourselves that we are changing something, making some sort of difference. It is easier – and far less moral.
When confronted with a movement this obsessed with Lady Gaga, I am reminded of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s 1999 take-down of Judith Butler, entitled “The Professor of Parody” and appearing in The New Republic. “Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism,” she writes. “It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their own campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn’t it exciting and sexy?”
We are the young women who have dutifully read our theory, and this is the ultimate result. A feminism that enslaves itself to pop culture idolatry offers nothing for the ordinary woman, the everyday woman, the woman who is raped and beaten and silenced and ignored. Tumblr screeds on “Telephone” won’t help her; is the personal really that political when it turns navel-gazing, mundane, and self-obsessed? It is time for us to tear ourselves away from the allure of our computer screens and to focus on an avenue of change that remains relevant to the concerns of American women as a whole: the law.
Rhian Sasseen writes and lives in Cambridge, MA.