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Lady Gaga September 14, 2010
In this weekend’s The Sunday Times magazine, Camille Paglia, the well-known feminist social critic, set her sights on the princess of pop, Lady Gaga. In an article titled ‘Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex,’ Paglia asserts that Gaga lacks the necessary sex appeal to be an icon of her standing and that her spectacle is little more than a “ghoulish” and “sexually dysfunctional” front so we don’t notice.
There is a profound cynicism in Paglia’s words, as if she is offended by all things earnest. She challenges Gaga’s larger-than-life generalizations about loving one’s self, forgetting that when making them, Gaga isn’t speaking face-to-face with someone she knows but rather to an audience of millions – many of whom have been discriminated against, even physically assaulted, for living a lifestyle that doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles.
“Although she presents herself as the clarion voice of all the freaks and misfits of life, there is little evidence that she ever was one,” Paglia writes. But why does it matter if Gaga was raised in a “normal,” upper-middle-class family? Is she then not allowed to sympathize with those who weren’t, or, worse, is it somehow improper for her to throw her support behind marginalized individuals because she wasn’t one herself?
Of course it isn’t, or it certainly shouldn’t be, but that’s the subtext of Paglia’s argument: How dare Lady Gaga speak out for and attempt to provide comfort to “freaks” and “misfits” when she wasn’t born one?
If anything, Gaga’s unwavering support for the gay community – she was escorted down the white carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards by individuals impacted by the military’s discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – is made all the more sincere because she is not a lesbian herself. Her support is born not out of empathy but out of logic, sympathy and exposure; she doesn’t understand why a specific group is, in her eyes, being unfairly discriminated against, and she isn’t afraid to voice her opinion on the matter.
Paglia goes on to posit that “despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all” and “For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface,” before asserting that “Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference” between the asexual showing of skin and what is, presumably, genuinely sexy. She ends her assault grandly: “Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution?”
What Paglia fails to see is that Lady Gaga isn’t really about sex at all. She’s missed the boat in a number of ways here, and inadvertently belittles pop music and its consumers by assuming that all pop music must be sexualized, specifically for the benefit of straight men (the demographic least likely to consume it), in order to sell.
Despite her body-baring ensembles, Lady Gaga isn’t trying to be a sex object like so many other celebrities. She bares her flesh in a display of both confidence and art, allowing herself to be a canvas for many of the world’s most talented and avant-garde designers and photographers.
Paglia’s correct that Gaga represents a certain asexuality. However, she cites it as a flaw, while I’d argue it is fundamental to Gaga’s appeal. She invites her “Little Monsters” into an environment where their sexuality doesn’t matter, where they are accepted for who they are, not who they sleep with or what they look like. She encourages the grotesque in an effort to subvert the importance of beauty, on which our culture puts such a premium.
Paglia, naturally, runs to Madonna, who she has alternately celebrated and dismissed repeatedly over the years, to back up many of her arguments. In 1990, at the height of the fervor over Madge’s ‘Justify My Love’ video, Paglia declared her a feminist icon. Madonna, Paglia theorized, “exposes the Puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives.”
Paglia may have been right about Madonna in that particular context, but in viewing Lady Gaga under the same microscope, she inadvertently reveals a fundamental way in which the two singers, who are so often compared, differ. Desiring Madonna sexually was key to her appeal, and her control over that aspect of her marketing was part of what made Madonna an icon; in 1990, you wanted Madonna to dominate you, and in a lot of ways she was the first woman in the mainstream media to push that particular envelope.
But just a few years after ‘Justify My Love’ and her massive, legendary ‘Blonde Ambition’ world tour, Madonna took it too far. She alienated the very women she freed from patriarchal standards of sex by repositioning herself as an almost vulgar cartoon of what she had been, and her audience could no longer relate to what she appeared to be advocating. It was one thing to command women (and gay men, who always were and remain a major part of Madonna’s audience) to express themselves, but it was quite another to literally bring out the whips and chains.
In this way, Gaga is the anti-Madonna. She may appropriate Madonna’s imagery and reliance on spectacle – but really, name a modern female (or male, for that matter) pop star who doesn’t – but, when it comes to sex, she isn’t even attempting to travel the same road as the Material Girl. Madonna broke a lot of ground – ground that has made it possible for Lady Gaga to be the trailblazer she is – but Gaga is daring to do what so many lesser pop stars haven’t; she’s picking up Madonna’s baton and marching forward rather than treading water in Her Madgesty’s pond for the sake of money and fame.
Paglia’s mistake is to assume that there is no other road in popular music for a female pop artist than the one Madonna chose to pave. She’s blinded by fanaticism. We’ve seen countless artists attempt to play the hand that Madonna’s dealt, and most have buckled under the pressure of in authenticity. Artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have had to reboot and re-strategize because they made the mistake of thinking that there was only one way to be seen as a powerful woman, a person with something to say, and that it relied on sex because Madonna said so.
But that wasn’t what Madonna was saying at all. Madonna wanted everyone to be themselves, and she took it upon herself to break down what she saw as the last barrier standing in the way – the oppression of female (and gay male) sexuality. It’s that lesson that Gaga has taken to heart and continues to preach to her “Little Monsters.” And it is a lesson she’s blessedly been able perpetuate without turning herself into just another inflatable sex doll with a hit record.