Friday, June 25, 2010

Gaga for feminism

Last week a Facebook friend posted a link to a New York Times Opinionator post that claims, "It’s easy to construe [Lady] Gaga as suggesting that frank self-objectification is a form of real power." The author, Nancy Bauer, discusses Lady Gaga not as a feminist heroine but questions if her bizarre performances are "an expression of Lady Gaga’s strength as a woman or an exercise in self-objectification." The discussion takes a couple different forms--first, Bauer relates Gaga's highly sexual antics to worries that women of our age have been hearing over and over since the age of ten: young girls in modern society face pressure from the evil media to be skinny, pretty, submissive, etc.
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.
Then Bauer takes a philosophical turn, discussing self-objectification in the context of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
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.
I think my main beef with this article is that Bauer bases her "self-objectification" judgment of Gaga on 1) Gaga's unclear personal view of feminism and, most annoyingly, 2) Gaga's (and Beyonce's) skimpy outfits in the "Telephone" video.
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 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.
Bauer does acknowledge that "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," but she seems to view provocative dress as a big no-no for young ladies like ourselves and Gaga.

(Her assumptions the first paragraph I quoted are particularly annoying to me. I am a young lady in college with a reasonable amount of talent and ambition, wielding my brain power and all that. I haven't replaced "woman" with "girl" and though I like boys (or men) I've never desired or felt pressured to become a "toy" for one of them. And I'm not matching all the boys hook-up for hook-up, even if I choose to wear a low-cut top and drink. Also, like Gaga, I am thin and well-proportioned. That doesn't mean either of us has become a prisoner of an evil oppressive beauty standard. So butt out and stop assuming things about my life/worldview/self-esteem. That brain power I'm wielding? It enables me to do things I call Not Being Stupid and Identifying The Difference Between Lady Gaga And Real Life. Who is telling journalists these lies about us?)

I think the "Telephone" video makes it awfully clear that Gaga and Beyonce aren't doing what Bauer discusses using Sartre and Beauvoir, that women are "engaging in [sex], especially when it’s unidirectional, as a form of power." In fact, they're doing the opposite. They may be in a "highly sexualized" environment but they're not doing a damn thing to please any men. They happen to be kinda busy. (K-kinda busy, k-kinda busy.)
Usually when we walk about pop songs objectifying women we mean rap and hip-hop lyrics that talk about women's body parts, compare women to cars and other material items, encourage them to perform sexual favors, blah blah blah. It seems clear to me that Gaga's lyrics, costumes, and videos aren't presenting her as another ass to slap; she's all about kicking ass.
Bonus link, one of my faves: Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos.

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