Review of The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga, edited by Richard J. Gray II

Gray II, Richard J. ed. The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga: Critical Essays. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012

ISBN: 978-9-7864-6839-0

265pp (paperback)

978-0-7864-6830-0

 by

Claire Sedgwick

It has become almost cliched to describe Lady Gaga as a cultural phenomenon, but since the release of her debut album, The Fame in 2008, her outlandish performances and constant media speculation about her persona have piqued interest in her. As well as selling millions of records and performing to sold out arenas, Gaga has also become a vocal advocate for LGBT rights, campaigning for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and garnering a large gay fan base in the process.  Critical attention has turned towards Gaga, with Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal published in 2012 and Richard J Gray II’s edited collection The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga published in the same year.

The collection features essays on Gaga, focussing on the performative aspects of her work,  how her work relates to surrealism and the comparisons between Gaga and Madonna and discussions of how Gaga can be viewed in relation to modern day representations of feminism. As a feminist scholar, discussions about Gaga’s complicated relationship with feminism interests me, especially given the ways in which her work challenge assumptions about how a feminist should be behave. In an essay on Gaga in relation to gender, Mathieu Deflem asks “Is Lady Gaga a Feminist?” (p.29). Although Gaga is a committed advocate for LGBT rights and uses her videos as a vehicle to question women’s gender roles, her status as feminist cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, when asked whether she identifies as a feminist her responses have often been contradictory.  When asked in one interview whether she is a feminist she replied:  “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men (p.29).  Gaga uses the stereotype of the feminist man hater as a reason she doesn’t identify as a feminist, as if loving men and being a feminist are mutually exclusive.  However,  Deflem notes that Gaga moved from this outright rejection of feminism to a position where she describes herself as “a little bit feminist” (p.29), before stating more unequivocally; “I’m a feminist” (p.30).

In another essay, Karley Adney discusses  Gaga’s videos functioning as critique of male violence, most notably in Paparazzi and Bad Romance. Both videos feature Gaga as a victim of male violence who seeks revenge through murdering her attacker.  Many of the essays focus on the way that Gaga confounds typical notions of gender,  often challenging how a high profile female performer should behave. Camille Paglia’s Sunday Times article about Gaga is often referenced in the essays, mostly to contradict her assertions. Paglia lamented the fact that Gaga lacks sex appeal despite the revealing outfits she wears.  Whilst Paglia reads this as a negative, a recurring theme in the essay is that Gaga subverts the notion of sexiness, and also challenges simplistic notions of gender identity. Heather Duerre Humann in her essay on Gaga and Jo Calderone suggests that because we know that Gaga and Calderone are both the same individual, this “call[s] into question our deeply rooted beliefs- and indeed the very nature of – gender” (p.75). Similarly, Elizabeth Kate Switaj writes in her essay about the way in which her Gaga can be seen as a “female- to- female drag queen” highlighting the ways in which Gaga makes the performative aspects of gender apparent.  (p.38).

For the most part, the essays in the collection aptly describe the ways in which Gaga challenges and forces us to rethink our preconceptions. However, Adney’s essay on Gaga and human rights did bring up some points that I found myself disagreeing with quite strongly. Defending Gaga’s suggestion that her love of men means she is not a feminist, Adney paints feminist academics as  “lean[ing] from the ivory tower, tongue clucking and head shaking, disapproving of Gaga’s tendency to rely on stereotypes! (p,210).  Furthermore, Adney suggests that Gaga shows people that “one can champion women’s rights and talk about double standards for men and women without hating or disgracing the other gender” (p.210). I find Adney’s line of argument problematic for a couple of  reasons. Firstly, it suggests that Gaga is criticised because feminist academics are looking down at her, reinforcing another negative stereotype about feminists,  that depicts us as snobs who dislike   popular culture.  I’m not sure that Adney needs Gaga to defend her on this basis.  Given that other essays in the book highlight the influence of surrealism on Gaga’s aesthetic it is clear that she is takes her art seriously, whilst her advocacy for LGBT rights suggests that she is engaged with social issues, so doesn’t need protecting from feminist academics who take issue with how she represents feminism. Secondly, the idea that Gaga is suggesting that one does not need to hate men to be a feminist in order to rehabilitate feminism for a younger audience seems to run close to sanitizing feminism, or making it palpable by ignoring its more angry (but necessary) aspects. I’m also not sure that this is Gaga’s aim either, given that she does not shy away from controversy when it comes to most other issues.

The final essay in the collection “Whiteness and the Politics of “Post-Racial” America” looks at the ways in which Gaga performs whiteness. Laura Gray- Rosendale et al point to the fact that “Gaga’s media prominence is largely the result of how she embodies as well as deploys and subverts powerful historical discourses about whiteness and racism” (p.219).  As a white woman,  Gaga is able to dress and act in ways that would cause women of colour to be stereotyped as over-sexualised but allow Gaga to be viewed as a performance artist. However, Rosendale et al also point to the way that Gaga explicitly performs her whiteness, especially through the use of over the top white make up (“whiteface”) in a way that makes “  visible that which operates invisibly and systematically as the norm’ (p.232). They note that whilst making visible her white privilege, Gaga also utilises this privilege. Furthermore, they suggest that it is the visibility of white privilege that challenges the concept of “post-racial” America. I found this chapter especially interesting as it highlights the privileges that Gaga as a white woman has and how this affects her ability to shock in  a way that might not be allowed for women of colour.

The range of essays in this collection suggest that Lady Gaga is difficult to define, but it is this difficulty that opens up the opportunity for subversiveness. Whilst her critics point to the fact that she is a mainstream artist signed to a major label, in some ways it is Gaga’s mainstream appeal that makes her subversion more powerful. This collection  of essays reflects the diverse ways that Gaga confounds expectations, whether through the way in which she highlights the performative nature of gender or the ways in which whiteness is performed and privileged. Furthermore, the collection highlights the ways in which the concept of the  one “real Gaga” is undermined through a body of performance that is contradictory, and defies easy catergorization.

References 

Camille Paglia (2010) “What’s Sex Got to Do With It?” The Sunday Times 12 September pp. 14-21

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Claire Sedgwick is a PhD student at De Montfort University Leicester. Her research focuses on the way that feminist magazines represent second wave feminism, looking at the kind of feminisms that are represented. She is also interested in the use of blogs by contemporary feminists as a way to discuss feminism and foster communities. She tweets @claire_sedgwick and her academia profile can be found here: http://dmu.academia.edu/ClaireSedgwick