Feb 24, 2010, 07:09AM

Feminism’s Unlikely Champion

You knew we weren’t done with Lady Gaga.

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Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” is an incredibly annoying song. “Just Dance” is frustratingly catchy, and tends to hang around in your head for days. But despite how irritating—not to mention overplayed—her music can be, I’m pretty sure the artist formerly known as Stefani Germanotta is on her way to becoming a feminist icon and a gender revolutionary.

One of the most fascinating things about Lady Gaga is her unique ability to separate female nudity from sex. True, she appears nearly naked on a nearly daily basis but, unlike other pop stars, when she’s naked, she’s not doing it to turn people on. When Britney Spears, Rihanna or Beyonce strip down to almost nothing in their videos or on stage, they’re appealing to the men in the audience. They do it to be sexy. But Lady Gaga, with her bizarre get-ups and makeup, isn’t shooting for sexy. By wholeheartedly embracing the grotesque, she’s doing everything she can to be naked without being sexy.

In a culture that almost inevitably equates nudity with sex, this is remarkable. Gaga’s frequent near-nudity has ruffled conservative feathers—most notably, Pokerface inspired the not particularly subtle parody, “Whorish Face,” produced by members of the Westboro Baptist Church. In that parody, the vocalist (whose voice is nowhere near as good as Gaga’s) sings, “you show your filth to everybody.” If by “filth” they mean “flesh”, their observation is correct—Lady Gaga does display her body at every available opportunity, whether in a very high-cut pale green leotard or in that white plastic bodysuit from the “Bad Romance” video.

The folks at Westboro Baptist Church, like most Americans, see an unbreakable connection between nudity and sex, but Lady Gaga breaks that connection in that she frustrates our desire to categorize her as a performer. Is she a pop star? A performance artist? A singer-songwriter? Some people have even wondered what gender she is. What is she? is a question that’s occurred to most pop culture commentators in the year since Gaga’s avant-garde, sparkly spaceship first landed at the top of the charts. But it’s her refusal to be sexy, even while naked, that most perplexes us. There is something unsettling about her, and it’s not just that she wears weird outfits, crazy wigs and bizarre makeup. It’s that Lady Gaga doesn’t care if men find her attractive or not. She’s not courting male attraction or approval. And in a culture where we’re used to women getting publicly near-naked for the sole purpose of turning men on, we simply do not know how to handle that.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there are plenty of people, women and men, who are sexually aroused when they watch Lady Gaga. After all, her body is a “good” one, by the standards of our society: slender limbs, nice breasts, pretty face and a flat stomach. But when she strips down and dances, it’s not her intent to turn people on. There is nothing traditionally “sexy” about the outfits she chooses—they are, to use Gaga’s own words, freaky. Even when she’s wearing something more conventional—a pencil dress or a bikini—she smears her body in white body paint or obscures her face with dramatic makeup. The message is clear: My body might be on display, but it’s not for your titillation.

This refusal to perform for the male gaze, as we Women’s Studies types put it, comes up in Gaga’s songs, too. In “Dance in the Dark,” she sings about a girl who feels insecure when a boyfriend criticizes her appearance. The chorus is about finding a way to dance, to express yourself, free from the judgment of others, particularly men. The song includes nods to women who weren’t able to find that freedom—Judy, Marilyn, Diana—and who suffered dearly as a result. And because it’s Gaga we’re talking about, this song isn’t some weepy acoustic guitar ballad. It’s an infectious disco anthem that makes you want to get up and dance around. Preferably while wearing something sparkly.

Lady Gaga is, in her own words, “a little bit of a feminist.” But the way she plays with gender, sex and nudity, and in some cases, her music, suggests more than just a little feminism. Offstage, she’s committed to marriage equality, and to readily available contraception and HIV prevention, all feminist causes. Is it possible that, after years of railing against the evils of Barbie dolls, feminism’s newest and most popular mainstream figure is a skinny, half-naked, fashion-obsessed bottle blonde who always wears high heels?

  • i feel like in order to like lady gaga you have to hate yourself, and that doesn't seem very humanist or feminist.

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  • A very imaginative and original take on Lady Gaga. But a feminist icon? Really, an icon and gender revolutionary? Not to me, but I'll give Chole Angyal this much: the article made me think about it for a while.

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  • Once again Chloe, your feminist tinged glasses have blinded your perception. 1. Marriage equality is not a feminist issue, it is a civil rights issue. Contraception availability and HIV prevention are medical issues not feminist issues. Some feminists agree with these issues and many do not. How you label them as feminist causes is beyond reason. 2. Has it occured to you that Lady Gaga is really promoting an androgenous image? Are you aware that she admited this in a recent interview regarding her strap-on mag cover? Furthermore, it is not "revolutionary", it has been done many times over. David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust is the most obvious example (and a much better musician/performer). Do you consider him a feminist icon? 3. Many musicians, both male and female, do not use sexuality to promote their music and image. Regardless of their various styles of attire, or lack thereof, it does not a femisist icon make. PS Andrew, if you choose to respond to my comment as you usually do, try to address the issue rather than attacking me. It would be a pleasant surprise for a change.

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  • I believe I only attacked you once for sporting an illogical argument, as well as throwing around some random Women's Studies vocab. Considering your response here is logical and argues Chloes points on the merits you'll see no protest from me.

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  • Have you seen the video for "LoveGame"? How is that video any different than the sexually-charged videos you condemn in your article? How can you claim that an artist who uses lines like "I want to take a ride on your disco stick" isn't factoring sex appeal into her shameless quest for fame? Personally, I'm sick of people elevating GaGa to some ludicrous level of cultural significance because when you get down to it, she's just another pop star. She just wears weird clothes. Her bizarre outfits and performance at the Grammy Awards (especially when she screamed "I want to be a star!") demonstrates that she's the celebrity equivalent of a ten-year old girl screaming for attention.

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  • Bravo! Insightful and well reasoned, Chloe. I can't get enough of the Gaga analysis - despite her detractors, there's something deeply interesting and unsettling about Gaga. She emphatically isn't just another pop tart.

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  • Perhaps she's feminist, perhaps she's not; I'm not terribly familiar with her stuff. But I smell a straw man here in your notion that female stars get naked purely for the titillation of their male audience, or in your use of terms like "traditionally sexy." Bottom line is: girl's famous in part for being "nearly naked on a daily basis." I question the idea that there's a truly "out-there" or boundary-pushing way to do that. Maybe her odd fashion choices and androgynous messaging help draw attention to GLBT issues or something, but Texan's right--that's not an expressly "feminist" victory. And in the meantime, there's one more topless woman on the cover of a magazine (this time with a dildo; sound the alarm), and you can bet that magazine will be bought by more women than men.

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  • Not a Gaga fan--I think her music sucks, just a personal opinion--but I'm more interested in the idea of feminist icons. On the off chance, Ms. Angyal's right, who are Gaga's predecessors? Hillary Clinton? Chrissie Hynde? Rosie the Riveter? Patti Smith? Laurie Anderson? Margaret Thatcher? Germaine Greer? Naomi Klein? Condi Rice? Helen Gurley Brown? Dr. Ruth? Just throwing out ideas here. I'm at a loss for definitive icons.

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