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?