This is a copy of a chapter in The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga, ed. Richard J. Gray II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Also available in pdf format.
A revised version of this chapter is included in my book, Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame: The Rise of a Pop Star in an Age of Celebrity.
Today, Lady Gaga is ubiquitous. Only a few years after the release of her debut album The Fame, Lady Gaga has taken over the world of popular music to become one of pop’s most talked-about stars. The case of Lady Gaga’s fame deserves attention, not because it is itself the popular thing to do, but because cultural phenomena present questions that we must answer appropriately, even and especially in times of economic and political turmoil. Popularity also need not impede the undertaking of a theme, but caution is certainly in order. A scholarly perspective on the Lady Gaga phenomenon will benefit from the specification of its formal approach and material subject matter. This paper is therefore delineated to offer a sociological analysis of the roles of sex, sexuality, and gender as these are manifested in the career of Lady Gaga and have contributed to her fame as a global pop sensation.(1)
Thematically, this paper will explore a variety of issues related to sex(uality) and gender. Relying on the conceptual understanding of sex as a biological category and gender as the social use and cultural meanings associated therewith (Wharton 2005), there are many reasons to explore the significance of these issues in the case of Lady Gaga. The main argument for this analysis is found in the notion that sex and gender form relatively important categories in contemporary society, especially within the world of popular culture and music. As a minimum, an analysis of the conditions of Lady Gaga’s fame as a popular music artist must explore matters of sex and gender, not only in terms of social relations involving men and women but, additionally, in terms of the expectations of how men and women should act on the basis of cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity (Cohen 2001).
In terms of its scholarly approach, this paper is rooted in sociology, specifically sociological insights on popular culture that focus on the intersection of music and fame. The fame of Lady Gaga – especially its origins from 2008 onwards – is thus explored analytically in the social context of the contemporary culture of fame in the popular music industry. The case of Lady Gaga deserves such scholarly attention, not exclusively because her fame is spectacular in terms of its size and scope, for the nature of pop star famedom has traditionally been global in scope and strongly resonating on the part of its audience, including fans, non-fans, and anti-fans. Instead, what is peculiarly noteworthy about Lady Gaga is that her fame has occurred at a time when the (popular) music industry has experienced a commercial decline. How, then, has the fame of Lady Gaga nonetheless occurred and how, more specifically, are issues of sex and gender relevant therein?
Music and Fame: A Sociological Perspective
It is important to note at least two principles concerning a sociological viewpoint on music, which will clarify the approach used in this paper with regard to the understanding of fame (Bennett 2008; Frith, Straw, and Street 2001; Martin 1996). Firstly, from a sociological perspective, we should not understand music as the organization of sound (as Edgar Varese defined it from a musicological viewpoint), but rather as the whole of the social relationships and cultural meanings involved in the production and reception of musical sounds within society. The social or inter-subjective nature of music as a sociological concept pertains to musical performances with regard to the interaction between artist and audience, but it also includes the composition process which involves the relationship of the composer to an existing universe of musical sounds (and their cultural meaning) and the expectations of an audience of listeners. Secondly, the social understandings of and meanings associated with musical sounds are cultural constructs. Relying on now classic insights into the sociology of knowledge (Berger and Luckmann 1967), it is important to recognize from a sociological perspective both that musical sounds do not invoke sentiments and that they do not express ideas on the basis of their inner tonal qualities or any structures of the human mind, but rather that they are established and re-established through socialization within particular communities.
We can extend a constructionist understanding of music to the culture of fame in order to develop a distinctly cultural-sociological perspective (Ferris 2007; Gamson 1994; Kurzman et al. 2007; Marshall 1997). Using the work of one of the founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber, we can explore fame as a cultural phenomenon in terms of the distribution of status (Weber 1922). Differentiated from the economic and political categories of class and party, respectively, status refers to the stratification of honor and it relates to life-style, privilege and personal qualities of charisma. Though having thus brought out the distinctly cultural realm of society, Weber’s tripartite conceptual scheme largely focused on an analysis of economy and polity for status, as Weber argued at the dawn of the twentieth century, was in relative decline. Sociologists of fame in the modern age went one step further and neglected fame (and popular culture) altogether or explored it in highly reductionist terms. C. Wright Mills, most notably, devoted an entire chapter of his well-known book The Power Elite to “The Celebrities,” only to conceptualize and denounce celebrity culture as mere power and wealth articulated through the mass media (Mills 1956). Even today, such reductionist perspectives to treat fame as a commodity remain popular, but a new cultural sociology of fame (and celebrity) has also begun to emerge.
Harmonizing with cultural perspectives in the contemporary sociology of music, fame (as being well-known) and celebrity (as being acknowledged for being well-known) form cultural constructs that entail a specific social relationship. Fame and celebrity are not qualities of a person or group but are characteristic of a relationship that exists between, on the one hand, the person or group to whom the qualities of being well-known or being recognized for being well-known are attributed and, on the other hand, those members of a community who make such attributions. Like music, we study fame and celebrity sociologically as cultural issues with a focus on their variable meanings and without any preconceived notions with regard to either dynamics or social conditions. As with many cultural issues in society, the degree of fame attained and maintained by an artist within the world of pop and rock music is influenced, amongst other relevant conditions, by issues relating to sex, sexuality, and gender.
In this chapter, I analyze themes of sex(uality) and gender in the career of Lady Gaga on the basis of a variety of sources, including news articles, audio and video presentations, and selected representations of Lady Gaga’s music and other artistic endeavors. At this point in time, to note that many of these sources are available online is a banal characteristic. Less banal perhaps is the fact that there already is an enormous amount of information available about Lady Gaga despite the relatively short period since her arrival into the world of popular music. The extreme variability with regard to the merit of these sources is also to be noted. The main biographical books, in an ever-increasing multitude of such works published these past few years, are Paul Lester’s Lady Gaga: Looking for Fame (2010) and Emily Herbert’s Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame (2010), which, despite making the occasional factual mistake, both offer relatively sober and informed analyses of Lady Gaga’s career. Ethnographic information on the Lady Gaga community (since spring 2009) serves as an important source of evidence as well. An exploration of questions pertaining to sex, sexuality, and gender in the case of Lady Gaga involves at least the following six topics: 1) the social use and cultural meanings of the sexuality that is exhibited in her work; 2) the perceived sexiness of Lady Gaga as a female performer; 3) the biological sex of the person of Lady Gaga; 4) the sexual orientation of Lady Gaga; 5) the gendered qualities of, and the sexism confronting, the world of Lady Gaga; and 6) the cultural perceptions of Lady Gaga as a feminist icon.
Is Lady Gaga Sexual?
The question of the sexual nature of Lady Gaga pertains to whether or not and to what extent her artistic endeavors contain allusions to sexually-charged themes. The answer is an unequivocal “Yes,” simply because there is a lot of sexuality displayed in Lady Gaga’s work. This observation should not come as a huge surprise of course, not only because the display of sexuality has especially taken advantage of the visualization of music since the rise of the video (Andsager and Roe 2003), but also because it derives from the historical fact that pop and rock music are by their historical nature deeply imbedded in sexuality. After all, the very term “rock ‘n’ roll” refers to sexual intercourse. It is, therefore, anything but surprising that Lady Gaga describes her work in highly sexual terms. “It’s really your job,” she said, “to have mind-blowing, irresponsible condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about” (Herbert 131). In the case of Lady Gaga, the sexuality of pop and rock is taken a step further by an explicit and deliberate inclusion, in a taken-for-granted manner, which betrays a resolute commitment on the part of the artist to lock herself in the history of pop and rock. In her own words, Lady Gaga exemplifies this commitment when she says: “Every artist plays on sex. It’s just the context.... I’m a free woman, so I play on sex freely” (Lester 88). Early in her career, in fact, before Stefani Germanotta adopted the Lady Gaga moniker, she deliberately used her sexuality to get attention. Playing in the clubs as an unknown, she recalls, “I didn’t want to start singing while they were talking, so I got undressed. There I was, sitting at the piano in my underwear. So they shut up” (Herbert 49).
Among the most striking examples of sexuality in Lady Gaga’s work, one can mention certain of her songs and/or videos. Her global hit “Poker Face” dealt autobiographically with Gaga’s fantasies about being with a woman while a man is having oral sex with her. The song “LoveGame” is also autobiographically based on a casual sexual encounter that Gaga had with a man whom she asked if she could ride his ‘disco stick.’ Although in her live shows, the disco stick appears as a sort of glowing magic wand held by Gaga while dancing to some of her songs, the reference in the song is clearly to a penis. The video to the song “LoveGame” is also strikingly sexual in nature, containing lurid dance moves and a semi-naked Lady Gaga kissing both a man and a woman (which caused the video to be censored in some countries and the song subsequently to not be released as a single). Other Lady Gaga songs also explicitly deal with sex: “Monster” and “Alejandro” about casual sexual encounters; “Teeth” about the joys of pain and sex; “Boys, Boys, Boys” about sexual attraction towards males (during its live performance on The Monster Ball Tour, the song was morphed into dealing with gay boys); “Dance in the Dark” about insecurity and sex; and the thematically obvious, but musically oddly romantic sounding, “I Like It Rough.” Even certain videos that accompany Lady Gaga songs of a less sexual nature feature ample sexuality. The best example in this respect is the video to the song “Yoü and I,” which thematically deals with romantic love but visually involves Gaga as a mermaid having sex with a man.
Lady Gaga’s live performances for radio or television and her live concert tours also freely display sexuality. For example, during her performance of the song “LoveGame” on the arena version of The Monster Ball Tour (2010-2011), Lady Gaga encouraged the audience to “get your dicks out…and dance, you motherfuckers!” The dancers accompanying Gaga at her shows also add to the sexual portrayal. When she began her career in 2008, Lady Gaga typically performed with two female dancers in an a-sexual artsy style that invoked Andy Warhol. Towards the end of 2008, however, three male dancers joined Gaga on stage, who then interacted with Gaga to choreographically visualize the sexual meanings associated with songs like “Poker Face” and “LoveGame.” During The Monster Ball Tour, the dance group expanded to include about a dozen men and women, further enabling choreographic representations of sex (gay sex included). The wardrobe used by Gaga and her dancers additionally often amplifies sexuality by means of relative nudity, glitter bras, codpieces, S&M-style clothing, etc. Lady Gaga’s fans generally respond to her sexuality in like fashion through a liberal display of (semi-)nudity at her shows and a strongly sexualized talk about her, as manifested in fan communications on Twitter, Facebook as well as in specialized music forums. Strikingly, much of the sex talk directed at the person of Lady Gaga seems to come from non-gay female fans and gay males. Equally striking is the fact that Gaga firmly embraces the sexuality that she receives from her fans, to wit her self-reference as a “hooker” or a “bitch." (2)
Despite its distinct sexual orientation, it is important to note that most of Lady Gaga songs have nothing at all to do with sex. Of the 42 songs included on Lady Gaga’s three major releases – the album The Fame (2008) (17 songs including bonus tracks), the 8-song EP The Fame Monster (2009) and the 2011 album Born This Way (17 original songs on the expanded edition) – only 10 songs deal with sex in more or less explicit ways. The majority of Gaga’s songs treat the themes of romantic love (15 songs), fun and friendship in her native New York (11 songs), and a variety of other subjects, including gay rights, immigration, fashion, and freedom, most notably on the thematically wide-ranging album Born This Way.
Is Lady Gaga Sexy?
The notion of being sexy or having sex-appeal relates to the extent and manner in which Lady Gaga presents herself as a woman within the established standards of feminine sexiness. Such perceptions will also reside in the eye of the beholder. In sociological terms, sexiness can be articulated on the basis of the cultural values that are relatively dominant in a community at a given time and place. By the standard of conventionally understood sexiness, the answer to the question of Lady Gaga’s sexiness is a qualified “No.” By conventional standards, Lady Gaga is not or at least not unequivocally sexy, and she does not wish to be a classic beauty, especially not in the sense traditionally understood within the world of pop music. “I am not sexy in the way that Britney Spears is sexy,” she once argued, “which is a compliment to her because she’s deliciously good-looking. I just don’t have the same ideas about sexuality that I want to portray” (Herbert 70). In her own words, Lady Gaga does not want to be “a sexy pop star writhing in the sand, covered in grease, touching herself” (Elle 2009). In much of her public conduct and appearance, likewise, Lady Gaga does not present herself as sexy and is also not readily perceived as such. Discussing her sense of fashion and style, she comments: “I just don’t feel that it’s all that sexy. It’s weird... It’s not what is sexy. It’s graphic and it’s art” (Lester 92). Instead of wearing short skirts, Lady Gaga appears more often skirtless. Few individuals would associate sexiness with a meat dress or other such outlandish outfits. Instead of seeking to invoke sexiness, Lady Gaga says, “I want to cause a reaction. I’m a blonde with no pants... I love that it shocks people” (Lester 87). The monstrosity that is accordingly often portrayed by Lady Gaga is surely not sexy in a conventional sense (Corona 2011).
Lady Gaga’s refusal to be sexy also suggests a statement on her part with regard to what we should consider beautiful and, more broadly, what we should consider accurate in terms of aesthetics. At some of her Monster Ball shows, Gaga has been seen biting the head off of Barbie dolls thrown on stage in order to protest what she holds to be unrealistic standards of beauty. As she fights preconceptions of what female performers have to be and do in order to be successful in music, she deliberately “toys with conventional rules of attractiveness” (Williams 2010). On the covers of her music recordings, Lady Gaga appears only by face, not her entire body, with additional artwork involving the use of artificial facial protrusions and slime to cover herself. As rock star Alice Cooper astutely observed, Lady Gaga is a spectacle not a sex symbol (CNN 2011). Nearly every time that she wears certain clothing or makes a stylistic choice that might otherwise have been sexy, indeed, she does it in a way that is grotesque, even repulsive (Cochrane 2010).
Along with an avoidance of conventional portrayals of sex-appeal, Lady Gaga and the community of her fans also seek to embrace a new kind of sexiness. In a very distinct sense, everyone who is part of Lady Gaga’s world is considered sexy even when people outside of the Gaga community will likely not, in fact, perceive them as such. In the world of Lady Gaga, everyone is accepted for who they are and who they wish to be (Mitchell 2010) even when the mainstream public might judge them to be un-sexy or even unattractive. Related to Gaga’s acceptance and embrace of freakishness and monstrosity (Corona 2011), the fans of Lady Gaga – also known as her “little monsters” – can be tall or short, skinny or fat, or however others might perceive them. At a Lady Gaga concert or in any other form of participation in the Gaga community, however, every monster is sexy and is allowed to feel that way too, in part because of Gaga’s dismissal of traditional notions of feminine (and masculine) sex-appeal.
What Is Lady Gaga’s Sex?
Despite her explicitly gendered stage name and the obvious fact of her biological nature as a female, Lady Gaga has, especially in the early stages of her rise to fame, been confronted with the puzzling rumor that she is a hermaphrodite (Herbert 182-185). As always, the origins of this rumor remain unclear. Several photographs have circulated online that showed a bump between Lady Gaga’s legs, but evidence rarely forms the basis of any rumor. The allegation might date back to Christina Aguilera’s comment, when she was asked about Lady Gaga after the latter had just begun to make some waves within the world of pop, that Aguilera did not know who Lady Gaga was and did not even know “if it is a man or a woman” (Lester 93).
Lady Gaga’s initial responses did little to extinguish speculation, even though her answers could only be understood as ironic. Possibly taking advantage of the notion that “there is no such thing as bad press” and that her rise as a global pop star would surely suffer no damage, Gaga was deliberately provocative: “I have both male and female genitalia, but I consider myself female. It’s just a little bit of a penis... I have both a poon and a peener. Big fucking deal” (Lester 94). Likewise, in August 2009, she voiced her happiness about the fact that her song “Poker Face” had reached the top position on the music charts in Japan by tweeting: “I just had to go home and suck my own hermie dick, suckka” (Lady Gaga 2009). And as late as spring 2011, during her performances of the song “LoveGame” at The Monster Ball, Gaga shouted out that she had a “pretty tremendous dick.”
Though mostly having fun with and deliberately sustaining the rumor, at other times Lady Gaga has either refused to address the matter or she has openly denied the allegation. While promoting her tour in September 2009 she responded more categorically: “My beautiful vagina is very offended. I’m not offended: my vagina is offended!” (Herbert 185). Her words suggested that her strength as a woman is equated with her having a penis. During an interview with Anderson Cooper for the television show 60 Minutes that aired in February 2011 on the night of the Grammy Awards, Gaga reaffirmed her female nature precisely by not answering the question directly: “Maybe,” she said, and she added: “Why am I going to waste my time and give a press release about whether or not I have a penis? My fans don’t care and neither do I” (CBSNewsOnline 2011). Despite its occasional reappearance in the headlines, certainly, by fall 2011, the rumor seemed to have run its course as other issues about Lady Gaga had taken over the celebrity gossip columns.
What Is Lady Gaga’s Sexual Orientation?
Like the hermaphrodite issue, the question of Lady Gaga’s sexual orientation has been the subject of some speculation, which to some extent Gaga herself has sustained and nurtured. During interviews, Lady Gaga most often flirts with her sexual orientation and responds to the matter with ambiguity. Her responses suggest how she feels about romantic love, both as it exists in her life and how she treats the subject of love in her songs. Most of her songs dealing with romantic love are decidedly negative in tone, for instance by singing about bad (not good) romance and the possessiveness of her experiencing love as a paparazzo. In interviews, she will often deny having a boyfriend, even when she has been romantically connected with several men, most distinctly with Lüc Carl (the subject of all her love songs), who was her boyfriend during her early days in New York and again for about a year until she recorded the music video for her song “Yoü and I” in his home state of Nebraska in July 2011. Nonetheless, Lady Gaga typically justifies the intensity with which she does her work as preventing her from having a romantic partner. “I make love to my music every day,” she says, “I’m just not focused on having a boyfriend” (Lester 89). Similarly, she stated in an interview with Elle magazine: “I would never leave my career for a man right now” (Elle 2009).
On the other hand, Lady Gaga is oftentimes deliberately very provocative about her sex life, which she suggests involves men as well as women. Invoking the theme in her song “Poker Face” of dreaming about being with a woman while she is with a man, she has explicitly admitted to having had sex with women (Lester 91). Yet, arguing to only having been in love with men and only having had boyfriends, her feelings for women would only be physical and not emotional (Herbert 62). In an interview with Barbara Walters in December 2009, she said: “I’ve only been in love with men. I’ve never been in love with a woman...I’ve certainly had sexual relationships with women” (Larosa 2010). More recently, however, Lady Gaga has even proclaimed that she is bisexual and considers herself to be a member of the LGBT community because of “The b letter,” as she stated in a 2011 interview with the LGBT magazine The Advocate (Kinser 2011). However, there is little evidence that Lady Gaga has had many lesbian experiences apart from a few compromising pictures with her friend Lady Starlight (PopCrunch 2009) and some paparazzi snapshots of Gaga flirting with Tamar Braxton, wife of Vincent Herbert, the record executive who originally discovered Lady Gaga on MySpace and who has since served as her A&R representative (Hazel 2010). At best, while her self-identification as ‘bi’ is not descriptively accurate, we could understand it as a gesture towards the gay community and her accompanying resolute stance on gay rights.
Is the Lady Gaga Community Gendered?
Understood as differential treatment on the basis of sex and gender characteristics, it is difficult to imagine any aspect of social life, including the world of music, which is not “gendered.” But the gendered nature of culture can be of various kinds, either involving mere differences between the sexes (indicating sexism) or inequality based on sexual identification, which could be the result of active oppression (Kimmel 2010). It is inevitable that the inter-subjective nature of Lady Gaga’s musical exploits suggest that she is a product of her time; she was formed by the social context of both the decade preceding and the decade following the attacks of 9/11. It was from within this complex setting, involving, amongst other things, the Upper West Side of New York, the expansion of the internet, and changes in the music industry, that Lady Gaga developed and practiced her artistic style in its various guises. The social-rationalist theory of meaning earlier introduced in this essay will immediately bring out an element pertinent to the present analysis, specifically the transformation of the rock-oriented stylings of the Stefani Germanotta Band to the electro-pop sounds and performance art of Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue. Though not absolute in any way, the more typical cultural understanding is (still) such that, all other conditions being equal, pop music is of a more feminine domain in contrast to the masculine world of rock music. As a female pop artist, also, Lady Gaga attracts a fan base that is not only large and remarkably diverse, especially for a relatively young performer, but which is, nonetheless, made up of a female majority.
Gendered differences between the worlds of rock and pop need not necessarily imply sexism, but there are at least some indications that certain gendered cultural pressures were at work in Lady Gaga’s initial decision to transform herself (and her music) stylistically. Indeed, according to producer Rob Fusari (who gave the artist her stage name and produced her signature song “Beautiful Dirty Rich”), Stefani Germanotta was initially not convinced to adopt the transition towards pop and dance, but was ultimately swayed, not primarily because of aesthetic concerns, but because of a news article about singer Nelly Furtado’s transition to dance-oriented pop (Marks 2010). Whatever additional personal and artistic reasons may have swayed her, anticipating success and fame more likely within the world of pop, Lady Gaga began her journey towards global stardom on the basis of her understanding of a distinctly gendered reality, even though she would challenge an elitist understanding of the hierarchical structure of musical genres, proclaiming that “pop music will never be low brow." (3) Lady Gaga’s rise to fame thereafter was also eased by the relative vacuum that existed in popular music of the period, which eventually led to the newly vibrant pop world of 2010 dominated by a host of up-and-coming or revived female performers. By spring 2011, Lady Gaga was confident enough in her position to release her album Born This Way, recorded throughout 2010, with music that deliberately sought to transcend the sounds of pop to include rock music, thus taking one step further toward her goal of bringing a rock sensibility to pop music.
There are indications that the gendered structure of the Lady Gaga world does not escape criticism. By Lady Gaga’s own observation, as a female artist operating within the world of pop and rock she has been confronted with sexism, especially in connection with her liberal use of sexual themes, which, she argues, is much more discussed and criticized than equally sexually explicit material created by male performance artists. “You see, if I was a guy,” she said in a 2009 interview with a Norwegian journalist, “and I was sitting here with a cigarette in my hand, grabbing my crotch and talking about how I make music because I like fast cars and fucking girls, you’d call me a rock star. But when I do it in my music and in my videos, because I’m a female, because I make pop music, you’re judgmental and you say that it is distracting” (StilettoREVOLT 2009). In response to the sexist pressures Lady Gaga seems to have experienced, she will typically reaffirm her strength as a woman. Simply by speaking so freely about her sexuality and squarely addressing concerns over the differential treatment of female and male pop and rock stars, Lady Gaga seeks to portray herself as a strong female. (4) It is telling that she recognizes sexism but also addresses it head on, as evidenced in an interview that she gave in 2009: “I find that men get away with saying a lot in this business, and that women get away with saying very little”(in Powers 2009). As a result, one might argue both that Lady Gaga actively opposes sexism precisely at any time when she is confronted with it and that she adamantly refuses to be a victim of such sexism.
Questions pertaining to sexism within the world of popular music underscore the fact that society often compared female artists to one another. When Lady Gaga was still a relatively unknown performer, media personalities often asked her how she differed or related to performers such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. Further, once Gaga developed her own style and gained visibility, Madonna became the yardstick by which older members of the journalistic profession measured Gaga. And as Lady Gaga’s star grew even brighter, other aspiring, young female pop stars were asked to clarify their relation to Lady Gaga. There are certainly obvious reasons of both an artistic and an aesthetic nature which would justify such comparisons. However, we wonder if critics would even pose such questions to male performers, especially within the world of rock music. Being a blond haired female alone can, in the world of contemporary journalism at least, readily suffice to justify a comparison among female pop stars. Being male with long hair and tattoos, however, remains an often overlooked characteristic shared by a host of rockers.
Is Lady Gaga a Feminist?
The question of Lady Gaga’s feminism relates to her impact on women and the broader cultural perceptions thereof. Harboring a multitude of perspectives on women in society (valuing women as unique, unequal, or oppressed), feminism can signify both a theory or theories referring to a perspective of study and/or a corresponding outlook on life, as well as to praxis, implying an activist attitude oriented at working towards the betterment of women in society and/or a corresponding mode of personal conduct. In other words, the question on the feminism of Lady Gaga refers both to her subjective perspective on such matters and the objective cultural implications of her conduct.
A certain ambiguity exists concerning Lady Gaga’s feminist perspective as a result of some of her own explicit statements on the matter that she has made during interviews as she has adopted different perspectives with regard to what feminism is. Her varying perspectives have fueled considerable debate and speculation with regard to her personal thoughts on feminism (Aronowitz 2011; BitchMedia 2009; Camp 2010; Seltzer 2010). In the early stages of her rise to fame, Lady Gaga claimed not to be a feminist, much to the discontent of certain feminists (Williams 2010). In a video-taped interview in the summer of 2009, Gaga stated: “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, beer, and bars, and muscle cars” (StilettoREVOLT 2009). Elsewhere, she similarly argued, “Even though I’m a very free and sexually empowered woman, I’m not a man-hater. I celebrate very American sentiments about bars and drinking and men buying women drinks” (Lester 47). However, in later statements, Lady Gaga began to view feminism in a different way; she understood that feminism need not imply an anti-male attitude (Feministcupcake 2011). In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in December 2009, Gaga said that she was “a little bit feminist” (Powers 2009). Finally, since her understanding of feminism had changed to encompass a sense of female empowerment, Lady Gaga ultimately affirmed herself as a feminist. In an in-depth article for Rolling Stone magazine in 2010, she proclaimed both clearly and decidedly: “I’m a feminist” (Strauss 71).
From the viewpoint of both her conduct and its cultural reception, indeed, it is difficult to deny that Lady Gaga practices a role congruent with a philosophy of feminism. Though working primarily within the world of entertainment and, more specifically, that of pop music, Lady Gaga does not exemplify those roles and styles associated with female pop artists who can be, and often are, more conventionally associated with notions of inequality and patriarchy. Instead, although she is not a feminist activist per se, Lady Gaga’s work functions as a critique of how society views and values women. In that respect, we should note that Lady Gaga often emphasizes that she is a strong female who is not dependent on anyone, including men. By remaining independent and by “doing her own thing,” Lady Gaga factually portrays ideals of feminism, especially the notion that women are free (as free as anyone) to explore their own interests. “She is a ‘Free Bitch’,” as journalist Neil Strauss writes (in reference to a line Gaga sings in her songs “Bad Romance” and “Dance in the Dark”, “and the audience should be too” (Strauss 68).
Much of Lady Gaga’s feminism is distinctly associated with, rather than contradicted by, her distinct sense of sexuality, which embraces sex without yielding to conventional standards of sex-appeal and sexuality. Invoking images of monstrosity and tales of sexual exploits of various kinds, Lady Gaga exposes conventional femininity “as a sham” (Cochrane 2010). Through her “blending of the beautiful with the monstrous,” as sociologist Victor Corona (11) puts it, Lady Gaga criticizes the role of the conventional female in society by showing, more specifically, that conventional “feminine sexuality is a social construct” (Bauer in NYT). And, rather than remaining weak and manipulated, Gaga practices a sexuality that both empowers women and portrays them as strong. The video to “Bad Romance,” for example, visually presents a story in which Lady Gaga is sold into sex slavery only to eventually kill the man to whom she was sold by means of a pyro bra, ostensibly after, or perhaps instead of, having had sex with him in bed. Lady Gaga interpreted the pyro bra itself – featured during The Monster Ball Tour – as a commentary on the fact that female breasts are typically considered as weapons, when to her (as to women in general) breasts are a natural part of life (Lester 91). On the cover of the July 8-22, 2010 double issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Lady Gaga also appeared in a machine gun bra.
Understanding feminism as “allowing women to express their sexuality” in ways in which they themselves see fit (Aronowitz 2010), Lady Gaga practices feminism because she is free-spirited and, as she emphasizes time and again, she is in charge of her career. As a de facto feminist, Lady Gaga has taken ownership of her body and, more broadly, her entire body of work (Cochrane 2010). Even in the earlier periods of her career when she felt the need to take her clothes off to receive attention, Gaga did not view this as giving in to the masculine world. On the contrary, she argues, “I found the idea of taking my clothes off on stage incredibly liberating. I have absolutely no problem with my sexuality and any woman who wants to get more confident about her body should try stripping” (Lester 23). As such, Lady Gaga’s sense of sexuality and her particular version of femininity and sex-appeal constitute a critique of the popular music industry, of contemporary culture, in which at the same time she is firmly rooted. The female dominance of contemporary pop music is something Lady Gaga welcomes with open arms: “I’m pleased to see that it’s mostly women who are dominating the charts” (Herbert 115).
The debate on sex and gender issues in the case of Lady Gaga moved to the foreground of popular discussions in September 2010 when cultural critic Camille Paglia published a condemnation of the new pop sensation, wherein Paglia wrote: “Gaga isn’t sexy at all. She’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android... Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution?” (Paglia 2010). Needless to say, a multitude of alternate perspectives on Gaga’s sexuality and feminism quickly followed Paglia’s provocative piece (Daily Mail 2010; Gliatto 010; Hunt 2010; Mitchell 2010; Needham 2010). Yet, we must note that Paglia wrote her essay not on the basis of any feminist concerns, but because of her own perspective on technology and pop music culture. Against the background of an increasing reliance on technology, Lady Gaga is criticized as a star of the current digital age in which, Paglia feels, digitized communications have replaced bodily sexuality. And against the background of transformations in popular music, Lady Gaga receives criticism for her artistic work, which, Paglia thinks, lacks artistic merit. Both observations reflect a nostalgic vision of the past, specifically Paglia’s perception of Madonna some twenty years ago (Paglia 1990). Paglia is thereby indeed both “marooned in the past” (Needham 2010) and completely focused on Lady Gaga as the “icon of her generation” (Paglia 2010). Paglia remains unable to analyze relevant dimensions of a contemporary artist who was not even born in the era in which Madonna had already become a global pop sensation. As such, Paglia stands far from alone in writing about the cultural import of Lady Gaga in terms that betray a lack of the most basic descriptive power, at best being able to reference the “Gaga-savvy daughter” they have at home for the summer (Bauer 2010).
This chapter sought to clarify questions of sex and gender in the case of Lady Gaga in order to reveal a complex condition whereby Lady Gaga embraces some and yet fights other cultural standards of femininity. Liberally relying on sexual themes in her songs and music videos, Lady Gaga ultimately rejects conventional sex-appeal. Toying with rumors about her sex and sexual orientation, she both understands the gendered dynamics of the world of popular music and uses them to her advantage. Practicing her art as an independent female and challenging sexism, Lady Gaga presents herself and is also recognized as a practicing “feminist.” In combination with other factors, some dimensions of sex and gender directly advance a career in music and contribute to fame, especially by means of an acceptable meshing of show and art, style and substance. But what the popular debate and speculations with regard to Lady Gaga’s sex, sexuality, and gender also bring about is that they simultaneously reveal and nourish an interest in Lady Gaga as a cultural icon. Controversy also fuels fame.
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 I am grateful to Joanna Harrison and Shannon McDonough for their help in the preparation of this essay.
 As is not unusual for any pop and rock performers displaying a more or less explicit sexual tone, some opposition to Lady Gaga revolves around the purported sexual content of her work. The private group Common Sense Media, for example, uses a video on celebrities as role models that warns against negative behaviors involving violence, drugs, and sex, using references to youngsters singing along to Lady Gaga’s “LoveGame” and relying on musical accompaniment in the style of “Poker Face” (Common Sense Media 2010).
 This phrase originates from Lady Gaga’s July 31, 2008 performance of “Just Dance” on the FOX reality television program So You Think You Can Dance. Gaga’s statement suggests that pop music will never be suitable for a person with little intellectual interest.
 The idea of the empowered female resonates in her song entitled “Scheiße” from her Born This Way (2011) album. In this song, Gaga tells her female listeners that strong females do not need to ask men for permission to do anything.
See also my book:
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