Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Breaking the Male Gaze: A Close Reading of “Alejandro”

By | June 9, 2010


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The idea of the “gaze” as a broad psychological concept beyond the simple meaning of the word comes to us from Jacques Lacan, a French theorist (a psychoanalyst, really, but we won’t hold that against him) most influential in the mid-20th who was really very interested in how we look at things. Like many giant brains, Lacan is largely inaccessible and not useful to normal humans going about life, and though his long-term culture-seeping influence is both broad and deep, for our purposes here it’ll suffice to say that he really got folks using the term “gaze” to discuss how we look and how we are looked at, in and by the world.

A few decades later, along comes another giant brain called Laura Mulvey, who writes a seminal work in feminist film theory entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she posited the idea of a gaze that was specifically male. Basically, Mulvey’s damage was that film (and, by extension, we can argue the whole of mass media even today) is produced from a perspective that is almost always male, and that we as an audience of media consumers are thus trained to see ourselves and the world through this “male gaze”. By Mulvey’s reckoning, women being captured in this gaze are valued primarily for their ability to be looked at, and to be pleasing to behold according to established modes of heterosexual attractiveness. Furthermore, Mulvey argued there are two ways in which the male gaze sees women: as madonnas or whores. You’ve probably heard this part before. The male gaze, basically, is the idea that nearly all media is produced using this standardized way of looking — even women look using the male gaze, because that is the default.

Before I completely lose y’all in sticky theory, I’ll provide a straightforward (if very simplistic) example. Ever notice how the women in Cosmopolitan magazine so often look like they’re a hair’s breath from an orgasm? This goes for the ads as well as the editorials. Have you ever wondered: hmm, isn’t it sort of weird that a women’s magazine that is itself sold to women and is simultaneously trying to sell things to women should be filled with other women staring out of the pages making the kinds of dull-witted sexyfaces you’d expect them to be making at men whose attentions they were seeking? Why are women being instructed to look at women who are ostensibly looking at invisible men? The magazine is showing you women via the male gaze. The magazine is also training you to see yourself via the male gaze, and to put more currency in how you look to the outside observer, or how you look in a mirror, as opposed to how you look at the world, as a person seeing. The message is that women don’t see; they are only seen. You want a man? You wear these clothes, stand in this posture, make this sexyface: these are the symbols of the straight female. In a heteronormative, male-driven world, this what it means to be beautiful, or at least sexually available.

The point being, the male gaze is ubiquitous in our culture. Think of this: people allow Michael Bay to make movies. When Michael Bay makes a movie, he is looking with his asshole eyes and that asshole-infused vision is what lands on the screen, and normal folk like you or me (well, not me, but still) buy a ticket to go watch Michael Bay’s Asshole Extravaganza! filmed entirely in GLORIOUS ASSHOLE-O-VISION. When we sit in the theater, we can’t pry the camera from Michael Bay’s asshole hands. We can’t shift the view from what he wants us to see. As with all mass media, we are but passive receivers.

In case it was not yet obvious, I am of the opinion that this male gaze — which can, indeed, be perpetrated by women as easily as men, since we’re all thoroughly trained in its function and use — has a negative influence on our culture. By focusing on women as primarily objects to be appraised and displayed, it contributes to narrow and unrealistic cultural beauty standards, a favorite topic on this blog.

Yes, my most beloved and patient readers, we are finally getting to the damn video.

Today, pop star and constant source of bemusement Lady Gaga released the much-anticipated video for “Alejandro”. The comparisons with Madonna are inevitable, inevitable enough that it’s probably fair to read this video as an homage to the David-Fincher-helmed video for “Express Yourself” rather than as a rip-off. Madonna, too, made a career out of toying with the male gaze, and though some will no doubt put Gaga’s video down as unoriginal, the reality is that there isn’t a pop star alive today who does not stand on Madonna’s well-sculpted shoulders, and anyone who claims otherwise is seriously deluded.

This post will be comparing “Alejandro” and “Express Yourself” exclusively — a fuller comparison of Madonna’s and Gaga’s bodies of work would require a book’s worth of writing and research, and I just ain’t up for that today, y’all. (Indeed, even my reading of “Alejandro” here, beyond its comparison with “Express Yourself”, is less comprehensive than I’d like, but this seemed like enough words for one day.) Let us begin, then, with a quick reading of “Express Yourself” (embedding is disabled for some stupid reason, so you’ll have to hop over to YouTube if you need a refresher). This video tells a pretty linear story about Madonna, who is married to/enslaved by/otherwise the property of the monocle-wielding owner of a factory that seems to only produce greasy oily dirty young men. And rain. Madonna hangs out at home in her underwear while the factory workers do push-ups, poke at machinery, and nap on metal bunks. You know Madonna’s husband/owner/monocle-wearer is bad because he’s balding and wears a prim suit and keeps her chained to a bed. The conflict comes in when Madonna’s kittycat escapes. Oh no! Luckily one of the factory workers, a winsome and muscular lad with long floppy surfer hair, finds the rain-drenched feline in the workers’ barracks. He pets it for a bit (oh hardy har har, Madonna) before taking the elevator upstairs and returning the cat to Madonna, who just happens to be hanging out in bed, bare-ass naked. Madonna’s all OH DEAR MY MODESTY! Downstairs in the factory, the mens are fighting, like, for fun, as the factory owner watches. Suddenly Sir Monocle notices that one of the workers is missing! I bet he’s having sex with your wife! And he totally is! As Madonna and the factory boy copulate, the greasy oily dirty-dirt gets all over her romantic satin sheets. The end.

Madonna is perfectly capable of portraying herself as a powerful being with a boatload of independent sexual agency, but in this particular video we don’t see much of that. Thoughout the story she is trapped in Monocle’s tower, and even when she is “rescued” by the cat-toting young man she isn’t allowed to actually leave captivity: she just gets the awesome privilege of having sex with a stranger who wandered into her room. One could possibly argue that Madonna is using the young man to assert her independence from Monocle, but if that were really the case the event would have much greater import if she’d been the one to instigate sexual contact, as opposed to being the object at first modest, then passive, and then mildly responsive to the stranger’s advances. The whole video really doesn’t do much to counteract or confront popular ideas about women’s sexuality. At its core, this is really dull cuckolding porn. Madonna’s relationship with the camera (and therefore with us, the audience) bears this out — she stares and smiles and pouts and smirks at us through lowered lashes, inviting us to look, appraise, and come closer; she’s into it, even if she says she’s not.

As videos go, this one is not especially brilliant, with one exception. The most interesting part of “Express Yourself” is the brief sequence in which Madonna dresses in drag — sort of, as she wears a suit with a lace bra under it, which she repeatedly thrusts out of the suit jacket, because ladies in male drag are only sexy to the mens if they can still see their tits — and briefly wields the monocle herself. Madonna’s monocle-dance ends with the semi-infamous crotch-grab-and-finger-gun combination (HELLO PHALLUS!), which was pretty damn shocking at the time, but not because we’d never seen it before. Before we accuse Lady Gaga of cribbing too much from Madonna, we should also note that this entire routine borrows so heavily from Michael Jackson as to border on the absurd. Madonna’s crotch-grab was shocking, scandalous even, because we’d never seen a woman grab her crotch like that before.

Life is a cabaret, old chum.

Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” is directed by Steven Klein, a fashion photographer (remember the infamous “Domestic Bliss” photoshoot with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in W, before they were officially a couple — that was him) and longtime Madonna collaborator and friend. Klein doesn’t consider himself an artist, in spite of having done numerous gallery exhibitions, and I tend to appreciate this self-awareness, as Klein’s work tends to lack both soulfulness and connectedness in favor of producing things that are just vaguely interesting to look at. I don’t mean this as a slam; I think a lot of what passes for art is just vaguely interesting to look at, without a real text underneath, and that’s okay. We live in a postmodern age.

Some weeks ago, Lady Gaga said of “Alejandro”:

The video is about the “purity of my friendships with my gay friends”, Gaga had explained, earlier. “And how I’ve been unable to find that with a straight man in my life. It’s a celebration and an admiration of gay love – it confesses my envy of the courage and bravery they require to be together. In the video I’m pining for the love of my gay friends – but they just don’t want me.” (Source)

“Alejandro” lacks the linear narrative of Madonna’s lost-kittycat story, though much of the imagery is clearly evocative of “Express Yourself”. The opening sequence, prior to the music’s start, features military men in fishnets and heels lounging languidly at cocktail tables surrounding a small stage, and pays heavy dues to Cabaret, even as it casually swaps the beautiful girls of “Wilkommen” for beautiful boys. This video is very gay. More than that, later on, it’s very queer, which is a different animal from gay, although the two ideas may be anatomically compatible.

Madonna longs for a filthy stranger to wander into her lonely lady tower.
Gaga wears McQueen, and a headpiece.

We pick up vaguely where “Express Yourself” leaves off, though the factory seems to have been converted to a military installation. Instead of Gaga being held captive in a strategically-lit penthouse, she’s holding the monocle. Rather, the monocle is strapped to her head, but whatever. Gaga’s lad factory has exchanged rain for gentle snowfall. Meanwhile, there is a funeral procession, and, in a choice that is painfully dull, Gaga carries what looks like a heart wrapped in barbed wire (shaped like an “A”, naturally) and studded with nails. Are we burying Alejandro? Or are we burying Gaga’s love for him? Who knows. Show us more Monocle Gaga!

GAGA HAS THE FUCKING MONOCLE NOW, BITCHES.

That’s better.

As noted above, this isn’t a video that tells a story so much as it creates a scene, or a series of scenes. Most of these scenes involve barely-dressed men, either engaging with each other or engaging with Gaga. One of the video’s recurring visuals features a large room with several institutional-looking twin beds and on them, men in little black underpants and impressively tall heels hanging on to ropes and writhing in the same manner as women in music videos typically do. In a dramatic departure from the bedroom scene in “Express Yourself”, Gaga, wearing black thigh-high stockings and unstructured underwear that nearly matches her skintone, is the sexual aggressor. She is indeed so very aggressive that in several shots she assumes traditionally-male positions for intercourse, including being straddled by one of the men, and thrusting against another from behind in a reversal of the standard arrangement. I won’t lie, y’all: I LOVE THIS. Whereas Madonna’s bedroom antics were couched in oops-I’m-naked hetero-porn convention, Gaga will put her fake penis in your ass. She will. And you will enjoy it. While cavorting with these dudes, Gaga gets thrown around herself quite a bit, but it’s never with the same reluctance and uncertainty of Madonna and her greasy stranger, and Gaga’s struggles are balanced by the fact that she shares the upper hand, as often as not. Instead of being content with the random man who happens to come upstairs to fuck her, Gaga comes down to fuck everyone on her terms. In heels. There is nothing coy or modest in these exchanges; Gaga does not bat her eyelashes nor give us a single cautious sideways glance. If she is looking at the camera, she meets it head-on, daring us to look back.

Gaga and her invisible penis.
More Gaga and her invisible penis.

Some of this video is uneven, and some of it borders on silly. The religious iconography is confusing, even though it’s very typically Madonna — I presume the idea is that Gaga is living like a nun because she can’t have sex with her gay male lovers, as mentioned in the quote above, but it seems a bit literal and heavy-handed given that the military imagery is so much stronger. The rifle-bra making an appearance later on is a hilarious bit of absurd one-upmanship over Gaultier’s cone bras. Furthermore, the Moe Howard hair on the solider boys is a little inexplicable (Gaga’s similar hair may indicate her solidarity with the men, and that she identifies with them, but they could have accomplished this with any hairstyle).

Finally, in the last few minutes of the video, Gaga appears to reprise Madonna’s drag, and yet her version is less straight-guys-will-think-this-is-hot and more ambiguous. Specifically, Gaga dispenses with Madonna’s lacy REMEMBER-I’M-A-LADY bra and instead wears a buttoned-up black vest and pants. While Madonna’s baggy suit looks calculatedly as though she is wearing her man’s clothes for a lark, Gaga’s drag ensemble actually fits her. Let’s look at that sentence again, shall we? Gaga’s drag fits her. Because in the end, it’s all drag for Gaga, isn’t it?

Madonna does drag.
Gaga does drag.

Certainly, Lady Gaga has influences, and it’s clear that Madonna is one of them. Pop music is itself derivative, and Gaga’s derivations are managed so fluidly and with such expertise as to border on the meta. But I’d argue that for all its similarities to “Express Yourself”, “Alejandro” is a less a copy or even an homage than it is a revision. Madonna identifies and aligns herself as a straight woman, and truly, though I know Madonna has dabbled in hot girl-on-girl action both public and private, her engagement with lesbianism — if you’re willing to even call it that — has always seemed intended to make her sexier to the male gaze, in the storied “two hot girls getting it on is hot” sort of way. Gaga, on the other hand, can writhe and hump a football team’s worth of scantily-clad men and we still aren’t totally sure about her. Madonna’s sexuality could be scary because it was intimidating; Gaga’s sexuality is scary because we don’t quite know what it is.

Have we ever seen Gaga make an obvious blank-eyed sexyface? Pout girlishly? Hell, it’s rare that Gaga is even filmed from above, another common factor of the male gaze: when we see someone onscreen, people filmed (or photographed) from below, so that we are looking up at them, tend to look powerful, intimidating, larger than life. Being filmed from above, so the audience is looking down, tends to denote the opposite. This is a part of our unspoken visual language. Women, especially women meant to look sexy and vulnerable, are often filmed from above, but Gaga rarely is. (One notable exception is the miserable crying-girl persona of the “Bad Romance” video, which I’d argue is explicitly intended to exploit the looking-down view for satirical purposes.) While Madonna is rarely portrayed as legitimately vulnerable in her videos, when she plays at vulnerability in her videos of the “Express Yourself” era it’s obvious that she’s doing just that: playing. Madonna exploited the male gaze — even when she was subverting it, or taking the piss out of it — and her portrayal of sexuality was clearly influenced by established, if risque, ideas of what makes for sexy from a straight male perspective.

Oops, I'm naked!
This picture is just hot. Just hot. Nothing else to caption here.

Like “Express Yourself”, Gaga is the only woman in the video for “Alejandro”, but where Madonna used a video full of men to imagine how they were looking at her, Gaga uses a video full of men and encourages us to look… where? Possibly at the men, to see them as she does? (In truth, Gaga’s fondness for odd eyewear has often led me to wonder if she’s secretly reading post-structuralist theory in her spare time.) In “Alejandro”, Gaga creates and recreates her own (queer) gaze, her own sexuality, her own sexyness, which may or may not be appealing to the sensibilities of straight men at large. Even the multitudinous crotch shots of her prior video “Telephone”, which I’ve defended elsewhere, are so overt and confrontational as to go beyond gratuitous and venture into territory that is downright alien until they make us uncomfortable. Which should be impossible, given the sheer number of ladies’ crotches we see in pop music every day, but Gaga’s visibility is different. We don’t know how to parse it. IS Gaga sexy? We don’t know. Where Madonna’s sexuality tapped gently at the edges of propriety so we could giggle and gasp at light bondage while also feeling slightly titillated, Gaga’s sexuality is terrifyingly ambivalent insofar as it frequently refuses to engage with the dominant male gaze. It’s hardly surprising that there would be rumors that she may or may not have a penis. A woman who refuses to engage with the male gaze cannot be a woman at all.

“I love the rumor that I have a penis. I’m fascinated by it. In fact, it makes me love my fans even more that this rumor is in the world because 17,000 of them come to an arena every night and they don’t care if i’m a man, a woman, a hermaphrodite, gay, straight, transgendered, or transsexual. They don’t care! They are there for the music and the freedom. This has been the greatest accomplishment of my life- to get young people to throw away what society has taught them is wrong. Gay culture is at the very essence of who I am and I will fight for women and for the gay community until I die.” (Source)

Without Madonna to prepare us, Gaga wouldn’t be where she is. Without Lady Gaga, some future pop star will never be inspired to seek a spotlight. It’s just pop music, when you get down to it, and “Alejandro”, while catchy in an Ace of Base sort of way, by itself is not going to make many lasting waves in popular culture. But the video has something; it’s trying, maybe occasionally succeeding, in breaking the traditional, heteronormative male gaze. When Madonna looks into the camera, she’s watching an audience, real or imagined, watching her; she’s watching herself. When Gaga looks into the camera, she is challenging us, confronting us. Gaga isn’t simply watching herself; maybe Gaga is watching us. Maybe Gaga is watching the world.

This post originally appeared on fatshionista.com, where an extensive and in-depth discussion in comments still resides.


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