“Clinical and strangely antiseptic”: Lady Gaga’s Anti-Sex Appeal

By | September 13, 2010

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We were born this way, baby.

My husband hates Lady Gaga.

It’s true. My husband fails to recognize Lady Gaga in the way that I do, and by extension he fails to comprehend my affection for her. This is a conversation we have ceased to have, as it can no longer take place in a constructive or illuminating way, but it rather automatically devolves into each of us working to see who can dig their heels in further. My husband sees Gaga as a shallow and privileged pop star, only of use to anyone as a saleable commodity by which a profit can be made, and thus completely lacking in art or any worthwhile contribution to culture or society. This may be true, in whole or in part, but even given that, I see Gaga as, well… one of us. Someone familiar. The difference in perception between my husband and myself stems from our difference of experience: though we both have grown up and spent our lives as part of certain subcultures, only I embraced an outsider status as a part of my identity, whereas my husband was and is more likely to participate as a “normal” person in the mainstream. And that’s fine; no one should feel compelled to adopt an identity that they have not freely chosen. But for me, my being an outsider has been a critical part of my understanding of myself, and how I engage the world.

To some extent, that’s what drives me as an activist: I have spent most of life, in various capacities, refusing to submit to cultural expectations and pressure, and I am compelled to look back at folks coming up the same hill behind me, and I want to help them along, in whatever way I can. That’s why I write the things I write; that’s why I dress the way I dress; that’s why I live as an uppity fatty, a noisy obstacle to the calm and quiet assertion that my body — and your body, and anyone’s body — is not good enough, is unacceptable, is something that only inspires shame and disgust. My life, my activism is about bringing a critical opposing viewpoint to what tiny part of mainstream culture I can reach.

In an article for this week’s Sunday Times Magazine, Camille Paglia accuses Lady Gaga, cultural figure, of a lot of unpleasant things, most dramatically of being a harbinger of “the death of sex,” apparently because Gaga does not strike her as being very sexy. Paglia points out that Gaga herself has called her persona “a lie” and then alerts us to its manufactured origins, like it’s big news that ought to surprise and betray us. Paglia complains bitterly about Gaga’s “limited range of facial expressions” and calls her “asexual” with a distinct air of judgment, such that we are made to understand that this is a bad thing to be. Further, in what is possibly the quote that most clearly illustrates Paglia’s strange take, she states:

…despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all – she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation?

Shall we ignore the mammoth assumptions therein, that sexiness is a universal concept, that women are primarily and exclusively supposed to be interested in being sexy according to established standards, and that “calculated and artificial”, “clinical and strangely antiseptic” are inaccurate terms with which to describe sexual appeal in the age of Real Dolls and the epidemic and deranged abuse of Photoshop? Just for a moment?

Paglia tries to take Gaga apart to show us that there’s nothing there, but even her efforts demonstrate that if there is a void at the center of Gaga’s mystique, it’s practically inaccessible within her matryoshka-like layers of meaning and artifice. Among Paglia’s assertions: Lady Gaga rips off Madonna but comparisons with Madonna are nevertheless inappropriate; Lady Gaga openly states that her Gaga persona is a crafted performance, but we are supposed to believe this is a terrible secret she hides; Lady Gaga can’t sing, except she can; Gaga’s songs are “insipid” “nursery-rhyme nonsense” while Madonna’s superior “Burning Up” was “shocking” and “hypnotic”. Wait, what?*

Paglia’s criticisms of Gaga as The Anti-Sex are exactly what make Gaga so compelling to an audience comprised equally of those who love her and those who love to hate her, or at least, who love to be discomfited by her. Gender is a performance. Sexuality? Is also a performance. When framed as performance, these things are flexible, intangible, even terrifyingly abstract. How can a woman so naked fail to reliably invoke massive boners in the pants of straight men? What is going on? Gaga is not sexy in any way we know how to recognize, and where this may be off-putting to a world of Paglias, to an audience of outsiders, it can be incredibly liberating. Gaga — and I would argue that whether this is intentional on her part is irrelevant given its real cultural effects — is reproducing, and reproducing and reproducing, an extreme postmodern endgame in which our growing investment in social narcissism and arbitrary standards of carbon-copy “sexiness” is played out over and over. She is showing us our inauthentic selves, our cultural obsession with fitting in and getting along, and she is telling us that the pursuit of perfection may not matter as much as finding a way of living and presenting ourselves that feels good, and gratifying, and interesting, and right. Even if people stare. Because people stare.

At her first win of the MTV Video Music Awards last night, Gaga asserted, “Tonight… we’re the cool kids at the party.” This wasn’t the observation of a soul in torment. Indeed, its delivery reads more like the wobbly validation of a once-insecure teenage girl who just wants to be loved and appreciated for being different, instead of for being the same. Paglia argues that Gaga is a fraud and a sham who is unjustly exploiting the experiences of otherwise ignored and silenced outsiders for financial and personal gain. In so doing, Paglia implies that, somehow, being raised in an atmosphere of comfort and privilege means one cannot possibly feel like an outsider in a culturally and socially mainstreamed environment; that attending private school and managing to survive life as a brunette with “glowing” skin invalidates any right Gaga may have to an outsider identity.** But you can’t always tell the people that feel the most isolated by looking at them — certainly, they are often the folks working hardest at fitting in, for protection; for survival. Being privileged — as Lady Gaga in her first life as Stephani Germanotta most certainly was, and as Lady Gaga continues to be — does not automatically result in feeling entirely at home in the world, though it can certainly make subverting a culture that feels uncomfortable or oppressive much, much easier.

To this end, at Lollapalooza last month, Gaga began her show with the announcement: “My name is Lady Gaga. I thank you for coming to my show. I didn’t used to be brave. In fact I wasn’t very brave at all… But you have made me brave, little monsters. So now I’m going to be brave for you.” Whether this is a true statement or not is of no real importance. The authenticity of Gaga’s “right” to identify as a freakish misfit — so important to Paglia — is irrelevant to millions of her fans. She speaks to them, and stands up for them, and her high-profile support is precious to those who’ve spent years not knowing whether anyone had their back, those who have grown up in families and towns that reject queers and misfits, that punish and isolate those who are different.

Lady Gaga’s failure to be sexy is not the end of sex, nor is it even a problem. It is, rather, a development long overdue. For years, female pop stars from Madonna to Christina Aguilera have been taken to task for daring to portray themselves — on occasion, and always mitigated by a return to sanity — in ways that are not pretty or sexually-available in a pleasantly passive and heteronormative way. These criticisms are based on the idea that by masking their “natural” beauty, these women are somehow wasting it, and they owe us their beauty, don’t they? What are they for, if not to satisfy a cultural need for sexual role models for straight women and sexual fantasy objects for straight men? This is rarely said of Gaga, who has managed to remove herself from that conversation by stubbornly being too weird — and too queer — to be sexually attractive in any predictable, mainstream way.

Lady Gaga doesn’t have to be a tortured soul for us to appreciate her unflagging efforts to support a community of outsiders by giving them a spotlight and a broadly-inclusive banner under which to march. A fan’s connection with Lady Gaga isn’t just about their knowing that she ostensibly understands them; it includes membership in a vast army of like-minded people, an antidote to isolation. Distant, and yet omnipresent, Gaga is their benevolent commander-in-chief, a radical force of acceptance; she wants to you to be yourself, and she loves you just the way you are. This is something everyone wants to hear, in a world that continuously informs us that we are never good enough. Does she profit by it? Of course. But her profit does not eclipse the positive effect Lady Gaga has had on millions of her fans, as a figure representing courage in the face of cultural pressure to be “normal”.

If there is an injustice about this, it is that such a figure is necessary.

* I wouldn’t debate the point that “Burning Up” was a pivotal moment in pop music, but to position it as musically and lyrically superior to Gaga’s songs is… frankly, fucking hilarious. It’s pop music, not a bloody symphony; its only measure of “greatness” is how many days it remains stuck in your head after you’ve heard it.
** By this logic, she may well argue that slim women can never have eating disorders or body issues.

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