Why Lady Gaga is a Feminist – Part 3 – Telephone
Posted by jukeboxheroine
*** Fair Warning….this is a long post!***
Since my last post, Lady Gaga has come out as a “little bit of a feminist.” Whether she is or isn’t, her visuals, music, persona, and command of culture is feminist. She knows exactly what barriers women in the music industry face, and challenges these head on without apologizing.
Lady Gaga has released her new music video for “Telephone” featuring Beyoncé, and as can be expected there is a storm of comments once again on whether or not she is or isn’t a positive role model, what the hell the video means, let alone is or isn’t a feminist. Blah, blah, blah. I am sure Lady Gaga really isn’t losing sleep over those squabbles. But, I do think she and her music is feminist. Here is what I have to say about all of that in my part 3 of why Lady Gaga is a feminist. 10 Reasons why Telephone is a feminist social critique!
1.) Identity is fluid- This has to do with the postmodern idea that our identities, whatever they are, feminine, masculine, old, young, black, white, ect., are never a constant, fixed thing. Our identities are always in flux, in motion, we are never either/or, as much as everyone else wants to put us in those boxes. They change over time and space and context. With “Telephone,” as well as, most of Lady Gaga’s videos, she is seen in a multitude of outfits, scenes, and behaviors. This is the crux of Lady Gaga’s usage of imagery, that no matter how hard you try, you cannot pin her down. In other words, she will not abide by artificial barriers and boundaries of where we want to place her and expect of her. She will not be either/or. She lives in that grey area that makes most of us uncomfortable. And this is exactly the point.
2.) Queering the Narrative – Out of all the comments I have seen on other blog posts and message boards about “Telephone,” the one that keeps coming up was during the Exercise Yard scene outside of the prison where Lady Gaga and another inmate kissed. What drove people crazy was the fact that they could not pin-point the gender identity (and hence assumed sexual identity) of the other inmate. This points to identity as fluid, but also queering the assumed sexual narrative of visual texts. We assume two people kissing in a heterosexual context, almost always. Yet, this is an all-women’s prison? But the other inmate looks kind of masculine, or at least androgynous. So, is Gaga kissing a woman, or man? Or trans? This drives people nuts is because they need to know the biological, sexual and gender identities of others to therefore know how to judge and treat them. Lady Gaga in this case is throwing that all in your face. Once again, you do not get to box her in, or the visuals she is representing.
3.) Reversing the “Male Gaze” – Called the “male gaze,” “pornographic,” or “patriarchal gaze,” this is a way of understanding and seeing media and stories from a heterosexual, male’s perspective (usually white and middle-class as well.) In this narrative, (which is standard issue in our culture,) sees women as objects, peripheral to the male story line, male progression and ultimate growth. Women in texts are only there as eye candy, to prove male heterosexuality, or as obstacles for men to defeat and dominate by domestication or death.
In this entire video, as well as, “Bad Romance” and “Paparazzi,” Gaga reverses this gaze in a variety of ways. She refuses the male heterosexual narrative as the only way to see the world, and presents her views in a decidedly “feminine gaze” or at least a gaze that does not abide by male standards. Women’s bodies are not present in “Telephone” for male pleasure, they do not progress a male storyline, nor are women defeated for male purposes of sex or domestication. Women are not “othered.” In some ways, the bodies seen here are for female pleasure, sexual perhaps, or at least aiding in seeing women in positions of power, both as prisoners and prison guards. Women are in control, even in prison and outside of it. Gaga and Beyoncé’s emotions, ideas, and selves drive the story of the music video, not men’s. Women are central, not peripheral, they are the main autonomous actors in control of their destinies. Even as we see women in traditionally powerless situations, in prison, as diner wage workers, or as objectified bodies for male consumption, these positions are problemitized, and their meanings changed. When we see women in these places, we do not get the impression that they are mere tools of the patriarchy. They have agency, they have will, and they are not the “other.” We get a unique and visually appealing story from women’s perspectives, ideals, and world view that is so lacking in today’s media.
4.) Transgression, Prison for Bitches, & Lesbians – If you missed it, on screen as Gaga is being taken to prison is the date and name of the place where she is being held called “Prison for Bitches.” This small, but extremely significant part of the video cannot be underestimated. The video itself is a continuation of “Paparazzi” where Gaga murders her abusive boyfriend, and in the end is having her mug shots taken. As “Telephone” opens, we see her in her pinstripe glory being taken into the “Prison for Bitches” by two rather buff, femme-fatale prison guards.
Prison is an interesting concept. We assume prison is where we take someone who has done something wrong. People in prison must have done something to deserve their punishment. Yet, in the feminine narrative of the story, we sympathize with Gaga because we understand why she did what she did, and if one could, do the same to those who abuse us. Yet, she is still taken to the “Prison for Bitches.” So, what is a Bitch? We use this term against women who do not know their place. Women who are too loud, too proud, refuse to be controlled and put down are called “Bitches.” When they do not give into men’s sexual entitlement to their bodies and creativity, we call them “Bitches.” We use this term to police women into place. Women who transgress the gender norms of traditional femininity (being passive, emotional, weak, fuckable, dainty, heterosexual, and baby incubators) are hence “bitches” and must be punished for breaking these rules. Gaga is then imprisoned with other women who we assume have also transgressed gender norms. These women are being punished for “not being real women” in some way or another. Which leads me to the next part of the video narrative, Lesbianism.
As Gaga passes by the other cells in the prison, us the viewers hear other inmates sneering and calling out to Gaga. We get the sense that they sexually want Gaga, or at least as sexually attracted to women, because why wouldn’t a whole bunch of women, alone together in prison be lesbians right? Patriarchal society fears the idea of women being together, congregating, because they might start talking, and realize how crappy life is for them and revolt. The fear of female rebellion runs deep in our culture. These women in prison, with its lesbian undertones, harken to second wave womyn’s movements of separatism and female solidarity by literally and physically secluding themselves from men. In this prison, women are forcefully segregated over their shared transgressions against femininity. Lesbians fall into this category, because they are not attracted to men, hence break the heteronormativity mandate of our culture. Gaga also breaks femininity mandates by murdering her boyfriend, as well as, rumors of her being intersex. To which, she makes note of via exposing her genitals, albeit blurred, and the prison guards lamenting doesn’t have a “dick.” This small statement is a slap in the face at the pop culture rumor machine, but also at the idea that what makes a woman a woman is her “lack of a dick.” This is what women are in our culture, a sum of “what they lack” in accordance to men, who are considered the norm. Women are women because they are NOT men.
Thus, this prison is where women who defy rules of their genders in our culture are taken to be punished. We see in this prison other women who have transgressed in different ways, and even though this prison is a bunch of women, there is a hint of danger about it. Whether it is because a whole bunch of women are together in one place, or the lesbians being powerful, or the role ambiguity, this prison is a place to keep these women from ruining the “lawful” rest of society.
5.) Poison & Violent Women – As I mentioned above, women murdering their men, and in essence transgressing femininity norms of passivity and weakness to taking control is something that is feared in our culture. Men do this all the time. We see this as a common theme in movies, where the male protagonist is wronged somehow, someone kills their family, steals their money, insults their manhood, and therefore, they take the “law” into their own hands to get justice. We applaud this rebellion as essential to men transcending their “oppression” to gaining back their humanity. Yet, when women do it, we don’t accept that as possible, and even desired. It not only breaks feminine roles, but overturns their roles in the traditional narrative of masculine development. Women who become violent and rebel are unsettling, they are supposed to “follow the law” and “follow the rules.” Yet, when the laws are not made to give justice to women, the only way to get it is to rebel. Gaga does this in “Paparazzi” and in “Telephone.” Beyoncé breaks her out of the prison, and they plan their next attack on “society.” What more iconic of society than the American Diner? In that scene Beyoncé meets, what I am assuming is either her boyfriend, or maybe pimp? Either way, the label isn’t important as what the role symbolized. A figured who is dominating and controlling. You know this by his demeanor toward Beyoncé and others in the diner. He is a complete jerk, to be frank.
So, Beyoncé and Gaga plan to punish this dominator and purge it from themselves via poison. Gaga used this in “Paparazzi” as well. Poison symbolically in narrative was one of the few ways women could gain control. Traditionally they were not allowed to wield military, political power, or relationship power. But, the knowledge of herbs, medicine, and beauty tools have been something that has been female knowledge. Therefore, poison represents power and a way to have control when all other avenues you are barred from using. So, by Gaga and Beyoncé using poison, they are once again subverting what “good girls” should be doing, in favor of taking back their agency. Which then, leads to the next point, consuming = death.
6.) Consuming = Death – The poison in “Telephone” also represents something else vile to women’s agency and autonomy, consumerism. You can see this in the product placement in the video. Whether intentional or not, the product placement is obvious, hence our susceptibility to being “sold” to isn’t separable from any other messages. It is obvious we are being marketed to. Products overtake everything in every part of our lives. It is like an addiction, one that the individual cannot win against. It is like some unconscious hunger. This is symbolized as the poison which is added to the “honey” or “maple syrup” in the diner. We are nothing but consumers, and the message here is that it will kill you. We see the diners, viciously consuming their “food,” their “products,” and then, poison (relying on products) takes effect (the telephone effect) and kills everyone. Here, the messages is the obsession with consuming will be our death. On another note, when Beyoncé talks about “taking all her honey” this could also reference men who take everything from women, their self-esteem, their power, their humanity in order to consume and control them. Yet, this is a futile way to exist, because as Gaga and Beyoncé enact is how deadly and dangerous this consumption of products, and women is. It will come back to destroy you. The dancing in American flag apparel after the death scene is symbolic of consumerism as an American pastime, even as “patriotic,” the ultimate goal of our society, yet, to the end of death.
7.) Body as a Crime Scene – This is perhaps my favorite part of the video, Lady Gaga wrapped in crime scene tape. The symbolic messages of that are truly amazing. For one, women’s bodies as crime scenes are frighteningly true in our culture. Women are raped, abused, and sexually assaulted, literally making their bodies “crime scenes.” Their bodies are battlegrounds and this is where power and control are literally enacted upon. Gaga’s body is also a “crime scene” when it comes to crimes of sexual transgression. Her power as a woman has called into question her sexuality and gender identity, making her body and personhood a literal “crime again heteronormativity.” It doesn’t matter if she is bisexual, lesbian, pansexual, or asexual, she refuses to be obviously heterosexual, therefore is committing the aforementioned “crime.” Her body is also a “crime” against norms of dress and appearance because she uses her body to express some of the most horrible and vile ways out culture understands femininity. She refuses to blend in, to disappear in a crowd. She will be seen and heard. Her body is not invisible, but it is visible in the ways Gaga chooses, not the ways the “male gaze” or consumerism chooses. Therefore, once again, she is in control, and that is a “crime” for women.
8.) Pussy Wagon – If you have seen “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” you know about the “Pussy Wagon.” In the film, Uma Thurman’s character is raped (while she is in a coma) by a hospital employee. She swiftly kills that man, and takes his car keys to escape. She finds the vehicle, a large yellow truck emblazoned with the bright pink letters “Pussy Wagon.” The vehicle in many ways symbolized the misogyny of that hospital employee, basically reducing women down to their sexual uses and abuses for male pleasure. Such derogatory things like this, symbols, words, and actions have been reclaimed by feminist movements/civil rights movements as a way to take the power away from oppressors to define who they are through language and other symbols. For example, the word “Bitch” and “Queer” have been reclaimed by their respective groups to mean something positive, rather than negative, giving those groups the right and power to define who they are, not those who mean to oppress them. Now, that doesn’t mean every time it is used it is used in this positive light, but attempts have been made to challenge it’s derogatory usage as a means of control.
So, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s use of the “Pussy Wagon” (a decided masculine and misogynist symbol in the “Kill Bill” movie,) as a means of a getaway car is a revisionist of its sexist meanings. It becomes their means of escape, their vehicle for freedom. Their use of it challenges its meaning and makes it something ironic, funny, and liberating for Gaga and Beyonce rather than oppressive. It becomes obvious how silly the “Pussy Wagon” is via their usage of it.
9.) Thelma & Louise – Finally, if you didn’t catch it, the movie has many references to the film “Thelma and Louise.” This film was considered the first “female action” flick about two women who run from the law that has wronged them, as well as, a man who attempted to rape Thelma. Louise shoots him to stop him in one scene, and the women then take to the road, on the run, because Louise is convinced they will not get justice for what happened. This is true, even today, where rape victims rarely receive justice. They are demonized as asking to be raped via their past sexual history, their appearance, or their alcohol level. No one ever asks to be sexually assaulted and abused. EVER. Nothing excuses a criminal’s actions against the victim/survivor. But, our culture continues to blame women when crimes are committed against them. It’s the “you made me hit you” argument. This silences women from actually coming forward when they are raped or abused, and even when going to trial, continues to dehumanize and demoralize them.
So, by Gaga and Beyonce referencing this film, they are paying homage to the women in the film, but in some ways, to all women who have refused to be victims of a society that despises them. They are standing up, refusing to be used, and will at any cost, remain free from a controlling world.
10.) Blue Telephone headgear. Ok, it might not be feminist, but it’s cool.
There is so much in this music video, I could probably write another post on more of the symbolism. We’ll see, so stay tuned! Feminism Lady Gaga Style!
Or, I guess this is just some silly pop music video huh? You decide.
This is what Gaga has to say about “Telephone” here.
Posted on March 15, 2010, in Pick Guards - Music Analysis and tagged American Flag, Americana, Beyonce, Blue Telephone, Consumerism, Contradiction, Crime Scene Tape, Criticism, Dance, Dangerous Women, Death, Empowerment, Female Empowerment, Feminine, Femininity, Feminism, Feminist, Feminist Analysis, Fluid, Flux, Gender, Identity, Intersex, Kill Bill, Lady Gaga, Lesbianism, Male Gaze, Misogyny, Narrative, Oppression, Patriarchy, Poison, Pop, Pop Culture, Pornographic Gaze, Post-Modernism, Prison, Products, Pussy Wagon, Queer, Rape, Rebel, Rebellion, Sexism, Sexual Assault, Sexuality, Social Critique, Soda Can Hair, Stereotypes, Vamp, Women, Women In Music. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.