Caught in a Bad Romance with Lady Gaga

By Tiffany Yau ‘12Arts & Entertainment Editor

Lady Gaga is (in)famous for her controversial persona that encompasses an em phasis on merging life and art, turning the fashion world on its head, controversial statements regarding culture and politics, as well as a couple of incidental dance hits. Gaga appears to be completely in control of her image, one which provides a running commentary on gender, sexuality and beauty. However, her criticism of our society’s constructed notions of beauty and gender seem to contradict her revealing outfits and hyper-sexual persona.

Is Lady Gaga’s expression of sexuality an empowering one? Or is it self-objectification? A panel of Pomona professors addressed these questions and more at “Bad Romance: Lady Gaga, Sexuality and Power,” hosted by the Pomona Student Union. Pomona professors, including Kevin Dettmar, Professor of English, Susan McWilliams, Professor of Politics and Kyla Tompkins, Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies, came to discuss whether Lady Gaga’s sexual expression is one of power or self-objectification.

Dettmar began the panel by providing an overview of Lady Gaga’s career, emphasizing her body of work as an amalgamation of parodic homages to pop culture. Following a showing of Lady Gaga’s music video for “Bad Romance,” Dettmar noted the multitude of references embedded in the video. From the opening figures that rise from coffins, conjuring Michael Jackson’s zombies from “Thriller,” to the white, patent leather tributes to Max from Where the Wild Things Are and the rendering of Lady Gaga as Snow White in front of her magic mirror, these homages to pop culture along with Lady Gaga’s performances are warped by an element of irony. Lady Gaga’s expression of sexuality, Dettmar argues, is a performance of femininity. Her hyper-sexualized female persona has been likened to that of a drag-queen, and accusations of hermaphroditism. Lady Gaga’s sexuality, then, is an ironic criticism of modern society’s construction of femininity.

Tompkins furthered the conversation and posed the question “Is Lady Gaga’s ex- pression of sexuality and femininity positive or negative for women?” Her conclusion: it does not matter. What does matter is that Lady Gaga is circulating alternative forms of gender and expression. We can throw away the Speeding-Bullet Theory and recognize that the masses are not zombies consuming media mindlessly and with abandon. In Gaga’s music videos, her performances of leather-clad S&M fanatics and ambiguous queer relationships, regardless of whether they’re positive, are a necessary alternative in contemporary media. What is important, Tompkins argues, is Lady Gaga’s role in deconstructing gender binaries.

McWilliams concluded the panel with her discussion of Lady Gaga’s role in what she regards as our “post-traumatic society.” She emphasized the resulting “sadist-masochist” tendencies of our culture, in which women are engrained with the idea of “dominate or be dominated.” In a society where Paris Hilton had been “the blonde” not even a decade ago, McWilliams acknowledged the refreshing change in power dynamics that Lady Gaga provides. In most of Lady Gaga’s music videos, her “boy-toys” can’t ever seem to escape a brutal death by her hands. McWilliams argued that these depictions of Lady Gaga’s reclaiming of power are empowering and an optimistic look at changing dynamics in terms of gender.

Overall, the panelists discussed a positive critique of Lady Gaga’s representation of gender and sexuality. By and large, their discussion establishes Lady Gaga as a refreshing alternative to the normative representation of gender and sexuality in media. Their comments suggest a confidence toward Lady Gaga’s role as a feminist icon, regardless of her own protestations.