Is Lady Gaga a Feminist or Isn’t She?

Nobody could describe my relationship with Lady Gaga better than she does: We’re in a Bad Romance.

She’ll say something feminist one minute and equate feminism with man-hating the next. Sometimes she seems too skinny, too blonde, too commercial–but then she explains how her Bad Romance video simulates the trafficking of women as commodities in the music industry and I swoon. So, with the newly released first unofficial biography of Lady Gaga in hand, I set out to settle the question: Is Lady Gaga a feminist or isn’t she?

Emily Herbert’s Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame adds to the already familiar growing-up-Catholic-school-girl backstory new insight into Gaga’s artistic vision and business savvy. In an industry in which many women (and some men) are shepherded to stardom with little input, Gaga appears to be completely in control of her image.

As Herbert explains in the book, Gaga’s creative collective, “Haus of Gaga,” is fashioned after Andy Warhol’s Factory. Every member is under 26 years old and hand-picked by Gaga. Together, they handle everything–the music, the clothing, the performances–and are wildly successful at creating exciting, strange art and music that large numbers of people love.

Her art provides a running commentary on gender, sexuality and beauty. There are hints of David Bowie, Prince and Madonna in the way she plays with sexuality, but while Gaga acknowledges these similarities she wants it to be clear she is something entirely her own. With her deliberate juxtaposition of conventional platinum blonde beauty and  fashionably ugly costumes, she toys with conventional rules of attractiveness.

Half of her appeal throughout 2009 seemed to be the question of whether or not she was pretty, whether or not people felt comfortable liking her. “I am not sexy in the way Britney Spears is sexy,” Gaga is quoted in the bio, “I just don’t have the same ideas about sexuality that I want to portray. I have a very specific aesthetic–androgyny.”

What effect does it have for someone who defies conventional beauty to be sexy? Maybe it means broadening what sexy is.

Gaga also espouses safe sex and embraces her queer fans.“I want to free [my fans] of their fears and make them feel they can create their own place in the world,” Gaga told Barbara Walters in December 2009. What is more feminist that creating an inclusive atmosphere where people feel accepted?

And Gaga beautifully articulated the double standard within pop music in this interview:

You see if I was a guy and I was sitting here with a cigarette in my hand, grabbing my crotch, talking about how I make music because I love fast cars and fucking girls, you’d call me a rock star. But when I [sing about sex] in my music and videos, because I’m a female, because I make pop music, you are judgmental and you say that it is distracting.  I’m just a rock star.

But moments later she stomped on my heart:

I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture– beer, bars and muscle cars.

Feminist fans around the country joined in a collective hand slap to the forehead.

Of all people to be afraid of a word, the controversy-loving Lady Gaga just doesn’t seem to fit. So is Lady Gaga really fearful? Or just ignorant?

I was heartened when finally, as the year came to a close, she admitted to the LA Times that she was a “little bit of a feminist.” And I think she’s more a feminist than she admits. Throughout her time in the spotlight, Gaga has made consistent statements about being a strong woman, focusing on her career and being in control.  On a radio show in September 2009, she addressed a rumor that she was a hermaphrodite: “I think this is society’s reaction to a strong woman.”

Lady Gaga is a young artist who seems to renegotiate her image and identity with each bit of education she receives. Maybe she has made some feminist faux pas, but to her credit, she educates herself and comes back with a stronger statement than the last. She thinks about who she is and how she presents herself, and that is refreshing. And “a little bit feminist.”

I can’t help but fantasize about just what Lady Gaga could do by identifying as “feminist.” Her immense popularity and youthful, outspoken image could be the perfect set-up for a revolution of the word.

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