Pop Theory: Ethical Conflict in the Gaga Brand and How It Affects Her Queer Little Monsters

Do you want some education with your entertainment? Our new column, Pop Theory, takes a more academic approach to the queer parts of pop culture.

“To ‘give style’ to one’s character—a great and rare art!”

In this one line, Nietzsche bespeaks the power of art in life as well as the correlation between aesthetics and ethics. As one of Nietzsche’s most famous readers, Gilles Deleuze, attests, “it’s the styles of life involved in everything that make us this or that.”

The mainstream artist who best and most dramatically embodies this philosophy today is, arguably, Lady Gaga.

Stephani Joanne Angelina Germanotta spent years honing her musical skills and crafting her emergent and ever-changing persona, Lady Gaga. Her “Haus of Gaga,” a creative team of stylists, fashion designers, producers and choreogaphers, is dedicated to this continual fashioning and re-fashioning of her person as art. This idea of self-fashioning is both an aesthetics and an ethics: stylized ways of life. She has magnified the power of self-creation in performance and as performance and has communicated this power to self-fashion and to actively choose how one stylizes oneself—how one lives her life—variously to her Little Monsters.

“The challenge is that what others view as artifice—my wigs, my makeup, my clothes, my love for show business and theater — to me, these are the paint in my palette. These things are not artifice. These things are my reality…. People wonder, Is she for real? Is it all an act? But my question is, Since when did the act become a bad thing? Show business has always been about the act. Hasn’t it?” (Popdust)

“I’m like, 100% focus on being innovative, and as original and soulful…” (Noisevox)

“But you know, I can be whoever the fuck I want to be. That’s what artists do. We choose what you see and we tell a story….” (Elle)

“what I’m trying to say is I want to liberate them [her Little Monsters], I want to free them of their fears and make them feel that they can create their own space in the world.” (ABC News)

“There’s something heroic about the way my fans operate their cameras…. Like Kings writing the history of their people. It’s their prolific nature that both creates and procures what will later be perceived as the “kingdom.” So, the real truth about Lady Gaga fans lies in this sentiment: They are the kings. They are the queens. They write the history of the kingdom, while I am something of a devoted Jester…. We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather to become, in the future.” (Manifesto of the Little Monsters)

What I adore about Gaga is how she lives her life (ethics) through her artistry (aesthetics). This is what I also admire about the queer community at large, from the consciously and deliberately performative drag kings and drag queens, to, for example, the everyday butch who cultivates a part of her butch-identity via her self stylizations: the finely trimmed ‘do, the bowtie, the studded belts, the tattoos, and so forth.

There’s a power in this ability to create ourselves, and this power transcends simple artistry because it entails—indeed, uses as its materials—our bodies, whereby our gender(s) and our sexuality become implicated in this self-fashioning, in this ethics.

Gaga herself has expanded this idea how self-fashioning affects and implicates gender (and, arguably, sexuality) most recently via her sometimes persona Jo Calderone.

What I find utterly perplexing, even frustrating, is that Lady Gaga is anything but “born this way,” and yet “born this way” has become a defining mantra of the LGBT movement.

Why? Why, when the ability to create and to become is so empowering and powerful?

“Born this way,” I feel, has become twisted into a reductive cultural expression of biological determinism—i.e. “I can’t help who I am, because I was born this way.” The idea of being “born a certain way” is defeatist, apologetic, and reeks of religious asceticism.

Frankly, I’m not even certain that this interpretation of Gaga’s lyric is one that she fully promotes (clearly, the power of interpretation lies in the reader’s hands), but, regardless, there is a certain passivity to one’s becoming that is implicated in this mantra:

“But the album is about rebirth in every sense. It’s about being able to be reborn over and over again until you find the identity inside of yourself that defines you best for who you are, that makes you feel the most like a champion of life.” (FT magazine)

My fellow lesbians, queers, dykes, etc., just contemplate this: Which is the stronger, more affirmative ethic? The one of self-creation, of the power to self-create, or the one of passive prescription, in which we have no control over the life that we live and portray to the world?

What is gained by saying we’re not born this way?

“It’s the styles of life involved in everything that make us this or that.”

Dr. Marcie Bianco is gloriously unemployed and homeless — as only one
with a handful of useless degrees could be. She currently serves at
the Editorial Director of VelvetPark.

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