LADY GAGA: IS SHE YOUR LEADER?
In the recent age of political correctness and increasing social liberalism, celebrities have been placed under even more scrutiny from the public eye regarding their political views and the political ramifications of their actions. Because pop music is such a uniting force, bringing people together under the umbrellas of huge fandoms that manifest themselves on the internet and at concerts, pop artists especially have often been held to the high standards of liberalism and acceptance that are popular now. Lady Gaga, one such pop singer, has become famous over the past decade. She has always been a supposed supporter of LGBTQ rights in particular. “Born This Way,” arguably her most famous song, is “nothing less than a contemporary LGBT call-to-arms” (Savage). There is little doubt of her support of the movement towards equal rights for people of all sexual orientations and genders. Even President Obama, when addressing LGBT rights activists in a speech, joked, “I held some productive bilateral talks with your leader, Lady Gaga” (quoted by Jackson). This is not a trivial statement to make. What Obama has implied, along with many others, is that Lady Gaga represents the interests of all queer people in relation to that very part of their identities. There are those who identify as queer but do not feel that Lady Gaga is qualified to be any sort of leader of the LGBTQ rights movement. Some people also believe that she is simply looking for media attention. While Lady Gaga certainly has gained popularity because she is in line with the direction that popular American opinion is moving, and has thus profited from the concept of the identities of others, she has also been a true supporter of at least certain aspects of LGBTQ rights.
There is no doubt that Lady Gaga does fight for gay rights in some regard. Besides the nature of some of her songs, such as “Born This Way,” which includes lyrics like “No matter gay straight or bi… I’m on the right track baby,” she has also used her fame and fortune to sway popular opinion towards the side of equality. When playing a concert in Russia, a country that of late has had some notoriously harsh anti-gay legislature and hate crimes, Gaga risked arrest by making remarks intended to comfort her fans: “Tonight, this is my house, Russia. You can be gay in my house” (quoted by Morgan). She also founded the Born This Way foundation with her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, “dedicated to creating a safe community that helps connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a kinder, braver world” (Our Mission). Gaga has taken a decidedly political and pro-equality and acceptance stance, and as a popular and wealthy public figure, this is an important step. Consciously or not, people are affected by popular culture and its relationship with public opinion is one of great influence. Celebrities like Lady Gaga are put in the unique position of being able to unite masses of people (their fans) in ways unrelated to music. Gaga unites her fans by putting herself in a position that can be interpreted as an empathetic role but also as a sort of political advocate. Representing the interests of other people in relation to a personal aspect of their identities is serious business. It seems, however, that Lady Gaga does not always treat queer identities with enough gravity.
The main concern that is raised about Lady Gaga’s use and portrayal of LGBTQ identities is her disregard for sensitivity towards trans* people and their experience. She has made several comments regarding the subject, and readers of internet articles have taken note. One reader, “Riku,” noting Gaga’s language regarding beauty and being trans*, wrote, “she was talking about how she feels about her looks and the way she looks, and she said this: ‘I just don’t feel that it’s all that sexy. It’s weird. And uncomfortable. I look at photos of myself, and I look like such a tranny!’” (Not Quite) Although Lady Gaga claims to represent the marginalized groups of society (she calls her fans Little Monsters, and they call her Mother Monster), she is not actively working to fulfill that role for everyone. She may be more of a supporter of gay equality, which is a separate issue from trans* equality, but the two movements have been put interconnected in the mind of society by an accumulation of combined activism, and so it is hard to see Gaga as a true representation of anyone in the LGBTQ community if she does not work to include everyone in that group. On the other hand, sometimes Gaga’s quotes may be taken out of context. When asked whether she herself was trans*, Lady Gaga reportedly replied, “I really am a lady.” Some people have taken that to mean that she does not consider trans* women to be “real ladies.” Jackie Garcia, however, writes on website Quora, “We have no record of how this was said, which words were emphasized, etc. All that we have is [sic] 5 words and an exclamation point.” Gender identity is a deeply personal subject, and when the truth of someone’s personhood is questioned, it makes sense that they would want to fight back. In the case of Lady Gaga (and probably countless other public figures), some of these cases are justified, while others may be blown out of proportion as they spin through the game of Telephone that is the internet. Other times, such as in the case of Jo Calderone, it is unclear whether or not Gaga is taking serious matters too lightly. Calderone is Gaga’s male alter ego, who has made appearances both on stage and in photo shoots. While some believe that it is every person’s right to dress and act how they choose (and under whatever pronouns or labels they prefer), others, like Notyrdear, see Jo Calderone’s existence as offensive, saying that “she uses people’s actual identities as this entertaining costume to gain more attention for herself.” This statement is describing the appropriation of identity, something Gaga has been accused of many times.
In the post about Lady Gaga on the blog “Your Fave is Problematic,” there are multiple examples of non-LGBTQ related cultural appropriation that Gaga has been guilty of for the sake of aesthetic. A few of the examples listed include dressing in brownface, sexualizing the burqa, and sexualizing the kimono. These were instances of Gaga dressing for a photo shoot, a concert, or simply to keep up her distinct “look” of shocking or unexpected clothing. Essentially, Gaga was using the appearance of cultures and ethnicities other than her own for profit or personal gain of some kind. Even the bad press she received for such acts turned into good press. After Gaga released one controversial music video, for instance, “the subsequent public spats merely boosted net views and sales” (Savage). In Lady Gaga’s case, it is debatable whether becoming popular for the “wrong reasons” is a bad thing. It’s true that she offended people by representing an essential part of their identities in a way that they did not wish for or agree with. Whether or not she intended to, she became famous, in part because of the controversial things she said and did. However, she also uses her powers of fame for good, feeding them back into her fans through similar pathways of identity. Gaga has created a feedback loop through her LGBTQ fans and her representation of them that is now undeniably locked in. To ask where it started is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. Gaga’s support of LGBTQ rights (and her use of related cultural ideas and stereotypes) allowed her to become as famous as she is. But becoming famous allowed her to give real aid to that movement. Whatever her motives, Gaga has created a system that helps people out.
It is difficult to believe that Lady Gaga supports queer rights only for the notoriety that comes with such an endorsement, though, because it is a part of her own identity: she is bisexual. Although this piece of her identity does not affect her personality, it does affect her experience, and it is important to say that she is, at least to some degree, representing herself in being the so-called “leader” of the LGBTQ activist movement. She may know from experience the isolation that some queer people feel as they grow up, and she has credibility as a queer person to speak to the meaning of that word (queer) as much as any one person can. Simply representing herself and those most like her, however, does not make Lady Gaga the queen of all queers. There are so many different people who all identify differently, and there is no way that Gaga could know what it is to live those different lives well enough to represent them all.
Claiming to speak for another person is a dangerous act, and there are those who feel that Lady Gaga misrepresents their points of view. Gaga herself, however, claims that she never set out to lead any sort of movement. Says Gaga, “I never said I was a gay icon… I’m a gay supporter” (quoted by Avery). She is not trying to be the one voice of all queer people in the United States. She recognizes that no one person can see to the specific individual interests of each person in a larger group. One person can, however, make a difference in the lives of those they interact with. As a pop star, the pool of people that Gaga can interact with (through her recorded music, her concerts, and any public statements she makes) is much larger. Gaga has probably done more good than harm in terms of her influence on this affected group. There are still those who claim that “she ‘uses’ the gay community,” but she does really care about LGTBQ rights and activism, replying to such claims, “I would say the top thing I think about every single day of my life, other than my fans, loving the music, and my family being healthy, is social justice and equality” (Fowler).
Anything that celebrities say or do will be criticized under a very harsh lens because they are role models for a greater percentage of society than anyone else. Lady Gaga should not be held to any lesser standard, especially regarding an issue she claims to care so much about. It is true that she has been guilty of cultural appropriation and that she has sometimes tread on the very identities she has sworn to protect. But whether or not she is selfishly motivated or seeking only fame is a little irrelevant. Gaga has done what many celebrities have failed to do: she has used her fame to make a political statement. Although people argue about how effective (or correct) her political influence is, Lady Gaga is ultimately just a person who happens to be famous and as a result has a magnifying glass placed over her at all times. As Stringer puts it in what is probably the most apt critique of Gaga as a person and a celebrity, she’s just “a god damned musician who is working through her shit through her music, and she just happens to be bisexual.”
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Fowler, Tara. “Lady GaGa offended by claims she “uses” gay community.” Digital Spy. http://www.digitalspy.com/celebrity/news/a328421/lady-gaga-offended-by-claims-she- uses-gay-community.html#~oB5GeJrR7fDTAs (accessed April 10, 2014).
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