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Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way' video: Making goddess culture accessible

March 1, 2011 |  2:04 pm

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Lady Gaga
has every right -- and, you could even argue, a responsibility -- to fashion her own creation myth. The civil rights activism that serves as both gimmick and moral center in her art resonates more strongly if it’s backed by real political involvement; but since she’s an artist, after all, sometimes symbolic shows of solidarity are enough.

Her new video for “Born This Way” is one such declaration of alliance. Though it’s freaky enough to convince the casual viewer that it’s totally original, the Nick Knight-directed clip simply updates radical feminist lore for the cyber-prosthetic age. In doing so, Gaga gives a slimy new sheen to the Second Wave catchphrase “goddesses in every woman.” Yet for all of the intensity of the scenes where Gaga updates the feminist practice of myth-remaking to make room for both sci-fi surrealism and machine goods, the video ultimately fails its own message -- and all for the glory of a bikini.

While some have rejected the song “Born This Way” as a straight woman’s misguided attempt to claim queerness as her own, its instant cultural omnipresence proves that many fans accept and even revel in Gaga’s symbolic volunteer leadership.  (For great queer analysis of Gaga’s work, I highly recommend the writing that J. Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o have been doing on the Bully Bloggers website.)

Related: Ladies and queens, Gaga gives you "Born This Way."

“Born This Way” is the culmination of Gaga's informal campaign. Its housey beats and diva wails strut through the history of LGBT clubland, and the lyrics make explicit the elements of liberation more subtly driving Gaga’s earlier work: the self-determination in “Poker Face,” the determination to survive depicted in the video for “Paparazzi”;  the victimization recast as empowerment in “Bad Romance”; the celebration of sensuality as a route to innocence in “Alejandro.” In one disco-fabulous fell swoop, “Born This Way” completes Gaga’s metamorphosis from dance floor-damaged freak baby to doyenne of the disenfranchised. She is post-gender,  hear her roar.



The video backs up this move with the oldest trick in the radical feminist book: reinventing Genesis.  “In the infinite moment before time, the Goddess arose from chaos and gave birth to herself,” reads one creation myth, recorded not at the beginning of time but circa 1971. Feminist writers such as Jean Shinoda Bolen, Mary Daly, Starhawk and Riane Eisler gave women a way to view spirituality beyond the male-dominated religions of their youth; uncovering (or, sometimes, inventing) new myths was a key part of this process.

The goddess movement certainly addressed sexuality, but it was not conventionally sexy -- like many whose lives were changed by Second Wave feminism, its adherents mostly rejected the trappings of lipstick-and-lace femininity, instead favoring flowing Wiccan skirts and fair-trade ethnic jewelry. Gaga, raised under the shadow of the Catholic cross but also at the makeup table in her mom’s boudoir, uses the “Born This Way” video to sprinkle some of her trademarked plastic glitter glamour on the goddess role.

In a move typical of today’s vehemently anti-separatist, often apolitical “post-feminism,” Gaga makes goddess culture accessible by pairing its touchstones with images borrowed from fine art, cinema and cool subcultures (her partner in the vid’s Black Madonna sequences, for example, isn’t a boy god or a female consort but the ever-so-hip tattoo extremist Zombie Boy).

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Turning goddess culture dystopian and sexy -- and focusing not on the often militantly uncool women’s movement that (pun avoidable) birthed it, but on the queer community that, lately, has been making remarkable inroads in the Glee-ful mainstream  -- Gaga has found a way to place female empowerment at the center of her vision without sacrificing the gains she makes by being a daddy’s girl or a “boy toy.”

This, more than any sonic tie-in with Madonna’s songbook, is what makes Gaga most like the Material Girl.  Madonna broke ground at a point in feminism’s history when the movement’s radicalism was beginning to feel strident to some, especially to younger women. Gaga has emerged at a similar moment. A new generation of feminist writers, artists and activists is taking charge, and these strong voices need partners in popular culture to reflect and magnify their challenges and their dreams. Gaga has been doing her best to fit that role.

I wish, though, that Gaga could recognize the point where her crowd-embracing self-liberation begins to feel like the same old girlie show. The “Born This Way” video may include fascinating images of intergalactic birth (including one shot of Gaga pulling a gun from her lower regions that strangely echoes one of Second Wave feminism’s best known performance art works, “Interior Scroll” by Carolee Schneemann), but it also spends much time focusing on Gaga dancing in a scant bikini.

The Matthew Barney-lite body prostheses Gaga wears during these sequences don’t make up for the fact that they’re just so much showgirl strutting. She and choreographer Laurieann Gibson don’t even come up with dance moves that register as distinct from what we’ve seen in Gaga's previous videos. It’s probably too much to ask, in a time when radical reconciliation with the mainstream is pretty much defining pop culture, that Gaga find some way beyond the marketplace’s demand for plain old female objectification. But as far as she’s gone -- to the last galaxy and back -- she hasn’t arrived there yet.

Related: 

Critic's Notebook: Lady Gaga, sexuality and 21st century pop: Speaking truth to Camille Paglia

Live Review: Lady Gaga at Staples Center

 

-- Ann Powers

Photos: Images of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" video, courtesy of Interscope Records/Vevo.com. 

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