Gaga: Ooh La La

This weekend, I saw a screening of Adrian Grenier’s new documentary, Teenage Paparazzo, at the BAM Cinema Festival.  The film is great.  In a nutshell, it’s the story of a thirteen-year-old paparazzo who helps Grenier explore how we, as a society, consume and feed ‘celebrity.’

The film explores how celebrities are commodified by the public and the paparazzi, who are rabid for stories of Angelina stealing Brad who secretly still loves Jen who is having a baby to get back at Brad who loves all his multicolored babies but wants nothing more than to get out from under the tyranny that is Angelina.  Who even cares if it’s true anymore???  Some tabloid gossip may be in the name of fun and fiction, but clearly, celebrity commodification has a dark side as well.  See: Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears.  Celebrity broke them—tragically, gloriously, and completely.

Celebrity commodification struck me as an obvious parallel to objectification theory.  The theory goes that men relate to women as objects that can be consumed, perpetuating an unequal power dynamic that subordinates and disempowers women.  This theoretically causes shame, anxiety, difficulty feeling fully in the moment (what some people might call “flow”), dissociation from natural body states (a big factor in eating disorders), and depression.  All in all, it’s not great.

But what if we could use objectification to our advantage?  Some celebrities step into the spotlight by self-consciously offering themselves as objects to be consumed with a specific message that they intend to convey through that consumption.  Case in point: Lady Gaga.  She intentionally presents herself as an object that is androgynous, sexually aggressive, and unapologetic but somehow still totally and addictively consumable. She is asking you—daring you—to consume her.  She obviously stands on the shoulders of Prince, Bowie, and Madonna, who all challenged our conception of sexuality in their own ways, but she offers a new, never-before-popular commodity: the androgynous female.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that Lady Gaga is single-handedly changing society’s perspective on women’s sexuality.  But I would argue that by making female androgyny a desirable commodity, she challenges limited perspectives on how women’s sexuality can be expressed, making people more likely to accept alternative sexualities as they encounter them in their own lives.  (In the age of body image ideals that make women look like underfed preteen boys, it’s questionable whether androgyny is a good thing, but let’s focus on the sexual freedom part for now).  Lady Gaga’s genius is that she knows she is a commodity, she embraces that she will be consumed, and she manipulates that interaction to affect change in the consumer.  Absolutely brilliant.

So that got me thinking: If women are objectified by men and if our bodies are seen as objects for consumption, is there a way that we could embrace that dynamic and use the interaction itself to affect change?

Perhaps we should start by looking at our role in objectification.  Because let’s be real: we’re not innocent bystanders here.

Objectification theory holds that a woman who is regularly objectified by others will eventually begin to objectify herself.  Rolnick, Engeln-Maddox, and Miller (2010) supported this in a study of sorority rush, which showed that women who participated in rush (basically a series of two-minute interviews with your BMI and your clothing labels) showed higher levels of self-objectification and eating disordered behavior.  Shocking.

But do we really need studies to realize that women are well past the point of objectifying themselves?  Have you seen the cover of any women’s magazines lately?  It’s pretty obvious.

If we want to change the cycle, let’s start treating ourselves as we hope to be treated.  To use the Gaga model, let’s create the commodity that we hope will be accepted.  The challenge is to make it consumable.

If we are going to be consumed, let us be consumed as we aspire to be.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Gaga: Ooh La La

  1. Doug Sunshine

    Are women any more objectified than men are?

    Surely, they are objectified differently. A woman’s “objective” worth is in her looks, whereas our culture puts much less emphasis on the way a man looks. However, our culture puts much more emphasis on the amount of money a man makes (or its proxy, his so-called status).

    One could argue that emphasis on status is a more healthy goal than emphasis on looks. But it seems to me that this is a matter of opinion. How many men have you met who are married to their career, unable to keep a marriage together or effectively raise their children? My personal opinion is that I have no opinion — I don’t know enough about the social cost of our society’s emphasis on female looks versus our society’s emphasis on male wealth.

    Re: Gaga
    I think a huge part of Gaga’s appeal is her honesty: she seems to implicitly understand and accept that she is part of a ridiculous circus that our culture demands. She doesn’t rebel against it — how many times have we rolled our eyes at celebrities bemoaning their “torture” at the hands of paparazzi who erstwhile make them famous? She manipulates them rather than the other way around. How many celebrities can say that?

    In the end, I think, our society reserves its highest praises for those who are able to redefine its rules, rather than those that follow the rules most closely.

    • @Doug: I agree that male wealth is a great parallel to women’s looks. It’s interesting to think about how both sexes are trapped by the ways society measures our “value.” You’d think we’d just cut the crap, right?

      I’m not sure I agree that pressure to be wealthy is a form of objectification, though. I agree that we’re basically consuming the paycheck instead of the man (like the body instead of the woman), but objectification is a form of disempowerment and I think men’s wealth-seeking is more of a self-imposed effort to retain power rather than a socially-imposed effort to undercut it. That said, I totally agree that marrying your job isn’t healthy for anyone and that we, as a society, need to allow men to find balance without sacrificing their “manhood” (part of that means creating more flexible child-rearing options so that men can start to participate more fully at home as well–great NY Times article on that recently: search “In Sweden, Men Can Have It All”).

      Another interesting side of this is that men are actually starting to become more objectified. One of the best examples of that is that media images of men are starting to show isolated body parts (vs. full body, with face) and profiles of male faces (vs. looking out at the viewer). This is a big shift for men (though it’s old news for women) and as these images are increasing, male eating disorders and body image distortions are on the rise. Not sure what that means about how/why things are changing, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

      Thanks for the male perspective, Doug :). Hope all is well!

      • Doug Sunshine

        Sorry I will comment again because I am REAL bored at work.

        I looked up the definition of objectification (to present as an object, esp. of sight, touch, or other physical sense) and I agree. One can’t characterize emphasis on status as objectification because it doesn’t have to do with a physical sense. However, I don’t believe that emphasis on physical characteristics is the only “alienating” or potentially harmful attribute with regard to how our society values its individuals.

        In the end, I guess we have a mental spectrum between those things that society SHOULD focus on (i.e. intelligence, insight, kindness) and those things that it SHOULDN’T focus on (i.e. looks). It is up for debate where money falls on this spectrum.

        To me, possession of money should go on the “shouldn’t” side. First off, it has little to do with a person’s internal worth. Secondly, our society’s emphasis on monetary gain can make regular people do some pretty bad things (the BP spill is just the latest of a great many).

        Does the relentless pursuit of money empower men, where the pursuit of physical beauty disempowers women? I guess it depends on your definition of power. Perhaps by buying into “money=power” and “power=good” you are subconsciously buying into society’s value norms after all.

        • You can comment as much as you want, Doug. I totally agree with you that valuing monetary gain belongs on the shouldn’t side (and I’m glad to hear you say that!). And touche for pointing out that I equated money with empowerment.

          So let me revise that: I agree that money is not, by any means, a form of personal empowerment. However, I think money is currently a form of societal power. I totally agree that this is not a good thing and definitely leads to disasters like a completely demolished ecosystem in the Gulf, but one visit to a Bronx public school and an UWS private school is a harsh reminder that money does have power.

          While I hope that money will eventually lose some of its potency (or in other words, that we shift the dialogue toward cultivating happiness, self-worth, and community), that seems an unlikely mass movement in a capitalist society. But the economy is really not my domain, so feel free to take a shot at my cynicism.

  2. Dell Salza

    I wonder if one aspect of men becoming more objectified isn’t the media picking up on the buying power of gay males more than anything relating to male-female relations.

    I’m not sure I understand your statement that “money is not, by any means, a form of personal empowerment.” With money, one has choices and opportunities (that may further one’s personal development) that one does not have without money – right?

    • Great point and probably very true, especially since straight women and gay males are both seen through the male gaze.

      What I meant by my comment that money is not a form of personal empowerment was that money doesn’t lead to fulfillment, self-appreciation, etc.–basically that money can’t buy you happiness. But that’s a great point that the choices and opportunities that come with money often enable greater personal development (education is an excellent example of that). There’s probably a balance in there–maybe it’s the way someone relates to money (as a source of opportunity or as something to be hoarded) that either leads to personal development or stunts it.

  3. Liz Rawls

    Caught a bit of dialogue on NPR the other day about Ms Gaga, and have to say I wasn’t very impressed with her “honesty.” They were quoting various of her interviews over the last eight months or so, where she flips and flops with the best of them. The first of the interviews quoted had her saying, “I’m not a feminist. I love men.” As if being a feminist means you hate men??? Hello, anybody home?

    A few months later in another interview she said, “I am a little bit feminist.” And during her most recent Larry King interview she said, “I am a feminist.”

    My guess would be that she is responding to pressure to say what she’s supposed to say, and she really doesn’t know what she is, or what a feminist is.

    I do, however, think the costumes and dance numbers in the Bad Romance video are fabulous!

    • I’m so glad you caught that NPR show–thanks for posting this!

      When I read your post, I was struck by how much her comments seem to resemble my generation’s relationship with feminism (Lady Gaga is a humbling 24 years old).

      I think we are a bit confused; we don’t know how to define it; and we’re not sure if we fit the label. Not because we don’t know what feminism has been, but because we’re not sure yet what it will be for us.

      I think that, in a lot of ways, we’ve grown up grappling with this idea of the “superwoman”–the homemaker, mother, wife, career woman, bombshell, everything rolled into one. A lot of psychologists have been looking at role overload among women, finding that the pressure is taking a toll. I think we’re questioning how we hope to assert ourselves as women–which roles we hope to fill, and how we hope to fill them. We’re also growing up in a label-defying, postmodern generation, so I think we’re in a phase of taking feminism apart, and haven’t quite figured out how we want to put it back together yet. For me, Lady Gaga’s confusion reflects all of that noise.

      There are several huge, rich topics here, so I won’t try to get into it too deeply now (and I need some time to gather my thoughts together!), but I’ll do some thinking and tackle these ideas in upcoming blog posts.

  4. Liz Rawls

    Okay, so I may be a bit off topic here, not really focusing on Gaga, but the whole feminist thing. Definitions of feminist and feminism do differ, occasionally including a reference to “militant” support of women’s rights and equality. But most simply state that feminism is the movement to win political, economic and social equality for women, and that is the definition I use. And the fact that you often hear the expression “militant feminist” is also an argument for the definition that doesn’t include that nasty “m” adjective. So, if a feminist is a supporter of the movement to gain women that equality, what reasonable person would ever say they aren’t a feminist?

    Okay, I’ll admit, I have a relation (no names please) who actually argues that the vote should be taken away from women–we’re too emotional! And we’ll vote for the presidential candidate who’s the cutest. But he’s a nut. I don’t know anyone else who thinks women aren’t entitled to equality in all those areas.

    The whole “superwoman” concept, and the stress associated with trying to have it all, probably falls in the area of social equality–the hardest to achieve, because it can’t be legislated. It’s in people’s heads, in the form of expectations and judgments—like the old double standard that forces women to walk the “tightrope” you describe, regarding sex. So even with women making a good deal of progress in the work force (although we still make less on average for the same job), and in politics (although there was way too much focus on Hillary’s hair and her stupid pantsuits than makes any sense), women still do something like 80% of the housework when both parents have fulltime jobs.

    Changes in the social arena will take the most time because it’s about changing the way people think, but that shouldn’t stop young people from thinking of themselves as feminists. Just think how much less stressful it would be for working mothers (in two parent families) if the division of labor in the household were fair.

  5. Pingback: Mucus vs. Semen: Up Close and a Little Too Personal « Birds With Brains

  6. I honestly cannot understand why Lady Gaga is considered to be some sort of revolutionary. She is playing the age old game of exploiting her sexuality for fame and wealth. How does this ultimately help women?

    If she accomplished everything she has accomplished without objectifying herself, then that would be worthy of accolades. Why isn’t that the goal?

    Why is it “absolutely brilliant” to go the easy route of using one’s appearance and sexuality to get ahead? Why is it admirable to equivocate on feminist issues?

    I just do not understand why women who recognize how we are constantly objectified and marginalized applaud female celebrities who perpetuate the objectification.

    Please help me understand. This is so discouraging to me.

    • Thanks so much for your comments. I definitely hear what you’re saying and feel the same frustration that objectification is often glorified or unrecognized.

      One thing I often notice in Lady Gaga’s performances and self-presentation is that she doesn’t seem to sexualize herself in the traditional sense. I may be wrong on this, but I see a trend in her work toward challenging norms, often by placing herself in a masculine position. For example, her camera angles are typically head-on or bottom-up (women are usually filmed from above), her sexual positions (in a video like Alejandro) include many traditionally masculine positions, and her performances are often more shocking than sexy (vs. someone like Madonna who exploited her sexuality to shock her viewers). I often find her to be very androgynous, which I think is liberating in that it may open her viewers to more diverse sexualities. But I also do worry that she may perpetuate a body image for women that rejects natural curves, further encouraging a lot of the ideals that have led to such extreme problems with anorexia. So I certainly don’t think she’s perfect and I struggle with where exactly she fits in the feminist dialogue, but I hoped to highlight in this post that there may be something of value in her presentation.

      Mostly, I think it’s noteworthy that she seems so keenly aware that she is consumed as an object, but uses that awareness to promote a sort of ambivalent sexuality (like the feminine/masculine mixture I described above) that may encourage her viewers, through her exposure, to accept a wider range of sexualities. It’s definitely just a theory or observation, but I’m interested in the broader idea–that we can use the process to affect the outcome–as food for thought for how to possibly counteract the influence of objectification. I’m not sure exactly how we would do that, but I thought it was interesting to consider that we may be able to “manipulate” the outcome (mens’ learned inclination to objectify us) through the objectification itself. Essentially, to accept that it exists and find a way to be desired and consumed as the women we aspire to be–a sort of subtle attack on the outcome through a meta-awareness of the process. It’s certainly possible that would just make us conspirators in our own demise, so I’m not sure I agree with it, or that it’s possible, but I think there’s an interesting idea there.

      I think there’s another interesting issue in here that modern celebrity itself is a heightened form of objectification. So I wonder if it is possible for any pop culture icon to avoid objectifying herself (or even himself). What are your thoughts on that?

      I’ll be away for the next two weeks, but I would love to hear your thoughts and will respond when I get back! Thanks again for stopping by!

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