Gaga, what can I say but that I recognized you the moment I saw you. You were a star, a sign of everything I knew about women and artifice, taken to the most illogical, asymmetrical extreme. Over and over they call your outfits outré, from the French to push beyond bounds, and everywhere you go you push beyond, casting mirror-ball light onto the limits we thought we were too post-post-post- to still believe in. You put the shock back in pop, and this has everything to do with gender.
I went to Catholic school, too – replete with uniforms and uniform worldviews. When I was in eighth grade, a runaway to public school, my new best friend took me on as a makeover project. Raiding her closet and thrift stores down by the university, we tried out Raver, Hippie, Glam, and Grunge. It was fun, but nothing stuck. What I really wanted from my newfound fashion freedom, it turned out, was to be able to mix and match all of these prepackaged looks, and to apply touches that belonged to none of them. I spent high school combining and recombining, indulging a thirst for texture, color, armor. At the end of senior year, the feathers, velour, faux fur, animal prints, long gloves, and rhinestones helped me secure “Most Original Style” alongside “Most Likely To Win on Jeopardy.” In college, I acquired a vocabulary for what I was doing – performing, and specifically performing the straight-girl-as-femme – through a gender studies minor, a particularly fantastic writing class called “Scandal, Femme Fatales, and the Information Age,” and my residence in Los Angeles, whose artifice I thought a very suspect thing.
So you see, I recognize you, Gaga. People like us – artists, poets, singers, dancers, fashionistas – need, or once needed, to perform, bedeck, exhibit our identities as others, little monsters, queers, aliens, artists. It happens in every town. And in every town, now, people know who you are. And so they know who we are: you made us all famous. Do all your fans say, I feel like I know her? Some celebrities cultivate an aura of remoteness. But in spite of your gleaming armature, in spite of your exacting poise while performing, you seem like one of us. Vulnerable in interviews, contradicting yourself from one to the next, staging your identity every day even as you struggle to articulate it. And you do try, seeming gosh darn earnest at every turn, patting your heart as your eyes fill up with tears, straining your brow, shyly avoiding eye contact, even slumping your shoulders, hands clasping instead of clawing, uninterested in posturing during conversation. I’m real, you want to say, not artificial, and then you move over to the stage and become unreal, or realer, or the thing called Gaga.
They all say you had to say goodbye to Stefani, or that you do daily. I’m not sure I believe it. Before I do, I would like to know what that moment looks like. Is it when you put on the first mask, or the last? The heels or the eyelashes? Is it the moment you start singing? Or does Stefani vanish from the second-story window at the sight of the first cameraman of the day, lunging from the shrubs? I don’t want anyone to separate who I am with my makeup on from who I am without it. I’m the same person.
You went so far down the gender spectrum, you circled back around on the other side. As Anne Sexton writes, A woman like that is not a woman, quite. / I have been her kind. A woman who is too much woman, too unsettlingly woman, must be something else – must be in drag or a freak but not just woman. When they asked Google if you were a hermaphrodite, when the kids playing foursquare whispered loudly that you had a penis and then squealed and shoved each other, that was a schoolyard way of saying that you had taken woman so far beyond bounds that they didn’t recognize it anymore. Besides, who would wear so many outlandish outfits unless she were hiding something? Isn’t hyperbolic style just a big cover-up? Well, yes: gender is often the very thing we hide or exaggerate when we hide or exaggerate ourselves. Your pixellated crotch on the “Telephone” video proves you’re in on the joke.
The guy from the New York Times asked, “How important is artifice to you?”, and you replied, “Artifice? As in artificial?” He clarified: “No, as in a construct, a stratagem.” Then you said, “I don’t know, that word implies artificial to me. I don’t see myself in terms of artifice. I see myself as a real person who chooses to live my life in an open way – artistically. I am a walking piece of art every day, with my dreams and my ambitions forward at all times in an effort to inspire my fans to lead their life in that way.”
I’ll admit that I was surprised by – and amused by the irony of – the fact that you weren’t familiar with the word artifice, but the artist isn’t, and shouldn’t have to be, the critic. I do have a problem with all of these definitions, though, each of which define artifice as a negative concept. Artificial. A construct. A stratagem. Like the related word artful, which can mean crafty as well as skillful, artifice as a concept rides the line between trickery and creativity, between casting a spell and making a work of art. When the artwork is the body (“I am a walking piece of art”) – and not only the body, but its décor, and its gestures, and its mise-en-scène (that is, and the entire image-matrix in which a persona is bound up) – the audience becomes especially convinced that there is a difference between Artifice (Bad) and Art (Good).
I am not so convinced. When artifice is seen as the opposite of authenticity, naturalness, reality, and openness we forget (or maybe, never knew) the fact that artifice and femininity have had an uneasy relationship for most of modernity. Giggles, skirts . . . blanched deference, hesitation . . . the trappings of femininity have been “optional” in theory for a long time, but not until the late twentieth century in some privileged countries on this planet did girls and women start to have a real choice about how girly, womanly, or feminine they wanted to appear. Indeed, in some cultures in 2010, the costumes of femininity are enforced by armed guards. And beyond that, modern western culture has long policed the idea that it is “natural” for women to behave in modest, flirty, or coy ways – that it is “natural” for women to be artful – as in, conniving and strategic. What you do, Gaga, that is so magnificent, is to realign these costumes and mannerisms of femininity with artifice instead of naturalness, thereby calling into focus – and celebrating and redeeming – the unnaturalness of it all.
Cultural theorists have been saying for at least two decades that gender is a performance, but not until you, Gaga, did they have their glittering, sequined exemplar. And you underscore the fact that femininity is not “natural,” but not “artificial” in a bad way, either – on the contrary, femininity can be performed quite artfully. It may take a Haus of designers to create you, but you are nothing if not dazzlingly crafted. You can “be yourself” and “be authentic” especially if you are an artist of selfhood: the performance is transparent; more than that, the performance is all there is. The adolescent fear of being perceived as “fake” and the “deep self” of psychoanalysis are traded in for the sheen of surface.
Those who find you inscrutable probably haven’t been paying very close attention to what’s happened to femininity as it moved into the twenty-first century. They might not know what a big problem and question it is for The Thinking Girl Now. We apply eye shadow, or we don’t. We wear pants, or we don’t. (“No pants.”) We giggle ecstatically, or we don’t. We smile and nod while someone speaks to us, or we don’t. We call ourselves girls well into our 20s and 30s, or we don’t. There are so many ways to perform girl and/or woman now; granted, most of the performers don’t recognize their behaviors as performances. But for those of us who do, who must, we now have something – someone – to point to in order to explain what has happened: the change that’s come upon us all, the detachable femininity that we recognize because we enact it on a smaller, more private scale. It is easy to point to you, because you are everywhere. And whether a widespread comprehension of gender as a performance has seeped into popular consciousness or not, we know, through you, that gender performance has hit the mainstream (with all the complications of commodification that this implies).
You shout it out from every page and screen: Once feminine costumes and behaviors became regularly detached from women (in theory, through gender, queer, and feminist studies; in practice, through drag and burlesque, through the hallway and the sidewalk), femininity may have looked the same, but its function changed. The fact that biological women can perform femininity, and the audience can sense that this is a performance, is the fundamental difference. And perhaps this crucial change also provides an explanation for all of the “Lady Gaga hermaphrodite” online searches. It’s simply hard to believe that a “real woman” would find a need to perform femininity – so, instead of making the conceptual leap toward accepting detachable (unzippable, unbuttonable, unvelcroable) femininity, people question your gender instead. As Ella Bedard points out, “[Gaga] cites iconic, often gendered identities without indicating the existence of a ‘neutral’ or ‘normal’ self that these performances can be said to mask.” So, people go looking for the empirical evidence of a “‘neutral’ or ‘normal’ self” – that is, for evidence of the young woman known as Stefani Germanotta – in the place they usually go for fact-checks, the Google search box.
When an artist like you comes along to declare, to the tune of incredibly catchy pop, that we’re all freaks, made of fake parts in authentic assemblages, the whole world sits up and listens. Or gets up and dances. And when a woman artist like you dresses every day like she’s on a runway or in a museum installation, “no pants” and all (or nothing), we are reminded not only of those cultural places in which femininity is on display, but of the basic fact that femininity, by virtue of being, historically, the gendered quality linked to display, is both an act and an art. Those of us who perform it consciously are real fakers. And we’ve got tickets to the ball.
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Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and the chapbook Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost, 2009). A founding editor of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books, she is also editing, with Arielle Greenberg, an anthology of poems for teenage girls. Becca holds degrees from the University of Southern California and Columbia College Chicago, and is currently a PhD student in English at Rutgers University. Born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY, and blogs at the pomo expo.
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