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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Apotheoses of the Queen Mother: The Virginal Monster

By Chris Hershey-Van Horn

The following piece is the tenth in our series on Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way.” Click here for our previous analyses of the video.

Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way” presents a wealth of meaning-laden imagery, the majority of which arguably resides within a symbology fundamentally correlated with the iconography of Queen Elizabeth I – the so-called “cult of Elizabeth.” Yet, I would argue that Gaga turns the apparatus of Elizabethan iconography on its head: she functions as a “nega” or “anti” Queen Elizabeth, insofar as Gaga’s mechanism of gendered expression inversely parallels that of the Queen’s. She does so on multiple symbolic fronts. In this piece, I first examine how Gaga initially establishes herself referentially (if not reverentially) to the Queen in the opening seconds of the video. I then explore the concept of the “grotesque” female in sixteenth century England, the many ways in which the Queen sought to actively distance herself from such negatively-gendered associations, and how Gaga conversely embraces and refigures the concept of the “grotesque” female for the twenty-first century.

The opening images of Lady Gaga in the video for “Born This Way” contextualize her within the distinct aesthetic of Queen Elizabeth I. Following the brief frame of the silhouetted unicorn, the camera pans downward and zooms in on the celestial embodiment of Gaga. She sits poised atop a crystalline throne, her upper body draped in a seemingly endless display of opulent jewelry, cuffing her neck in a tall collar of diamonds. Our gaze is drawn immediately toward the top-middle of the frame, where a large black cross – its horizontal axis encrusted in diamonds – perfectly intersects her large, beehive hair, and joins with a diamond tiara about her bangs. Behind her, an exaggerated, butterfly-shaped headdress merges with the ray-like spokes of blue and purple crystal prisms. The headdress, the tiara, the hair, and, of course, the throne, evoke a regal aesthetic, which, although futuristic, distinctly draws upon the imagery of Elizabeth I.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Elizabeth I (the “Ditchley” portrait), (ca. 1592)

Artist Unknown, Elizabeth I (the “Rainbow” portrait), (ca. 1600-1603)

The butterfly-shaped crystalline headdress evokes the Queen’s iconic elaborate headdress as seen in the “Ditchley” portrait and, most famously, the “Rainbow” portrait. The cross on Gaga’s hair links her well-known employment of religious symbols with the underlying religious symbology of the Queen as “the Virgin Queen,” and emphasizes the Christian references in the song’s lyrics (“captial H-i-m…God makes no mistakes,” and the quietly spoken “church” that can be heard in the background). Furthermore, Gaga, or rather, “Mother Monster” as she refers to herself in the opening line of the video, connects herself linguistically to the Queen “Mother,” and again, the Marian “Virgin Queen.” Yet, as we will see, this connection is fundamentally paradoxical.

Before we can delve into comparative analysis, I must concede a point. It would be a fallacy to posit an overall view on the cult of Elizabeth and her varied and extensive iconography. As the ever-expanding mass of scholarly work attests, it is no simple task to do discursive justice to the religious and (to use Susan Frye’s term) “engendered” imagistic framework with which the Queen presented herself over her prolonged rule. As Louis Montrose argues in The Subject of Elizabeth (2006), “the iconography of the Elizabeth cult was not a unified and coherent system but rather was hybrid and improvisatory – therefore unstable and potentially contradictory,” as it “drew upon various sources in varying combinations at different moments in the reign, to suit the tactical circumstances of particular occasions” (104). The task of unpacking Elizabeth’s iconography and the extensive symbology associated with “the Virgin Queen” teems with a sheer enormity of accounts and artifacts, of contradictory and even unsubstantiated material. In short, her image cannot be wholly or manifestly delineated; it is amorphous insofar as it exists and existed during her reign as ever-changing in her eyes, as well as in the eyes of her countrymen. Arguably, the examination of Lady Gaga’s extensive iconography presents an equal challenge for similar reasons. Heeding all of this, I believe it is still intellectually advantageous to consider at least a smattering of images within the context of the pervasive sixteenth-century concept of the “grotesque” female, as it pertains to the Queen and Lady Gaga’s music video.

In Peter Stallybrass’s article “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed” (1986), he explains the concept of the “grotesque” female, and how this notion influenced ideas and ideals of gender in Renaissance England. Drawing upon Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque body, Stallybrass explains, “the grotesque body is ‘unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits…[and] emphasizes those parts of the body ‘that are open to the outside world,’ ‘the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose’” (124). He goes on to argue that it was a commonly held societal belief, as purported by several Renaissance writers of the time (such as William Whately and Norbert Elias), “that the woman’s body…is naturally ‘grotesque’” (126). Unlike men, women, by physiological default, were cursed with a kind of reprehensible permeability, a leakiness of the body, if you will. The only solution to this “natural” problem was containment, to make the woman into an “enclosed body, [a] closed mouth, [a] locked house” (127).

Not surprisingly, virginity was inextricably linked with the concept of the “grotesque” – as a way of alleviating the grotesque, of containing this “reprehensive permeability.” This is why, at least on one level, Queen Elizabeth I strove to carefully craft and painstakingly maintain her image as the “Virgin Queen.” As a woman of great power and publicity, there was simply too much at stake; in the eyes of the public at large, the Queen would debase herself and be unfit to rule were she to be perceived as a “leaky vessel.” Susan Frye, in her book, Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation (1996), puts it eloquently.

Elizabeth could never rely on others to provide her with an iconography that would be palatable, much less powerful…She also needed a category that would be familiar to her society but that would place her beyond the restrictions usually imposed on women…she needed a category of virtue that she herself would define, that would assign God, rather than her subjects, to be her judge and thus assert her legitimacy. (15)

Elizabeth found this “legitimacy” in “the long tradition of anomalous female figures, including Diana, Astraea, the vestal virgins, and the Virgin Mary” (15). Since virginity – especially one symbolically tied to divine or mythologized female figures – was considered a “hortus conclusus” that could negate feminine permeability, it could also repudiate subsequent ridicule that the Queen would face as a part of her “naturally grotesque” gender. Her famous statement, made a mere month after her coronation, that by the end of her reign she will have “lyved and dyed a virgin,” is testament to her personal agency, and to the importance with which she regarded the establishment of her ideal virginal image. Stallybrass explains that as a female, “she could be the idealized beloved, to whom was ascribed the devotion of amatory discourse. But, on the other hand, she belonged to an anomalous category, being both mother of her people and virgin” (133). The Queen was playing something of an elaborate balancing act of engendered signification to appease her people and assert her legitimacy, despite and paradoxically in conjunction with her womanhood.

Examples of her idealized image can be seen in much of her portraiture. The Siena, or “sieve” portrait (ca. 1580-83), makes use of a literal sieve held in the Queen’s left hand. It evokes her “grotesque” permeability, as fundamental to her womanhood, while putting it in direct contrast with her conservative attire. In this way, according to Montrose, the sieve, a “contradictory icon, one that must represent the properties of impermeability and (selective) permeability simultaneously” serves to potentially “[displace]…the Queen’s sexuality” insofar as it highlights the Queen’s conservative and constrictive manner of dress (124-5).

Artist Unknown, the Siena “sieve” portrait, (ca. 1580-83)

In her “Born This Way” video, Lady Gaga also asserts her legitimacy as the symbolic progenitor – the divine mother and overseer of her people, who constitute a “new race within the race of humanity” through the fundamentality of her womanhood. Yet, to the extent that Queen Elizabeth I symbolically “contains” her “grotesque” body, Lady Gaga embraces it, makes it profoundly blatant, even exaggerates her “grotesque-ness” in a vivid display of orifices, bodily fluids, and excessive vaginal drippings. Gaga is relentless in her show of leaky bodily goop – the essence of herself, her vagina, her womanhood.

Gaga’s nude zippered bodysuit furthers the iconographic model of the cult of Elizabeth. Much like the aforementioned Siena portrait pictured above, Gaga’s tightly-zippered body conflates restriction with access. As the camera slowly pans up and down her body, it quickly jumps between short frames of Gaga slowly and mechanically moving as she gyrates her hips, robotically raising her arms up and down, and groping herself. Notice how she is by-and-large rendered immobile, unable to move from her position by the stock-like contraption bracing her neck. The contraption horizontally spans the entire width of the frame. Furthermore, the zippers on her body literally underline her breasts and vagina, emphasizing her womanhood and sexuality. However, the fact that these zippers are closed reinforces the containment of the body, specifically her biologically-stereotypical “female” components. Similarly, the last frames of zippered-Gaga involve an elaborate effect in which the camera rapidly pans from a centrifugal and repetitious frame of her face to a similar frame centering on the vaginal crotch zipper. All of this – the methodical and constrained choreography, the constrictive suit, the camerawork – can be viewed as a caricatured Elizabethan-cult model of virginal and womanly paradox, which mocks the “solution” to the “grotesque” woman. Gaga reiterates her sexual purity through her closed-up-ness, while artfully calling attention to her body as a stark canvas lined with, and perhaps, defined by, its sexuality.

Yet, her status as a deity does not diminish. Perhaps it is because of the elaborateness and the sheer extent of her “grotesqueness” that fix her in a godly realm beyond. Indeed, her psychedelic vagina resembles more of a colorful venus flytrap than anything even remotely human. It is comic and alien, an orifice seemingly unique to the divine Mother Monster. It is also miraculous, functioning as a kind of infinitely-birthing tract. In fact, Gaga forgoes the traditional notion of conception, as there is no evidence of any inseminating force. She is not the Virgin Mother, but Mother Monster. Certainly, associations with the Virgin Mary still underlie the image of celestial Gaga in this video. The abundance of religious references in the song and video suggest that Gaga’s progeny are not the result of Gaga alone. Like the Queen, she is not God, but rather godly, positioning herself over her people through divine and bodily legitimacy.

Therefore, “Born This Way” serves as a celebration of the “grotesque” through apotheosis. No longer is the body a point of shame; rather, it is a unique, divinely powerful, and humorous creative force. Lady Gaga’s display of exaggeratedly messy biological processes renders her divine; her abject serves as one of the defining characteristics of her transcendent power. In these ways, Gaga’s musical manifesto defines her own conception of motherhood and self-identity within a visual matrix of symbolic paradoxes in the vein of the Queen’s iconography. As the cult of Elizabeth blends together sexuality, gender, and physiology with the purity of the regal and ethereal, so Mother Monster is both the ultimate virgin and the ultimate mother. She is a symbolically defined “Queen Mother” figure who asserts power and influence through the infinite celebration, the infinite birth, and the infinite display of the body, and whose offspring subsequently assert their own legitimacy and power through the rejoicing of their own acceptance and self-identity. Unlike the Queen who withholds her identity within her iconography, Mother Monster’s “grotesque” identity is embraced as a means of empowerment.

Writer Bio:
Chris Hershey-Van Horn is Senior English and American Literature major at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. He is currently in the midst of writing his thesis, which, ironically or not, is a memoir. He is also an intern at Les Figues Press in his hometown, Los Angeles, and plans to move there after graduation.

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  1. Spot on! Brilliantly argued and written.

  2. Very well written, and an interesting comparison. But I'd gently suggest that this piece could benefit from some direct discussion/quotes from the creative team (Haus of Gaga) to provide specific evidence of their intentions for the video. See these: http://on.mtv.com/h4vpf9 http://bit.ly/ebw3U5

    Also, would have loved bibliography or footnotes.

  3. Works Cited:

    Frye, Susan. Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Montrose, Louis. The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender, and Representation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

    Stallybrass, Peter. "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed." Rewriting
    the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern
    Europe. Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, Nancy Vickers, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. 123-142.

    Works Consulted:

    Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana. Ed. Julia M. Walker, Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

    Thank you. You make valid points and I'm glad you shared those links. Nicola's blog is fascinating, and I didn't even know that this kind of resource was out there!
    I think the question of intentionality is an interesting one here. This video isn't he first time Gaga has posited a refigured imagining of the queenly or regal. You may recall her controversial VMA performance 2009 in which she bled all over herself during "Paparazzi." She subsequently donned a nearly full-body, red-lace outfit when she accepted the award for best new artist. She's said that it was made to be a tribute and commentary on Princess Diana, "the most iconic martyr of fame" (as stated in her V magazine article). I think that Gaga wants us to question how we traditionally view those individuals at the highest rung on the public totem pole. Queens, princesses, pop stars, they all figure into a broader discussion about how the sociopolitical and public eye affects their image and perhaps, directly imprints on them. BTW is interesting in that it is symbolic birthing of a new society, so the figure of the queen mother posits her own society that, perhaps, in turn actualizes and defines her identity… I don't know--food for thought, at least.


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