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Monday, May 9, 2011

Gaga/Magdalene: Unpacking Prostitution in “Judas”

By Lesley Kinzel

The following piece is the fourth in our series on “Judas.” For the first piece, click here; the second, here; the third, here.


The historical record of Mary Magdalene may well be one of the most far-reaching cases of posthumous character assassination that Western Judeo-Christian culture has ever seen, or perpetrated. The result is that she may be the most mysterious and misunderstood woman that the world has yet known, having spent most of recorded human history misidentified as a prostitute until the label was withdrawn during Vatican II in 1969.

A thousand years of alleged whoredom is not a mark easily washed away, and so Mary Magdalene’s name continues to be synonymous with “prostitute” in popular culture. These days, it is generally accepted amongst biblical scholars that in her own time, Mary Magdalene was not so defined by the “seven demons” – whatever they may have been – from which she was liberated by Jesus. Her primary role was as one of the more crucial apostles. This is not to suggest she didn’t run into obstructionist misogyny even then. In the apocryphal gospel attributed to Mary Magdalene there is a story of her receiving a vision from the resurrected Jesus, and Peter immediately gives her shit about it:

“Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Then Mary grieved and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart or that I am lying concerning the Savior?”

With a woman. A woman, then as now, could not be entirely trusted to tell the truth, to take the high road, to lead a movement of people. Women are naturally wicked, of course, prone to lies and suspicious motives, and so Mary Magdalene had to be made a prostitute in order to prove out the view that women do not belong as leaders and thinkers and takers of action – in the church, or anywhere else, for that matter. Her actions no longer have meaning if she took them for money. Are we to turn back and all listen to her? To a woman?


In the video for “Judas,” Lady Gaga takes on the role of Mary Magdalene, traveling with him and the rest of the apostles to a reminagined “New Jerusalem.” The Gaga/Magdalene connection is not surprising, given that Gaga has often been labeled a prostitute, an attention-whore, or otherwise as a woman who does not know her place. In the video, Gaga is repeatedly torn between Jesus and Judas, between sainthood and sin. She plays the role tough, with a swagger that heavily (and more than a little problematically) co-opts Latino gang culture. Gaga attempts to protect Jesus, both from Judas and from her own sinful “hooker”-y urges in Judas’ direction, and she, like most of us, is only halfway successful.

In the video’s pivotal scene, Gaga stands between Judas and Jesus at the moment of betrayal, prepared to kill Judas to stop the events that will result in Jesus’ death. Jesus, with a subtle shake of his head, instructs her to stand down, and Gaga collapses in despair. Before she falls, she smears vivid red lipstick on Judas’ face – a screaming look-at-me color, nothing demure about it – and prepares him for the kiss that will ultimately destroy both of the men she loves.


Judas has also been historically misunderstood, long thought to have betrayed Jesus to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver, himself a prostitute insofar as performing an allegedly immoral action in exchange for money. Contemporary scholarship has begun to doubt this version of events, however, arguing instead that Jesus asked Judas to “betray” him because he was the only apostle he could trust to do so. Either of these stories involve equal amounts of prostitution, as in both cases Judas is not kissing Jesus because he wants to, but because doing so promises a valuable reward, be it money or immortality. Obviously, the Christ narrative means little without crucifixion and death – the betrayal and death of Jesus in this story is as necessary as it is tragic.

Interestingly, Jesus’ death is totally absent from the “Judas” video, as are any of the historical events to follow Judas’ betrayal. Gaga instead reshapes the betrayal narrative as a metaphor for her own persona, caught between the competing assumptions about who she is and what she is trying to do. Is she a “fame hooker” as others have called her, and as she calls herself? Are her motives selfish or selfless? She confuses us at every turn; all we can expect from her is something we have failed to anticipate.

Immediately following the lipstick application, straddling the distance between Gaga’s despair and the prostitute-kiss between Judas and Jesus, the video breaks to a dream sequence in which a motionless Gaga is overcome by a cascade of waves reminsicent of the early mythological origins of a much older deity: the Greek goddess of love and sexuality, Aphrodite.


Gaga thereby connects herself with another powerful, otherworldly feminine archetype worshipped long before Jesus was a glimmer in his [F]ather’s eye, and one also associated with sacred prostitution. Aphrodite literally means “out of the foam”; as the story goes, she was born of the ocean, after Uranus’ son castrated (or possibly emasculated) the elder god and threw his severed genitals into the sea. Given the persistent rumors that Gaga is intersex, or possesses both male and female genitalia, the depiction of her in the role of a distinctly feminine, sex-centric goddess born as a result of the removal of male genitalia is both tongue-in-cheek and incredibly apt.

Gaga, however, is not lifted up by the waves in this iteration, but is rather knocked down by them, foreshadowing her demise at the end of this story, and, as she vanishes beneath the deluge, illustrating an erasure of feminine archetypes of power and leadership. Following this interlude, Gaga shares a ritual bath with both Jesus and Judas; now she is no common whore but a sacred prostitute, as in Aphrodite’s temple in Cornith, where sexual intercourse is a form of worship. In so doing, she honors the two biggest competing parts of herself: the one that wants to create art that makes a better world, and the one that simply wants to be famous and adored.


As Gaga’s videos go, “Judas” is curiously chaste, even given the prostitution themes. The closest Gaga comes to intimating sex with either Jesus or Judas is in the looks she gives them, but her physical contact with both men is either protective (as in the fight in the electric chapel), or violent (as when she shoves Judas down the stairs when they enter), or caretaking (as in her efforts to ritually clean the feet of both men in the temple bath). Visible sex is superfluous in this context. Here we are not meant to be looking at the defining acts of a prostitute; we are meant to be looking at the ideologies that create her as a cultural monster, the anti-woman.

The video concludes with Gaga wearing a heavily-embellished white dress, similar to a wedding gown, a primary symbol of purity and chastity. Of course, for Gaga to present herself in such a way is the ultimate blashemy – prostitutes can’t be wives, you know; prostitutes are women to be used and thrown away, not loved or respected, and once you have been a prostitute you can never be anything else. And so she is stoned by an angry mob. The video ends with her death, both Jesus and Judas tellingly absent, Gaga facing her detractors alone.


Gaga’s demise represents not only those who would punish her for failing to know her proper role, for daring to aspire beyond acceptable limits, but also the quick and complete destruction of any form of feminine power that is not othered and subjugated to the masculine. The dead Gaga is both the erased Aphrodite and the slandered Mary Magdalene, as well as every other woman who has had her reputation and her life destroyed for daring to raise her voice, to draw attention, or to have sex outside the boundaries men have set. Gaga adopts her “fame hooker” mantle even knowing the potential consequences.

The church made Mary Magdalene a prostitute because, according to popular cultural connotations going back as long as misogyny has existed, a prostitute is one of the worst things a woman can be. A prostitute is a woman who squanders the one thing she has of value, her sex, by selling it to whomever is willing to pay. Prostitution is culturally-coded as the opposite of selflessness, the ministration of pleasure by a woman whose motives are only to satisfy her lover when doing do enables her to satisfy herself. She comes first, in payment, or gratification, or both. Sex is not her privilege, nor a treasured opportunity to worship the masculine, but is rather an occupation by which she can support herself. A prostitute is a woman who is self-sufficient, a woman who needs no husband, no man to tell her how to live. She is a woman who resists convention for the sake of her own survival. “Judas” demands we look at our assumptions about women who dare to step outside the gendered boundaries, sexual and otherwise, that culture defines for us.


Author Bio:
Lesley Kinzel is a writer, lapsed academic, cultural critic, and fat lady extraordinaire. She writes about popular culture and body politics at http://twowholecakes.com, and is currently working on her first book for The Feminist Press. She lives just outside Boston, MA with her husband and three very spoiled cats.

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6 comments:

  1. Gaga as Aphrodite, be still my heart! I would venture that one's attire chosen for baptism by crushing waves should look exactly like that. Thank you, amazing article - I may now have the courage to write my own!

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  2. thanks for acknowledging the problematic aspects of the "gang culture" in the video. It connects to Gaga's use of the word "chola" (and "Orient") in BTW, as well as the chola character that she's dressed up as in the past. It'll be interesting to see where else she takes that, but it's important to acknowledge the problematic aspects of a white woman performing as a stereotyped woman of color.

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  3. I think Gaga's representation of the whole "chola" sterotype is an attempt at empowerment if anything. On first seeing the video I was struck by the obvious Latino referencing, but we all know that she would never deliberately put down any group of people. That's what BTW is all about. Also, her song "Americano" reaffirms her mission of acceptance and empowerment towards the disenfranchised.
    When it comes down to it, I think she might just be aesthetically in love with the whole Latino gang culture theme and that's why she included it in her video. To me, she's not criticising it, she's referencing pop culture.

    I love the analysis of Gaga as Aphrodite, really beautiful.

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  4. THIS IS SO AMAZING.

    I didn't even notice Jesus' subtle head shake when Gaga looks to him for permission to off Judas. But it makes sense - it ties in with what she's said in interviews about how she interprets the meaning of the video. She's said it's about how both light and darkness have roles to play in each of us fulfilling our destinies - in this video, Jesus represents the light (as Kinzel puts it, for Gaga, this is the part of her "that wants to create art that makes a better world") and Judas represents the darkness (the part "that simply wants to be famous and adored").

    Gaga wants to kill the part of herself that is enticed by darkness - the fame hooker, the part of her that truly/selfishly enjoys the spoils of fame, that monster inside that flares up everytime she looks into a sea of fans and thinks, 'They all love ME' - but the other part of her, the more selfless part, the part that wants to make art for the betterment of the world - won't let her. And why? Because they can't exist without each other. She can't exist without both, and if she doesn't exist, then neither do her little monsters, whom she has annointed on multiple occasions as her "destiny."

    Simply put, Gaga would not be where she is, her destiny never would have manifested, were it not for the darkness inside her - were it not for Judas. She won't turn her back on that. And it's OK, because the light inside her happens to be ultimately forgiving.

    Also... great analysis/statement about Gaga's breaking the traditional roles given to women by men. That's one of my favorite things about her. I don't even think of her as a "woman" anymore. I just think of her as Gaga. And I think that's been her goal all along.

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  5. I haven't actually watched the clip, and it seems to me that the Aphrodite bit is sound. But I just wanted to point out that the Judeo-Christian god is a god of water. Hence the parting of the red sea, and the walking on water as symbols of 'this is a person who shares my godly powers'.

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  6. Gaga's reference to Latino gang culture is interesting. Whenever we discuss or see gang culture it is very much male dominated. When women are brought into the picture, they are the accessory or the grieving widow or girlfriend. However, in the few shows I've seen explore the topic, in latino gang culture, there is a role for women. They are often involved in many expects of violence. Its interesting parallel because many accounts describe Mary Magdalene as a part of Jesus's apostle "gang". Her involvement and relationship with Jesus may have added to her "bad" image as a prostitute and her mystery. However, for the sake of Gaga's Jesus Biker Gang and her appropriating (problematically as it is) Latino Gang culture, it works and I can see the comparisons. Though what do I know?

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