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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Traductor, Traditore: (Un)translating Born This Way’s Duplicitous Message

By Samantha Cohen

It’s taken a long time for me to respond to “Born This Way.” It took a long time for me to watch the video, even. The first time I heard the song, I had to close its window before it ended. Oh Gaga, I thought. No.

Maybe it is silly, embarrassing even, to have such a prolonged emotional response to a pop song. To be actually saddened. But in the bio-deterministic world of mainstream media, Gaga had been an anti-essentialist beacon, beaming into the living rooms of, like, all U.S. families. In a world where female pop stars are packaged to be palatable, commoditized and literally defined by the gaze, Gaga’s art and fashion said fuck the gaze and fuck gazing into mirrors, even. Invent an identity. Invent another one. Become who you want to be and then become who you want to be and then become who you want to be again.

My love for Gaga had been based on her performative assertion of performance as identity and it broke suddenly and crushingly with three words: Born this way. I don’t get to love a lot of things in this world and so I hold on fiercely to the things I do. Lady Gaga was the only contemporary mainstream pop artist I was able to love and now what.

I still have complicated feelings, but I’m ready, I think, to work through them, here. It was Meghan Vicks’ article on Gaga as trickster that sparked a bit of hope toward the reignition of my Gaga love. What proceeds will be an argument that “Born This Way” marks Gaga’s self-outing as a trickster figure and that in “Born This Way,” she uses her trickster status to further the cause of gay rights. It will be, too, a personal attempt to redeem Gaga, an elaborate excuse-making for an artist I want badly to love.


So, trickster: Coyote, Raven, Prometheus, Loki, Eshu, Hermes, Mercurius. Et fucking al. All mythologies, all cultures, have a trickster figure, and at the site of any change in the social fabric, there s-he is. Trickster is shape-shifter, gender-transcender, a two-spirited seducer. Trickster embodies both sides of any binary opposition. Trickster is culture hero and amoral jokester. S-he is sacred and hilarious, ridiculous and godly, good and evil. Do I need to go on to convince you that Trickster is Gaga?

Okay but what I do need to convince you of, maybe, still, is that Gaga identifies herself as Trickster in the “Born This Way” video. So here: The video opens on a pink-triangle-contained Gaga with legs up where antlers might be, an animal (but still human) Gaga, a between-genders Gaga high-heeled and bearded.

This Gaga is revealed to have two heads and two faces, symbolizing Trickster’s dual nature. Gaga’s second face tells us a creation myth. A creation myth that breeds both good and evil. Wherever there’s a creation story, there Trickster is.

Plus, Trickster is able always to descend to the realm of the dead – to play around and shift things down there. At various points in the video, Gaga enters a sort of underground meat locker where a dead guy dwells. Gaga herself’s in death drag. We know it’s death drag because while the actual dead guy’s catatonic, Gaga’s dancing vigorously, chest-beating, even. She’s physically manipulating the dead guy, presumably for her own ends. Gaga’s down in the death realm for a shifting.


But so here’s the thing about Trickster: Trickster’s ends are always the ends of creation, of social change. Trickster is thief, outlaw, destroyer, and ultimately, creator. Trickster uses the Lorde-ian “master’s tools” to dismantle his superstructure, all while entertaining and enchanting, distracting and seducing the fuck out of him. Or H-I-M. Coyote, Loki, Anansi, and Prometheus, for example, all charmed their ways into stealing fire from the gods in order to bring the sun, moon, and stars to the people of their respective cultures.

Trickster uses the language of the dominant culture to get the job done.

“Born This Way” is essentialist, for sure – but Gaga knows that essentialism’s what gay-basher bullies are able to hear, what those in power to change the gay rights situation know how to respond to: There is no other way. You were born this way.

In his book Trickster Makes The World, Lewis Hyde argues that Tricksters are “joint-disturbers” (256) – that Trickster pinpoints the joints of any being, culture, or idea it plans to attack and, in a sense, lubes up these joints in order to move around the more solid pieces they connect, to slide them smoothly, smilingly, and reconnect them elsewhere. Trickster must fit easily into either side of the joint, must seduce both sides in order to slide them so smoothly. Gaga recognizes where the joint of the gay rights debate is, and she works that joint.

Gaga’s aware that U.S. gay rights hinge on proof (or at least belief) that homosexuality is biological. The rhetoric surrounding the U.S. gay rights debate has been, on the right side of the joint, that homosexuality is a sinful choice (God says), and, on the left side, that homosexuality is genetic, and therefore cannot be sinful, since it’s not a choice at all (Science says). “Born This Way” sides with the science of the left, functioning as an anthem self-assured enough to fill in any gaps the scientific studies might leave. Simultaneously, it challenges the right by bringing their God into its message and subtly questioning their faith in H-I-M: Gaga’s God makes no mistakes. Gaga’s God didn’t mess up in creating the gays.


Hyde claims that Trickster always serves as translator between two realms. The realms between which Gaga translates in “Born This Way” are actually not the realms of the right and the left; they are the realms of born-this-way gay rights activists and anti-essentialist self-performers. While pro-gay equality and anti-gay equality sides of the argument are essentially speaking the same language (no choice vs. choice), we (queers, academics) are literally speaking a different language than those who seek proof of genetic gayness. We require a translator. And Hyde reminds us of the Italian saying, “traductor, traditore,” or, translator = traitor (264).

Signifying Monkey defeats his Lion oppressor using verbal tricks and witty discourse the Lion is unable to understand. Though Monkey is speaking Lion language, Monkey twists this language. Monkey uses symbolism and the Lion can only understand what is literal. Br’er Rabbit, too, despite being rabbit-sized, uses wit, trickery, and the invention of a new symbolism in order to dismantle the enslaving social rhetoric.

It’s important that, just as Signifying Monkey speaks in Lion language, Gaga doesn’t use academic jargon or the language of queer subcultures. Her litany of identities doesn’t include butch, boi, bear, or even queer. She is speaking the language that the dominant culture understands to be theirs.

One thing Gaga’s use of the language of the dominant culture enables her to do is insert the word “transgender” into the mainstream lexicon. Transgendered life, is what she says. LGBT has sort of just become code for “gay,” while its other initials get lost. The word transgendered is still underlined in red by MS Word’s spell check where I’m typing this.

Gaga’s creation myth is pretty clearly for us, the anti-essentialist self-performing ones, the academics, the artists, the queers. Who else cares about origin stories or the “multiverse” or mucus-y glittery cell division but the same freaks who care about performance as identity? And one way to read Gaga’s creation myth is as a form of extended justification, an apology for the essentialism to come. The final line of Gaga’s creation myth: “It seems easy, you imagine, to gravitate easily and unwaveringly towards good. But…how can I protect something so perfect, without evil?” As she says this, Gaga holds a machine gun, rendering actual the metaphorical master’s tool.

And when Gaga descends from her heavenly Mother Monster throne and enters the world of the song, she’s wearing (comparatively) subtle makeup and a bikini with dainty chains. Her attire is decidedly normal, pop-video appropriate. At first glance, it’s something Britney might wear. But Gaga’s prosthetic cheekbones and strange magazine glossiness exaggerate her normalcy in a way that lets us know that Gaga hasn’t walked away from her monsters, but is adopting the uniform of the mainstream in order to work inside the system, for us.


But so by showing us that she identifies as Gay Rights Trickster, Gaga invites us to look beyond the platitudinous words of her almost-parodically reductive anthem, or to look deeper into them. But then what is she saying beyond the seeming-essentialism?

First, the vaginas through which Gaga’s new race are birthed are made not only of shiny pink membrane, but also of black patent and glitter and silver chains, dissolving the boundary between nature and artifice. And, then! Post creation-myth, in the first shot of the dance floor, the dancers are hunched and shadowed to be shaped like uteri and ovaries.

We might miss this had the video not primed us (at least) twice already with ovary/uterus shapes during the creation story, but since we’re primed, we totally see it. And what it suggests is that we can form ourselves into our own uterus-and-ovaries, into our own self-birthing centers. That we can curl in on ourselves and gestate, any time we need to, and be reborn.

The factory rows of Gaga heads, inchoate and waxy, suggest that there are multiple possible selves for all of us, that we simply have to call on one of our own partly-formed baby heads, to shake it awake and wash it off, in order to be new. I love this.


I’ve convinced myself now that Gaga has not had an essentialist conversion. But I still have tangled feelings about whether it is okay to put such a strong essentialist message out into so much of the world. I’m pretty sure most people who hear “Born This Way,” or even watch the video, will not see past the apparent biodeterminism. Isn’t it destructive to tell gay kids, or “orient-made” (I won’t go into this term’s issues here) kids that the have no choice in who they become, that they are victims of the circumstances of their births?

But then, shortly after Gaga’s Prime Rib of America speech, DADT was repealed. Months after the release of “Born This Way,” gay marriage was legalized in New York. On June 24 just after New York legalized gay marriage, Gaga tweeted “I can’t stop crying. We did it, kids.” Maybe this is not self-puffery but just…somewhat accurate. We could ask whether these huge systematic changes are worth the propagating of an essentialist message, but I think a better question is, is there another way to create change? Or do we need this trickstery use of (which is also a propagation of) the dominant language, even if that language is harmful?

I don’t find “Born This Way” inspiring or beautiful. What I wish the whole world would watch instead is the scene in Paris is Burning where two joyful-looking transwomen frolic on the beach singing, “I am what I am / I am my own creation!” But what does this accomplish, social change-wise? 65 million people have watched the “Born This Way” video on YouTube alone. Paris is Burning, I think, is relegated mostly to the academy, or to queer living rooms only.

Angela Carter wrote that “a free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” Gaga extends this monster-ness to all of the disenfranchised, the bullied, and the pushed-out who are dancing in 5-inch heels and hair dye (or in bowties and suspenders, or in A-shirts and Dickies). And maybe part of the monster quality is that we monsters can’t speak in our own language if we want to be taken seriously by the dominant culture, if we want to create big systemic change. Monsters have to skew, to craft, to seduce. Gaga, as self-appointed Monster Representative to the dominant culture, must be Trickster. We can go on speaking our language in our queer living rooms. We can create spaces for monster discourse and monster love. But if we want equal rights, we need a Trickster representative.

Before “Born This Way” begins Gaga tells us to “Put (our) paws up.” Not our hands. Our hands are for holding our lovers, for cutting friends’ hair and watering plants. Our hands are too pure for this kind of work. No, for Trickster work, we need our paws – our Monkey paws, our monster paws.

Author Bio:
Samantha Cohen is a writer living behind the Scientology building in Los Angeles.  Her fiction can be found in PANK, Black Clock, Storyglossia, The New Orleans Review, and Mary Magazine.  She's teaching a class called Semiotics of Fashion in the Critical Studies program at CalArts this fall.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you Ms. Cohen for such a vividly insightful and courageously honest scrutiny of the messages relayed by Born This Way and of the whole music video itself. I salute you!

    Not many individuals who lose confidence in the people they admire could bring themselves to express what you so wisely spoke in this article. It is understandable that it took you a long time in order to reassess your current knowledge of Gaga's artistic trajectory. But unlike others, you channeled those doubts into unearthing something reconciliatory and constructive. Your experience has no doubt contributed a valuable lesson in the discourse, particularly on how our own tastes are just as important in our continuing appreciation of her cultural project.

    But on another note, I don't believe we can hold it against Gaga for causing confusion among her followers. Even though she is Mother Monster herself, we cannot ignore the fact that she is just as flawed and limited as ourselves. For taking up the task of Trickster is arduous enough as it is in handling the temperament of those in power, what more to become ostracized as apparent in the lives of Loki, Prometheus, et al. It is a life of suffering but also a life filled with confidence that her little monsters don't have to endure the pain all on their own and eventually never have to.


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