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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MtN’s Tour de Negative Femininities

By Samantha Cohen

This is the seventh piece in our series on “Marry the Night.” For the previous pieces, click here.

The home-chopped bob with too-short bangs has always been my favorite haircut. It screams teenage theater girl or aspiring mental patient. It makes me think of knives. The girl with the home-chopped bob is so angry she’ll take a scissors to her hair, cut right into it at random, and probably use the scissors on other things, too. The bob chopper’s given up on being a good female – she’s given up on being pretty. She takes her emotions out on the very symbol of her good femininity: her hair. She externalizes her badness, advertises her desire to fail. And so she is institutionalized.

Only she hasn’t given up on being pretty, not really. The scissored-at-random look is different than the razored-all-over look. Her little bangs ask those who gaze upon her to still find her cute. Recognize my anger, her hair says, recognize its manifestation on my body, but adore me. The home-chopped bob externalizes the ambivalence and pathos of being female.

And so, in the mental institution with home-chopped Gaga we begin the “Marry the Night” video’s grand tour of negative femininities.

The mental institution has always been a fantasy space for me. I sort of blame the movie Girl, Interrupted for this.

Angelina's home-chopped bangs!

The mental institution is a place for unchecked feminine expression and sanctioned hysteria, a gathering space for failed females. It’s a lesbian separatist experiment-come-true. In Girl, Interrupted, Winona and Angelina sneak out for acoustic guitar sessions and eye sex. In “Marry the Night,” patients cavort madly in matching thongs, imaginary slumber party-style.

Gaga’s in the institution because she took a knife to her hair and then her body; because she couldn’t be a good female – “a saint” – like her mother.

But one must fail at femaleness in order to create. Creation is a selfish act, and the good female is unselfish. Gaga must accept herself as a failed female before she can be an artist, and so the mental institution is necessarily the first stop on her journey.

Gaga is not at the hospital to be restored to good femininity, like Winona in Girl, Interrupted, but to accept her failure. She just has to turn on some dramatic piano music and waltz into a studio apartment that, bathtub-in-the-kitchen, is the very signifier of glamorous New York artistic poverty, and that’s in some ways, an extension of the institution – a place for expressive seclusion.

And so she finds herself in the next incarnation of failed femaleness: the cloistered impoverished artist. She practices ballet, does performance art involving maxi pads and Cheerios, and writes songs in the kitchen bathtub as she bleaches her hair. Strutting around with a censoring black bar over her nipples, she even has an imaginary audience. Her speech is subtitled.

But Gaga’s already told us she’s beautified her past. Of course, real art poverty is the same as all other poverty. There’s no audience, and after awhile, it becomes difficult to imagine one.

And so, Gaga joins the world again, now as an artist. Which she can do, because she still has her bedazzler. She still has the tool to make herself into her own glittering object. And so she does.

And then she does “what any girl would do.” But what is it that any girl would do? She says it’s “start(ing) all over again” but her face tells us something different. 

Do you see it? It’s subtle. It could almost be that Gaga’s gum is stuck in her teeth. But, no. Gaga is going to suck cock. She’s going to embody yet another form of negative feminine: the whore.

Oh yes. She’s entered the capitalist/patriarchal system and she’s ready to sell herself to that ultimate patriarch: the Papa Paparazzi.

Gaga’s subtlety with her cock-sucking face is telling – she’s skilled at making her signals apparent only to those who know how to read them. This kind of coded signaling is itself a feminine form of communication. Men, Real Men (who may of course be women, too), the ones who run shit and to whom Gaga must whore herself are, as centuries worth of jokes and satire tell us, unobservant. Almost intentionally so – they wouldn’t want to be accused of the feminine activity of reading into things. And so, by convincing Real Men, at a glance, that she’s whatever they want her to be, Gaga gains the freedom to speak honestly, if clandestinely.

So Gaga’s a whore, but she can’t just be a whore. Like (Catholic schoolgirl) pop stars Britney and Christina, she must embrace both sides of the Madonna/whore binary. She must, too, be a saint. She clues us in on this in the same moment that she signals her intent-to-whore. Her studded denim, blonde 80s look alludes to Madonna, making a kind of visual pun that allows her to embody both the Madonna and the whore simultaneously, to effectively become a Madonna/whore hologram.

Unlike Britney and Christina, though, whom Real Men turn into whores and Madonnas in image only, Gaga becomes a real Madonna (more on this later), and a real whore. She “throw(s) on some leather and cruise(s)…in (her) fishnet gloves, (she’s) a sinner.” And it’s by embodying at once these opposing figures that Gaga has the freedom to create herself in her own image, to use those shiny patches.

By actually inhabiting both sides of the Madonna/whore binary, Gaga is able to become, while in the world, something that’s almost unfemale. By the time she’s ready for the world of the actual music video, she’s abandoned her uncontrolled, emotional femininity. Her movements have become precise, rigid, fierce. Her gaze is direct and unsmiling. She makes fists. She blows shit up. She’s become something that’s so far from popular representations of the Madonna and the whore that it’s not quite recognizable as female, so far from these representations that, upon her debut, U.S. audiences speculated about whether she was a man. In fact, she’s a Gaga. And it’s once she’s become a Gaga in this video that the actual music video can begin.

Throughout the music video, we see what it is to be a Madonna.

Whoring gives Gaga the freedom to return to the bathtub, to her space of creation, which is also her space of baptism.

Gaga purifies herself in order to “make love to this dark,” to create. In Gaga’s bathtub, the Madonna is not all about piety and selflessness. This Madonna communes with the divine, with the mystical, with the dark, in order to create. This is not a new idea of course – the Virgin Mary herself communed with the divine so hard, got so deeply in touch with the dark otherworldly, that she got pregnant with an actual baby who was part-human, part-divine. Gaga restores the image of the Madonna to what she is: another embodiment of the negative feminine.

Gaga’s Madonna is not a Madonna that the U.S. Christian right (who are almost synonymous with Real Men) would approve. She’s in touch with the dark, with the unconscious, with the frightening spiritual world.

Real Men are content, Gaga implies, as long as their cocks get sucked. And thus, Gaga turns the Madonna/whore binary on its head, making saintliness encompass emotion and darkness and everything scarily feminine, while the whore gives Real Men what they want, gaining freedom as currency.

And the chorus of “Marry the Night” sounds to me like an imperative as well as an invocation. I hear Gaga invoking Mama M-Mary, the night. Mary the dark, Mary the source of magical creation. But I also hear, “Mama m-marry the night,” which sounds to me like it sounds when I hear LA Latina mothers call their daughters mama, a term of endearment, a recognition of their inescapable femaleness. Mother monster is dispensing some advice. She advises us to marry the night. To embrace inner darkness and create from that darkness. To commune with the otherworldly, to reinvent ourselves. To turn tricks and be tricksters. To embrace solitude as well as the bedazzler. To do the home-chopped bob if we need to, but to eventually become so tough and glamorous in the world that we’ll be allowed space to return to our own rooms for emotional/psychotic/hysterical creation.

And with the Mary figure at the end of the video, Gaga offers us a god to worship. This Mary’s hard and shiny, content alone in the darkness, transmitting signals from her satellite head, knowing they'll be properly received.

Author Bio:
Samantha Cohen, creative editor of Gaga Stigmata, 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 teaches a class called Semiotics of Fashion in the Critical Studies program at CalArts.

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