So Lady Gaga decided to wear a burqa, and sing about it, and now the Internet’s eating her alive.
This deserves some attention, truly. This conversation is about the future of artistic dialog. It’s much bigger than it looks on the surface.
First, I’m tired of hearing “oh, this is just sad grasping for attention, she’s just trying to cause controversy, this isn’t culturally relevant.” No, no. Stop and think. CLEARLY it is. CLEARLY she’s actually touching a sensitive cultural button. Otherwise people wouldn’t be so pissed off about it. If what she was doing was just a sad, irrelevant grab for attention, nobody would care about what she’s saying. But they do. In terms of starting an important cultural conversation, she already wins. Let’s clear that up to begin with. The argument has blossomed.
The subject under discussion is the shape that the dialog should now take. And the position of the above article makes a relatively familiar set of assumptions:
1. The assumption that she’s just wearing/singing about it to be controversial, and that she doesn’t understand the implications of what she’s doing.
2. The assumption of the default position that appropriation and collage always result in oppression and that her normalization of the burqa as a fashion statement will have a negative, not positive, effect on the communities that deal with the burqa as a social reality.
3. The assumption that the original implications of the burqa are not sexual.
A few too many assumptions for me.
The charged nature of the debate doesn’t just come from the position of Islam. It comes from Western ambivalence about Islam. On the one hand, we characterize Islam as the religious impetus for an entire body of regressive oppression in the Middle East. On the other, we feel deep guilt about that assumption and about our own cultural hegemony with relation to our pluralistic, progressive understandings of culture, and we want to grant Islam due respect and a “seat at the table.”
In this way, the burqa as a hot-button issue is very much a conversation generated by Western academia. The conversation is an expression of our ambivalence. We’re so interested in it because we’re so conflicted about it. That ambivalence is the minotaur in our labyrinth, the demon we’re repressing. As Voltaire put it, “to learn who (or what) rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
In other words, how does the burqa enter our artistic, discursive, creative culture? Can it be remixed and experienced and questioned, as in the rest of the contemporary artistic field of experience, or are we to leave it untouched? Are we to have any relationship with it at all?
What, precisely, is Gaga saying about the burqa? Maybe that’s a good place to start.
One of the objections of her critics is that she’s sexualizing the burqa. This is absurd. The burqa is already deeply, thoroughly sexualized. It’s a garment designed to cover a woman’s body. Why would it be important to cover a woman’s body, if we’re not worried about adverse weather or witness protection?
So what Gaga is actually doing is performing, in an exaggerated way, the function of the burqa. It’s not that she’s wearing it; it’s that she’s making a show of taking it off. That’s the sexualized element of her performance. First, she explicitly fronts a position that seems consistent with the position of Islam:
I’m not a wandering slave I am a woman of choice
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face
Do you wanna see me naked, lover?
Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?
In other words, the controversial act here, apart from her cultural appropriation, is the revelation of her female body, the moment where she hints titillatingly at the removal of the burqa.
When presented with that starkness, the attack on her suddenly seems to require further inquiry from a feminist position. Why is it so important that she keep context with the burqa by keeping her body hidden? What, exactly, is the burqa for?
This isn’t about devaluation of the burqa – both cultural positions need to be considered and allowed validity. I want to make that clear. I’m not saying, “we Westerners are right; the burqa is repressive.” I’m also not saying, “Islam is right; the burqa is a good and positive cultural force.”
I’m simply asking: what is it for? I want a Muslim representative to tell me.
Is there a bar to clear for cultural understanding? How much do we have to learn? Is no real dialog possible, ever? If we determine the purpose of the burqa, can we then discuss the efficacy of that purpose? How separatist is it possible to be, on a planet where we’re culturally interconnected to the extent that we are?
Assuming the automatic invalidity of Gaga’s statement, assuming that it should be stricken from culture as a mistake, puts a stranglehold on academic discussion of the burqa as a creative, fashionable, cultural, or religious phenomenon. We’re not even sure we should be talking about it. Maybe certain things cannot be at the center of Western conceptions of academic and artistic dialog. Maybe we must be silent. Maybe we should cloak our opinions and ideas, and bow our heads.
Well, Gaga decided to talk about it. I’m glad she did.
Devin O’Neill is a transmedia storyteller, branding practitioner, and performance artist. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Make friends with him at https://facebook.com/devinoneill
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