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Lady Gaga, feminists stereotypes and the myth of sexual power

June 22, 2010

There's an interesting opinion piece in the NY Times called Lady Power. The author is Dr. Nancy Bauer, philosophy professor at Tufts. She starts off with a risky sentence.
If you want to get a bead on the state of feminism these days, look no further than the ubiquitous pop star Lady Gaga.
Yuck I immediately thought. Lady Gaga is a dime a dozen pop star not an example of a feminist. However, Bauer seems to pick this up right away. She seems to be referencing the problem that a lot of today's young women "embrace the old canard that a feminist is by definition a man-hater".
The tension in Gaga’s self-presentation, far from being idiosyncratic or self-contradictory, epitomizes the situation of a certain class of comfortably affluent young women today.  There’s a reason they love Gaga.  On the one hand, they have been raised to understand themselves according to the old American dream, one that used to be beyond women’s grasp:  the world is basically your oyster, and if you just believe in yourself, stay faithful to who you are, and work hard and cannily enough, you’ll get the pearl.  On the other hand, there is more pressure on them than ever to care about being sexually attractive according to the reigning norms. 
Bauer seems to understand how there's a new game in town. One where women can supposedly be anything they want to be, but are punished if they don't conform to cultural/societal standards of beauty. And it's hard to say someone like Gaga (or many of the other 'strong' women out there) are really changing norms and encouraging women to be self-confident and feminists when they themselves conform so perfectly to the visual standards that our society accepts of them. So what that she wears weird clothes or weird hats? As Bauer says…
Of course, the more successful the embodiment, the less obvious the analytic part is.  And since Gaga herself literally embodies the norms that she claims to be putting pressure on (she’s pretty, she’s thin, she’s well-proportioned), the message, even when it comes through, is not exactly stable.
Bauer addresses the near-heartbreaking way this middle class woman tries to convince herself she's living her own narrative rather than one written for her. Convince herself that being objectified somehow gives her power. This is I think the most poignant part of Bauer's piece (yes it's wrong, but it's worth it to read the whole thing).
 
If there’s anything that feminism has bequeathed to young women of means, it’s that power is their birthright.  Visit an American college campus on a Monday morning and you’ll find any number of amazingly ambitious and talented young women wielding their brain power, determined not to let anything — including a relationship with some needy, dependent man — get in their way.  Come back on a party night, and you’ll find many of these same girls (they stopped calling themselves “women” years ago) wielding their sexual power, dressed as provocatively as they dare, matching the guys drink for drink — and then hook-up for hook-up.

Lady Gaga idealizes this way of being in the world.  But real young women, who, as has been well documented, are pressured to make themselves into boy toys at younger and younger ages, feel torn.  They tell themselves a Gaga-esque story about what they’re doing.  When they’re on their knees in front of a worked-up guy they just met at a party, they genuinely do feel powerful — sadistic, even.  After all, though they don’t stand up and walk away, they in principle could.  But the morning after, students routinely tell me, they are vulnerable to what I’ve come to call the “hook-up hangover.”  They’ll see the guy in the quad and cringe.  Or they’ll find themselves wishing in vain for more — if not for a prince (or a vampire, maybe) to sweep them off their feet, at least for the guy actually to have programmed their number into his cell phone the night before.  When the text doesn’t come, it’s off to the next party.

It's tough because women should feel free to be as sexual as they want to be. That it's no longer a man's domain to enjoy sex and be promiscuous. But at the same time, being convinced that this is some kind of power when it might well be making them feel empty or used doesn't seem like feminism to me.

Bauer goes on to discuss Jean-Paul Sartre and being both an object and a subject, and unable to reconcile the two. Then she brings up Simone de Beauvoir (whom Bauer has a published book on Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism.)

When it comes to her incredibly detailed descriptions of women’s lives, Beauvoir repeatedly stresses that our chances for happiness often turn on our capacity for canny self-objectification.  Women are — still — heavily rewarded for pleasing men.  When we make ourselves into what men want, we are more likely to get what we want, or at least thought we wanted.

It's not a short opinion piece, and the inclusion of Lady Gaga might make you think it's some useless pop culture reflection either praising her or shaming her. But Bauer does neither, and teases you with a few philosophers to give you a taste of analyzing the self-objectification vs power in today's society. For my own part I can picture these young women. I work with some of these women; walking the fine line of acting in a way that makes them feel free and powerful but also succumbing to visual standards and confusing power with objectification. I don't think Bauer or any self-labelled feminist would tell these women they are doing any wrong either way. The road they walk is not one where walking a certain path will give them the power they want. They can only try to achieve some satisfaction in making choices for them and not for somebody else. But we can't be holding up our women to impossible standards (the virgin/whore complex) or expect them to always be happy with the limited set of choices they are being given. I'm not a philosopher (Dammit Jim…) but I think Bauer captures this dichotomy pretty well in a relatively short opinion piece. I hope the inclusion of a pop culture icon means more women are reading this and feeling less guilty or abused over the decisions they've had to make. I think the message in the article is more empowering than anything Lady Gaga is doing.

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