Every week, blogger and columnist Sahar Shiralian explores a different aspect of popular culture through a feminist lens.
Admittedly, the Video Music Awards is the last place I look to find moments of empowering feminism or the touting of gender equality. Music videos and many cringe worthy pop lyrics are usually the first culprits I accuse when it comes to the objectification of women or even rape culture. However, this year was different: Lady Gaga was the opening act and curiosity got the best of me.
Lady Gaga stole the entire awards ceremony by merely wearing a white T-shirt and black denim. Of course, she was the topic of much palaver mainly due to a steadfast dedication to playing the role of her male alter ego, Jo Calderone. Who is he? He is Gaga’s allegedly jilted lover, and a sneering, chain smoking Jersey boy of Italian origin. Dripping with swagger and oozing raw bad boy sex appeal, Calderone wooed the iconic pop sirens – Britney Spears being the most notable victim of his charm. Despite claims that her performance was long-winded, distracting, self-indulgent, and even unoriginal, Lady Gaga’s adherent commitment to the role cannot be denied. She did not break her character and was unwaveringly Jo for the whole two hours, and even wore a prosthetic penis. That being said, she truly attempted to embrace the masculinity of the persona.
Where were her towering stilettos? How about her physics defying ensembles? Not only was the audience confused, but many viewers at home wondered about Gaga’s intentions by having Jo replace her for the evening. Additionally, many fashionistas were disappointed because they had tuned in solely for Gaga’s annual fashion statement. However, she had made a powerful statement of an entirely different nature – one that aroused the interest of the feminist and LGBT communities.
Many feminists and LGBT activists lauded Gaga’s efforts to enhance visibility for drag kings and queens in the media. Her decision, as the world’s biggest pop star, to cross-dress on stage could potentially incorporate drag into mainstream pop culture and provide transgendered persons with reassurance and confidence. Indeed, transgendered persons are not conspicuous members of the queer community in celebrity culture; with the short-lived, highly satirized reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race excluded, drag kings/queens are rarely seen on the television. Lady Gaga is already a vocal LGBT activist, but her recent performance as Jo Calderone certainly gives the transgendered community a louder voice.
The fact that Lady Gaga even has a male alter ego speaks volumes for the feminist community. Toying with gender roles dates back to the plays of Shakespeare with characters such as Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night famously donning masculine garb. The ease and fluidity of the theatrical gender bending exercised by these Shakespearean heroines have since established gender equality and interchangeability. Lady Gaga trumpets the fact that gender is not necessarily a matter of genetics imposed upon us at birth, but is a matter of performance. Her gender-bending performance urges women everywhere to explore and experiment with sexual roles, identity, and gender. Media and societal constructs dictate what is “feminine” or “masculine” and who should adopt those roles. Lady Gaga/Jo liberates women from these social gender expectations by successfully blurring gender binaries. Furthermore, the character of Jo triumphantly asserts the too-often ignored notion that gender is purely performative.
Lady Gaga’s album Born This Way bears the message of embracing our true selves and unleashing the “little monster” within us. Her words and lyrics come to fruition in the drag performance as her alter ego – if we are born to be another, we should inhabit the person we are longing to be. Even if a woman does not identify with a masculine gender, gender experimentation is a way to escape societal definitions of femininity. Rosalind and Viola enjoyed a temporary freedom from prejudice and the privileges denied to their female counterparts in a patriarchal Renaissance world – they were empowered by doublet and hose. In 2011, women should explore their gender others as a tool of sexual exploration. The groin-grabbing, foul-mouthed Jo Calderone may be a caricature, but I have hope that he will galvanize women into believing that high heels and curve hugging pencil skirts are not the only permanent staples of a woman’s closet.
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