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Visuality and Feminism(?) in Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” Video

April 16, 2010

It’s unclear whether or not the Lady Gaga’s music video for “Telephone” is a feminist triumph, but one thing is for sure: feminists are watching it — and talking about it — a lot.

The video pushes visual and political boundaries. It’s filled with evocative images — Wonder Woman costumes, flat, white abs, mayonnaise and other sandwich-making materials, a headpiece made from telephones, and the main event: Lady Gaga’s vulva.

The video creates a whole new genre of music video — a ten-minute long visual landscape packed with images of sexuality and consumer culture, based only loosely on the content of the song.

Feminist critics (and supporters) are blogging about the video’s treatment of race  (Why does Beyoncé act as a sidekick, not the main event? And why does the Asian woman in the video “think” in Japanese?) and representations of gender and sexualities (What is the gender identity of the person Gaga makes out with in the prison yard? And what is Lady Gaga trying to accomplish by flashing her vulva?) not to mention the video’s depiction of prison (Um, doesn’t it sort of glorify sexual aggression in prisons, and why aren’t any of the prisoners who are people of color allowed to dance with Gaga?). Such discussions (and other commentaries that deconstruct symbols in the video) are far more fruitful and interesting than the video itself. Why?

Because this is a pop video. And with pop videos, visuality comes first. For Gaga, the newly-throned goddess of the pop world, the visual attraction of an image comes before the meaning of the image, as she told Ryan Seacrest in a recent radio interview about the video:

“I also really believe in the power of visuals. And sometimes I just kind of see things, and visions come to me, and I just know I have to do them. It kind of doesn’t really matter what it is if it makes sense or if it doesn’t make sense…”

And the video kind of doesn’t make sense. Gaga gets bailed out of jail by Beyoncé, then the pair (accidentally?) poison a diner full of people in an attempt to kill off Beyoncé’s sucky boyfriend (Tyrese Gibson). They make a Thelma and Louise-esque getaway in a Pussy Wagon borrowed from Quentin Tarantino and somewhere in there Lady Gaga makes a sandwich and gets naked. The visual experience is incredible. But what does it mean? Lady Gaga, apparently, didn’t figure that out until she was halfway through making it. Here’s what she told Ryan Seacrest about the “Let’s Make a Sandwich” interlude:

“It kind of comes in out of nowhere, but now that I watch it, in retrospect, the way that it works into the video, and the commentary on kind of being over-fed communication and advertisements and food in this country. I think it all kind of really makes sense by the end.”

The political commentary comes after the visual image is conceived:

“It became about transsexual women at the beginning of the video, it became about making fun of American hallmarks with soda cans and cigarettes and mayonnaise and bread.”

With any kind of art, images can precede or create meaning. The politics behind any painting or novel have as much to do with the viewer as they do with the product itself; images are politically salient only because of the discussions and actions they inspire. Both the artist’s motives and the audience’s opinions matter when the political impact of a piece of art is weighed.

So let’s turn to the feminist audience. Feminist bloggers and critics have picked apart the gender, race and economic politics, as this epic post on Feministe shows. Salient political critiques have been made by people primarily concerned with the politics — people caught up in the movement for racial, sexual and economic rights.

And that makes the critics different from Gaga herself. While the pop goddess has come out in support of gay and queer rights and has (apparently) called herself a feminist, she believes primarily in the cause of pop itself:

“I have a vow to myself to kind of desperately serve show business until I die, because I believe in it so much. I’ll have to think of even more exciting ways to do it the next time around.”

Gaga’s business is to create outrageous images — to push boundaries, to serve pop —  and that is what she has done. With “Telephone,” she has given us a saturated visual landscape upon which to hash out our own thoughts about gender and race. She’s also given misogynist audiences an eyeful of skinny white women dancing in g-strings. It’s a generous helping of images. But it’s up to us to decide what they will mean.

Amy Littlefield is the Music Editor at Gender Across Borders.

  1. April 16, 2010 10:07 am

    Exactly! Great post and thank you so much for mentioning my blog’s critique of the video. =)

  2. Jessica Mack permalink*
    April 18, 2010 7:15 pm

    Great post. I felt like it was all a little too convenient that after Gaga’s video came out there were endless bravas of how feminist it was… I think you’re right to point out that her use of imagery and message isn’t always conscious, and certainly not consciously feminist. Perhaps we read that into it, because we want to — and sometimes it work, sometimes it doesn’t. It occurs to me that we seem to really want to find links between pop culture and feminism, especially those of us who have a foot in each world, because one often denigrates what the other seeks to rectify. Perhaps searching for feminist reflection in Gaga’s Telephone…and other countless examples…is our way of making ourselves feel less guilty for enjoying the sheer pop-ness of it, despite the fact that we call ourselves feminists.

    • Amy Littlefield permalink*
      April 18, 2010 8:19 pm

      Thanks for the comments! Jessica, I think you may be onto something about the relationship between pop and feminism — pop so often attacks feminism, by its very nature, and feminists have to dig pretty deep to find positive meaning in most pop songs. But I like to think that as feminists, we have the power to turn pop around by interpreting it in our own way. What would two women making out mean in a world without patriarchy, for example? Then again, maybe I am just trying to make myself feel better about dancing along…

      • Jessica Mack permalink*
        April 19, 2010 8:45 pm

        I agree, it’s hard. It took me a long time to stop feeling guilty as a child for reading Teen Magazine and still feeling like I can stand up for myself and aspire to be a strong woman… I love dancing to Lady Gaga too.

  3. April 19, 2010 8:26 am

    Amy, I really like your post. Thanks for introducing me to the discussion.

  4. Maria Price permalink
    May 28, 2010 6:28 pm

    I am initially disgusted when I see the video; mainly because I feel as a feminist you aren’t going around parading your body as the main attraction. To think that putting together a song with a video that barely relates to it and creates a subculture based on sultry temptations and confusion is supposed to say, “Hey, woman can do wonderful things in the world.” I mean they are in jail and not out trying to campaign for women’s rights in Saudi. Lady Gaga wants us to be curious and drool over the skin and sin….and to be attracted to women. She has wonderful musical talent, but much like Marilyn Manson she thrives on shock factor and the dynamics of tough or lesbian women. These women are more indie/independent/free-loving than feminists.

    • May 29, 2010 11:04 am

      Maria, could you expand a bit on this–“These women are more indie/independent/free-loving than feminists.”? I’m not really sure what you mean by that.


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