I have an eternal commitment to hating on Lady Gaga. She exploits gay people — something I first realized after her appearance at a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell rally in Maine in 2010. I will hate on her so hard to anyone who will listen to the point that once, when she came up in conversation at a dinner where for complicated reasons I had to be closeted, I ended up sounding like a horrible homophobic straight girl. That fact alone — that Gaga has bulldozed herself so hard into gay culture that hating on her results in horrified “my god we are dining with a bigot” stares at a dinner table — makes my skin crawl. But that’s an essay for another time.
I’ve had a long-standing knowledge and resentment of Gaga’s commoditization of gays. But recently, I’ve realized, she also has little capacity to make comprehendible public statements about feminism. As a gay person, I will freely draw harsh conclusions because she’s a straight girl treading hard in my arena. As a woman, I’m reluctant to call her a “bad feminist,” because she is also a woman. And, flack-worthy or not, she’s undeniably a strong woman. Perhaps beyond strong. Perhaps a downright hustler. This video:
Firstly, why does she have a British accent? Lady Gaga is from New York. Secondly, when asked, “what’s been your favorite thrill of your career,” the way she relishes a chance to cite the “gay community” is audible in her British Accented voice. As you can imagine, I am bristling. But then — the interviewer suggests that she’s a feminist. She gets defensive. The accent even falls away for a second and she stammers.
“I’m not a feminist, but.”
The classic cry of so many women desperate to be likable in an age of still-reigning patriarchy. Gaga goes on to say that she loves “male culture,” she loves beer and fast cars, she “hails men.” For someone who is a self-proclaimed martyr for queer culture and who claims to want to bash the binary, that’s a confusing reinforcement of it. It’s an annoying video.
Then a friend sent me a video of “alleged progress.” Gaga, dressed up like Madonna in the Marilyn hair and black bra, glassy-eyed, declaring: “I am a feminist.” She goes on to say, in her typically heavy-handed terms (and in a slightly different accent), that she doesn’t like the way women are treated in America. “Women are strong, and fragile. Women are beautiful and ugly. We are soft-spoken and loud.”
I was supposed to be comforted. The feeling it left me with instead:
Give me Nicki Minaj. Please.
If a pop star must act on their assumptions that everyone is waiting with baited breath to listen to their social commentary, Nicki Minaj’s feminist rant about “bossing up” is a phenomenal one. If you haven’t seen it, it’s Nicki in a pink wig, putting on eyeliner and telling MTV, “You have to be a beast. Otherwise, they don’t respect you.”
She goes on to perform a weird Nicki Minaj freakout monologue about the unacceptability of pickle juice at photo shoots, how men “boss up” and women are bitches, and Donald Trump vs. Martha Stewart — and it seems animated and goofy. But the rant is profound. It’s a gut-guided stream of ideas that are in the moment and candid. No PR-addled confusion of mixed messages and vapid assertions. Minaj cares about what she’s saying, her point is earnest and consistent, and she doesn’t seem to expect applause for going out on a limb with these ideas.
Not only is she consistent in her rant, which lends her credibility, but it is fun to listen to and watch. Why is it fun? Not only because of the spastic facial expressions and the wig. It’s because she is in touch with herself about the issue, and knows well what she believes. It’s feminist realness.
With Lady Gaga, there’s inevitably a handful of pauses and blank stares — I suspect trying to recall what she has rehearsed, or calculating what she is supposed to do next — and every confusing thing that she winds up saying sounds labored. It’s money-grubbing melodrama.
Also, Minaj’s own philosophy of feminism is expressed in a way that’s specific to her experiences. Lady Gaga is constantly tripping all over herself to rep for masses of people at large. In Minaj’s case, it would seem difficult at first to relate to the experience of being branded a bitch because you don’t like how a photo shoot is set up. But that’s how it works for Minaj. And, if you think about it, it’s a version of a fucked up “you’re-a-bitch-if-you’re-assertive” dynamic that exists for all women.
Maybe you will never get the chance to be called a bitch for walking out of a photo shoot because they were serving pickles for lunch. But you might be called a bitch if you demand a raise in the same manner that a man could (but the odds are higher than he won’t need to in the first place). And you very likely will be called a bitch if you tell a guy that he can’t call you “baby” when you don’t want him to. These are actions that, as Minaj points out, would not be second- guessed if performed by a man.
But even beyond that — my primary point is that Minaj’s very direct reaction to what she individually has gone through — and the way that it can still speak for many women — makes me buy what she’s saying without any feelings of defensiveness or skepticism.
Whenever Lady Gaga takes a “stand” it feels like a carefully constructed PR strategy and it doesn’t really make much sense when you analyze her actual words. Just the inconsistency of one interview where she shows visible disgust at the word “feminist” and another video where she rambles about the “essence of woman.” She revealed an utter misunderstanding about feminism in the first, by saying that she was a strong woman but she was not a feminist. That she wanted to be a “rock star.” (Which, in and of itself, could be interpreted as a rejection of women. “I’m not a feminist — I want to be like a man, where the glory is!”)
And then in the second video, she revealed desperation to appeal to women by defining them in a series of overstatements that frankly are highly debatable and borderline incoherent. If you really pick apart what she’s saying, it’s spirited but meaningless rhetoric, words that will make people feel encouraged without knowing exactly for what or why (it’s to buy more albums). It’s actually very non-radical, careful, neutral words. I’m a strong woman! But I’m not a feminist. I love gay people! Why? Because I love them (they throw money at her). P.S. I’m a feminist after all! We are misfits and anything that makes you feel bad is bad! Why? Because it’s bad.
The duality of the descriptions of women in her “I am a feminist” video was no mistake. There is no controversy when you claim that something is everything. Everyone is happy: the “beautiful” women and the “ugly” ones, and the ones who don’t know what the point really is but like the nature of words that ambiguously imply some kind of empowering sensation in their temporal lobes.
It’s a load of nothing. It’s an amorphous mess of feelings that will tip any way it seems like her buyers need her to go at that given time.
Plus, Nicki’s hair is way radder.