Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Many Moons of the Multiverse

The key to the message of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ video is in the prologue. It’s all there, her intent quite clearly stated – much more so than in the actual song: it’s the introduction and the video itself that reveals the artist’s purpose and philosophy. And it’s this particular video that has made it clear to me why Lady Gaga stands for what she does within the gay community, in a deeper, more intellectual way than just her vocal public support for gay rights. 

She states her ideas fairly clearly in fact, but I’ll extrapolate, just in case…

The video opens with a female SF/cyborg/goddess image, apparently ready to give birth, along with the explanation that “This is the Manifesto of Mother Monster.” In 1991 theorist Donna Haraway wrote a document called The Cyborg Manifesto. It was headed by a not-dissimilar cyborg goddess image and the essay explained, in words, very similar ideas to those Lady Gaga explores visually in ‘Born This Way’. I would happily bet you a kilo of gourmet jellybeans that Gaga has read Haraway! (The Cyborg Manifesto is available free online and it’s great – Fact! Click on the pic below.)

So, the Mother Monster’s own manifesto goes like this: “on a Government Owned Alien Territory (GOAT) in space, a birth of magnificent and magical proportions took place.” The image changes from the goddess in labour to a series of images representing this galactic birth. These graphically abject images are accompanied by the declaration that this “birth was not finite. It was infinite.” Instead of dividing in half, “the wombs numbered, and the mitosis of the future began”.

Translating from Gaga language, I think this means: the babies of this Mother Monster would be born, not to one of two sexes – male or female – but to any number of sexes, any number of genders, and any number of sexualities. In Gaga language, a new race of mini human monsters will be born that is “a race within the race of humanity, a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.” Conventional birth is rendered a reductive thing of the past, and sexual identification and persuasion becomes a limitless possibility, a total freedom.

But it’s not all happily-ever-after on GOAT, because “on that same day, as the eternal mother hovered in the multiverse, another more terrifying birth took place: the birth of evil.” Evil, in ‘Born This Way’, is conventional birth as we know it.  This other human newborn – ‘Evil’ – is “split in two” – into the traditionally recognisable male and female.

It’s interesting how this process is depicted in Gaga language as a violent event, the process of birth “rotating in agony between two ultimate forces.” The idea that the traditional gendering process is, at least on a symbolic level, an act of societal violence, is often raised in feminist and queer dialogue: emphasising the cataclysmic severance caused by slicing the human into two irreconcilable sexes, reduced to a sum of their biological parts, and forced towards prescriptive codes of sexual behaviour. (And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this sequence of the video uses violent phallic machinegun images. Sub-text: the classic gendering process is a phallocentric one.)

Theory doesn’t get much more subversive than this: to challenge our traditional practice of gendering babies from birth is to challenge the very fundamental core of human identity and its identification processes. The idea that gender might be more complex than the mere division into two sexes is definitely not news to most feminists or queer-theorists, but it is an idea that has rarely made it beyond the walls of academic institutions. Although Lady Gaga is not the first artist to try these ideas out on the public imagination, she is certainly among a rare breed.

Lady Gaga is the queer-theorist’s perfect pop icon: she not only chooses queer ideas as the subject matter of her songs and videos, she presents these queer ideas to the pop mainstream: retaining the subversive nature of the message, but making the complex ideas (relatively) digestible.

That Lady Gaga is able to do this is partly due to her iconic look, and she knows it too. Pop culture has always reserved a sacred place for the classic blonde white female icon: Britney, Kylie and Madonna have all wielded similar power. By exploiting this power, Lady Gaga can reach a wider audience than a non-blonde, non-white female. For example, nothing like the same attention has gone to Janelle Monáe, who approaches her music with similar subversive intention: her video, ‘Many Moons’, explores very similar ideas and came before 'Born This Way'. And (IMHO) is much more musically interesting than Lady Gaga’s mainstream pop. But anyways, hohum… It’s only the smallest quibble, and I’m more than happy to let “the pendulum of choice begin its dance”! 

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