Lady Gaga performs in Vancouver, Canada
Lady Gaga performs in Vancouver, Canada

Credit: Alfred Hermida on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–I first floated my idea of Gaga feminism at a conference at the New School in New York City in which a host of feminists, young and old, participated.

Gaga feminism is a politics that brings together meditations on fame and visibility with a lashing critique of the fixity of roles for males and females. It is a scavenger feminism that borrows promiscuously, steals from everywhere and inhabits the ground of stereotype and cliche all at the same time. Gaga feminism is also a feminism made up of stutter steps and hiccups.

While I am not proposing that there is some kind of clear feminist program for social change in the world of Lady Gaga, activists of all stripes and queer activists in particular have always looked to popular culture for inspiration and have refused facile distinctions between culture and reality. The Lady Gaga piece of my talk was an attempt to connect contemporary feminism to young people, and students in particular, by building upon the popular iconography in which many of them had already invested considerable hope. But, more than just a humorous ending to a lecture, the term "gaga" for me represented a set of wholesale changes that may be most obvious in the realm of gender norms but that also stretch to many other realms of everyday experience and that call for an improvisational feminism that keeps pace with the winds of political change.

Student Connection

At the conference, the students connected with the version of feminism that I linked to Lady Gaga, while old-school feminists like Susan Faludi wanted to brush this same version aside. And Faludi has not been the only feminist who is wary of the rush to find the political energy channeled by Lady Gaga.

Madonna acolyte and 1990s feminist icon Camille Paglia also shrugged off Lady Gaga’s appeal in a widely read op-ed in the London Sunday Times Magazine in 2010. In her piece, Paglia asserts that Lady Gaga is simply the "diva of deja-vu" and a copycat who latches onto a generation of glazed-eyed Internet clones and exploits its incapacity to think or know anything without an iPhone app or Twitter feed at hand. Gaga, for Paglia, represents the end of culture, the end of civilization, the end of truth, values and meaning, the end of sex and the triumph of a robotic age emptied of human sentiment.

While some feminists, like Donna Haraway, have advocated for new forms of feminism capable of keeping up with technological innovation, Paglia argues that we have lost touch with what is real, true and good in our mania for media manipulation, video games and cell phones. If Haraway recognizes an interpenetration of humanity and technology in the digital age that is exciting and wondrous (even as it is also exploitative and dangerous), Paglia sees, predictably, a manufactured public realm populated by media puppets and their passive and stupid fans. If Lady Gaga’s supporters have recognized in her a newish formula of femininity, phones and desire, Paglia sees only same-old, same-old or, in her words, "the exhausted end of the sexual revolution."

New Feminist Figures

Why are feminists like Paglia and Faludi so wary of new figures of feminist fantasy, women like Lady Gaga or Lil’ Kim or Rihanna or Nicki Minaj or Jenni Rivera or even Ke$ha, women who use sex boldly in their music, who flaunt their bodies but who also remain insistently in charge of their mass media images? Women who, like Ke$ha, sing songs with titles like "Party at a Rich Dude’s House" and rap about being young, drunk, lost and loving it? (My friend, theorist Micha Cardenas, is countering Gaga feminism with her own Ke$ha feminism!)

While it is easy to dismiss some of this material as just mindless pop, at the same time, we might want to look again at singers who, after all, appeal to large numbers of young female fans. Why can’t these women be new figures of feminism? In the end, feminists like Faludi are committed to a reform model of feminism, to the idea of feminism as a politics built around stable definitions of (white) womanhood and as a ladies’ club of influence and moral dignity.

Finally, the mother-daughter bond, which for Faludi is most successfully studied in the dynamic between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet, allows, according to Faludi, for the gains of one age to be passed on to the next. But never does Faludi question whether the gains of white women in one era actually benefit women of color in the next, or whether the goals of white middle-class women reflect anything beyond their race and class interests.

Judith Jack Halberstam is a professor of English and gender studies at USC where he teaches classes in queer theory, cultural studies, film and the arts. Halberstam also writes a blog at, has published four books and is a writer for outlets including The Nation and Bitch. When not writing and reading, Halberstam can be found in LA, complaining about the endless sunshine.

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