Gender Gag

Say what you will about Lady Gaga’s music, fans, or cultural appropriations, she has always deftly undressed gender constructs. The MTV Video Music Awards have often provided the fertile ground for these public experiments in gender performance art, and this year’s was no different. In 2011 she went full on drag king as Jo Calderone, and this past Sunday she went to the other extreme, playing upon the frivolity and foibles of the hyper-feminine pop star, complete with bad lip synch parody, numerous wig changes, and requisite bra-and-panty-reveal.

From many reviews of her opening number, it seems the audience was not in on the joke, as most have interpreted Gaga’s over-the-top show as business as usual. After the much-publicized impact that performance art grand dame Marina Abramovic has had on her, however, Gaga’s performance can be viewed as a drag show mocking the quintessential pop starlet, and, in turn, Gaga herself. From the awkward earnestness in her movements and mugging to the dramatic, onstage costume changes, Gaga’s strident attempts to reveal what lies behind the curtain still chip away at the monolithic myth of the white female pop star, whether you buy her new “reverse Warholian” high concept of high art meets pop art or not.

In Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, professor Jack Halberstam proclaims Gaga the figurehead for a new kind of feminism for acts like these that (can) deconstruct and reconfigure gender, sexuality, and pop culture norms. “Recognizing her power as a maestro of media manipulation, a sign of a new world disorder, and a loud voice for different arrangements of gender, sexuality, visibility, and desire, we can use the world of Gaga to think about what has changed and what remains the same, what sounds different and what is all too familiar, and we can go deep into the question of new femininities.” While his book delves into these questions further, Halberstam’s assertions are still visible even on the surface of Lady Gaga’s 2013 VMA appearance.

Through parody, Lady Gaga both affirms the old order and shatters it by playing its music while wearing its costumes with a self-effacing wink. Just as she offers her face as a canvas to be painted upon by the backup dancers around her, she offers her performance as a surface on which gender can be manipulated in depth to reveal the cracks in its constructs. By taking cues from the greats, Mother Monster creates moments in shows like this and in 2011’s VMA appearance as Jo Calderone, that, if only briefly, help to loosen the binaries that bind us by conflating art, artifice, and gender identity on the public stage.