Dissertation: Chapter 4

Gaga Applause Dance 2

‘I’m gonna marry the night / I won’t give up on my life’: Rebellious Darkness and Feminist Empowerment

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As evidenced by the preceding chapters, the gendered utilisation of light as a cultural force has been extensively employed by patriarchal power structures to constrain women in society. However, as Jane Goldman notes, ‘The light of the masculine “I” casts the feminine into its earthly shadow’, (1998; 17) forcing women into a similarly restrictive darkness that aims to deny her cultural agency in just as damaging a fashion as light. The cultural imposition of darkness upon women is also explored within Hélène Cixous’ écriture féminine¬-defining essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, as she argues that ‘phallocentrism’ has kept womankind ‘in the dark about herself’. (2010; 1943) Chronicling the history of imposed feminine darkness, Cixous argues:

as soon as [girls] begin to speak, at the same time as they’re taught their name, they can be taught that their territory is black: because you are Africa, you are black. Your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous. You can’t see anything in the dark, you’re afraid. Don’t move, you might fall. Most of all, don’t go into the forest. And so we have internalized this horror of the dark.

(2010; 1945)

While this imposition of crippling darkness onto the cultural female is shown to be restrictive to female agency, Cixous’ vision for an emancipatory form of self-expression for women transforms patriarchally imposed darkness into an empowering cultural space of radical potential. Positioning creatively empowered women as cultural ‘sowers of disorder’, (2010; 1951) Cixous visualises a ‘world all her own’ for womankind; a ‘unique empire’ (2010; 1943) that gives women the opportunity to literally ‘write her self’ (2010; 1942) anew in a rejection of patriarchal ‘partitions, classes and rhetorics’. (2010; 1952) Woman is no longer trapped in her isolation by male light or a geographical manifestation of Lacanian ‘Lack’ according to Cixous: ‘Let’s hurry: the continent is not impenetrably dark.’ (2010; 1952, emphasis added)

Cixous’ ambitions for feminist empowerment can be seen to prominently feature in ‘Dance in the Dark’, a daring synthpop track released by Gaga in 2009. The song’s empowerment narrative begins by identifying the challenges faced by women in a society dominated by phallocentric photology, as Gaga sings, ‘She looks good but her boyfriend says she’s a mess […] now the girl is stressed’. (Gaga, 2009c; 1.03-1.12) ‘Dance in the Dark’s third-person protagonist is restricted by phallocentric light and the manipulative male gaze it empowers, her self-worth forcibly limited by patriarchy in order to subjugate her. However, her self-emancipation can be achieved by realising the radical potential of the darkness she has ‘internalized’, as the chorus explains, ‘Baby loves to dance in the dark, ‘cause when he’s looking she falls apart’. (2009c; 1.18-1.26) ‘Dance in the Dark’ positions darkness itself as a redemptive, feminist space for protagonist ‘Baby’, its ability to blind the male gaze and disempower phallocentric discourses allowing the cultural female to ‘dance’ freely as she wishes.

The constraining power of darkness used by phallocentric discourses to restrict women is reconceptualised by Gaga as a liberating ‘unique empire’, the male dependency on cultural photology literally rendering him lost beyond the light. In the dark, the protagonist’s inability to defend her cultural self against the power of patriarchy (mirroring the ‘blonde pop icon’s struggle to retain her cultural agency) no longer matters. This emancipatory potential coalesces with the cultural legacy of the ‘blonde pop icon’ in the song’s bridge, as Gaga declares:

Marilyn, Judy, Sylvia, tell ‘em how you feel girls
Work your blonde [Jon]Benét Ramsey
We’ll haunt like Liberace
Find your freedom in the music
Find your Jesus, find your Kubrick
You will never fall apart, Diana you’re still in our hearts
Never let you fall apart, together we’ll dance in the dark

(2009c; 3.21-3.45)

Within the darkness ‘Baby’ uncovers a legacy of tragic female figures from mainstream culture, the rebellious nature of her environment representing a safe space for the ‘blonde pop icon’ to reside. ‘Dance in the Dark’s canonisation of icons such as Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana inverts their manipulation by phallocentric light, enshrouding them in a rebellious feminist darkness in which they are beyond patriarchal appropriation, and aligns their personal struggles with the challenges faced by women everywhere. By encouraging these women to ‘tell ‘em how you feel girls’, ‘Dance in the Dark’ reconceptualises radical darkness as a space of true female expression where these culturally-constrained women are finally given a voice of their own. The references to these women, as well as JonBenét Ramsey and Liberace, intend to represent the dangers of the spotlight of fame, a theme notably obsessed over by Gaga, (Robinson, 2010; 330) as the protagonist attempts to resurrect these wronged individuals and restore their creative potential within the feminist space of the dark.

Drawing on cultural notions of the night club as a subversive, feminist space, (Pini, 2001) Gaga’s pronouncement to ‘find your freedom in the music’ also develops Cixous’ concept of the female ‘song’, an ‘element which never stops resonating’ with the female self. (2010; 1948) Gaga’s return to Diana in the closing lines represents the full potential of the rebellious darkness constructed within the narrative, informing the ‘blonde pop icon’ that she will be nurtured within the darkness, the damage done to her by patriarchy will be healed (‘Never let you fall apart’) and that the anarchic sisterhood of iconic figures assembled will always stand beside her (‘together, we’ll dance in the dark’) in unity, inviting the listener to join their ranks as a fellow member of the anarchic feminist rebellion against phallocentric photology.

Gaga Applause Dance

Following ‘Dance in the Dark’, Gaga’s subsequent work continued to develop the concept of rebellious darkness as a feminist method of empowerment, mapping cultural ‘darkness’ onto more abstract environments as well as developing romantic and sexual entanglements with it. A clear visual example of this is featured in the music video for ‘Applause’, in which Gaga performs a dance routine against a dark background whilst wearing a black leather bra designed to resemble a pair of hands grasping her breasts. (Gaga, 2013b; 1:26-2:30, above) The visual effect of two hands reaching out from the darkness, wrapping around Gaga, not only the reaffirms the ability of rebellious darkness to negate the male gaze’s objectifying power but also suggests the sexual potential of darkness in relation to the female self. Together, radical darkness and cultural female identity can join forces, as it were, to further empower women, both culturally and sexually and further oppose patriarchy’s attempts to limit female cultural agency.

The union of the female self and radical darkness is also the central focus of ‘Marry the Night’, the opening track from the 2011 album, Born This Way. Singing over electronic church bells, Gaga sings, ‘I’m gonna marry the night / I won’t give up on my life / I’m a warrior queen, live passionately tonight’. (Gaga, 2011e; 0.00-0.15) The song’s narrator discovers a renewed sense of identity through her union with Otherness, her marriage to rebellious darkness not only restoring faith in her life but also empowering her with a ‘warrior’ persona. This rebel self is not only determined to defend her right to control her own feminine destiny, ‘I’m a soldier to my own emptiness, I’m a winner’, (2011e; 0.22-0.30) but identifies herself with rebellious punk subcultures, ‘I’m gonna lace up my boots / Throw on my leather and cruise’, (2011e; 1.12-1.21) doubling her relationship with ‘blackness’ as a cultural signifier.

Sexuality also comes to the fore as the narrator pronounces, ‘I’m gonna marry the dark / Gonna make love to this stark’. (2011e; 0.15-0.23) Not only do we see the radical nature of feminist darkness return once again but also its arousing quality in relation to female sexuality. The protagonist of ‘Marry the Night’ becomes sexually empowered by her access to rebellious cultural spaces and, crucially, embraces her libido within these typically ‘dark’ environments in a feminist conceptualisation of female desire, ‘Won’t poke holes in the seat with my heels / ‘Cause that’s where we make love’. (2011e; 2.36-2.43) The ‘stark’-ness of these cultural spaces is also crucial. Unlike the phallocentric depictions of female sexuality disseminated by media discourses, it is not the proliferation of visual stimuli or physicality that arouses the narrator. Instead, the radically unsignified nature of the ‘stark’ night is not only what makes them accessible for female sexuality but also precisely what makes sexual endeavours within them so arousing.

Gaga further develops the sexualised nature of the dark and other radical cultural spaces in several of the songs featured on ARTPOP. Bringing together elements of science fiction, astronomy and classical mythology, ‘Venus’ also embraces the cultural uncertainty of space and repurposes it as a metaphor for the feminist empowerment offered by darkness’ revolutionary potential. Channelling Venus, the ‘goddess of love’, the song’s narrator aims to explore the sexual potential of her ‘cosmic libido’ (Cixous, 2010; 1955) by propositioning her lover to join her in transcending established forms of sexual identity: ‘Let’s blast off to a new dimension (in your bedroom)’. (Gaga, 2013m; 0.23-0.29)

Following their intergalactic encounter, ‘Venus’s narrator once again utilises interstellar terminology to identify the revolutionary nature of her experience, proclaiming, ‘When you touch me I die / Just a little inside / […] ‘Cause you’re out of this world, galaxy, space and time’. (2013m; 1.11-1.23) The narrator’s transcendence of the established limitations of reality can be understood to represent the liberating potential of cultural darkness, her exploration of the unknown nature of space representing her cultural empowerment through its social transgression. Although the narrator’s male lover is positioned as the stimulus for this reconceptualisation of reality, the song returns to aligning darkness as the domain of the feminine as the protagonist demands, ‘Take me to your planet […] take me to your leader […] take me to your Venus’. (2013m; 0.54-1.10) While men may be fun, only a true goddess is able to rule the galaxy as Venus serves as the pulp fiction idol for a narrator ready to leave her world behind.

Gaga’s conceptualisation of the dark as a transgressive space continues on ARTPOP in the narrative of ‘Sexxx Dreams’, an exploration of the sexual fantasies that proliferate in the narrator’s subconscious as she sleeps. The song’s opening lines, ‘Last night / I was thinking about you / and it was kinda dirty’, (Gaga, 2013l; 0.04-0.21) instantly characterises the hours of darkness as a subversive domain for the narrator and suggests that while she may consider these fantasies as inappropriate she still revels in their salacious, forbidden nature. This confessional tone stems from her conscious violation of a woman’s cultural responsibility to remain innocent and pure, even psychologically. Following the chorus’ bold declaration that ‘Last night, damn you were in my sex dreams / Doing really nasty things’ (2013l; 0.54-1.03) the narrator almost seems to plead for forgiveness for her sexual transgression, as Gaga sings:

We could be caught
(I just want this to be perfect)
We’re both convicted criminals of thought
(Because I’m broken)

(Gaga, 2013l, 1.11-1.28)

In ‘Sexxx Dreams’ the female body is disregarded as a necessary component of feminine sexuality as the protagonist becomes corrupted by thought alone. Female sexuality is portrayed as a post-physical experience; the corruption of the narrator’s imposed innocence is signalled not by a bodily shift but a feminist rejection of cultural codes. Thus despite her masturbation to these fantasies, ‘When I lay in bed / I touch myself and think of you’, (Gaga, 2013l; 0.50-0.54) the narrator’s main sexual fulfilment from this theoretical affair, and its disobedient nature, is psychologically rooted. The transgressive nature of these fantasies is protected from patriarchal manipulation by both their manifestation by twilight, a radical cultural space for women in accordance with ‘Marry the Night’, and their perpetuation within the narrator’s dreams as Cixous argues that the unconscious ‘is a place where the repressed manage to survive: women.’ (2010; 1946)

Gaga’s explorations of fantastical or psychologically ‘dark’ spaces make this method of body-rejection possible for the transgressive woman. Jennifer Santos argues ‘In the darkness, her body no longer matters’ as the ‘male gaze loses the power it so clearly holds over her’, (2012; 56) without light the male gaze is unable to constrain the transgressive female identity because she becomes a thought, a sensation that cannot be appropriated because it is inherently absent. Just as Gaga informs media discourses in ‘Do What U Want’ that ‘You can’t have my heart and you won’t use my mind but / Do what you want with my body’, (Gaga, 2013g; 0.58-1.07) the cultural female is encouraged to reject her physical form in her search for cultural liberation. The female body is not only cited as a vulnerable site through which phallocentric discourses can appropriate and manipulate her, as it is in ‘MANiCURE’, (Gaga, 2013k) but as a key part of the cultural dualisms of male/female and light/dark that underpin phallocentric society. This reconceptualisation of female cultural identity as an intangible idea positions the ‘true’ female self as both anarchically unrestricted by patriarchal power structures and revolutionary by its very nature. Beyond her body, the ‘blonde pop icon’ can transcend these dualisms and begin to challenge and disrupt them, positioning her as ‘the antilogos weapon’. (Cixous, 2010; 1947)

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Cixous, Hélène (2010) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Second Edition, edited by Vincent B. Leitch et al., 2010, Pages 1942-1959. Published in the original French in 1975, translated by Keith Cohen and Paul Cohen. (New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co.)

Gaga, Lady (2009-DARK) ‘Dance in the Dark’, Track 5 from the album The Fame Monster. Written by Stefani Germanotta and Fernando Garibay. Produced by Fernando Garibay, co-produced by Stefani Germanotta. (California: Interscope Records.)

Gaga, Lady (2011-MARRY) ‘Marry the Night’, Track 1 from the album Born This Way. Written and produced by Stefani Germanotta and Fernando Garibay. (California: Interscope Records.)

Gaga, Lady (2013-APPVID) Music video for the single, ‘Applause’. Directed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Electronic version cited: youtu.be/pco91kroVgQ. (Accessed on 09.10.13)

Gaga, Lady (2013-DWUW) ‘Do What U Want’, Track 7 from the album ARTPOP, featuring R. Kelly. Written by Stefani Germanotta, Paul Blair, Martin Bresso, William Grigahcine and Robert Sylvester Kelly. Produced by Stefani Germanotta and Paul Blair. (California: Interscope Records.)

Gaga, Lady (2013) ‘MANiCURE’, Track 6 from the album ARTPOP. Written by Stefani Germanotta, Paul Blair, Dino Zisis and Nick Monson. Produced by Stefani Germanotta and Paul Blair, co-produced by Dino Zisis and Nick Monson. (California: Interscope Records.)

Gaga, Lady (2013-SEX) ‘Sexxx Dreams’, Track 4 from the album ARTPOP. Written and produced by Stefani Germanotta and Anton Zaslavski. (California: Interscope Records.)

Gaga, Lady (2013-VENUS) ‘Venus’, Track 2 from the album ARTPOP. Written by Stefani Germanotta, Paul Blair, Hugo Leclercq, Dino Zisis, Nick Monson and Sun Ra. Produced by Stefani Germanotta and co-produced by Hugo Leclercq. (California: Interscope Records.)

Goldman, Jane (1998) The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

Pini, Maria (2001) Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity: The Move from Home to House. (Basingstoke: Palgrave.)

Robinson, Lisa (2010) ‘Lady Gaga’s Cultural Revolution’ in Vanity Fair, Issue 601, September 2010, Pages 280-287; 329-331. (New York: Condé Nast.)

Santos, Jennifer M. (2012) ‘Body Language and “Bad Romance”: The Visual Rhetoric of the Artist’ in The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga, edited by Richard J. Gray II, 2012, Pages 52-73. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company.)

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