‘My ARTPOP could mean anything’ :
Anti-Phallogocentrism and Radical Feminine Potential
Cixous’ conceptualisation of écriture féminine as a culturally revolutionary force for women aims to directly challenge the phallogocentric dominance of patriarchal culture; to contest ‘the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds’. (2010; 1953) Echoing this sentiment, Gaga’s utilisation of the metaphor of rebellious darkness aims to fulfil this creative legacy by not only depicting female characters as empowered by their freedom from the male gaze but also by exploring narratives that actively critique the oppositional nature of phallogocentric society by developing ‘alternative forms of relation, perception and expression’ (Sellers, 1994; xxix) for women in society.
For example, within ‘Dance in the Dark’ the song’s protagonist is portrayed as a monstrous individual during the second verse as Gaga sings, ‘Run, run, her kiss is a vampire grin / Moon lights her way while she’s howling at him’. (2009c; 2.04-2.20) The protagonist’s cultural emancipation from the control of the male gaze takes on an even more transgressive quality through the physical transformation of the female body, distorting the cultural site of male domination and literally rendering it monstrous. Gaga’s anarchic liberation of the protagonist via the construction of a she-wolf persona (Woolston, 2012; 117) also relates to the symbolic role of the cultural monster in both Cixous’ (2010; 1943) and Donna Haraway’s conceptualisations of radical female potential. As Haraway argued ‘Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imagination’ (1998; 461) and so the identification of ‘Baby’ as a shifting, monstrous figure positions her as a manifestation of the very ‘Darkness and chaos’ (Goldman, 1998; 64) that silently resides within both women and our cultural psychology. The protagonist’s hybridity as both a woman and a monster, mirroring her double identity as both a victim of patriarchy and a feminist trailblazer, challenges the male-dominated, binary cultural oppositions of phallogocentric society.
Gaga’s work also challenges phallogocentric social order further by explicitly engaging with the role and effects of cultural dualisms and their prioritisation of light over darkness, male over female and ‘logic and rationality over madness’. (Klages, 2006; 98) In ‘Government Hooker’ Gaga echoes the iconic narrative of Marilyn Monroe’s entanglement with masculine power – ‘put your hands on me / John F. Kennedy’ (Gaga, 2011c; 2:46-2:53) – in order to consider the role of cultural dualisms that aim to perpetuate patriarchal society in phallogocentric terms. The song’s verses are based on an ‘I can be X, unless you want to be Y’ structure, actively destabilising the ‘hooker’ narrator’s identity in order to accommodate and support the aims of patriarchy. [Examples of these include ‘I can be good if you just wanna be bad’ (2011c; 0.48-0.52) and ‘I could be sex unless you want to hold hands’. (2011c; 1.59-2.04) Gaga further highlights the dualistic nature of these scenarios by alternating between high and low vocal registers.] ‘Government Hooker’s favouring of a logocentrist world view via its depiction of only two possible options (with the choice between them dictated by male agency) implies that women in society will only be able to regain their cultural autonomy by rejecting the very notion of cultural dualisms, rather than adhering to them. Similarly the song’s portrayal of female subjugation and sexual availability as mutually available to phallogocentric discourses – ‘I can be anything, I’ll be your everything’ (2011c; 0.57-1.00) – suggests that female compliance with cultural power structures is somehow akin to prostitution, signalling the song’s title.
The cultural lesson for women within ‘Government Hooker’ is unmistakably that of anti-phallogocentrism. Reflecting on the cultural constraint of the song’s protagonist, the rejection of male-centric power and metaphysical dualisms is identified as the only potential path to radical empowerment. Through this, Gaga conceptualises a philosophy similar to that of écriture féminine, encouraging the listener to seek empowerment outwith the phallogocentric system of signification. Cixous’ calls for the creation of an ‘impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes’, (2010; 1952) that ‘does not contain’ but ‘makes possible’, (2010; 1955) can be read as concurrent to this cultural strategy. Gaga and Cixous’ mutual desire for the development of a revolutionary female discourse can be understood as a mission statement for anti-phallogocentrism that reaches its logical conclusion in ‘Artpop’.
Representing the ultimate cultural hybridisation of [high] art and ‘pop’ [culture], ‘Artpop’ characterises the coalescence of Gaga’s cultural identities as ‘both a media product and a media manipulator’. (Halberstam, 2012; xiii) In the song’s opening verse the narrator (implied to be Gaga’s personal self) can be read as actively communicating with Gaga’s iconic self, a manifestation of the ‘blonde pop icon’ identity that also represents the many previous cultural inhabitations of the persona, as she beckons her:
Come to me, in all your glamour and cruelty
Just do that thing that you do and I’ll undress you
Keep it tight, sometimes the simplest move is right
The melody that you choose can rescue you
(Gaga, 2013d; 0.15-0.48)
Gaga, empowered with the radical potential of écriture féminine to ‘un-think’ the ‘unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces’ (Cixous, 2010; 1949) embraces the ‘blonde pop icon’ and attempts to help her cast off the patriarchally-imposed identity that has consumed her. Accepting her ‘glamour and cruelty’ as phallocentric constructs, ‘Artpop’s narrator encourages the ‘blonde pop icon’ to rediscover her own autonomy as her culturally imposed façade is deconstructed by the power of anti-phallogocentrism. Just as Gaga encouraged the ‘blonde pop icon’ in ‘Dance in the Dark’ to ‘find your freedom in the music’, (2009c; 3.33-3.35) the empowering nature of the feminine ‘song’ (Cixous, 2010; 1948) is once again portrayed as redemptive as the narrator promises the opportunity of ‘rescue’ and cultural liberation through self-realisation.
‘Artpop’ then directly considers the radical potential made available by the femininst rejection of logocentrism as Gaga sings, ‘A hybrid can withstand these things […] My artpop could mean anything’. (2013d; 0.48-1.03) While the ‘blonde pop icons’ before Gaga proved unable to withstand the cultural strain of phallocentric light, Gaga’s acceptance of the rebellious nature of cultural darkness positions her as a ‘hybrid’ identity that is able to resist the constraint of patriarchal media discourses. This adoption of a radical hybridised persona actively rejects the social restrictions placed upon cultural female identity as Gaga’s ‘artpop’ simultaneously represents both the cultural potential of feminine writing and the literal act of the ‘blonde pop icon’ embracing anti-phallogocentrism as a redemptive force.
‘Artpop’s narrative focus then shifts again, this time directly addressing patriarchal power structures, as Gaga aims to counteract inevitable attempts by media discourses to appropriate her newfound emancipation. Highlighting their inability to regain control of her cultural identity, Gaga sings:
Brushes with darkness won’t help
You create your destiny of self
But artpop could mean anything, anything
I try to sell myself but I am really laughing
Because I just love the music, not the bling
Here, Gaga actively highlights the differences between phallogocentric and feminist discourses as she echoes Cixous’ theory that feminine creative identity cannot be ‘theorized, enclosed, coded’. (2010; 1949) While Gaga’s newly discovered radical potential derives from her acceptance of the rebellious darkness that emanates from within her, she makes it clear that its radical nature must be fully embraced to empower the individual. Patriarchal discourses built upon the power of phallocentric photology are thus unable to access this source of empowerment, their inherent dependence upon light preventing them from accessing their own ‘inner’ darkness.
Equally the emancipatory nature of darkness cannot be used to construct subsequent cultural identities – no ‘destiny of self’ can be built upon the manipulation of darkness as with light – because ‘artpop’ symbolises ‘the very possibility of change’. (Cixous, 2010; 1946) Gaga’s attempts to play along with patriarchal discourses following her emancipation prove futile, her attempts to continue proving little more than amusing to her. In contrast to the apparently vulnerability of the ‘blonde pop icon’ to phallocentric discourses, as explored in ‘Applause’, ‘Artpop’ renders the icon invulnerable to the cultural influence of patriarchy once she realises her own potential. Her transcendence of phallocentric photology is also reflected in the final line as she realises that her cultural journey as a ‘blonde pop icon’ has never been an obsession with money, fame or media adulation (represented by the reflective ‘bling’ typically associated with excessive wealth and celebrity) but instead an exploration of the self that has lead her to her own radical feminine self-expression.
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-HOOK) ‘Government Hooker’, Track 3 from the album Born This Way. Written by Stefani Germanotta, Fernando Garibay and Paul Blair. Produced by Stefani Germanotta, co-produced by Fernando Garibay and Paul Blair. (California: Interscope Records.)
Gaga, Lady (2013-ARTPOP) ‘Artpop’, Track 8 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.)
Goldman, Jane (1998) The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)
Haraway, Donna J. (1998) ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, originally published in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature by Donna J. Haraway, 1991, republished in Sex/Machine: Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology, edited by Patrick D. Hopkins, 1998, Pages 434-467. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)
Klages, Mary (2006) Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. (London & New York: Continuum.)
Sellers, Susan (1993) ‘Introduction’, from The Hélène Cixous Reader, edited by Susan Sellers, 1994, Pages xxvi-xxxiv. (London: Routledge.)
Woolston, Jennifer M. (2012) ‘Lady Gaga and the Wolf: “Little Red Riding Hood”, The Fame Monster and Female Sexuality’ in The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga, edited by Richard J. Gray II, 2012, Pages 107-121. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company.)