If you follow comic book news, chances are you’re already aware of Marvel’s upcoming All-New, All-Different publishing line relaunch, seeing 45+ new series starting this fall. Although the announced titles—ranging from Scarlet Witch and a female Wolverine both receiving their own solo series to the return of A-Force and Ms. Marvel—continue Marvel’s push towards greater cultural representation, the new creative teams working on these series fail to reflect this.
Sometimes it’s easy to see the potential of an iconic image from a first glance. War photography, Marilyn Monroe on a subway grate, Doge—that kind of stuff. Did I see that potential when I first saw Milo Manara’s variant Spider-Woman cover? No, I really just thought her butt looked weird. But then I didn’t yet know of Manara’s prolific career in erotic illustration that undeniably complicates the debate. I couldn’t possibly foresee becoming a bystander to Marvel creator Dan Slott’s incredibly problematic defence of the cover. And perhaps we’re all yet to realise how it in fact epitomises the very real issues facing minority readers in the wider comic book community.
In case you haven’t been closely following the controversy of Spider-Woman’s butt, allow me to review. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, at a panel called ‘Women of Marvel’, the publisher announced a new ongoing Spider-Woman series. The series, part of Marvel’s ‘Characters and Creators’ publishing initiative that ‘aims to speak directly to… women and girls‘, joins nine other female-led series published by Marvel. According to company’s Editor-in-Chief, Axel Alonso, these superheroines ‘are not the big-breasted, scantily clad women that perhaps have become the comic-book cliché’ but are ‘defined by many things—least of all their looks.’
The model of a woman to emulate, in Disney’s worldview, is one who lives to get her man. She may adopt some of the contemporary feminist attitudes, including being more vocal, being physically strong, and being self-sufficient, but she only finds fulfilment in romantic love.
(Ward, 2002; 119)
The historical relationship between Disney’s female protagonists and feminist thought has always been conflicted, if not contradictory. While early characters (such as Snow White and Cinderella) may have lacked personal agency due to their inherent damsel-in-distress nature, more recent depictions of female protagonists (including The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, Mulan or Pocahontas) are undeniably progressive in comparison. However these newer characters still struggle with many of the same limitations that affected their predecessors; Disney’s heroines have traditionally been romantically minded and strictly emblematic of heterosexual lifestyles. Annalee Ward summarises this problem by concluding that Disney’s animated films repeatedly imply that ‘females can be strong and self-sufficient, but females are only truly happy when they have a man.’ (Ward, 2002; 119)
The recent Japanese obsession with high school girls contains an element that cannot be dismissed as merely desire for young women […] the love for the combination of sailor clothing and young girls suggests a tendency towards polymorphous perversion, encompassing a preference for homosexuality and a clothing fetish in addition to pedophilia.
While ‘girl-power’ may aim to empower women of all ages via its championing of ‘a pleasure-centered form of empowerment tied to ideals found in third wave feminism’, (Newsom, 2004) many analyses of girl-power texts marketed towards children appear to focus on predominantly adult issues rather than consider the potential empowerment of young girls. For example, Tamaki Saitō’s analysis of the schoolgirl archetype within Sailor Moon (2011; 57, above) appears to more closely resemble the discussion of an explicitly pornographic text than of a Japanese anime and manga series aimed at children ‘ages seven and up’. (Cheu, 2005; 294)
When Saitō argues that the schoolgirl’s cultural popularity cannot be ‘dismissed as merely desire’, his argument clearly refers to adult (male) viewers as opposed Sailor Moon’s target audience. In this context, any consideration of the schoolgirl as a symbol of girlishness with which young viewers could relate is superseded by her status as a ‘pornographic trope’, (Allison, 2006; 133) her potential as a role model ignored in favour of her alleged representation of latent sexual deviancy. Although it may be important to question whether children’s texts such as Sailor Moon feature controversial content, academia’s narrow focus on adult issues within girl-power media has resulted in a failure to critically consider the intended audience’s relationships with these texts.
‘The girl who lives behind the aura’:
Blonde Pop Icons, Phallocentric Photology &
Rebellious Darkness in the work of Lady Gaga
Hello and welcome to the landing page for my undergraduate English Literature dissertation. Chances are you’ve arrived at this page either because you’re interested in the radical feminist implications of modern pop music or you just quite like ‘Bad Romance’ and there’s nothing good on the telly at the moment. Regardless of which category you fall into, I am very grateful that you’ve decided to give this essay a bash and I hope you enjoy it!
While this project primarily focussed on Gaga’s recent ARTPOP album, music and videos from throughout Gaga’s career also feature prominently as different ideas are shown to be gradually developed. If there’s anything you’re not familiar with (whether it’s a Gaga song or a confusing-sounding French feminist theory) I would definitely recommend giving it a quick Google or just asking me in the relevant comments’ section. (While I’ve attempted to comprehensively explain things throughout the essay, being an academic piece of work requires it to expect a certain level of theoretical understanding that non-literature students may have luckily bypassed.)
If all of this hasn’t put you off then I hope you enjoy reading the project that took over my life for a good six months but was worth every second. I’m immensely proud of the final result and very happy to be able to share it with you all now after months of work. And remember, you’re a free bitch. – Adam
Table of Contents
‘You and me could write a bad romance’ : Acknowledgements
As I sit in bed twelve hours before this project is due to be handed in (wildly sleep deprived and dancing along to ‘Venus’ in celebration of having finally finished) I’m overcome with a sense of gratitude for all the people who have helped me get to this stage. Gratitude and exhaustion, at least.
First of all I’d like to say a big thank you to Dr Jane Goldman, my ever-supportive dissertation supervisor. From the moment I realised I want to do this project on Lady Gaga, I knew there was only one person in the entire university up to the challenge. Despite not being the quintessential Little Monster, Jane has offered advice, encouragement and compelling discussions about the racial implications of Miley Cyrus at every turn.
Further academic thanks go to the university library’s inter-library loan service team, a group that I’ve undoubtedly challenged with the sheer variety and number of requests over the last six months. Two other individuals highly deserving of recognition are Dr Robbie McLaughlan and Joanna Colville, amazing teachers that encouraged me to think outside the box, challenge myself and believe in my ideas. Without them, this dissertation would have been on something far less up-tempo.
The main brunt of my dissertation ideas, stress, panic and frustration has unfortunately been directed at my friends and family, the most amazing bunch of people who have been incredibly supportive throughout it all. First of all, special thanks to my parents for being as involved as possible for two people who initially thought ‘phallocentric photology’ had something to do with ‘light up pictures of willies’. Secondly to Lilith and Rachel, two of the most confident, intelligent and wonderful people in the world who gave me faith in the possibility of pop music to empower people. (They’re very good at dancing too.) A giant thanks for everyone who took the time to look over massive chunks of this and play hunt-for-typos, you guys (John, Martin, Martin, Alex, Christina and especially David) were such a big help. Lastly, all the appreciation I could ever give to Adam for he deserves it. The monkey boy that fell head first into the world of French feminist theory when he met me, no one makes me happier or motivates me to push on like you. I promise the next project will be about something you’re an expert on! (Provided you’re willing to watch Sailor Moon.)
And a thank you to Stefani Germanotta, may you forever dance in the dark.
‘Up heaven’s stairway to gold /
Mine myself like coal’: Conclusion
Gaga’s creative intension with ARTPOP was to ‘bring the music industry into a new age; an age where art drives pop and the artist once again is in control of the “icon”.’ (Gaga, 2013e) Through the album’s scope of cultural narratives, from pop icons at the mercy of media discourses to anti-phallogocentric anthems and sexualised space adventures, Gaga not only considers the cultural forces affecting the ‘blonde pop icon’ but lays out a path to cultural emancipation for her and, by connection, all women.
This path to empowerment also further develops Gaga’s explorations of the constraining cultural effects of phallocentric photology and the empowering, radical nature of darkness found throughout her work. Building upon the use of light as a cultural force by patriarchal media to construct ideologically centric media personae, Gaga’s conceptualisation of light as a cultural power that constrains female agency intimately relates phallocentric photology to the objectifying abilities of the male gaze. Whether she is a ‘blonde pop icon’ trapped within the sights of the paparazzi lens or a pop star on stage unable to identify with her personal self due to the cultural complexities of her media ‘aura’, Gaga portrays photological dominance as culturally pernicious to both women and their cultural emancipation.
Thus, the only cultural space available to the ‘blonde pop icon’ in search of her emancipation is the dark. In the darkness, the cultural female body cannot be constrained or objectified because it can no longer be conceived; she is inside herself. Gaga’s music draws upon the imagery of the night, of outer space or the dance floor but these metaphors primarily serve as cultural projections for the empowering darkness that exists within the female self. The very darkness that women have ‘internalized’ (Cixous, 2010; 1944) now signifies their liberation from phallocentric photology as Gaga’s protagonists realise the radical feminine potential within them. Free from the male gaze that is unable to penetrate a cultural rebellion that emanates from within, the ‘blonde pop icon’ is free to challenge and overthrow the phallogocentric rules of society that have constrained her, even the ‘founding metaphor of Western philosophy’ (Goldman, 1998; 14) that ensures the oppositional nature of light and dark. While this ability can be utilised to erase key cultural differences such as race, as Gaga has attempted in the guise of cultural empowerment for minority identities, female emancipation from phallocentric discourses must primarily come from within each individual. Only the ‘blonde pop icon’ can emancipate herself.
Crucially, ARTPOP’s intention as a liberating cultural text for the ‘blonde pop icon’ does not aim to withdraw her from culture but instead empower her to control her own agency within the scope of phallocentric media discourses. Just as any deconstructive analysis of a cultural structure will reveal its intrinsic rules as artificially constructed, the only choice left to the critic is to continue ‘using the system’ while recognising it as ‘unstable’. (Klages, 2006; 60-61) Similarly Gaga’s awareness of the culturally constructed nature of the ‘blonde pop icon’ does not lead her to a rejection of the identity – instead she has been famously quoted as arguing “Gaga is a lie” (Paglia quoting Gaga, 2010) – but instead to a subversive course of action that aims to restore the cultural autonomy of the icon.
Gaga’s empowerment of the ‘blonde pop icon’ as a cultural identity typically manipulated by light is outlined in ‘Artpop’ as Gaga sings, ‘The colour palette you choose could profit you’. (2013d; 1.51-1.59) Although light has been utilised by phallocentric media discourses to construct and manipulate the ‘blonde pop icon’ to function as a patriarchal ideologue, Gaga argues that to liberate herself she must be willing to once again step into the light. No longer restricted by a logocentrist perception of the world, the ‘blonde pop icon’ must now claim light as her own, just as she done with her own darkness, in order to liberate herself from the control of phallocentric photology. Whilst light has ‘traditionally [been] the province of the masculine, never the feminine’, (Goldman, 1998; 15) the ‘blonde pop icon’s newly-realised cultural potential empowers her to challenge the male-ownership of light, radically transforming it through cultural hybridisation into a uniquely feminine ‘perverse hue’. (2013d; 1.39-.143) Anti-phallogocentrism contests the cultural dualities inscribed by patriarchal discourses as the ‘blonde pop icon’ realises she need neither be simply light nor simply darkness; she is inherently both.
Gaga, Lady (2013d) ‘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.)
Gaga, Lady (2013e) ARTPOP press release statement. Originally posted to facebook.com/ladygaga, 12.07.13. URL: on.fb.me/134jaa5. (Accessed on 13.07.13)
Gaga, Lady (2013i) ‘Dope’, Track 13 from the album ARTPOP. Written by Stefani Germanotta, Paul Blair, Nick Monson and Dino Zisis. Produced by Rick Rubin and Lady Gaga. (California: Interscope Records.)
Goldman, Jane (1998) The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)
Klages, Mary (2006) Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. (London & New York: Continuum.)
Paglia, Camille (2010) ‘What’s sex go to do with it?’, originally published in The Sunday Times, 12.09.10. Electronic version cited: thetim.es/13dAvKQ. (Accessed on 04.08.13)