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Is Lady Gaga a Contemporary Feminist Icon?

The pop world cause celebre, Lady Gaga, is perhaps one of the most successful artists of our generation. Having sold over fifteen million albums worldwide - coupled with around 369 awards and nominations to her name - the upper-middle-class girl from Manhattan has had tremendous start to what is sure to be a long and prosperous music career. As a result to Gaga's international renown, many feminist critics have become interested in Stefani Germanotta (Gaga's birth name) as a powerful woman within contemporary popular culture.

After reviewing the plethora of articles, blogs and journals that concentrate upon Gaga as a feminist icon, there is seemingly no overall consensus amongst those writing upon the subject. The music sensation herself claimed that she is a "representative of sexually strong women who speak their minds."

However, within an earlier interview, Gaga proclaimed that "I'm not a feminist - I hail men. I love men." These two contradictory statements typify Gaga's enigmatic, postmodern celebrity persona. Under such conditions, labelling Lady Gaga a feminist icon is invariably going to be problematic.

But according to the Guardian writer and columnist, Kira Cochren, Lady Gaga does qualify as a positive role model for young women. This is because throughout her prolific career, Gaga has debunked the idea of 'gender essentialism'. This philosophy maintains that men and women are fundamentally divergent - biologically, psychologically and sociologically. However, for many third wave feminists (i.e. Judith Butler), gender is nothing more than a social construct whereby males and females are socialised to conventionally think in masculine or feminine ways. Under these circumstances, gender-based behaviour is not biologically determined, but invariably "performative." Through Lady Gaga's manifestly androgynous stage personality, her existence within the mainstream furthers the notion that femininity does not have to be intrinsic to a female's identity. For Cochren, constantly within interviews, performances and public outings, Lady Gaga blurs the essentialist distinctions between men and women, through elaborate transsexual costumes and patent references to bisexuality.

Kira Cochren - coming from the postmodern feminist tradition - certainly does present a compelling argument in which endorses the viewpoint that Lady Gaga is a contemporary feminist icon. But, for many other commentators upon the subject, the female artist actually reinforces patriarchy through consciously allowing herself to be sexual objectified, based upon the condition that she herself will eventually benefit from the situation. Coming from a perspective consistent with the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, Lady Gaga is certainly guilty of this anti-feminist change. For Bourdieu, patriarchal social conditions exist as they do today partly because powerful women within the labour market utilise their bodies in ways that render them suitable objects for the 'male gaze'. Rather than oppose institutional sexism, such women are socially, politically and economically rewarded for conforming to the unspoken rules laden within masculine cultural environments. This may be beneficial for the individual in question, but, on structural level, they actually become complicit in the ongoing cultural reinforcement of patriarchy.

Coming from this perspective, Lady Gaga is not an exemplary figure when it comes to resisting this rather tacit form of gender oppression. Although the pop star herself has often stated that she is intellectually against the female body being seen as an object, Lady Gaga nevertheless encourages the idea inadvertently through her sexualised lyrics, performances and airbrushed photographic images within magazines. These branded, well thought out features of Lady Gaga's career, propagate the idea that within a masculine social world, women must firstly understand the sexually-biased 'rules of the game', and then use their bodies accordingly to advance their positioning within cultural and economic fields. Unfortunately however, this does nothing to better the state of affairs in which females find themselves in less auspicious circumstances than that of males.

Germaine Greer recently stated that Cheryl Cole (X-Factor judge) and Katie Price (supermodel) are "too thin" to be modern day feminist role models. It seems Lady Gaga has succumbed to a similar kind of fate; that is, their bodies, and how they are presented, stands incongruous to the 'true' principles of feminism. In sharp contrast to this perspective, coming from a postmodern point of view, women like Gaga, Cole and Price can be heralded as feminists because of their rich embodiment of 'girl power'. These 'sexually strong females' (to use Lady Gaga's turn of phrase) represent success; they give hope to all aspiring young women that they too can emulate similar kinds of achievements within their respective social worlds. The disparity between these two perspectives that claim Lady Gaga to be, or not be a feminist, leaves one feeling somewhat ambivalent upon the subject. Being conditioned to think a la male, it is very difficult for me personally to ascertain Gaga's feminist iconic status.

Yet, whilst being sympathetic towards those labelling Gaga a strong role model for young women, on a sociological level, I believe that Lady Gaga does not provide real-world solutions in which to better the positioning of women. The pop star's circumstances are exceptional. She was born into affluence; educated privately; and managed to use her voice, body and charisma to procure international stardom. Unfortunately, most young girls are not blessed with these remarkable credentials. Therefore, trying to emulate the examples set by the music phenomenon is like chasing a poisoned chalice. Moreover, the fact that Lady Gaga is celebrated as a highly sexual person promulgates the idea that women are justifiably to be seen as objects-in-themselves (as opposed to object-for-themselves). Lady Gaga cannot be seen as a contemporary feminist icon. She seemingly endorses the idea that women can use their bodies to reap the economic and social benefits. But sexist 'male-stream' perspectives should not be sated in order to better the positioning of one woman; rather, they should be challenged and eradicated in order to better the positioning of all women. Only under these circumstances will the cultural framework of patriarchy (or, misogyny) become dismantled.

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