So, Halloween is upon us once again. Or, as I like to call it, "The Night of a Thousand Gagas."
You guys! SO MANY PEOPLE are going to be Lady Gaga! You can find tips on how to be the Gaga of your choice; you can design your own Gaga; a close friend of mine is getting into the spirit by manufacturing multiple Gaga costumes for a Gaga-themed party.
The appeal of the Gaga costume is undeniable. For one thing, it is easy. It goes (a) blond wig, (b) sunglasses, (c) the most absurd thing you can think of. Do you have a leather jacket? Would you consider wearing it with a swimsuit? Lady Gaga sure would! BLAM, Halloween costume achieved. But then, there's another factor: the fact that the entire "Lady Gaga" concept is, basically, a Halloween costume already. Gaga just wears it all year round.
I have devoted many a word, in She Pop, to Gaga. But, for some reason, Halloween gets at the very center of her appeal: the fact that she's just playing dress-up, and knows it. People like to rag on her for being "pretentious" (I will admit, it was more fun to think of her as a "performance artist" before she'd called herself one approximately 1,000,000 times). But, despite her avowed self-seriousness and tendency to overblown rhetoric (her latest tour is apparently going to be "a truly artistic experience that is going to take the form of the greatest post-apocalyptic house party that you've ever been to," which, OK, I hope there will be some catchy tunes also) the truest, purest thing about her appeal is her willingness to just treat her body and persona as a canvas, and to do the oddest things with them that she can imagine.
It's tempting to compare Gaga to Madonna (Madonna, for example, seems fond of doing it) because of their similar affinity for roleplay and self-dramatization. But Madonna's roles, although taken on for a purpose, always seemed more fundamentally serious; she played them straight. If she was Marilyn Monroe, then by God, she looked like Marilyn. If she was a vaguely mystical lady who'd found spiritual salvation through (appropriating) Indian culture and/or William Orbit, then she played the part to the hilt. If she was in blackface, then... ew, wow, wait. Madonna did BLACKFACE? RECENTLY? Yikes.
Anyway! Gaga seems different than Madonna, not only because she hasn't done any blackface that we know of, but also because, though they share a commitment to slipping in and out of different personas, hers never seem quite so crushingly serious. Even her "performance artist" schtick has a note of willful absurdity and playfulness to it. The woman is giving away a lock of her hair with special editions of her album; you can't do that with a straight face.
Women have always been roped into performing other people's fantasies. So have pop stars. What seemed liberating about Madonna, once upon a time, was how easily she slipped into and out of roles, and how she maintained her power no matter what role she found herself in. And, in that sense, she was very much of her time. She came along at a point in feminist history when the quest for purity - the call to divest yourself of all gendered roles, of anything vaguely resembling patriarchal conditioning - had not only caused some serious schisms between women committed to the movement (the radfem v. sex-positive battles being the most obvious example), but had also become exhausting to women who were less involved in feminist organizing, but had nevertheless considered themselves feminist and had seen their lives change as a result of feminist progress. People were realizing that it might not be possible to embody ultimate purity, or to entirely escape the patriarchal paradigm, no matter what attitudes they took toward bras or body hair or lipstick; furthermore, enough progress had been made that some women were genuinely able to consider the lipstick again, not just because it was expected of them (though it was and is expected, albeit to a lesser degree than it once was) but because it looked like fun. Madonna, who was able to imitate pre-feminist Marilyn whilst emanating a distinctly feminist-era defiance, was in some ways a reflection of a time when women had made enough progress to start toying around with the old fantasies in a new way.
That time is not now, however. The whole Paglia "sex is power" equation lost its luster for many feminists as soon as we saw that, though being "sexy" did in fact give you some social advantages, it never did make you quite as powerful as the men - it still made you reliant upon male approval for whatever power you had, for one, and for another the "power" you got was always subject to being undermined or stripped from you the second someone took it into his head to call you a slut. We still had the consciousness that all the many feminine roles we were asked to choose from were precisely that: roles, acting, artifice, which had no bearing on how smart or strong or capable we actually were. And we still knew that we had the option of toying around with those roles. But the belief that somehow playing the right combination of roles in the right order would save us was pretty well over.
Enter Gaga: the woman of a thousand increasingly weird faces, all of which she happily admits to creating for herself, and none of which are remotely possible to take seriously. The weirder they get - the weirder she gets - the more she seems to remind us that we are all, ultimately, self-created. And she seems to point to a new way of approaching those roles - not with Madonna's chameleon slippage from persona to persona, but by exaggerating them to the point of blatant parody. She's a breath of fresh air because we're used to pop stars who look ridiculous - or celebrities who look ridiculous, or ridiculous feminine "ideals" and roles in general - but we're not used to people who so clearly know they're being ridiculous even as they're doing it, and for whom the goal is taking the inherent absurdity of being a "sex symbol" or an "icon" or any sort of ideal to a new level of goofiness. OK, we may be trapped in this; we may never be able to fully see outside of culture; we may always be presented with a selection of extremely limited feminine roles from which to choose, Lady Gaga's persona seems to be saying. But do we really have to take them so freaking seriously? Look: I am basically wearing a gyroscope right now. I defy you to figure out this nonsense.
And, for this precise reason, I am entirely in favor of the Lady Gaga Halloween costume epidemic. "Lady Gaga" just means dress-up; it's a persona that consistently points to its own fakeness. Underneath it, she could be anybody. And I'd even say - at the risk of Taking It Too Seriously, which I am known to do - it's a statement on the silliness and limitations of the roles we all take on every day. So, given that Lady Gaga could be anyone, is it any wonder that so many people are - for a night, at least - going to be her?