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Going Gaga over raunch dressed up as liberation

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Friday, 19 March 2010

US pop juggernaut Lady Gaga is bursting on to Australian stages this week. The much hyped tour began in Sydney on Wednesday with the first of 13 all but sold-out concerts.

The 24-year-old New Yorker, christened Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, has sold eight million albums. While she's here, we'll hear all about how she's avant-garde. Cutting edge. Risque. Experimental. Transgressive.

But Lady Gaga isn't pushing boundaries. She's a conformist. This is demonstrated in the nine-minute video clip for her new hit single, Telephone. It's revered by frenzied Gaga lovers across the globe as the next Thriller. Popular blogger Mia Freedman, recently lamenting the sexualisation of girls, "adores" it. It's filed under "cool clips" on her blog.


But the clip endorses and entrenches some of the worst stereotypes about women and sexuality. And littering the film with a range of brands suggests Gaga and the media moguls who run her empire are more about profit than art.

Her clip, viewed millions of times since last week's release, is set in a women's prison filled with prostitute-styled nasty girls. As one yells: "Gonna make you swim outta here in your own blood!" (how adorable), Gaga is thrown into a cell by two tough female guards and stripped. Naked, she throws herself against the cell bars. Her barely pixilated genitals and breasts are freeze-framed. Her boyfriend calls but she tells him she's "kinda busy right now", then cavorts with her sexy inmates in skimpy bra and knickers. Some argue this is the radical bit. She wants to be herself and have "fun with the girls" and not be bothered by a man.

This fun includes watching two jailbirds fight, one kicking in the other's head with her stilettos and punching her in the face as inmates cheer. It includes being submissive to a heavily tattooed butch lesbian (I hate to spoil the surprise, but she's in leather) in the prison yard, who touches Gaga up while pulling a mobile out of her pants. Cue lingering camera shot on Virgin.

If Gaga is so radically different, why is her clip one big advertisement? Virgin, Polaroid, LG, Diet Coke, some kind of fast-food something. Pro-Gaga cultural analysts respond that this is an ironic take on the power of capitalism and advertising. "Give us more irony!" say the corporations.

Our heroine is then bailed out (by Beyonce, no less) who tells her: "You've been a bad, bad girl, Gaga." Did you get the S & M reference? How daring.

They then go on a mass poisoning spree (Beyonce's breasts make a special appearance) before driving off Thelma and Louise style, although T and L didn't have "Pussy Wagon" sprayed across the back of their car, a yellow Chevrolet Silverado SS borrowed from Kill Bill: Volume 1. That's where all the cool Quentin Tarantino references come in. It really is one big Macy's parade mess of Midnight Express meets Kill Bill meets Thelma and Louise meets Zoo magazine meets Pulp Fiction meets Martha Stewart on crack. All these pop-culture references make it a masterpiece, apparently.


The clip is just one more thing catering to pornographic male fantasies, part of a broader cultural story being read by young people forming their understanding of relationships and sexuality.

Women, aka bitches, love being violent to other bitches. Girl-on-girl action, lesbian cliches. Nakedness. Voyerism. Exhibitionism. Objectification. It's a carnival of spread legs and pubes shaved to within an inch of the performer's life and inanimate objects as phallic symbols. Because, as we know, women can't help sucking things that have any distant resemblance to the male organ. And what's so counter-cultural about groin-emphasising costumes, shredded fishnet stockings and a leopard-skin body suit? That has never been done before?

This is not about being edgy. It's about playing to sex industry-inspired scripts. Fetishising sexual violence isn't all that imaginative. It's standard fare.

The film ends with the feminist symbol. Now this is audacious. In attaching this liberation symbol to her video, the film sends a deceptive message about what feminism is. Is not answering the phone to be seen as some radically defiant act? Does feminism mean violence is so democratised that women are free to hurt each other and men as well? Is baring your body the way you strike a blow for women? Is taking a ride on a disco stick a sign of true womanhood?

That's what some women think the film is about. One wrote in an online forum about the clip: "What's wrong with a girl having her boobs out in a confident and completely sexy, self-assured way?" And another wrote: "Gaga's clip shouts girl power with its nakedness."

Gaga is contributing to the distorted, one-dimensional cultural script about girls and women that is spread with zeal under a veneer of liberation. It not only constricts their freedom but takes the focus off what needs to happen for true freedom to be realised.

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First published in The Australian on March 18, 2010.

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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation ( Melinda blogs at

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