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Lady Gaga’s Lesbian Phallus

How Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s latest video performs the lesbian phallus as posited by queer theorist Judith Butler.

By Tavia Nyong’o

Is post-structuralist feminism secretly taking over the world through pop culture? Is Judith Butler pulling the strings of a nation’s impressionable youth through film and video?

Several signs point in that direction. First, Columbia-trained film semiotician Kathryn Bigelow clinches the Oscar for best director, the first woman to do so. And now, hot on Bigelow’s heels comes NYU’s own performance art star, Lady Gaga, who just released her own cinematic big splash, an extended video to her 6th straight #1 pop single, Telephone.

Click here to watch the video.

Replete with references to films like Caged Heat, Kill Bill, Thelma and Louise, and heaped with nods to golden age sexploitation from Russ Meyer flics to Betty Page pin ups to busty comic book heroines like Wonder Woman (H/T Lisa Duggan and Sam Icklow for IDing some of these for me), Telephone is a high femme pastiche of mini-epic proportions.

The plot is straightforward: thrown into “prison for bitches,” Gaga is bailed out by co-star Beyoncé (in a telling reversal of the usual hierarchy between white and black), and the two then set of on a mission of vengeance against Beyoncé’s boorish beau, played by male model/singer/actor Tyrese. But this bare summary belies the profusion of signifiers strewn across the surfaces of this visual feast of a video. To attempt to account for them all (crowdsource project anyone?) would leave any critic floundering on the shoals of interpretation. So I’ll just focus on one, ahem, prime signifier: Lady Gaga’s penis.

At the start of the video, Gaga is thrown into her cell by two butch female guards, who yank off her haute couture prison stripes before locking the gates. As they depart, Gaga climbs the bars clad only in fishnets, flashing the camera with a full frontal crotch-shot (blurred). Off camera, one guard remarks to the other (in voices so deep I at first took them to be non-diegetic male commentary) “I told you she didn’t have a penis.” “Too bad,” comes the reply.

I first encountered the myth of Lady Gaga’s penis this past January, after a talk I had given on queer appropriations of the ‘freakish’ and/or intersexed body. As usual, I, the vaunted pop culture expert, was caught unawares by the latest rumor making the rounds on the postmodern grapevine. Initially I laughed it off, as I had laughed off Lady Gaga herself, as a red herring. But seeing how Gaga (and her director Jonas Åkerlund) integrate this rumor into Telephone made me whether the joke was in fact on me.

I had thought myself too smart for Gaga’s tricks, all of which I had seen before. Her videos were simply a series of disconnected fashion shoots set to music. Her voice was thin at best, her dance chops best left unmentioned. The secret of Lady Gaga was that there was no secret: when she dressed in red latex to meet the Queen of England, it was just two empresses wearing no clothes.

But something clicked while watching Telephone, where I was caught up in a narrative drawn neither from Quentin Tarantino nor Ridley Scott, but rather from Judith Butler’s essay “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imagination.” One of the classic outrages of queer theory (back when it was bad-ass), Butler’s conceptual innovation of a “lesbian phallus” was her clever way of deconstructing the masculinist premises of psychoanalysis, in particular, the unconscious equation between the phallus as symbol and the penis as body part. Part of the outrage behind Butler’s idea was her insistence that the lesbian phallus didn’t really exist: like every other phallus, the lesbian phallus inevitably disappoints our expectations. And yet, as Lady Gaga ingeniously shows, the way in which it disappoints can subvert the morphological imagination of the dominant heterosexual order, by upsetting the gender (and racial) hierarchy that are still very much with us.

In classic psychoanalysis the phallus stands for a phantasmatic object the man believes he has and that he believes the woman is. The cliched sexist image of a bikini clad blonde draped on the hood of a muscle car is the classic phallic fantasy: both car and women are seen as possessions of the male, prime symbols for (representations of) the phallus whereby, through possession, the man masters the symbolic order.

This belief is of course pure fiction. Neither the possession of fast cars nor of beautiful women endows any man or woman with mastery over the symbolic order. Furthermore, the phallus can never be securely possessed, its potential absence (based on its actual inexistence) is the source of a perpetual anxiety.

So far, so Freud. But Butler asked why, if the phallus doesn’t exist, is it nonetheless associated with the male penis, with male-bodiedness? She concludes that this association is itself a symptom of male anxiety: Freud reacts to the spooky conclusions of his own theory by backtracking and remapping the phallus back onto male morphology. Having just demonstrated how the visual field inevitably fails our fantasmatic investments in it, he reinvests.

It is at this deconstructive moment that Butler introduces (I am tempted to say inserts) the lesbian phallus. Her objective is not to discover a lesbian body repressed by Freud’s theory, but to parody the belief that possession of the phallus can in any way stabilize the visual field. As Jordana Rosenberg put it in her smart essay, “Butler’s ‘Lesbian Phallus’“:

For the more we want to see, the more the lesbian phallus becomes a joke at the expense of the visual field altogether—a seductive image through the suggestion of which the visual itself is lampooned.

Which brings us around to the bawdy gesture Lady Gaga makes in response to the aggressive rumors circulated at her expense. To wit: “Have you heard that Lady GaGa is actually a man?” The aggressiveness of such a joke told against a woman lies in the consequence of a female-bodied person covertly possessing a penis in a sexist culture. This would make her neither a male bearer of a phallus nor a female embodiment of the phallus. Rather it makes her a joke, a failure in the symbolic order of gender.

With beguiling vulgarity Gaga responds to this aggression by flashing her blurred genitalia, which could easily be misread as a flaunting of the natural, biological integrity of her body, but is actually quite the opposite. For in rendering the question of her penis simultaneously undecideable (because we still don’t see it) and moot (because now that she is in on the joke too she spoils it), Gaga takes that ostensible “failed” body between normative heterosexual male and female, and gifts it with the absent presence of a lesbian phallus.

To understand how this intervenes within contemporary pop culture we should add a Zizekian twist to Butler’s positing of the lesbian phallus and say that the lesbian phallus does not simply parody what doesn’t exist (the phallus): it also represents the difference between the way things like the phallus seem to us (in fantasy) and the way they really seem to us (in a reality that is only supportable, only bearable, when shot through with fantasies). To get at this almost imperceptible distinction Zizek frequently retells a Freudian joke that we can adapt for our purposes here. We could ask of Lady Gaga: Why are you showing us you don’t have the phallus when you really don’t have a phallus? Why are you telling us the truth “as if” it were a deception?

The answer to this question is that the almost imperceptible difference between truth and deception is internal to appearance itself — as is marked in the visual field of Telephone by the blur over Lady Gaga’s crotch that interrupts the presentation of genital “proof.” By parodying the absence of the phallus, Lady Gaga dispenses with the demand of compulsory heterosexuality, refusing to be a phallic symbol for male fantasy even as she shrugs off the desire to have it.

I believe it is this critical move that allows the video to go on to re-imagine the otherwise stale and possibly offensive scenarios it draws upon. It is not that Lady Gaga is “post-feminist” and therefore able to participate in her own objectification without complaint. It is that she, as a proper deconstructive feminist, shows up the desire for the phallus by strewing phallic symbols promiscuously and inconsistent across the visual field in a manner that disallows our investing them with their usual power as fetishes.

For instance, when Beyoncé and Gaga drive off in their “Pussy Wagon”, purloined from Quentin Tarantino’s wet dream, they do something more than subversive claim the phallus for their lesbionic love. They reveal that there is no phallus, not even a lesbian one. There is no  master signifier ordering the structure of either their cinematic narrative or the heterosexual matrix in which it is ostensibly embedded.

The lesbian phallus thus works precisely where it is not the distinction between appearance and reality that must be clarified (as would happen if Lady Gaga were to go on Oprah, angrily or tearfully insisting that she is really, integrally a woman … or man) but the difference within appearance that needs to be manifested.

This is why my initial complaint that Lady Gaga has nothing “deep” to say, that she is pure surface effect, was comically beside the point. In subjecting the appeal of deep, penetrating meanings to such scouring satire, (here we can contrast her with the overly self-serious James Franco, ponderously attempting pseudo-Brechtian alienation effects as a way to claim importance as an artiste) Lady Gaga wields the lesbian phallus to thrilling effect.

P.S. I have more to say about how this can all be pushed further into an analysis of the black/white dynamics that are key to this performance of the lesbian phallus. But I will save that for a subsequent post.

By Tav

Free radical, philosophical dilletante, music completist.

43 replies on “Lady Gaga’s Lesbian Phallus”

Excellent post! I’ve thought a bit about the fascination with Gaga’s gender (written some about it here: http://kenyonreview.org/blog/?p=7935) but I love how you bring in Butler. I just wanted to point out that Gaga foreshadows this “exposure” of her genitals (and, I think in your reading, her construction of the lesbian phallus) in the “Bad Romance” video. She’s standing in front of a mirror and lifts her skirt for a split second, but the camera cuts to a closeup, making it impossible to see what’s “revealed.” The mirror is important, too, given her concern with what it means to be a constructed image of stardom, a reflection of the desire of her fans. I look forward to reading your analysis of the racial dynamics!

Love the article, and the picture is adorable! I think there is a lot to be said about just how nervous Gaga makes ostensibly straight, homophobic guys–the comments on her YouTube videos are rife with trolls calling her an ugly whore, etc. It all reminds me of Carol Queen’s essay about how Madonna used to inspire similar nervousness in ‘phobic males–Gaga is showing young Americans that there are different ways to “do” gender, and they certainly are interested!

There is a lot of intellectual snobbery going on regarding Telephone at the moment, particularly the people who say ‘I haven’t watched it but..’
Yeah, blah. If you haven’t watched it then how could you possibly have an informed opinion. One particularly ranty guy on a forum *missed* the ‘I’m going to be a very very bad girl’ from another. How could you not know what that! It was such a pivotal point of the clip, it was Beyonce!
Personally this is the clip that has sold me to Gaga for life!

All of this is complicated, however, by the fact that Gaga has, in fact, publicly denounced rumours about her alleged intersexuality. In an interview with Barbara Walters, no less. She has clarified the distinction between appearance and reality by claiming that she’s not “a man.” So, my question, is what this means for viewers who have that knowledge and then see her blurred genitalia? Furthermore, how is this censorship and ambiguousness complicated by her public clarification?

I mean, you got some big words there.

I don’t know whats more ridiculous- Lady Gaga, or the absurdity of trying to intellectualize her complete bullshit.

Seems to me that you, Tavia, are reapplying the phallus back onto crotches just as youre trying to pull them apart, which is odd since this video gives us many many phallusi (heh) elsewhere, ie the pussy wagon that spans several scenes. Sure it came from Tarantino’s wet dream but its Gaga’s penis car now.

That’s precisely my point. Or rather, that precisely misses my point! The lesbian phallus is a playful ruse, an in-joke that works to deprive both “Lady Gaga” and her video as a whole of a prime signifier that would lock it into a heterosexual sexploitation narrative. So its absence is of course related to the profusion of other signifiers in the video, as you say. But, as Jack Halberstam points out, all those signifiers can no longer be read as “phallic symbols.” Not even the Pussy Wagon!

Love your argument…but…..it betrays how much you have invested in genitals-as-phallis, that it should pivot the video’s universe. I have no problem leaving the penis behind in these phallic hunting missions, which is all they’ve done, like Tarantino.  An in-joke yes, but the joke is that she flashed us on large screen hi-def, throwing our anxiety in our faces, as she does.  Pussy wagon seems alive and well, and fully loaded. Now Gaga in an 87 Tempo… I’m with you, it’s a new narrative, and the subversion gains traction. But in the p’dub, partying? No dice! Just delight in the video’s phallic pleasures and let that poor penis go already, we all have!           

How about we move from the scrotal area to the scopic level? Penis — corporeal, symbolic, Freudian, lesbian, or Butlerian — aside, the question that emerged for me in that pivotal scene was, who/what are the power institutions that operate as the conditions of possibility for the blurring of the genitalia on screen? In other words, had there been no censorship of exposed bodily parts, how would the argument of your article be different?
Gaga is operating not only under the scrutiny of the marketable heterosexual gaze, but also within the ideological and political parameters that this market arbitrates. She’s an icon, we can all be enthralled by her, but there’s nothing transgressive, queer, radical about this — and for stirring this intellectual debate, she’s admirable, but her performance is merely articulating a position of conventionality passing as fringe.

These are scattered thoughts, but I was really interested in your argument, Tavia, and I wanted respond somehow.

Nice essay! But one thing I would like to point is that when mainstream folks ask “is Lady Gaga really a man” they are most likely asking ‘is Lady Gaga a transwoman’. “Really a man” means “really male-assigned” and not caring what the current gender identification is. I don’t think the mainstream critics are asking whether or not Lady Gaga is a man in a dress, with a legal and social male gender, but rather a transwoman who has not undergone SRS.

I think this is important b/c I also disagree with your reading of the prison guard who says that it’s “too bad” she doesn’t have a dick. Because one could posit that woman as trans as well, and she then might actually be disappointed that Lady Gaga isn’t trans like she is. The prison guard’s voice is non-traditionally female, and if one liked, could be read as trans.

Perhaps this is a stretch. But I like the idea of inserting transwomen (especially those with bodies who have not undergone SRS) into the conversations about the lesbian phallus. Inscribed on the crotch or not, putting more transwoman identity into this reading I think might be at least an interesting take.

To note, this blog was past on to me by a performance artist friend, and I’ve now put it in my bookmarks to stay abreast on. Ahem.

From your lips to Gaga’s ears! Seriously, I like this response, but I think you might be assigning too much sociocultural legibility to the question “Is lady gaga a man?” (or really, the truncated google search “lady gaga man”). If those asking this question really knew enough about sex and gender to know that they were asking about “a transwoman who has not yet undergone SRS” — as opposed to just having a hazy conviction that they can stabilize the semiotic chaos Gaga sets off by assigning her a phantasmic phallus as I argued — then they would most likely have a far more progressive understanding of these matters than they in fact do. But your idea about the deep-voiced guard being trans: that makes a lot of sense to me, and a better place to locate transwoman solidarity in the video. Thanks!

[…] The new video for Telephone was banned on MTV for being ‘too provocative’. Can there really be such a thing as being ‘too provocative’? Is this video actually controversial or totally fashionable and of the moment? So she flashes her crotch and is taken advantage of by a butch in prison. So what. Haven’t we seen this all before on a certain Ozzie prime time tv drama about women in jail or how about the obvious references to some cult movie classics? She is a copier. She steals. Like all pop culture, it takes, re hashes, BRANDS and consumes fringe culture. But like they say, good artists copy, great artists steal. […]

Excellent post Tavia. And Tamiko, to push your comment a bit further, the mirror is significant on another, psychoanalytic, level as well. It conjures Lacan’s revelation (Mirror Phase) that the recognition of a whole, intact body in the mirror is in fact a misrecognition.

Actually, in Tarantino’s so-called ‘wet dream’ the Pussy Wagon belongs to a villain named Buck. Buck is a hospital worker who attempts to take advantage of Uma Thurman while she is in a coma. Buck is eventually murdered by her. Tarantino is not glorifying with his Pussy Wagon rather he is villifying a rapist. Your implication is otherwise. In the Telephone video Gaga is re-appropriating the vehicle in more ways than one.

After, of course, Beatrix Kiddo appropriated it first. 🙂 And it still cracks me up that she re-appropriates the Pussy Wagon (and, by extension, her own body, after the abuse she suffered in her coma) before going on her revenge mission. Hell hath no fury, etc etc etc.

Dear Tavia,

My colleague and I very recently started a critical journal about Lady Gaga called Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga. You can see the journal in it’s current (nascent) manifestation at http://www.gagajournal.blogspot.com. We are only publishing high-quality works, with the goal of eventually publishing a book (we already have a publisher interested in the project).

We’d definitely be interested in running a revised and expanded version of your Gaga articles there, or any new critical works about Gaga, if you are interested in submitting. Please contact us at gagajournal.blogspot.com if you are.

Yours,
Meghan

I think the article is interesting, but you’re reading way too much into LG and her video as well as deconstructing a lot that isn’t there.

If we think about the way LG and Beyonce responds in real-life interviews and such, they’re not nearly so transgressive and deep as these blogs imply. Beyonce’s lyrics have never been even slightly feminist–quite clearly the opposite actually (look at “Upgrade You”) and LG without the crazy clothes, persona, and videos, or catchy beats, has very little to say about anything in general.

The “Telephone” video is simple to me: Two straight women using the “hot-lesbian fantasy” to solicit male viewership and their adulating young female counterparts. The guards in the beginning of the video simply serve to assure everyone that THESE are transgendereds, not her, and the crotch flashing with the guard’s comment is a silly, childish way (IMO) to show everyone that she’s really a woman and squash the rumors out there. Its really nothing more than that. What would have been really provocative was to leave it a mystery, or NOT use her thin nakedness to arouse males, or a host of other things. Marilyn Manson actually truly went against the social order in a video (by wearing breasts!) and didn’t get nearly the acclaim LG is receiving.

I don’t get why feminist and queer advocates are draping so much deep theory onto her videos–she’s poppy, she’s very commercial and corporate. One could honestly do with to any video after the fact–I could also do a deep reading of a Lil Wayne video with the right theoretical tools but I strongly doubt that these thoughts are floating around in the heads of mainstream producers and artists. And if MTV banned her video I’m sure it was part of the plan of promoting it as racy and avant garde, when it really is not. It uses the typical heterosexual male perspective the entire video, sexually tantalizes rather than intellectually stimulates. LG badly wants to be that male fantasy, but is at the same time co-opting what seems to be random scenes, storylines, and outfits to appear new and different.

Plenty of female artists are now using lesbianism simply for male pleasure (without actually being lesbian or stating that they are bi–although usually remotely such) and over-using “questionable” sexuality, albeit raunchy, racy, thought-provoking sexuality, to sell records. We’ve seen this formula done a thousand times. So why don’t we just see it for what it is in Lady Gaga?

Let’s see the deep reading of Lil Wayne, then – not saying it can’t be done, but there’s a reason these themes are being pulled out of LG’s post-modern pop and not mainstream rap.

Also, Lady Gaga IS bisexual, and I think you confuse *her* *bisexual female* gaze for a male heterosexual gaze. (See her admission that she’s bisexual and has sex with women here: http://www.nme.com/news/daily-gossip/48832 or just Google “Lady Gaga bisexual”). This is evident in her previous performances. For example, the lyrics to Poker Face gender the object of Gaga’s affection as both masculine and feminine – “He’s got me like nobody” is changed to “She’s got me like nobody” depending on the verse. I wouldn’t be so quick to judge her bisexuality as merely commercial or hetero-normative, because frankly, every bisexual I know has been disingenuously accused of having those motivations.

You’re right that nothing about LG is pure revolutionary radicalism. But isn’t that largely the point of postmodern theory, that the revolution isn’t coming anymore (or at least, that it will only come with a universal and impossible rejection a la Zizek) and that our job is now to critique and deconstruct? She’s a pop star, so I don’t think we should expect her to be versed in high theory. She plays with images, and she does it brilliantly. But that doesn’t mean she’s shallow – on the contrary, I think it means she is genuinely and intuitively tuned in to the beat of the postmodern drum.

Lady Gaga has caught the eyes of the queer and intellectual communities because she’s creative and unconventional in ways that can be easily read as queer. I’m not saying it’s all intentional – I doubt Gaga has read Zizek, much less Butler. But I don’t think that reading is inconsistent with her attempt, either, given that she actively tries to shake up conventional representations while declaring that she’s a feminist and a queer. She gives us a lot of images and ideas to play with, and that is certainly not accidental, even if she could not have forseen the directions her interpreters decided to go.

Besides, who cares if she is personally commercially successful? The author is dead, yo. Pay attention to the art, not the artist. (Except when the two are one and the same, as is often the case with Gaga – yet another reason to love her!)

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