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.