Born This Way
by Lady Gaga
"My mama told me when I was young / We are all born superstars / She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on / In the glass of her boudoir"
You were wondering, yes, but you didn't want to ask, because it involves saying the f-word. Without further ado, Shmoopers, we give you the million-dollar question: is Lady Gaga a feminist?Deep Thought
Lady Gaga puts out material that seems to center women's empowerment in its own campy way. But in these lines, it seems like Lady Gaga equates power with getting dressed up pretty in her mom's boudoir, a classic no-no from the perspective of 1970s feminism. Her defenders say any apparent claiming of traditional femininity out of Lady Gaga is all in the name of a clever farce: "For every bikini, for every batted eyelash, Gaga introduces intimations of the grotesque, the repulsive (…) She exposes femininity as a sham in all sorts of ways," wrote Kira Cochran for the Guardian in 2010. Her feminist detractors have pointed to her odd statements equating feminism with man-hating (far from the reality in 2011) and bemoaned the fact that her performances seem to equate sexual power with female liberation. Still, in 2010, Ms. Magazine, a mainstay of liberal feminism, insisted that Lady Gaga is "more a feminist than she admits."
That particular perspective is no longer valid. Lady Gaga has come out…as a feminist! Here's what she had to say about it: "Yes. Yes I am. I am a feminist. I reject wholeheartedly the way we are taught to perceive women. The beauty of women, how a woman should act or behave. Women are strong and fragile. Women are beautiful and ugly. We are soft spoken and loud, all at once. There is something mind-controlling about the way we're taught to view women. My work, both visually and musically, is a rejection of all those things. And most importantly a quest. It's exciting because all avant-garde clothing and music and lyrics that at one time were considered shocking or unacceptable are now trendy. Perhaps we can make women's rights trendy. Strength, feminism, security, the wisdom of the woman. Let's make that trendy."
"I'm beautiful in my way / 'Cause God makes no mistakes"
Gaga's argument sounds suspiciously like that of a much earlier—and frankly, much more pioneering—gay rights activist, the Reverend Carl Bean.Deep Thought
Lady Gaga has been accused of ripping off everyone from Madonna to Gloria Gaynor to the legendary Grace Jones. But what about Carl Bean, who put out a song on Motown Records in 1977 called "I Was Born This Way"? This upbeat tune goes exactly where Gaga goes in "Born This Way," but more than thirty years earlier and in the fact of more than one layer of prejudice and discrimination—Carl Bean is a black gay man. What's more, Carl Bean is now a reverend preaching the gospel of love and inclusivity. We don't really think Gaga copied Bean, per se—but the man makes the "God loves us all" argument with a grace and legitimacy that Gaga may not yet be able to claim.
"You're black, white, beige, Chola descent / You're Lebanese, you're Orient"
Enter the incomplete list of racial identities.Deep Thought
In a globalized era, it's easy to make a list of racial identities that is incomplete; after all, even within the United States, the old cliché of a racial "rainbow" can sound like a silly understatement of the country's cultural and racial diversity. And Gaga is far from the first to dare to make a haphazard list of racial identities in a pop song. Perhaps most importantly, anyone who tries to do racial inclusivity through pop music will forever be overshadowed by Michael Jackson's "Black or White", a timely dedication to interracial relationships that flew in the face of anyone still hanging onto a pre-Civil Rights era of segregation.
Well, Lady Gaga gave it a shot anyhow. Some people thought this line was clever—rhyming "descent" with "Orient" seemed like an acceptable way to fit a few more colors into the rainbow. But others questioned her choice of words. Black and white are generally accepted terms for some people's racial identities. Beige? Not so much. Lebanese is valid enough since, you know, there is a place called Lebanon where Lebanese people live. But "chola" and "Orient" were her two most questionable choices. Gaga was accused of being racist out in the blogosphere:
"Are Latinos supposed to be grateful that a white superstar, born of privilege, included a racist shout out to our community? Not all Latino ladies are 'cholas' in the barrio, some of them are teachers, writers, engineers and nurses and doctors," wrote Robert Paul Reyes, noting in his column that "chola" is a term for a Latina woman in a street gang. A blogger at Racalicious.com breaks down the "chola" question with a bit more historical context, but is still generally unimpressed with Gaga's appropriation of the term. And as for "Orient," the many seem to agree that it is at best an outdated term for Asians, and at worst a racist term reminiscent of the days of British colonization when the entire non-European world was referred to as "the Orient."
What do you think? Are Lady Gaga's seemingly inclusive intentions enough to make up for offending people with her choice of words? Is the Lady being clever, or lyrically lazy?
"Whether life's disabilities / Left you outcast, bullied, or teased"
Gaga takes her usual stance in plain English: she is one with the outcasts.Deep Thought
Unfortunately for her, not all the "outcasts" feel the same sense of unity with the self-appointed Mother Monster. In the weeks after "Born This Way" was released, there was talk about a backlash against all things Gaga, particularly from some in the LGBT communities she is often perceived as representing. "The heavy-handed way that the song assumed stewardship of an entire portion of humanity began to breed real resentment, from the forums to the dancefloor to the word on the street," wrote a blogger for the Guardian.
Interestingly, Gaga also made some missteps with the disability community after she went on air calling those who think she ripped off "Born This Way" from Madonna "retarded." Her public use of this derogatory term for people with developmental disabilities—and her subsequent apology—put her in a camp with an unlikely crew that also includes comedian Sarah Silverman, conservative rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh, and Chicago mayor/Barack Obama associate Rahm Emmanuel.