Donna Haraway published A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century in 1985 and her revolutionary form of socialist-feminism still has vast implications today. In popular music and arguably in all cultural arenas, it is Lady Gaga who most exemplifies Haraway’s “cyborg.” In his 2012 book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, J. Jack Halberstam uses the worlds created by the Haus of Gaga[1] as a signifier for what he terms “the end of normal.” While the book does not deal a whole lot in the visual analysis of Lady Gaga’s productions, Halberstam argues that Lady Gaga’s place in the cultural sphere reflects wider shifts in cultural norms. Her place is illustrative of the contemporary moment, yet at the same time her work continues to exist right on the edge of acceptable, constantly moving the boundary of what is “mainstream”. In this essay, I will explore the ways Lady Gaga epitomizes Haraway’s cyborg and demonstrate the ways she reflects wider political potential in shifting norms as discussed by both Haraway and Halberstam.

"American Music Awards 2013: All the red carpet looks from the AMAs: Lady Gaga”, Daily News.

"American Music Awards 2013: All the red carpet looks from the AMAs: Lady Gaga”, Daily News.

Haraway begins her Manifesto by defining the cyborg as existing both within lived reality as well as in fiction. Lived reality, as post-structuralism teaches us, is created through constructed systems that make up society. In this sense, the cyborg is a creature of a real experience, but understands that the origins of this reality are fictitious fabrications that have historically been shaped by white men. Haraway is especially concerned with the construction of a totalizing “women’s experience” that dictates what is acceptable for women in society. The cyborg contributes to the breakdown of these systems by crossing boundaries that have traditionally functioned to protect normativity. Lady Gaga is known for her outlandish costuming and stage designs. She often appears on the red carpet or traveling to her next concert site in these fashions, transposing the bizarre onto the everyday and the “normal.” Lady Gaga literally brings fiction into lived reality highlighting the fabrication of everyone’s dress and actions as they move through their daily lives. In 2013, Lady Gaga was carried down the red carpet of the American Music Awards on a mechanical white horse operated by two men. The costuming has many cultural references: From the fairytale white horse to Star Wars’ storm troopers and Princess Leia to the more contemporary princess heroine, Game of Thrones’ Khaleesi. The references bounce across popular culture and from the far future to the distant past. Here Lady Gaga brings the fictions from our collective memory into the “real.”

Telephone Featuring Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, January 28, 2010.

Telephone Featuring Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, January 28, 2010.

That Don’t Impress Me Much, Shania Twain, directed by Paul Boyd, December 2, 1998.

That Don’t Impress Me Much, Shania Twain, directed by Paul Boyd, December 2, 1998.

The second characteristic of the cyborg is that it is a hybridization of human and animal. Haraway points out that in the cyborg generation medicine has made it possible for the human body to function with animal organ transplants. This is also the generation of extending political rights, particularly the right to humane treatment, to animals. We are a species obsessed with personifying other organisms (both inanimate and animate). Extending Haraway’s claim, it is not uncommon for celebrities, or for that matter most young women on Halloween, to dress as bunnies, kittens, or other animals in an attempt to sexualize themselves. Lady Gaga confuses this familiar costuming in her 2010 video for Telephone. At the end of the video Lady Gaga stands dressed in a leopard-print body suit in front of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Pussywagon in the American west desert. The imagery is ripe with appropriation, but here I am specifically interested in the juxtaposition between Lady Gaga’s feline fashion and Shania Twain’s similar get up from her own That Don’t Impress Me Much (1998). Here Twain uses the skin of a leopard to suggest exoticism while her feminine-coded body is exposed. The coupling between human and animal is superficial, cosmetic. Lady Gaga has, like in so many of her appropriations, queered Twain’s iconic look. Although Lady Gaga’s body is also on display, the driver’s hat covers her hair (an asset that for Twain signals femininity). The result is slightly more androgynous. The real transformation, the sub-epidermal alteration, however, is in the boning that gives Lady Gaga a non-human ribcage. Her sexualized position becomes confused in a way that potentially produces bestial desire, a taboo in western heterosexuality. In this way Lady Gaga has altered the “normal” or repeated representations of women in popular music.

Born This Way, Nick Knight, Haus of Gaga, April 16, 2011.

Born This Way, Nick Knight, Haus of Gaga, April 16, 2011.

 The cyborg is also a fusion of organism (both animal and human) and machine. The cover of Lady Gaga’s 2011 album Born This Way, designed by Haus of Gaga artist Nick Knight, shows Lady Gaga photoshopped as three-quarters motorcycle. Again the image conjures many cultural references from both queer sub-cultures and the heterosexual mainstream. This image could be interpreted as in conversation with “Dykes on Bikes.” From the beginning of her career Lady Gaga has publically identified herself as bisexual. In 2009, Lady Gaga told Barbara Walters that her song Poker Face, specifically the lyric, “I’m not bluffin’ with my muffin,” was about the star’s bisexuality.[2] In 2013, she again reasserted her sexuality during an interview at Berghain Club in Berlin.[3] In the video for Telephone featuring Beyoncé (2010), Lady Gaga and Beyoncé play a Thelma and Louise inspired duo, suggesting their lesbian relationship.[4]  This is not the first time Lady Gaga has projected an image of herself as queer. The double “muff”-lers protrude from what would be Lady Gaga’s pelvic region, recalling feminist works that question the power of the phallus, like Lynda Benglis’ Artforum advertisement. The motorcycle, however, also has obvious cultural references to male biker gangs. From the Mulveyian perspective, the Transformer-inspired collage doesn’t negate the way we generally think of male, heterosexual desires and interests, but confuses the sexual compulsion of the viewer towards bikes and chicks into a single object, once again queering our relationship and access to Lady Gaga’s body.

Artforum Advertisement, Lynda Benglis, 1974, Daily Serving.

Artforum Advertisement, Lynda Benglis, 1974, Daily Serving.

            Haraway makes a fourth distinction of the cyborg, noting that the boundary between physical and non-physical is permeable. Haraway’s notion of the non-physical can also be explained through visibility; that is to say we cannot even see the machines and computers we are dependent on because technology has become so microscopic. Lady Gaga owes much of her success as an international pop star to the invisible web of the Internet. Having reigned as the most followed Twitter handle, the most liked Facebook page, the most viewed YouTube star, and now having produced an album that includes it’s own accompanying app (ArtPop, 2013), Lady Gaga’s fame is completely reliant on the non-physical in order to stay connected with her fans and spread her music and imagery. It is through the invisible web of the Internet that she is able to be continually present on a global scale. The images of Lady Gaga’s worlds hyperbolize our (and her) dependence on these machines. Early in her career, Lady Gaga won over audiences with her iPod LCD Glasses, which flashed images and text across the lenses. Her eyes, supposedly a portal to her soul, had been replaced by projections of the music industry and the wider commodity culture that she knows herself to be thoroughly implicated in. In December 2013, Lady Gaga tweeted a picture of herself in a new garment, “An iPad Wedding dress, for the bride who tweets from the aisle! plays her own march!”[5] Lady Gaga’s creations mirror the wider culture and our technology addiction.

iPod LCD Glasses, Tom Talmon Studio, 2008.

iPod LCD Glasses, Tom Talmon Studio, 2008.

Haraway deploys the image of the cyborg to situate women within networks of hegemony, which she terms the “Informatics of Domination.” According to Haraway, women in the post-modern era are no longer oppressed from the margins of patriarchal binaries. Instead, women must reimagine their politics and unite through “an ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit.”[6] Through the image of the cyborg, Haraway argues against essentialist feminist politics. Instead of organizing around identity, Haraway suggests affinity as a more impactful mobilizer. She defines affinity as kinship not through biological family but by choice. Because the cyborg’s identity crosses boundaries, twentieth-century women (read: cyborgs) should be able to easily connect across difference.

Lady Gaga’s 2011 song, Born This Way, is an anti-bullying anthem that tells her fans (whom she calls her Little Monsters) to celebrate their uniqueness. Lady Gaga opens the Born This Way video with the Manifesto of Mother Monster, which recounts the story of a sci-fi goddess birth on G.O.A.T., a Government Owned Alien Territory in outer space. The infinite birth produces a subset of humans, “the beginning of the new race: a race within the race of humanity, a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.”[7] The lyrics of the song hum out:

Don't be a drag, just be a queen

Whether you're broke or evergreen

You're black, white, beige, chola descent

You're Lebanese, you're orient

Whether life's disabilities

Left you outcast, bullied, or teased

Rejoice and love yourself today

'cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi,

Lesbian, transgendered life,

I'm on the right track baby,

I was born to survive.[8]

At fist glance these words, though inspiring, may read as complacent with problematic dogma that queer sexualities should be naturalized because they are God-given. Critical theorists have argued against the idea that gay is okay if you’re “born this way,” instead pointing to freedom of choice and the pursuit of happiness as just as acceptable defenses for differing sexualities. Although the lyrics reinforce neo-liberal views on individuality, the Manifesto of Mother Monster and the imagery of the Born This Way video represent a different collectivity and path to a larger political goal. Halberstam writes:   

While we reject the comfy notion of human uniqueness, we celebrate variation, mutation, cooperation, transformation, deviance, perversion, and diversion. These modes of change, many of which carry negative connotations, actually name the way that people take the risks that are necessary to shove our inert social structures rudely into the path of the coming gagapocalypse.[9]

Lady Gaga is ready for the battle. She concludes the Manifesto of Mother Monster with the image of “another more terrifying birth… the birth of evil.”[10] The ensuing struggle between good and evil and the attempt to protect her new race parallels the struggles of the Feminist and Gay Rights movements. Are we to work within or against existing systems to produce change? How do we avoid repeating the injustices of patriarchy? This line recognizes, as Halberstam points out, that politics require antagonism to produce change.

Born This Way, Lady Gaga, directed by Nick Knight, February 28, 2011.

Born This Way, Lady Gaga, directed by Nick Knight, February 28, 2011.

The birth on G.O.A.T. is a part finite, “natural” maternal reproduction and part infinite, assembly line fabrication. With the help of two midwives, Lady Gaga continually births members of the new race while floating in a geometric lotus flower in space. The bodies, covered in a crystalized placenta are then transferred to a mirrored, LED filled hatching center. Once again, Lady Gaga disrupts the representation of natural human bodies: Gaga and all the bodies in the world of G.O.A.T. have sharp cheekbones, eyebrows and shoulders. Mother Monster herself has a third eye on her chin, representing her all-knowingness. The choreographed dance scenes become like military marches with each body performing the same disciplined movements across gridded distances. In these scenes we can read the science fiction imagery as cyborg, less clearly as hybridization of human-animal or human-machine, but as a queering of the naturalized human body.  By appropriating the language and technologies of capitalist and militaristic production, the Informatics of Domination, cyborgs are able to put stress on systems that produce gender norms.

Born This Way, Lady Gaga, directed by Nick Knight, February 28, 2011.

Born This Way, Lady Gaga, directed by Nick Knight, February 28, 2011.

Reproduction becomes disconnected from biological processes in this video and the female body and its maternal labor take on new meaning. There is no father figure ever presented or mentioned in the narrative. For both Haraway and Halberstam the implications of alternative reproduction methods have great political potential. Halberstam calls for, like so many feminists before and beside him, a new way of thinking through kinship in which cyborg regeneration is key to freeing women from what has been considered their natural gender role. Although Halberstam does not cite Haraway in Gaga Feminism, both theorists are working out of the trajectory of Shaulamith Firestone. Firestone argued that in the past women have been defined by their potential for biological reproduction and have been required to find support from men during their reproductive years, creating uneven dependency between men and women. Because gender roles have for so long been posited as natural, they have also seemed fixed or unchangeable. For Haraway, Halberstam and for Firestone, Marxism “provides an inspirational model of transformation for feminism because it casts history as process and change, not a series of fixed and inevitable events.”[11] Halberstam reiterates that as science allows reproduction to become detached from biological process, female and male roles lose their distinction; mother and father collapse into parents. By extension, the rationale for the biological nuclear family falls apart as well. This frees not only heterosexual women from their dependence on men for and responsibility to maternity, but also opens a space for queer and arguably more accurate if not healthier concepts of the contemporary family.

Lady Gaga, the pop star that has kept audiences guessing about her sexuality and at times gender, is arguably the best representation of the cyborg in the twenty-first century. She is thoroughly imbedded in the circuit, but her queer appropriations of historical mainstream iconography have created a space for intervention in the dominant culture. For Haraway the feminist project is one of recoding the language of domination. “If we learn how to read these webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, new coalitions,”[12] she says. Lady Gaga has begun to demonstrate how these systems can be co-opted, twisted, and used in the name of affinity politics and cyborg feminism.

 

[1] The Haus of Gaga is the name for Lady Gaga’s production team. It includes her stage and costume designers, video producers, make up artists, and all other team members. The Haus of Gaga is modeled after Andy Warhol’s Factory.

[2] "Lady Gaga: 'I Took My Clothes Off'" ABC News. ABC News Network, December 9 2009.

[3] Nichols, James. "Lady Gaga Defends Her Bisexuality, Says It's 'Not A Lie'" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, October 31, 2013.

[4] Telephone Featuring Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, January 28, 2010.

[5] Lady Gaga. @ladygaga. Twitter. https://twitter.com/ladygaga/status/409229589450219520/photo/1.

[6] Haraway, Donna J, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” 149.

[7] Lady Gaga. “The Manifesto of Mother Monster.” Born This Way. Directed by Nick Knight. 2011.

[8] Lady Gaga. "Born This Way." Born This Way. Streamline/Interscope/KonLive, 2011.

[9] Halberstam, J. Jack, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. 143.

[10] Lady Gaga. “The Manifesto of Mother Monster.”

[11] Halberstam, J. Jack, Gaga Feminism. 35.

[12] Haraway, Donna J., “A Cyborg Manifesto.” 170.