Broad Recognition

A Feminist Magazine at Yale

(Reinforce the) Norm This Way: How Gaga's Doing More Harm Than Good

If there’s anything Lady Gaga can unequivocally be said to have mastered, it’s the art of the grand entrance.  At the 53rd Grammy Awards last week, Gaga was carried down the red carpet in a large, translucent egg by a small entourage of underdressed dancers.  The egg reappeared later during the ceremony on stage, with Gaga emerging for a characteristically theatrical performance of her latest single, “Born This Way,” released online the Friday before.  The song begins unexceptionally enough, but by the end of the first verse it’s clear that this is getting at something other than the vague, ambiguously controversial imagery we’ve come to expect from Gaga.

Photo: billboard.com

The chorus is as follows, and I include the whole thing because I’ll be returning to it often:

I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes,
I’m on the right track, baby,
I was born this way.

Don’t hide yourself in regret;
Just love yourself and you’re set.
I’m on the right track, baby,
I was born this way.

In the remaining few verses, Gaga proceeds to rattle off a list of all of the ways you could have been born (“No matter gay, straight, or bi, / Lesbian, transgendered life… / No matter black, white, or beige, / Chola or orient made…”), punctuated every so often by a reminder that these identifiers are innate, God-given, and inflexible (“Oh, there ain’t no other way; / Baby, I was born this way”).

The song’s deterministic message is both inaccurate and unwelcome—I don’t at all find it comforting to be told that an identity I had no hand in choosing is non-negotiable, even if there’s nothing wrong with it.  The chorus implies an acceptance of the dangerously widespread notion that who you are is only ok if you really can’t help it, that the only reasonable justification for alternate sexualities is that they’re forced on you from birth.  Queerness, in this light, is easily reduced to an aberrant but irremediable object of pity and denied the affirmative power of actually being wanted.

This is not to say that anyone actively chooses her identity any more than she is born with it; both explanations deny sexuality and gender their due complexity as products of highly local, historically rooted social systems and personal experiences.  One is born into a body, but sexuality and gender only come into being through always-ongoing interactions with a larger social structure and the others who occupy it.  I know Gaga believes herself to be making a positive political statement, but the implied apology of “I was born this way” has never been enough to carry a civil rights movement.  Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality won’t be won with a tepid “I was born this way” (even if incanted over a rousing club-friendly backtrack) but rather a confident “I am this way, I’m proud of it, and it’s more complex than you’ve yet to give it credit for.”

Despite the lingering issue of conflating racial, sexual, and gender identities, I’d object to this song less if it dropped the religious trimming and biological essentialism, if instead of “Born This Way” it were “Negotiated My Self-Conception Relative to an Existing Socio-Cultural Context and My Own Personal Judgments of and Reactions (Both Conscious and Unconscious) to That Context This Way”.  It’s an absurd substitution, but maybe that’s because identity formation is too complicated and ambiguous a process to condense into a three-word hook.  The song’s project is more ambitious than Gaga may have realized, and it’s all too possible that her well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt at justifying queerness is only making it harder to dislodge the misconceptions that the song unwittingly reinforces.

Gaga’s little monsters would probably accuse me of asking too much, casting “Born This Way” as an important gesture in the right direction.  Or maybe they’d accuse me of thinking too much, because really, it’s only a pop song.  But when this pop song will in all likelihood be heard by more people than was the President’s State of the Union Address last month, its message deserves deep and engaged consideration.  I could go into established feminist and queer theory about performativity and constructivism, I could cite Butler and Foucault and Rubin, but I don’t think I need to.  This isn’t an intellectual reservation about the validity of Gaga’s characterization of sexual identity; it’s an indignant refusal to accept being told who I am and how I should feel about it.

Musically speaking, “Born This Way” is probably one of Gaga’s best—pulsing, fun, varied, well produced, irresistibly danceable (and a little too heavily indebted to Madonna’s “Express Yourself”, but that’s a different essay).  My objections to the song are purely lyrical, which makes it all the more insidious.  I’d dance to it at a party; if the crowd were into it, I might even sing along.  And it’s this image of a mass of sweaty college students euphorically chanting “God makes no mistakes” that gives me such pause.  I never thought I’d say it, but it almost makes me miss “Just Dance.”

Samuel Huber is a sophomore at Yale College. He is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.

Comments (7)

  • I think the song is a campy in-joke about strategic essentialism. “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” supports that read, as does the Gloria Gaynor beat. In that way, I think Gaga gets your (eloquently stated) argument, Sam – her sympathetic but snarky savvy is cloaked in “good intentions,” in the promotion of some vanilla “acceptance.” That’s the superficial message; the campy, ironic underside is the shout-out to queers.

    posted by Personally      February 20th, 2011 at 9:15 pm

  • This is so good. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    posted by Demetra      February 20th, 2011 at 9:19 pm

  • As a queer Chicana, I was sickened (though not entirely surprised) to see that this review carefully examined Gaga’s depiction of queerness, without even mentioning her deployment of racial slurs (“Chola or ori­ent made…”).

    I realize that Broads tends to privilege issues of gender and sexuality in its analysis of pop culture — yet the term “chola” has everything to do with Latinas’ gender and sexuality. (For some solid commentary on Gaga’s use of “chola,” see http://www.racialicious.com/2011/02/08/lady-gaga-brings-cholas-back-to-pop-culture-like-it-or-not/.)

    I agree with the author’s point that “Born this Way” isn’t exactly the ideal anthem of queerness. But the thought of “a mass of sweaty col­lege stu­dents euphor­i­cally chant­ing ‘God makes no mis­takes’” isn’t nearly as terrifying as the thought of a mass of ignorant college students screaming racial slurs at the top of their lungs.

    posted by Not a chola      February 23rd, 2011 at 8:56 pm

  • I totally agree that the review could have considered all the elements amiss in this specific song, particularly because of the author’s line, “My objec­tions to the song are purely lyri­cal, which makes it all the more insid­i­ous.” And of course, your closing lines bring to mind disturbed scenes. But, I would consider this: Gaga is being called a “queer fame monster” and discussing her queerness everywhere from Rolling Stone Magazine to Maine. She purports to speak to queer youth–and I feel like that is why this critique is focused on the idea of inborn gayness. However, Gaga is a celebrity, not just a queer icon. I agree with you, that while it’s sad that issues of race and issues of queerness are often separated, it isn’t surprising

    posted by Danielle Starring      February 23rd, 2011 at 9:42 pm

  • This is AWESOME.

    posted by Anonymous      February 25th, 2011 at 9:40 pm

  • Oh, come on. Really? It’s a song and a positive, inspiring one. If you must try to villanize something, there is plenty actual bad in the world.

    posted by Anon      February 28th, 2011 at 7:22 pm

  • You should actually read the interviews with GaGa about what she means by “Born This Way.” Because she, more so than this review, is deploying a queer meaning of the term “born.” She has constantly said in interviews that her definition of birth is one that is infinite rather than finite… so the moment that you crawled out of your mother’s uterus is not the only moment that you were “born.” But rather, we are born (again) constantly throughout our lives. So your reading of the song as bio­log­i­cal essen­tial­ism is misfounded and reductive.

    Also if you are citing Judith Butler and saying things like “One is born into a body…” You are doing something wrong. Our relationships with the body are no less natural or innate than are our sexualities, genders, races, etc.

    posted by Big Monster      June 19th, 2011 at 7:26 pm

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