Monday, July 19, 2010

Lady Gaga's 'Telephone': Exploitation cinemas, homosexual attraction, and the blending of public and private.

The following is an excerpt from a full-length paper entitled "“We’re C-Coming Out”: Lady Gaga’s Postmodern Videographic and Public Bisexual Persona" that was completed in May 2010. For an analysis of the Gaga's depiction of her heterosexual tendencies in her music videos, see my post on irony, innocence, and the death of the heterosexual binary.

In order to experience a bisexual camp reading of the video for Telephone as a comment on one aspect of Lady Gaga’s sexual identity, one cannot expect the song’s lyrics to provide deeper meaning. The actual song does not begin until 2 minutes and 50 seconds into the video, with multiple starts and stops of the track throughout that make clear the point of the video is the visual and not the lyrical content. Although the video is ironically edited to the contents of the song in part – namely when Lady Gaga answers a payphone in prison to begin the song, singing “Hello, hello, baby, you called? / I can’t hear a thing / I have got no service in the club / You see, you see” – the overall context of the video rarely reflects the events taking place in the lyrics except through occasional irony. The video begins set in a prison and then moves to the road and into a diner – and never, ever finds Lady Gaga or her co-star, Beyoncé, in a traditional club setting. Through a reading of the visual elements of key instances from Lady Gaga’s video for Telephone, I will attempt to further the idea that Gaga’s public and private life are indeed blended together in a remark on postmodern authenticity while also calling attention to the presentation of her sexuality in a single video as never bisexual and always only hetero or homosexual.

Telephone opens with blue-tinted shots of the exterior of a prison including images of barbed wire, guards positioned up high on a wall, and the surrounding cityscape all beneath fluorescent graphics and text that announce the stars (Beyoncé and Gaga) and director Jonas Åkerlund). This text and visual style set the stage indisputably for the campy visual style of a cult grindhouse film alá the blaxploitation classic Super Fly (dir. Gordon Parks, Jr., 1972) or
I Spit on Your Grave, Meir Zarchi’s 1978 rape-revenge film. Seemingly being imprisoned for poisoning and killing her boyfriend in her previous video for Paparazzi, Lady Gaga appears dressed in an exaggerated take on the black and white striped jailhouse uniform complete with her (or Grace Jones’s?) signature pointed shoulder pads which both function as a type of androgynous costume play as well as a nod to queer camp aesthetics of exaggeration discussed by Dyer [1] and Bryant [2]. A title appears explaining she has arrived at the “Prison for Bitches” as she is guided along a long line of hard-yet-chic feminine women within their respective jail cells who cat-call, blow kisses, and lick the metal bars, pronouncing their sexually aggressive – and therefore prison-societal – superiority over the new inmate. Each dressed in their own unique and completely more subdued variations of Gaga’s uniform, the women behind the bars look more like femme sex workers than regular prison inmates (and in fact, none of the women in this segment of the video come close to appearing butch), perhaps Åkerlund’s and/ or Lady Gaga’s comment on the type of women who are depicted as deviant jailbirds who might inspire empathy in the women-in-prison films (yet another sub-genre of exploitation cinema showcased in this video) like Chained Heat (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1983) or the original contribution to the genre, Caged (dir. John Cromwell, 1950).

Gaga is shoved into her jail cell and disrobed of all but her fishnet stockings by the transgender guards, who throw her down onto her cot. As she scrambles in an attempt to escape she mounts the bars of the door to her cell, exposing her pixilated crotch just long enough for the world to see the truth of her gender identity. In a direct comment to this revelation, one of the guards becomes the authority to announce this now-proven genital knowledge to the skeptical general public when she proclaims “I told you she didn’t have a dick.” Including proof in the pixilated version of a Lady Gaga’s vulva is perhaps an attempt to dispel this rumor once and for all that she is not “a very well-endowed young man” and is indeed cisgendered.

Lyrics from her previous single “Poker Face,” which Lady Gaga has claimed is about “poker facing with your sexuality,” lead in some ways to the development of this rumor: “I won’t tell you that I love you / Kiss or hug you / Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin / I’m not lying I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning.” About seven months after her 17 April 2009 appearance on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross – the show on which Gaga was rudely confronted by the host with the rumor about her assigned gender – Gaga reinforced in an interview with Barbara Walters that the lyric “bluffin’ with my muffin” is not a reference to her assigned gender, but indeed to her sexuality as a woman who is attracted to both men and women, albeit to each in different ways. The few seconds of screen time that Gaga’s vulva receives in 2010's Telephone seek to do away with this persistent rumor – a case in which gender has been conflated with sexuality [3] – once and for all.

The scene in the exercise yard in which Gaga is adorned in an outfit complete with heavy metal chains and sunglasses covered in lit, smoking cigarettes (visible in Figure 4) positions her as “the phallic femme” discussed by Chris Straayer. She moves across the yard as two of her previous hits, “Paper Gangsta” and “I Like It Rough,” play through the speakers of a boom box, perhaps a comment on Gaga’s consistent radio presence and media saturation no matter where one might find themselves. As soon as she sits down at a table outside, a “she-butch” female [5] in leather with short hair sits down beside Gaga and begins to kiss her (see below). Gaga kisses her back and even grabs the other woman between her legs, heightening the sexual tension of the moment. Feministe blogger Sady Doyle pointed to this instance in the video as one that plays with transgression from the normative pop culture representations of girl-on-girl sexual expression, especially since “special makeout times Between the Ladies [sic] almost always happen, in pop culture, between two very femme-looking individuals” [6]. Look no further than Katy Perry’s video for I Kissed a Girl to see instances of feminine women implicated as potential sexual partners for other feminine women, or 1998’s feature length film Wild Things in which Neve Campbell and Denise Richards, two traditionally femme females, share an intimate moment together in a pool. For the remainder of the video we only see Gaga implicated in relationships with other women whether as a domestic or sexual partner, clearly aligning the Lady with her attraction for women, or the homosexual side of her bisexuality.

Soon after this femme-butch kiss in the exercise yard a girl-on-girl kung fu-style fight reminiscent of the gloriously camp and stylized Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill! (dir. Russ Meyer, 1965) breaks out in the prison and an impromptu dance number begins that combines acrobatics, aerobics, and aggressive boxing moves. Soon after the brawl and the dancing Beyoncé comes to Lady Gaga’s rescue in the Pussy Wagon, loaned to Lady Gaga by Quentin Tarantino specifically for the video, who obviously recognized the parallels between Gaga’s character in this video and the non-normative femme female action star of Kill Bill Volume I (2003) and II (2004). Gaga is dressed in yet another new outfit, this time a slightly more exaggerated and androgynous nod to camp queen Jane Mansfield’s outfit from her famous scene in The Girl Can’t Help It (dir. Frank Tashlin, 1956).

After making a sandwich into a phallic object via a nod to oral fetishism and allowing Beyoncé to sing a little bit, the two ladies tear down a dirt road in the neon yellow truck on their way to a diner where they will eventually poison everyone, starting with Beyoncé’s abusive, hyper-masculine boyfriend. After her boyfriend keels over dead onto the table, Beyoncé makes an innocent yet knowing hand-to-mouth, wide-eyed gesture similar to Lady Gaga’s from Paparazzi after she too has poisoned her boyfriend. This positions Beyoncé as a referential figure by drawing a parallel to the previous video performance to create a space for Beyoncé that is indeed strictly performative and is not meant to make reference to her celebrity persona in the same way that Gaga’s gesture in Paparazzi is meant to be viewed. Another aspect of the video that positions Beyoncé in a different light than Gaga is that Beyoncé is allowed to be presented as bisexual in the contexts of this video even though her public and private personae are consistently positioned as heterosexual. The video does, however go to great lengths to situate Beyoncé’s true performance as non-normative and a stark contrast to her typical presentation in the media by her outlandish dress and her robotic movements that mirror the sound of the skipping audio track. Gaga’s videos consistently employ this aesthetic, as do her songs; Beyoncé’s videos and music, on the other hand, do not subscribe to the same “fake authenticity” that are present in the pantheon of Gaga representations. The video ends in a similarly consistently referential manner with a nod to the film Thelma and Louis as Gaga and Beyoncé grasp hands as they drive off together into the horizon. A heart-shaped graphic appears, situating the two as not just friends but romantic lovers, who interestingly enough do not share an on-screen kiss in the video.

[1] Richard Dyer. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004.

[2] Wayne M. Byrant. Bisexual Characters in Film: From Anais to Zee. New York: The Haworth
Press, 1997.

[3] Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge (1990, 1999), 9.

[4] Chris Straayer. Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientations in Film and Video. New York: Columbia University Press (1996), 83-84.

[5] Ibid, 94-101.

[6] Sady Doyle. “Nothing That Happened This Week Was Ever Going To Be As Important As The ‘Telephone’ Video.” Feministe. 13 March 2010.


Lisa Caraway said...

Great article, keep up the good work Katharine! It would be nice if you discuss some more parallels drawn towards the end of the video, like the reference made to honey. Colors they used throughout the video also created an atmosphere of confusion - especially the use of neon(which draws on a child-like character, possibly hinting at a pre-pubescent androgony), as in the caution tape, the car, numerous telephones, etc. The infomercial styling of the sandwich endorsement was also more linked to the female populous, you might also want to include the reasons possibly behind the use of males in that scene. The product placement and the corporate ownership attributed to Gaga's persona might be interesting to note as well.

Katharine Relth said...

Thanks for your comments, Lisa! I hadn't even thought about the links between the infomercial and Gaga's public persona being a product. In reference to the neon, child-like colors in the video: in the 'Paparazzi' video these themes of innocence are also present, although a bit more obvious than they are in 'Telephone,' perhaps why I didn't elaborate on it for the analysis of this video. Some great things to think about if I decide to develop this concept further!