Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have been the face of mainstream feminism for many years now, and the attention their work has gotten both from scholars and media outlets is astonishing. That being said, what happens when we take a deeper look into their feminisms, and compare and contrast academics’ reviews of their aestheticized representations? As we delve into such questioning, let us begin with a feminist analysis merging both idols, followed by a divided inquiry of their respective artistic content, only to return to a joined examination of their material on the basis of neoliberalism. Within this framework, my analysis will be delivered through an identitarianist and post-structuralist lens.

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On a more personal level, this paper is a way for me to link my passion for popular culture with my recent awakening in feminist circles. As I grew up looking up to popular feminist icons – and I use that word very loosely – I genuinely believed in their potential for pushing the boundaries of love and acceptance. However, as I eagerly started consuming academic feminist theories, I was introduced to perspective where these pop stars’ feminisms are stuck in very clear confines. All in all, I am allowing my newfound feminist-self to join hands with my former pop-enthusiast-self, in order to give birth to a contemporary feminist media inquiry.

Pop Music: A Potential Landscape For Gender Subversion

Being part of a dedicated fan base involves a feeling of strong attachment between the fans and the artist; having been a massive Lady Gaga fan for years, I can testify of the genuine emotions that are felt within that structure. As a matter of fact, the self-empowerment and creativity travelling through the body formed by the followers is an authentic phenomenon that is not to be messed with (Dilling-Hansen, 2015). Accordingly, a powerful sense of identity is developed in that process, and the impact of such a pop star should be taken into consideration.

Following this idea, one can only imagine the immensity of the intersection between the general public and public figures like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, regardless of the depth of such a connection. Admittedly, given the tremendous platforms these pop stars benefit from, their omnipresent force on the minds of consumers is undeniable.

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Consequently, what we can analyze in similar ways in Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s work is the challenge they spawn to traditional notions of femininity: using alter egos and other modern techniques of performance, they shed a light on feminist concepts and give birth to delightful aesthetics in a sea of gender disruption (Kumari, 2016). The prolific choice of integrating both conventionally feminine and masculine aspects in the same picture denounces public expectations and creates a terrain where not-so-serious gender identity is not only permitted, but also celebrated (Kumari).

Subsequently, while the unavoidable process of naming involves the attribution of a specific gender role, the act of renaming is synonymous with agency in regards to social identity (Kumari, 2016). This specific way in which Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are able to reclaim authority as public figures, and most importantly as female pop stars, suggests the performativity of their chosen personas, and opens the door to endless creative possibilities (Kumari).

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On the other hand, when hypersexualization is so blatantly ingrained in those subversive practices, one might wonder if the alleged progress is not indeed overshadowed by the objectification of women (Brook, 2008). Essentially, if a concept such as true empowerment can exist as unanimously valid, where does it lie? And more interestingly, how sneakily forceful is the normalization of beauty as commodity, for it to blur the lines between unrealistic media portrayals and conscious individual choices (Brook)?

Lady Gaga: Sexuality & Authenticity

According to Levande (2008), the inclusion of cameras and videos within music videos illustrates the fusion of public and private life, and therefore glorifies wilful adherence to surveillance. In other words, this type of representation promotes the disruption of what keeps individuals outside the realm of constant media exposure, forcing them into a consumerist lifestyle. As a result, this can cause viewers to lose their sense of self and fully build their personal identities on capitalist values. Inversely, we could argue that Lady Gaga faces the camera right back with a soul-shattering aggressiveness that challenges the way in which viewers have been trained to perceive women in the landscape of pop music. Defying the male gaze, she begins from the standpoint of the mainstream mind, and from there establishes her game-changing attitude.

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Furthermore, when sexually enhanced men circle Lady Gaga in her LoveGame video as she skilfully handles her disco stick, she seems to be performing sexuality as a brand, rather than expressing her true sexual desires (Levande 2008); instead of letting her genuine feelings come to life, she uses her knowledge of men’s sexual desires to obtain their attention, and in that sense, “it is the very act of being watched that makes a woman powerful” (p. 303). However, the performer’s actions can also be perceived as a strategy used to address her so-called predators in a way where she gets them to bow down to her yearnings, i.e. teach them how it is done. Either way, “we see this over and over again: women in pop music getting naked to be heard thinking they are challenging the status quo” (p. 305).

Moving on to another aspect of stardom, although pop groups and artists like ABBA, Blondie, Cher & Madonna have made room for theatrical performance in the past, Lady Gaga distinguishes herself in that she is a living embodiment of her art (Kumari, 2016). Her never-stopping reinvention allows a continuous shift of cover, without the concealment a mask would imply: the shape-shifting diva navigates through her numerous auras, merging them into the ever-changing persona that is Lady Gaga (Kumari). More specifically, the matter that deserves our attention is the authenticity of such a process of transformation: an authenticity that presents identity as an additive construct, an authenticity that challenges popular perceptions by its account of the fluidity of gender (Kumari). Furthermore, Lady Gaga makes a particularly bold statement when she opens the MTV Video Music Awards as Jo Calderone, whose persona is mainly built on the stereotype of the macho Italian-American man, thus deconstructing the dichotomy of gender and its related norms (Kumari). Consequently, she opens the audience’s mind to the lie of gender, to its absurd fiction (Kumari). In other words, using Butler’s (1990) conceptualization of gender, it is essentially the repetition of avant-gardist fashion elements that projects an appearance of concreteness, thus creating the illusion of a natural being. Hence it is this kind of daring artistic representation that disturbs the commercially overexposed and discursively naturalized gendered characteristics in which the general public unwaveringly bathes (Kumari, 2016).

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As we continuously go back and forth between favourable and unfavourable positions, we may stumble upon a perspective from which Lady Gaga’s sexual displays can be viewed as a step forward for feminism. That is, in opposition to Levande’s (2008) argument about feminism being reshaped by sexual commodification only to serve money-hungry companies who profit on all sorts of media related products, including pornography. As a matter of fact, once we characterize her peculiar performance art as pornographic, it can be seen as a challenge to anti-pornography politics. Leaving behind the submissive and passive role women have been imposed for so long and taking on more assertive features, Lady Gaga helps disrupt the idea that pornography is inherently derogatory to women (Assiter & Avedon, 1993, pp. 55 & 27). More interestingly, she pushes the envelope to an extent where she never presents herself as sensually arousing, but always as sexually provocative. However, the blatant and constant glamorization of murder and death in Lady Gaga’s music videos help reify the claim that pornography is “characteristically violent” or that its content is usually more violent than other media outlets (Assiter & Avedon, 1993, p. 21). In fact, from head bottle-breaking to over-the-balcony assaults, and from prison-fights to diner mass murders, the videos for Paparazzi and Telephone are great examples of the shockingly brutal pictures painted by the artist. On the other hand, these depictions were intended to expose the fame-induced death of the celebrity (Lady Gaga, 2009), as well as the overly technologized and mediatized era in which we live, one where we are deliberately and increasingly force-fed information (Seacrest, 2010). From this particular perspective, the meanings of such illustrations can very well line up with feminist aims, making the sexually explicit content only a means by which the message is delivered.

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Clearly, viewers’ interpretations rarely align with producers’ intentions, and although it may not be calculated, multiple portrayals of power dynamics appear to be present. All in all, now that we’ve debated positive and negative viewpoints on Lady Gaga’s artistic representations, let us delve into the works of Beyoncé.

Beyoncé: Survival & Redefinition

The first transgression of boundaries that can be noticed in Beyoncé’s career relates to her name. As a matter of fact, Kumari (2016) argues that “Beyoncé breaks the expectation that a family name must be carried by a male member by reinventing herself through performance and immortalizing her family’s name”. Personally, I choose to disagree with that statement, which in my opinion hides a desperate aim to reach for a supposedly innovative move the queen of popular feminism has divinely brought onto the commercial landscape. While I do agree that Beyoncé has done a lot to both introduce feminist concepts into mainstream media and disrupt hegemonic perceptions of the female pop star, I still think this process can be analyzed elsewhere in her work.

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Similarly, I reject Kumari’s (2016) idea about the way in which Beyoncé’s household name challenges “past traditional naming conventions of famous black, female singers such as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson” (p. 406). The nomenclatural connection between Beyoncé, a black female artist, and Cher & Madonna, white counterparts, is nothing I associate with “pushing the naming boundaries (Kumari, p. 406). Or rather, if such a concept is sufficiently significant to stand on its own, I do not think it is transgressive at all in the terms of feminist renewal. However, I do agree with the reinvention of the branding that is behind such terminology. As a matter of fact, the way in which Beyoncé is presented to mainstream audiences and sold as a product is much more similar, in my opinion, to Madonna’s presentation to the public, than it is to influential black females vocalists of the past. The crucial element I am referring to here is the quality of sexually driven empowerment, rather than the sole reliance on lyrical powerhouse abilities. Truly, my disagreement with this author has more to do with her approach to the subject matter than it has to do with the essence of her claims. In other words, we must remain critical of the praise modern performers receive in order to grant recognition only where it is due, and avoid placing them on a pedestal.

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Interestingly enough, the racial comparison discussed earlier brings up the question of white assimilation, one that is especially highlighted in the beginning of Beyoncé’s career. As a matter of fact, Beyoncé has rocked her fair share of wigs and weaves in order to emulate white women’s hair, that is if we look at it in a categorical way. While this could be seen as anti-progressive at first glance, Aisha Durham (2012) offers a much more revealing interpretation, in which the imitation of whiteness is something of a survival skill, specifically when it is operated by a racialized group that is forced into a context of vulnerability, both sexually and financially. In that sense, this stratagem allows women of color to cast themselves in the forefront of public domains of influence, and closer to the top in a realm where they must work twice as hard to go half as far[1]. Accordingly, we could argue that Beyoncé had to work her way up the ladder by putting her roots in the backdrop for a while, not only to gain power over record label executives, but also to convince the general public of her worthwhile star power.

In such a framework, Durham (2012) examines Beyoncé through the landscape of both the hip-hop dream world and what she likes to call the pink dreamworld. Basically, the Queen B opens the door to a new kind of sexual desirability when she glamorizes her curvy bottom: opposing white beauty ideals, she rejects the skinny body but preserves the thin waste (Durham). Unfortunately, this new body type ideal manages to be as unattainable as its predecessor, putting on racialized girls a burden that was previously strictly held by White girls (Durham). As a result, Black girls who were kept outside the realm of bionic beauty standards are sucked into a vicious cycle of elusive archetypes, and miss an opportunity to embrace a more radical approach that would question it altogether. Admittedly, when social constraints locate an individual inside a dimension where it is possible for them to climb up the ladder of completeness, they are encouraged to continuously acquire new customary characteristics, precisely because they believe to be close enough to completion (Wendell, 2008). On the other hand, when one is cast outside of such a circle from the beginning, they are more likely to adopt a counter-hegemonic path, given that they are conscious of the fact that they will never fit the prevailing discourse’s required qualities (Wendell)[2].

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Going back to my earlier illustration and diving into the Check On It video, Beyoncé builds a pink dreamworld in connection to her sexual performance, where she tries to defy the male gaze by feeding off of her man’s enjoyment (Durham, 2012). Portraying both the respectable and sexually available woman, the dancer mirrors both sides of a dichotomy, thus embodying both the subject and the object of lust (Durham). Ultimately, she reifies the hegemonic hypersexualization of black female bodies, while simultaneously initiating a counter-hegemonic authentic representation of black female sexuality (Durham). What motivates the author’s final stance is the numerous frames in which Beyoncé’s bottom is shown on its own, with the exclusion of her face, pushing aside the empowering prospect of the whole process and striping off the artist from the sexual agency she initially claims (Durham). Essentially, Durham (2012) argues that the viewer’s visual perception is primarily flooded by objectification. Whether Beyoncé’s new parameters do justice to the multi-dimensional black womanhood remains open to debate. Personally, I would rather shed a light on both positions, without fully discrediting any.

Developing on this idea, the mechanism of alter egos has allowed Beyoncé, over the years, to dismantle the one-dimensional personality some academic feminists would perhaps accuse her of portraying. Indeed, the artist wisely displays different aspects of her identity through genuine personas, by the means of Yoncé and Mrs. Carter, for example, in her 2013 self-titled album (Kumari, 2016). Furthermore, Beyoncé claims, in a recent interview:

Yoncé is Beyoncé. Mrs. Carter is Beyoncé. Sasha Fierce is Beyoncé. And I’m finally at a place where I don’t have to separate the two anymore. We’re all one. They are all pieces of me. Just different elements of a personality of a woman, because we are complicated.

                         (Beyoncé, 2014)

Basically, we can understand that Beyoncé has found a way to share herself as a whole, rather than bits and pieces of her bodies turned into marketable products in a post-capitalist context (Harlow, 2008). From this process, not only does she fuse feminism and femininity by daring to popularize the multi-faceted black woman, but she does so without abruptly undercutting her audience, therefore assuring the preservation of her global platform (Kumari, 2016). Really, this growth as an artist is all about merging the worlds of feminism and modern day impossibly demanding capitalism, which implies the contentment and simultaneous dissatisfaction of both uncompromising spheres.

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Additionally, showcasing more of her feminist side on Lemonade, her latest release, Beyoncé reveals her most soulful self yet. Embracing the emotionally strong and family-rooted woman she has always been, the artist pays respect to her Black legacy, all while creating an inclusive atmosphere where all categories of people are welcome.

Correspondingly, Bell Hooks (2016) offers a more encompassing view on this piece. Starting with a simplistic and positive prospect, only to end with a more critical and intersectional viewpoint, she explores both the intentions and the outcomes of Beyoncé’s delivery of mainstream Black feminism. To start off, Hooks points out the body-as-commodity aesthetic that is heavily present in the Lemonade long-form video, only then to support the way in which Beyoncé challenges the dehumanization of black female bodies, a depiction that usually prevails in dominant media. As a matter of fact, the author praises the sisterhood that is formed through the multi-media illustration of Black females coming together and proudly voicing their struggles, for its disruption of invisibility (Hooks). However, she does not believe it is sufficient in any way to go against the conventional depiction of the victimized Black woman, as well as the sexist identity formula it implies (Hooks). Taking on a more intersectional approach, Hooks denounces Beyoncé’s dismissal of patriarchal domination, which goes hand in hand with hierarchical structures of sex, race, and class. In other words, the author’s branch of feminism will not settle down for a system where women claim the freedom to do what is usually reserved to men in an aim to gain societal power, especially when a category such as Black men remains mostly powerless in such a framework (Hooks).

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Neoliberalism: The Incompatibility of Dual Forces

Picking up on Bell Hooks’ intersectional approach, the main issue with mainstream media-driven feminism lies in its neoliberal way of doing things. These dual forces come together in a way Rottenberg (2014) describes as follows:

[the] neoliberal feminist subject is feminist in the sense that she is aware of current inequalities between men and women. But the same subject is simultaneously neoliberal because it rejects social, cultural and economic forces producing this inequality and accepts full responsibility of her own well being and self-care.

                          (p. 420) 

From this conceptualization, we can understand that notions in the likes of gender inequality, which could be seen as structural problems, are portrayed and perceived as individual cases (Rottenberg). Consequently, colonialism makes its entrance, absorbing feminism into its governmentality and deploying it as one of its many tools of neoliberal control (Rottenberg).

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Delving into the foundational terminology and concepts of Michel Foucault (2008), we can understand that the existing power relations in a neoliberal context are meant to maintain a constant economic competitiveness. As a consequence, we walk right into inevitable hierarchical structures, which are not maintained by laws and state regulations, but rather through market mechanisms that place certain populations in inescapable and predetermined positions (Linder, 2011). While liberalism saw capitalism as a powerful tool of control, neoliberalism sees it as the root of governmentality (Foucault, 2008).

Accordingly, when we take the time to analyze Lady Gaga’s liberation-like movement, what we see is an “instrumentalization of feminism as a source of innovation for consumer culture” (McRobbie, 2008, p. 548). We might first support the idea that her artistic depiction of the post-modern blonde subverts the traditional interpretation of what it means to be attractive, and asserts “a woman’s right to her own sexual identity and to her own sexual freedom” (Assiter & Avedon, 1993, p. 47). After all, what makes a branch of feminism that is “built around stable definitions of (white) womanhood and as a ladies’ club of influence and moral dignity” any more valid than women “who flaunt their bodies but who also remain insistently in charge of their mass media images” (Halberstam, 2012, p. 7)? However, within this celebration of media visibility is a message of support of “individualism, consumerism, competition, and minimal governmental interference” that is destined to create “self-reliance, initiative, and creativity”, ultimately leading to the network of neoliberalism (Raduntz, 2007, p. 234). In other words, “Silicone, Saline, Poison / Inject me / Baby, I’m a free bitch” (Lady Gaga, 2009).

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Subsequently, when it comes down to Beyoncé’s feminist impact, we could argue that she does a lot to disrupt violence-inducing stereotypes such as the Jezebel, a caricature which “justif[ies] the sexual exploitation of black women” through depictions of an “insatiable and animalistic appetite for sex” (Campbell, Giannino, China, & Harris, 2008, p. 21). We could even argue that she helps give credibility to black women who are forcefully boxed into the Sapphire character: a “domineering emasculator” whose “intensive expressiveness and hands-on-hip, finger-pointing style, […] is viewed as comedic and never taken seriously” (Jewell, 1993, p.45). But in the end, none of it defies the downsides of a prevailing capitalist system; instead, it encourages its viewers to comply with such a structure: “Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and moneymaking has no color” (Hooks). In other words, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation / Always stay gracious / Best revenge is your paper” (Beyoncé, 2016).

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Conclusively, the phenomenon that is taking place can be described as a post-democracy in which the appearance of inequality is eliminated, but not its substance; social dynamics transfuse the power back to corporations and political elites, to the ultimate detriment of the working-class (Kioupkiolis, 2014). A re-segregation therefore operates through mediatization and informationalization, replacing societal well being with individual goals, in a way that holds the notion of capital as a value that is boundless, divine and unequalled (Venn, 2007).

Concluding Thoughts: Assigning New Meanings

As we have debated both sides of the question, navigating through some of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s most defining pieces, the simultaneously hegemonic and counter-hegemonic meanings of their work have definitely been raised. And so we ask: do these pop stars propel feminism or sustain prevailing power dynamics? Only you can decide, depending on the kind of feminism you adhere to.

Ironically, if it were not for my obsession with mass culture, I probably would have never entered the realm of academic feminism, which is why I have concluded that popular iconography can be very useful as a gateway to a more enlightened feminism. Using modern day appeal through refined aesthetics, we can lure people into developing an interest for deeper feminist inquiry. In fact, I believe it is a matter of audience: if we want to discuss feminist ideas with already interested subjects, academic feminism and radical feminist circles can be very useful fields for this kind of interaction to happen. On the other hand, if we wish to plant a seed in the minds of people who would not normally investigate in such conceptualization, the infiltration of popular culture can be an interesting strategy. What we need to be careful with, however, is the erasure of feminist consciousness through the marketization of liberation. At the end of the day, influences from both outside and within can work hand in hand to push the boundaries of society.

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To conclude, I ask: in a context where the multi-media depictions of exaggerated hegemonic habits are meant to disrupt the consumerist lifestyle we blindly conduct, why can’t the meticulous combination of capitalistically obtained objects be seen as a subversive form of art? As the visual content contradicts the intended overall message, the different interpretations that can result from such illustrations are endless. In other words, how can one embrace the object, while simultaneously rejecting the meanings attached to it? (Brook, 2008) Given that our knowledge is directly connected to our singular human needs, our standpoint might just be the ultimate clincher (Hartsock, N. C. M., 1983).

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[1] Given that so many people, academics and non-scholars, have reclaimed this saying, I decided not to reference it. However, it is quite obvious I did not come up with such a statement on my own.

[2] Although Susan Wendell discusses the thoughts and feelings of people with disabilities, a decent parallel can be drawn, in my opinion, between both realities.

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