Sex, Violence & Power: Lady Gaga and Beyonce do Thelma and Louise
WARNING: This post contains explicit language and a link to a video not appropriate for younger viewers.
Looking for a signpost of where pop feminism and girl power are living these days? Thank Gaga, Beyonce and writer/director Jonas Akerlund: their new nine minute music video, Telephone, is foot-tapping testament to the primacy of sex and aggression as compelling forms of female power.
The film opens with Gaga in the pokey, only this jail features women prancing around in prison couture (sex-cons?). Gaga’s fluid sexuality, trendsetting headgear and unapologetic ferocity are on full, gorgeous display. After stripping Gaga, a butch guard mutters, “I told you she didn’t have a dick.” The other replies, “Too bad.”
Gaga probably doesn’t think so: the film launches into a montage of violence that seems to suggest that anything you can do, we can do better – and we can do it in a thong. Men may pack pistols as satellite penises, but these girls burn rubber in Kill Bill’s “Pussy Wagon.”
The union of sex and aggression has never been more vivid. Check out the prisoner in thigh-high strappy boots wrapping her legs around the neck of a fellow inmate. Watch Gaga grit her teeth as she dances in a thong and bikini top. She seems ferally angry. Her dancing, at times, looks like glammed up air punching. Is it aggressive sexiness or sexy aggression? I’m not sure, but it’s clearly intended to announce a unique display of female power.
Is this a feminist film? The homage to the film Thelma and Louise comes at the end: Gaga and B.’s hands intertwined as they drive off into an unknown criminal future. Released in 1991 (and the subject of one of my first ever Women’s Studies papers at Vassar), Thelma and Louise shocked mainstream America with the criminal retaliation of a woman (played by Susan Sarandon) who was brutally raped– and who sought justice by killing a man trying to rape her best friend.
In Thelma and Louise, the crime circus created by the two women stemmed from victimization. In Telephone, Gaga and Beyonce are killing just to kill. Gaga has said the film is supposed to continue the story of Paparazzi, where Gaga is crippled by a boyfriend’s violent behavior and gets revenge by killing him. In Telephone Beyonce poisons a louse of a boyfriend, but his crime, besides being a sexist jerk, is unclear.
The women don’t just kill him, either; inexplicably, they kill everyone in the diner – then they dance around the dead bodies. You even see a dead dog. There are a lot of cultural appropriations here, many of which went over my head. Still, the message seems to be that these women mean business, and it also seems to flaunt a “just cuz” attitude towards violence. Why kill? Because we’re badass.
Unfortunately, the lyrics get lost in the melee. Listen closely and you’ll hear what may be the first song that expresses outrage towards a cyber-stalking man: Boy, the way you blowin’ up my phone/won’t make me leave no faster/Put my coat on faster/leave my girls no faster/I shoulda left my phone at home/cuz this is a disaster!/Callin’ like a collector/sorry, I cannot answer! The lyrics name a major problem affecting young women: a 2007 statistic reported that one in three teens say they are text messaged 10, 20, or 30 times an hour by a partner inquiring where they are, what they’re doing, or who they’re with.
The unabashed and roundly criticized product placement in this film – Virgin cell phones, a dating website, Diet Coke cans as curlers in Gaga’s hair – is weirdly ironic. On the one hand, it takes the marriage of commerce and art to a new, disturbing low. On the other hand, by not even attempting to hide the products, you almost feel relieved at the transparency. Gaga dancing around with Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread is so completely ridiculous that it feels like the joke is on the advertisers. The Atlantic makes the link to Warhol (along with some other fascinating insights – don’t miss their analysis).
I love watching Beyonce play with Gaga. “You’ve been a bad girl,” Beyonce admonishes. “A very, very bad girl, Gaga.” Indeed. According to the Atlantic, Gaga told E! that she wanted to take “the idea that America is full of young people that are inundated with information and technology and turn it into something that was more of a commentary on the kind of country that we are.” Gaga is leading us somewhere that partly freaks me out and partly inspires me. Whatever happens, this monster‘s hanging on her every word.