Self-objectification is the process of treating one’s own body as a mere commodity: an object that can only be appreciated for aesthetic value. Third-wave feminists have attempted to redefine objectification, claiming that by choosing to portray oneself as an object, the individual takes back agency from those who would have objectified them. Yet this understanding of self-objectification is controversial. What message does self-objectification actually portray: one of empowerment, or simply one of submission to the hegemonic standards to which self-objectification conforms? Though it may at first appear that self-objectification is a strategy to take back agency, a closer examination reveals that the process merely conforms to, and therefore reinforces, the hegemonic binaries it claims to protest.
To gain insight into the message that self-objectification sends to audiences, I have chosen to analyze Lady Gaga’s music video for her single “Telephone” (Jerkins & Akerlund, 2010). This extended music video, just under ten minutes long, depicts Lady Gaga and Beyoncé breaking Gaga out of jail before tracking down Beyoncé’s abusive boyfriend and poisoning him. Unfortunately, something goes terribly wrong, and Gaga accidentally poisons and kills an entire diner full of people, causing Gaga and Beyoncé to flee the scene, vowing to never come back. While Gaga is known for being an eccentric character in popular media, she adamantly claims that her biggest concern is being a role model for her fans. In various interviews Gaga has told fans that, “It’s OK to be whomever it is that you want to be,” (Kaufman, 2010), promoting fans to respect their bodies enough to consider following her lead to engage in celibacy by arguing that “You don’t have to have sex to feel good about yourself” (Kaufman, 2010). However, the messages she conveys in interviews are strikingly different than that which appears in her music videos, especially Telephone. We must consider whether a music video that shows the blatant objectification and degradation of women can deliver any kind of empowering message to audiences, or if Gaga is merely reinforcing the hegemonic stereotypes she so firmly insists she opposes.
As I explored Telephone, I used ideological criticism to “discover the beliefs, values and assumptions” implicit in the symbolism and strategic placement throughout the video to uncover “interpretation…of the world” (Foss, p. 209) that is reflected. I evaluated the music video in its entirety, taking into account the story line, the clothing worn, and the allusions made to other films, all of which reinforce the hegemonic ideals Gaga claims to dispute. As I analyzed the many layers and different aspects of this music video, I engaged in deconstructuralism: an attempt to investigate the underlying messages latent within the video. Further, I explored the articulation between the various elements in hopes of gaining an understanding about the message Gaga conveys to her viewers overall. As Foss (2009) accurately claims, dominant ideologies “must be renewed, reinforced and defended continually” and thus are so engrained into our understandings they are often seen as “natural” (p. 210). While Gaga’s video may seem on the surface a harmless piece of entertainment, it is vital to understand the implicit messages, for if one does not notice the constant and ubiquitous reinforcement of hegemonic standards, they will find themselves powerless in their defense against them.
One fundamental way that Telephone serves as a reinforcement of hegemonic traditions is through the appropriation of films originally containing messages of female empowerment, depicted in such a way as to make light of or completely disregard the original intent. Shugart, Waggoner and Hallstein (2001) describe this occurrence as the “aesthetic code of juxtaposition which serves to recontextualize respective messages of resistance and encourage an interpretation of them that renders them impotent” (p. 206). One form of appropriation is found in the vehicle driven by Beyoncé and Gaga: the large yellow truck, emblazoned with the words “Pussy Wagon” on the back, is the exact truck driven by The Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Kill Bill” (2003). The Bride embarks on her journey seeking revenge for the murder of her entire wedding party and her unborn child; Lady Gaga and Beyoncé use this car to drive to the diner where, upon attempting to poison Beyoncé’s verbally abusive boyfriend, they accidentally murder everyone in the diner. Though murder is questionable subject matter in general, the murders committed by Tarantino’s Bride seem a more logical sequence of events and may even suggest some type of female empowerment through the regaining of agency as opposed to the seemingly unprovoked actions in Gaga’s video, which imply that when women take agency in a situation, the end result is disastrous. Moreover, Gaga’s video makes light of the situation: the camera shows close ups of the victims faces, a wide range of ages, eyes rolled to the back of their heads, before cutting to a wide shot of the two women and their backup dancers thrusting and dancing around the diner. As Shugart, Waggoner and Hallstein (2001) explain, “paradoxical” techniques, like those found in this video, depict women as “unstable and disturbed” (p.200): unable of making rational decision when their emotions, the most prominent of which are jealousy and dissatisfaction, are involved.
Another clear appropriation of an iconic film is done through the direct allusions to Thelma and Louise. Hailed as the first Hollywood production to have a story focusing exclusively on female empowerment, Thelma and Louise memorably end the film by clasping hands and driving their car straight into the Grand Canyon. When asked about this controversial ending, screenwriter Callie Khouri explained, “I never saw it as suicide… it was a way of saying this was a world in which they didn’t believe there was the possibility of justice for them…this was just a way of letting them go and letting them stay who they were” (Turpin, 2011). Lady Gaga incorporates a similar ending into her video: Beyoncé and Gaga promise each other they will never return, clasp hands, and speed away. Yet moments before the credits begin to role, we see the shadow of a helicopter close behind the car, in pursuit of the wanted women, causing them to flee. Shugart, Waggoner and Hallstein (2001) discuss that through “strategic repositioning” even a text that “appears strikingly similar to the resistant discourse” can deliver an entirely different message, and thus be “devoid of challenge” (p. 198). Both pairs of women are wanted for murders, yet while Thelma and Louise make their decision based off of rational consideration as to whether or not they would receive any real justice if they remained, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé appear to be fleeing, apparently banished for their attempt to break hegemonic dichotomies and exercise agency.
Juxtaposition is a technique frequently used throughout the video, such as the imposition of characteristically male attributes and behaviors on female actors. In instances such as the prison guards, we see two women acting in characteristically “male” ways: heavier and older than the other women seen in the video, wearing baggy pants and work boots, the two female prison guards plod down the hallway, making a frame through which the scantily dressed Gaga can strut. There is a clear distinction between the characters of the prison guards, and the other women in the video. While most of the women function as attractive objects of the gaze, the prison guards are portrayed in a distinctively unattractive, lazy and grotesque light. For embodying characteristics typically seen as male, the prison guard women are out-casted, looked down upon; they possess what Schippers (2007) would refer to as “pariah femininities” (96) as their behavior directly challenges the socially expected interpretations of gender hegemony. It is important to note that the prison guards are the only figures of authority clearly depicted in the film, yet what we come to understand from these characters is that real women should not be authoritative, strong or behave as anything other than weak and submissive objects of desire.
The internalization of gender binaries that require men to be strong and forceful and women to be weak and subservient has far reaching consequences on our culture as a whole. When Gaga is first being led to her jail cell, we hear other inmates catcalling threats to her such as, “We’re gunna to make you swim outta hear in your own blood” (Jerkins, :35), among other jeers and name-calling. Depicting such verbal violence conveys to viewers that it is not only acceptable to demean women, but that as a woman, one should be as accepting of these degradations as Gaga is when she struts down the aisle and around the jail yard un-phased by the comments. Wood (2012) worries that this “devaluation of femininity” is so invasive that it “is not only built into cultural views but typically internalized” (p. 183) to the point that such behavior seems acceptable, even normal. Levin (2005) furthers this point, arguing that such views fundamentally impair adolescents as they begin to explore their own sexuality, teaching teenagers “sex is often linked to violence” (p. 84). The grave effects of these facts are seen in statistics, such as those cited in Jhally’s documentary Tough Guise (2002), which states that “an estimate of one in four men will use violence against their partner in their lifetime.” Though violent media is not the direct cause of aggression towards women, it certainly encourages and supports the dehumanization of women and thus cultivates an environment where such violence is tolerated.
Promoting female aggression and aggression towards females further empowers men by validating competition between women. Early in the video, we see a crowd of women contained in what we might assume to be a recreational room. Suddenly, we see one girl approach another, yell “Bitch” (Jerkins, 2:21) as she slaps her across the face, and then watch as the two engage in a full out fist fight. The other women and the prison guard’s look on, at times shouting provocations such as “Get her!” and “Get that bitch!” The fight lasts for a full twenty seconds before the video moves on as if nothing has happened. This normalization of viciousness between females only confirms societal pressures that inform women that other females are their enemies. A study done by Schützwohl (2008) reveals that in instances of jealousy in relationships, women “reported that their jealousy would be predominantly directed at the rival” (p. 97), while men reported that the feelings would be directed towards their partner. Competition between women for male attention increases the gender power of men, as the value of a woman seems to depend on male attention.
When analyzing popular media, an effective technique to understand the implicit message is to decontextualize the images: to assess the different aspects of the film objectively and derive understanding from what these images represent on their own. As Jhally pointed out in his documentary Dream Worlds (1991), this technique often reveals extremely disturbing undertones that promotes violence towards or demeans women. If we were to decontextualize majority of the outfits worn by Gaga and Beyoncé in the video, we would notice that these revealing clothes are far more similar to something a stripper might wear than to what a typical person would use as everyday clothing. While the outfits may seem to make sense in context of the music video, it is important to consider what implications are suggested: women should dress in clothing specifically targeted towards the male ideal of what counts as attractive. Jhally uses the term “dreamworld” in his video to discuss the highly sexualized male-fantasy world that popular media portray—by wearing certain clothing, Gaga is allowing herself to be controlled by this insidious ideal of how women ought to dress and act according to the standards of the male dreamworld and therefore promotes among her fans submission to such hegemonic norms.
If we begin to question the basis of the negative influences imposed on women through the media, we will notice that the female body is shown in an entirely different way than the male body is depicted. As Fredrickson (1997) pointed out, “visual media portrays women as though their bodies were capable of representing them,” (p. 177): various body parts seen as more important than the woman herself. Lady Gaga is often shown with her eyes covered, a technique which functions to depersonalize her body, making her form interchangeable with any of the other identical dancers around her. The depiction of male versus female bodies is most profoundly shown during the exchange between Beyoncé and her boyfriend. For the moments that the boyfriend is in the view of the camera, we are only shown his face. However, when Beyoncé is on camera, the lens focuses briefly on her face, then her cleavage, which is visible in the form-fitting dress she wears. The camera angle then switches to an areal shot, where Beyoncé’s highly exposed cleavage is again the focus of the lens. The combination of these factors leads to the implication that, while a woman’s body can adequately represent who she is as a person, a man is concrete personality made up of much more than just his body.
One of the most defining factors of the gender dichotomy is the standard of how women should dress. The clothing worn throughout the video is but one of the ways that Gaga sells her body merely as something to be looked at. As the first verse begins, the camera shows Gaga, dressed only in a black spiked bra and matching underwear, strutting and dancing down the aisle of the cellblock she was lead through earlier. Gaga is flanked by four dancers, all of whom have the exact same body type and are wearing the exact same outfits as they crawl along the floor or suggestively swing from the bars of cells. While some might argue that this choice stems from the third-wave belief that posing oneself as an object for sex is empowering through its implications of sexual agency, Lamb (2010) states “in these performances, empowerment is confused with idea of choice, mocking femininity with proof of control” (p.300). Lamb (2010) further explains that, despite the objectification being self-imposed or not, it diminishes subjectivity on the part of women, allowing them to be “treated as objects, fungible and violable, denying that they are ends themselves, not means for another’s use” (p.279). Though Gaga and her backup dancers independently chose to display their bodies in such a way, they are promoting an environment in which men feel comfortable viewing women entirely as sexual objects and sending a message to young female audiences about how women are supposed to dress and act.
Throughout the video, the female form is seen as the object of an omnipresent gaze. As an audience, we are reminded of this gaze as we are shown the scene through the lens of various jailhouse security cameras or newscasts. Harper and Tiggemann (2008) discuss the finding that women who observe another woman being objectified are more likely to “exhibit [a] higher state self-objectification, appearance anxiety, negative mood and body dissatisfaction” (p. 651); to simply watch the exploitation of another women can be detrimental to the mental health of the individual. Lamb (2010) reiterated a study done by Herman (1992), which stated that constant objectification and exploitation often leads to the victim “taking on the perpetrator’s perspective” (p. 297). When the perpetrator is the ceaseless, ubiquitous force of media, it is not surprising that many young women come to understand their self worth in terms of the oppressing standards imposed upon them. Lamb (2010) explains that internalizing such views leads viewers to the understanding that they are simply objects of sex, only able to “[give] someone else pleasure through their bodies or performances” (p. 279). To watch an idol objectify themselves teaches audiences that they too should view their bodies as objects: items that require constant monitoring and awareness of appearance. It is the internalization of these values that has lead to the adamant body monitoring seen by young girls in our society today.
As young girls learn to internalize an ever present and objectifying gaze, an inherent self-consciousness also becomes a part of their self-identity. Wood (2012) argues, as we learn to judge ourselves critically through the eyes of an outside observer, “we remind ourselves what others have told us we are supposed to think, do, look like and feel…what the others have told us is appropriate for our age, sex and so forth” (p. 163). Unfortunately, the conception of what is appropriate for a young female has become distorted through the lens of the media. Women are now encouraged to pursue frighteningly low weights in an effort to look more like the women they see in objectifying media images that inform the public what “sexy” is, and more importantly, what it is not. The body type of Gaga and her back up dancers is homogeneous. If we consider again at the dance sequence down the aisle of the jail, we notice that each of the dancers appears petite, even bony. Young girls learn to assess their bodies according to unnatural and nearly impossible standards of weight and appearance, which can only be achieved through “practices that renders them thin, and ultimately, weak and vulnerable” (Shugart, Waggoner & O’Brien Hallstein, p. 203). As previously established, a concrete hegemonic value is the weakness and vulnerability of women. Gaga and her dancers are not lean, they are skinny: the emphasis is placed on the weaknesses they hold rather than potential strength.
While the act of self-objectification may demonstrate a certain amount of agency on the part of the individual, this practice ultimately serves to disempower those who are objectified, while reinforcing hegemonic social norms. When one chooses to objectify themselves it is impossible to claim that they are challenging binary stereotypes, for it is these stereotypes to which they are conforming. The impacts of exposure to highly sexualized images, especially at young ages, encourages adolescents to look at themselves as objects. Residual effects of this mindset can lead to tolerance of objectification and forms of abuse as well as negative self-images, which can result in obsessive self-monitoring in the form of eating disorders and general body dissatisfaction. Before any individual, especially and individual who holds such clout as Lady Gaga, chooses to objectify themselves, they must first consider the repercussions that this will have on society as a whole—what message are we sending to our peers, and more importantly, to our youth. It is vital that, as a nation, we understand that objectification of any form constrains females to a lesser position and cannot be tolerated.
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