A Tabula Gaga for Two

In an article in the October 2010 Harper’s, “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Suicide,” Susan Faludi zeroes in on how Jane Halberstam, a critic of Second Wave feminism, holds up a Lady Gaga video, Telephone, as an exemplar of non-academic, “relevant” feminism that Second Wavers must yield do:

If the older feminist scholars were not “relevant” anymore, who was? Halberstam had an answer: Lady Gaga. She cued up her Power-Point presentation to show us an excerpt from the music video Telephone, in which (for readers who somehow managed to miss it) Lady Gaga, modeling various wacky outfits on her mannequin torso, gets tossed in jail, (wo)manhandled by butchy guards, and ogled by cat-fighting sexpots—until babelicious Beyoncé springs Gaga out of prison and the gal pals head out to a diner, where they poison all the men (and women, and a dog), before heading off to points unknown in their “Pussy Wagon,” shadowed by a police helicopter.

In Telephone’s “brave new world of Gaga girliness,” Halberstam said “we are watching something like the future of feminism.” A future that the new wave of feminist theorists will usher in. “What one wants to inspire is new work that one barely recognizes as feminism, and that’s what I’m going to call Gaga feminism,” Halberstam said. This will be feminist scholarship that breaks with “God help us, longevity,” commits acts of “disloyalty” and “betrayal and rupture,” and even denies one’s own sex: “Instead of becoming women, we should be unbecoming women—that category itself seems vexed and problematic.” …..

On the last afternoon of the conference, I caught up with Halberstam at the farewell reception. I told her I didn’t understand how Lady Gaga’s Telephone could be the “future of feminism.”

“Adapt or die!” she responded cheerfully. “Pop stars are where the inspiration for feminism is going to come from.”

But how was Telephone a feminist inspiration? Halberstam pointed to the way the video dealt with rumors that Gaga was a hermaphrodite. “She didn’t deny them. She played with them. You have that great moment where the prison guards take off her clothes and say, too bad she didn’t have a dick . . .”

Faludi has her doubts:

[Is the goal]…to create a tabula rasa, where the past is no longer usable and one can become or unbecome anything? Where everything is relative, indeterminate, and a “choice” as valid as any other choice? In other words, the weightless, ahistorical realm of the commercial, a realm that promises its inhabitants a perpetual nursery where no one has to grow up… an infantile transgressiveness (“the brave new world of Gaga girliness”?), a cosmetic revolt that has less in common with feminism than with 1920s flapperism. It posits a world where pseudo-rebellions are mounted but never won nor desired to be won, where “liberation” begins and ends with wordplay and pop-culture pastiche and fishnet stockings, and where all needs can be met by the bountiful commercial breast, the marketplace’s simulacrum of the mother.

These apt criticisms, reflecting a broad dissatisfaction with the liberatory claims of postmodernism that Faludi shares with many on the left, require amendment. How do we reconcile the airy tone of “weightlessness” and “indeterminacy” with the video’s indiscriminately lethal finale? I will argue the video shows how indeterminacy, purportedly connoting an open-ended freedom untethered by origins, master discourses and such, can remain very much enthralled by a certain form of these nemeses. If we are not beguiled by the video’s nominal playfulness and instead take it seriously, we see how Gaga, ostensibly posing her way through a closet full of fashioned selves, fails in a high wire act that collapses in rageful annihilation of her audience.

Adjacent is a trimmed-down version of the video. Two basic interpretive options are available to us. One, I think, abets the jargon of indeterminacy. In that view, we pick up on the guards stripping Gaga, who then exposes her genital as she climbs on the bars while the guards walk away, saying it’s too bad Gaga doesn’t have a dick. From there we can consider interpretive options flowing out of the potpourri of Gaga’s Alice in Wonderland fashion-mongering, the butch guards and their phallic clubs, the inmate punchup, the Pussy Wagon, etc., interpretations that draw on a comic book playfulness to argue for a transient commitment to positions and identities, which is no commitment at all. But this haphazard symbology of gestures would miss what the conclusion’s massacre reveals. Something is profoundly wrong, and when Gaga tries to express it, it comes out as a rejoinder to Beyoncé about fixing the mirror: “you can still see the cracks in that motherfucker’s reflection.” They’re on a mission, the rest is diversion.

Of course we can keep the guards in mind and take “crack” as a reference to the female genital, to see this as resonant with the guard’s lament, and then to wonder if Gaga is somehow yielding to their prescription (and their yearning) or, to hear a note of defiance, if she’s objecting to how her genital is distorted in the reflecting eye of the guards. Yet more fundamentally, this can be seen as referring to an uncertainty in the reception of her imagethat infuriates the costumed (yet fashion-mocking) Gaga, and which she draws Beyoncé into striking out against. So, when they get to the diner, it isn’t a question of whether the apocalypse — which may seem to be set in motion and meaningfully determined by Beyoncé sitting down with the guy — is about getting Beyoncé to repudiate, or showing her to repudiate, a heterosexual attachment in favor of Gaga. Instead, it is about getting rid of the mirror, the world of Others who don’t see things the way they should. Even the dog.

From this perspective, what might their driving off in the Pussy Wagon mean? Telephone’sfinale tries to pull off a modular disassociation that breaks the driveaway from everything before it and at the same time determines what preceded: because they are alive, while Thelma and Louise died, we have a feminist triumph. However, if we don’t allow their driving away to erase the lunchtime crowd’s erasure, then the Pussy Wagon becomes a closed universe against the discarded mirror and mirrors to come (“To be continued…”) Although the Pussy Wagon is ostentatious, and appears to be defiantly asserting a feminist makeover of a mode of phallic nonsense masquerading as function — the custom truck — it also is an enclosure, within which Gaga and Beyoncé may be able to be what each of them wants the other to see them as, although the delights of indeterminacy may weigh against anything specific, at least for very long.

Fetishizing Feminism: Conflating the Forbidden with the Impossible

At this point I think it will be useful to set up some psychoanalytic navigation points. Joyce McDougall has proposed

All drama, tragic or comic, reveals the struggles of men and women, confronted with violent instinctual forces in a world that offers little support in solving conflicts.  Swept by storms of love and hate, seeking as much to please and to seduce as to punish and to destroy those closest to us, from childhood on we all have to compromise with two fundamental aspects of external reality: the Forbidden and the Impossible.  These form the ineluctable framework from which our personal identity is constructed.  Helped or hindered by the demands of the “others,” the people who brought us up and the society to which we belong, each of us attempts to find solutions that satisfy the exigencies of our forbidden libidinal longings and our impossible narcissistic desires.

By definition, the Forbidden is potentially realizable.  It is theoretically possible, for example, to commit incest or parricide… The true Impossibles, on the other hand, are connected to inevitable narcissistic wounds that beset the human infant from birth onward, beginning with the wound of being severed from fusional oneness with the mother.  These are markedly less accessible to verbal thought and require counterinvestments and compensations of another order. (From Theaters of the Mind: Illusion and Truth on the Psychoanalytic Stage, 1985, pps. 7-8.) Note ##

In these terms, Telephone represents a muddle of the Forbidden and the Impossible, and Halberstam is asserting that muddle as the next wave of feminism.

[[Note## Stefano Bolognini offers a good rendering of this struggle against defeat as it may manifest itself in analysis: “The erotic transference causes unelaborated parts of the patient to emerge—parts that seem to have passed through the customs of the decline of the oedipal period, scot-free, without paying the depressive duty tax: there was no disillusionment, no repression, and instead there was a denial. The father and mother are not experienced as a true couple, and the basic unconscious assumption is: “My father (or my mother) in reality loves only me. And I will demonstrate that.” Childhood omnipotence holds a shameless and secret area of the mind in reserve, in which the oedipal complex takes center stage without defeat, without exclusions and without delays; and in which, indeed, an important component of the pleasure and excitement will derive not so much from the relationship with the other as from the triumph over the rivalrous “third,” a figure almost more important than the partner. At play is an absolute narcissistic supremacy; and what is feared, what enters the picture, is not at all guilt, but the ghost of defeat, which is unacceptable and must not be. [author’s emphases] Stefano Bolognini (2011) “The Analyst’s Awkward Gift: Balancing Recognition of Sexuality with Parental Protectiveness.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 80:33-55, p. 41.]]

The Forbidden against which feminism (like any other emancipatory movement) has pitted itself is centrally about the assertion of real capacities and abilities that have been denied. Just as it turns out that slaves, contrary to slaveholder doctrines, can indeed grasp differential equations, play the violin, and formulate social policy, so can women, and that leaves no basis for white males to assert they possess vitally unique abilities that merit unequal rights and access to resources, not to mention denigrating women to resource status.

However, the empirical demonstration of this counterideological truth does not end the argument, and not just because some males deny the facts to maintain their privileges. The terms of debate continually threaten to regress into the somatic essentialism of sexual dimorphism, the ideological destiny determined by primary and secondary sexual characteristics that second wave feminism debunked. Again, this is not just because some men continue to invoke phallic ideology (although their intransigence, a sheer unwillingness to face facts, certainly inspires murderous wishes). It is also because the collective victory of the present cannot abolish the remembered experience of past humiliations framed in essentialistic, Impossible terms, i.e. humiliations framed in the concrete misunderstandings of childhood. In this respect, Faludi is entirely right in wondering if this is taking place in the nursery.

What makes up this concretized, essentialistic past, and how does it insinuate into the present? In other words, why do Gaga and Beyoncé get into a Pussy Wagon, instead of an Accord?

Freud’s model of female development, whereby the young girl inescapably experiences a narcissistic insult because she does not have a penis, has been duly dustbinned. This controversy need not be trudged through again in that sexist form, but let’s consider it in universal terms, with no sex exempt from the experience of humiliating insufficiency. Other writers, including McDougall and particularly Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, have argued that the exclusive focus of Freud’s model on the penis/phallus served to obscure that the normal course of childhood held strong potential for children of both sexes to experience crushing humiliation. In their view, the focus on penis envy defended against considering equivalents in the experience of males. Thus, for Chasseguet-Smirgel, writing in her article of 1976, “Freud and Female Sexuality—The Consideration of Some Blind Spots in the Exploration of the ‘Dark Continent’,” all children faced humiliation imposed by their small size and concomitant inadequacy in comparison to the parents’ adult partners. In the face of this inadequacy children would respond in different ways — some more or less eventually accepting defeat and being a (hopefully) loved child (but “just” a child, all the same), while others linger over the calamity and deny it (for an example, see the case of K on this site) — but all children would go through it. In the process, they become susceptible to being drawn back into both re-experiencing the humiliation and taking a shot at undoing it.

By way of undoing, below is the opening sequence to a cartoon of the late 1950s, Tom Terrific, aired on a weekday children’s show, Captain Kangaroo.   Accompanied by his faithful companion, Manfred, Tom would defeat evil of modest proportions while constantly changing his own. That Tom’s body can become anything takes him that much farther away from immediate corporeal angsts, and it’s all in the service of the Good.


This renders everyone susceptible to the restorative excitements of a custom truck, and the interplay between individual and social pressures to buy into the illusion will be considered below. But we must be clear about the truck’s arbitrariness: if we take the argument of Chasseguet-Smirgel and others to its logical conclusion, the original representation of a special something that would undo all calamities need not be a phallus, as in classical psychoanalysis, but rather anything that comes to be understood by the child as what they lacked, their deficiency, that led to the ongoing problem with their parent, or some alternative thing that is so intoxicatingly powerful that the calamity will be resolved. The issue here is not whether Telephone, despite its nominal feminism, inveigles us back into phallicism. More generically, it mobilizes fetishism, here understood as magical fascination with any representation of wholeness impervious to humiliation.** Following Halberstam, feminism adaptively takes up a project of make believe. Instead of representing a final frontier of liberation, it is a regression back into the preoccupations of childhood that were gamed by male chauvinism, now reworked in a music video that’s hustling an audience.


[[Note** This understanding of the fetish is essentially the same arrived at by Nersessian in his discussion of a female analysand’s cat fetish:

This leads me to propose that the fetish (in both sexes) is not merely the absent penis, but that it is a repository of fantasies from various levels of psychosexual development. It is clung to whenever there is a perceived situation of danger with the primary aim being that of preventing intense anxiety from all levels in the hierarchy of childhood calamities. What is distinctive about the fetish, in my view, is that it is an object, outside the person, that is resorted to in the ego’s attempt to deal with anxiety. It, like all symptoms, can be seen as a compromise formation; however, it is a particular kind of compromise in which the outside object is endowed with magical characteristics and its presence is essential to prevent anxiety. (Nersessian, Edward. (1998). A Cat as Fetish: A Contribution to the Theory of Fetishism. Int. J. Psycho-Analysis., 79:713-725, p. 720.)

Nersessian emphasizes the connection of the fetish to controlling anxiety in the sexual situations the fetishist experiences as fraught with danger. Here I am extending its scope to include contexts that are not manifestly sexual.

It should be noted that it is quite possible for a theory of fetishism to become fetishistic itself; this is precisely what Chasseguet-Smirgel was arguing, in as much as accepting the phallocentric rendering of fetishism markedly narrows the range of anxieties and insults one needs to fear. Thus by maintaining that fetishism only comes about as a response to the observation that women don’t have penises, a broad range of other sources of anxiety, for example, loss of the object and loss of the object’s love, are relatively minimized. However, at the same time, it might be said that there is something absolute about the anatomical difference between the sexes that suggests that fetishism addressing related anxieties might be of a different order. Thus, for example, while loss of a parent’s love may be addressed with an apology or forgiveness, and even the loss of a parent can be overcome through mourning and finding other supportive adults, anatomical sexual differences may not be able to be overcome through reparative and substitutive means. More on this in a following section.]]

What is it about the video that suggests a struggle with the Impossible and a failure to repudiate its framework, setting up the resort to fetishism? First, at its outset Telephone strums the leitmotif of disappointment that a woman doesn’t have a penis or even, to put it more cautiously and nodding briefly to Halberstam’s reference to the hermaphrodite controversy, that a hermaphroditic-looking person turned out to be “only” a woman. Either way, we’ve begun an opera of missing body parts, their fantasied equivalents, and their hypervaluation as a remedy for narcissistic injury. After being stripped Gaga miraculously comes up with a series of florid outfits that magnify her aloofness and emphatically establish her difference from the other inmates. Whether she’s covering her “lack” or asserting some other register, “wacky” or not, she’s playing a fashion game full tilt, in butterfly contrast to the assortment of butchy or stereotypically feminine women in the prison who are only drably conventional in their presentation. Additionally, they demean themselves by fighting while Gaga hangs back, phoning Beyoncé to rescue her. From there it’s through the cracked mirror, the mass poisoning and then the escape with Beyoncé into a dyad that assures Gaga will be seen the way she wants to be seen. This is not about escaping an objectifying “male gaze” — though including the police helicopter may be a gesture in that direction — but the gaze of either/any sex that will not support a reconstitutive illusion. In a strong sense, Gaga seeks objectification as someone who is not lacking. Short of that, she’s stuck putting on an endless succession of outfits, a series of failing respites that she only appears to overcome with the next getup. Once you’re on the fashion runway, you can’t get off.

Second, that the scene of the slaughter is a roadside diner filled with people who are either obese or gluttonous suggests the contempt for oral dependence that is often associated with narcissistic conflicts. The narcissistic preoccupation with physical flaws is a way of addressing relational problems with primary caretakers who found them flawed, and the oral preoccupations of the diner crowd recall the needy, burdensome baby the narcissist repudiates. As it wards off any need other than for an uncracked mirror, Telephone enlists sex against need. The erotics Telephone dabbles in seem to be standard music video fare, but it is about repudiation more than titillation. The bored (and boring) frozen-faced dancing which says “you want me and I don’t want you” doesn’t flow into either giving over to desire or its containment, but instead in desire’s murder.

Rushdie’s Shame and the political limits of narcissistic indeterminacy

Now let’s examine another case of slaughter as a representation of rage over impotent disconnection.  Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory addresses a puzzle posed by Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame: how is it that so competent a writer, and one who has taken political stands supporting women and social democracy, ends up writing a book in which the central female figure, Sufiya Zinobia, rebels against her subordinate status by becoming a fiend-animal, orgiastically slaughtering people and livestock? Ahmad elaborates the problem in this way:

Rushdie’s inability to include integral regenerative possibilities within the Grotesque world of his imaginative creation represents a conceptual flaw of a fundamental kind…while Rushdie talks constantly of politics, all the political acts represented within the matrix of the novel are demagogic, opportunistic, self-serving, cruel, or at best petty…For so wedded is Rushdie’s imagination to imageries of wholesale degradation and unrelieved social wreckage, so little is he able to conceive of a real possibility of regenerative projects on the part of the people who actually exist within our contemporary social reality, that even when he attempts, towards the end of the novel, to open up a regenerative possibility…the powers which he…bestows upon her in the moment of her triumph are powers only of destruction…

[This] kind of image, which romanticizes violence as self-redemption, has no potential for portraying regenerative processes… Politics is mostly farce, sometimes tragedy, but is never capable of producing resistance to oppression, solidarity and integrity in human conduct, or any sort of human community; for all its marvelous humour, Rushdie’s imagined world is, in its lovelessness, almost Orwellian…if the political vision of your imagined world does not include those who resist, or love, or act with any degree of integrity or courage, then you will conclude…that it is a [world] in which brother has been betraying brother for generations…it is this Orwellian idea, in other words, that human beings always betray one another – which gives this book its quite extraordinary quality of lovelessness. (In Theory, pps. 149-151, passim.)

Except for a few wrinkles, this fits Telephone to a T. Outside of the Gaga-Beyoncé dyad there is only betrayal: sister by sister (the guards vs. the inmates, the inmates vs. the inmates) brother by brother (gluttonous diner vs. diner) and lover against lover (the food preoccupied boyfriend is poisoned). This rendering of the social world denies the possibility of solidarity to achieve progressive ends; indeed the question of progressive ends, implying collective or universal benefits, vanishes, since both fashionista posturing and its mockery only allows room for one in the mirror (or one up on stage, admired and loved by a mass who are only linked together as fans who have lost any connection to their daily lives). Instead, society is there only to be annihilated and left behind.

Ahmad invokes Orwell, and we need to update contextual referents to gauge the limits of Telephone’s social imagination. Orwell’s thought was bounded by a hopelessness brought about by the failure/perversion of the communist movement, the bureaucratization of welfare capitalism, and the extinctionist threat of nuclear war. True, the Cold War has ended, but it has been replaced by a War on Terror peddling a more immediate sense of perpetual emergency. In parallel, welfare capitalism is being dismantled in favor of an unmitigated transnational capitalism leaving more and more people powerless and lacking confidence in their ability to organize and resist. Going with this flow, it is in some ways unsurprising that Halberstam’s feminist model is inveigled into the illusory pursuit of the Impossible. If feminism is to adapt by giving up on the labor of solidarities and instead follow the vanguard of sensationalized self-presentation to an audience, it must accordingly internalize the underlying logic of capitalist institutions promoting an endless chase after an infinite series of fashion images geared to unlimited profit accumulation.

Here we can link up with Ahmad’s indictment of Rushdie’s affirmation of “migratory” indeterminacy, the postmodern anti-ideal that dismays Faludi. Ahmad sees Rushdie, a writer in exile, as having rather blindly rationalized his plight via postmodernese:

…having defined ‘migration’ as a metaphor for the human condition as such, [Rushdie]  goes on to say that a migrant is a ‘metaphorical being’ and the ‘the migrant intellect roots itself in itself’ because it understands the ‘artificial nature of reality.’  Now, if a migrant is a metaphorical being, and if ‘we are all migrants,’ obviously we are all ‘metaphorical beings’; and reality itself is ‘artificial’ not only in the sense that much of it is made by us but also in the much more idealistic and modernist sense that life does not exist outside its metaphors; and if reality is only ‘artificial’ then the writer’s intellect has no choice but to ‘root itself in itself’; the tie between social despair, a literal loss of reality, and narcissism is now complete.

…one could speak of oneself as a man of the Left, as Orwell himself frequently did; but there was no actual Left, no existing community of praxis, within that world which had given one’s imagination and fictions their energy, with which one felt in any fundamental way bonded, accepting and struggling with the risks and the restrictions and the suffering that such bonding often implies…In an earlier time…such desolations of the self were still experienced quite frequently as a loss; what postmodernism has done is to validate precisely the pleasures of such unbelonging, which is rehearsed now as a utopia, so that belonging nowhere is nevertheless construed as the perennial pleasure of belonging everywhere. (In Theory, pps. 154-156, passim. My emphasis)

Telephone’s carnage and Sufiya Zinobia’s rampages in Shame reflect the manic denial of this loss. Gaga can’t simply go off with Beyoncé and leave the world behind. Instead of mourning the promises contained in a myriad of social relationships, she is moved to attack a social world construed as ugly and repulsive because she must obliterate her own disappointment with it; she thereby evades depressive affect through an escape into a narcissistic dyad — whatever could I want from those people?. (Telephone shows how unrealized social yearnings morph into a fascination with physical beauty that degrades those yearnings as ugly.) With Sufiya Zinobia, presented as brain damaged and thus organically deranged, a similar process of devaluation and attack is not so evident. She is reminiscent of the creature in the film Alien, demonic and pure in her hatred, seemingly free of an interest in any social ties. But she is not utterly autistic, without social orientation, as is obvious from her attacks on others. She is a grandiose representation of what is denied by Rushdie’s affirmation of indeterminacy. His airy freedom to metaphorical self-composition rests on a wholesale destruction of the social object that would remind him of his nonmetaphorical life, burdening him with disappointment or outrage and the renewed object ties those emotions express. Of course, Rushdie is no fascist, Sufiya Zinobia does not represent a program, but an impulse, one that flares up devastatingly and dies away.


Hopefully at this point the reader doesn’t feel pressed to worry about Gaga-inspired attacks on IHoPs. My concern is that analyses like Halberstam’s, because they are quick to endorse the apparent freedom of a playful attitude towards the most concrete representations of sex and gender, underestimate how difficult it is to escape tendencies to regressively define liberation when the play becomes framed in a fetishistic discourse. Cheering on the apparently transgressive act, Halberstam overlooks the utterly circumscribed outcome. Instead of undoing and renouncing the fetishistic project, the video drowns in the bog of adolescent one-upping, ridiculing someone else’s fetish to maintain the superiority of your own and getting locked in to a permanent arms race — what will Gaga wear next? Playful deconstruction is taken over by the original childhood agony and the fantasized solutions of that time. There can then be only one general form of satisfactory resolution, a fantasy of physical transformation consistent with the remedial fantasies of childhood. In that way the freedom of playful imagination, which might imagine a universal renunciation of fetishistic combat, comes to be governed by narcissistic hostility, and the play is brought to an end with the extermination of a noncompliant audience, the cracked mirror, and a fixation on the adoring gaze of one reliable Other.

Halberstam’s “Adapt or die” masks a shallow  call to freedom by letting a thousand fetishes bloom.  If there is one reliable guideline for feminist theory, it is to relentlessly critique fetishized discourse, however provocatively and alluringly packaged. And because provocative packaging is a primary axis of consumer culture and the cartoon-like personalities it creates, feminism will have to explain why it must spoil that fun and, moreover, why it isn’t fun at all, unless you can imagine Sisyphuses smiling in increasingly fragmented identity collectives.


Ahmad, Aijaz. (1992) In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso.

Bolognini, Stefano. (2011) “The Analyst’s Awkward Gift: Balancing Recognition of Sexuality with Parental Protectiveness.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 80:33-55.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1976) “Freud and Female Sexuality – The Consideration of some Blind Spots in the Exploration of the Dark Continent.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 57:275-286

Faludi, Susan. (October 2010) “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Suicide,” Harper’s: 29-42.

MacDougall, Joyce.(1991) Theaters of the Mind: Illusion and Truth on the Psychoanalytic Stage, New York: Brunner, Mazell.

Nersessian, Edward. (1998). “A Cat as Fetish: A Contribution to the Theory of Fetishism.” Int. J. Psycho-Analysis., 79:713-725.