The entertainment world can both liberate and restrict identities by offering a space for the entertainers that sometimes seems intangible and outrageous for their viewers. So in the entertainment world, dressing in drag is nothing new. For years artists have become instantly infamous for their “gender-bending,” from Annie Lenox to Cher, from Boy George to Grace Jones, and now it’s Lady Gaga’s turn. It’s true that music can break down barriers and Gaga tries to do this in all aspects of her performances. Though her work can feel contrived she’s generally well-meaning, but there’s something to be said about her performance at the VMAs this year.
Since Gaga is typically outrageous, her drag king persona seemed more relatable than she usually does in her own daily drag. With simple jeans and a t-shirt, her alter ego Jo Calderone seemed ordinary compared to her usual getup. Calderone’s clothing, style, and swagger all showed the viewers a tangible vision of performativity, something that Gaga constantly tries to represent in her performances. Gaga’s superstardom allows her to do literally whatever she wants to do, and she works to challenge the minds of people watching–even if, like last Sunday night, it quickly turns uncomfortable.
When Calderone entered the stage we saw Gaga as a drag king, one that transformed the artist from a subject of the male gaze into an agent of it. Into the first minute of the show, Gaga’s alter-ego quickly changed from a semi-relatable caricature (at first glance) to an alienating creep who literally could not stop talking about Gaga, crazy women, and sex. He quickly began to spew vulgarities that appeared to be Gaga’s attempt to perform Calderone’s masculinity. While presenting Britney Spears’s VMA, he even talked about masturbating to her poster on his wall as an adolescent.
Had those words come from any other man’s voice, it would not have been well received, especially just as Spears received one of the biggest awards of the night. But because it was Gaga in drag, Calderone got away with presenting a vulgar masculinity that felt borderline sexist; one that, whether it comes from the current queen of pop or some dude on the street, just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps she didn’t realize the effect of her words when they’re translated with the power dynamics of a male voice. In 1984, Annie Lenox gave viewers a totally respectful performance when she sang at the Grammys dressed in drag. But on Sunday night–especially for this female viewer–Gaga’s bizarre presentation of masculinity felt more like a crude alienation than a liberating embrace.
Emily is a contributing writer for The LAMPpost. You can find more of her writing on her blog, “Kids and Gender.”