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Going Gaga: How the ‘fame monster’ defies the rules of sex and gender

Judith Halberstam discussed Lady Gaga and her influences on ‘pheminism.’ (Delisa O’Brien / Staff Photographer)

Judith “Jack” Halberstam, author and professor of English at the University of Southern California, has been interested in the mega-stardom of Lady Gaga ever since the video for “Telephone” premiered.

“We are going to go gaga together,” Halberstam said to a crowded Library Auditorium on Monday, Feb. 28. “And I invite you to think with me.”

Halberstam, who also is the director of The Center for Feminist Research at the university, explored Gaga’s influences as the first in a series of lectures celebrating Women’s History Month at the College.

The lecture, appropriately titled “Going Gaga,” discussed what Halberstam calls “Gaga Pheminism.” This “pheminism” is meant to encompass the idea of phoniness within the traditional spelling and idea of feminism.

Androgyny is a concept that Halberstam believes Gaga embodies, which makes her fitting to be the face of a generation. Gaga embraces both a masculine and feminine persona, which was seen when she posed as a man for Japan’s Vogue, the author said.

Rumors previously circulated that Lady Gaga has male genitalia, which is a topic Halberstam discussed.

“The point is at no point did Lady Gaga reject the idea,” Halberstam said. “She is perfectly happy to occupy a space of ambiguity and not settle it for anyone.”

The professor believes Gaga is “suggesting something different about how sex and gender work together.”

Halberstam clarified that this is not a new feminism; instead, its roots trace back to early English punk from the 1970s.

This “pheminism” is one focusing on performances that “dismantle the character of women,” Halberstam said.

“The name for that in this particular moment is Gaga,” the professor said. “What I mean by ‘going gaga’ is an excessive performance in which she loses control.”

Halberstam first heard the song “She’s Lost Control” by Grace Jones in 1979, which epitomizes this concept.

Halberstam described Jones’ song as the “sound of a punk diva coming undone” and said that it blurs the line of genre since it is a combination of punk and R&B music.

When male performers go crazy on stage, it is acceptable and “seen as the choreography of rock,” Halberstam said.

However, when women act out, they are considered hysterical. Halberstam’s examples of this included Britney Spears and her head-shaving incident.

Halberstam highlighted the double standard and explained how “female stars have very little room for bad behavior.”

Throughout the lecture, Gaga was also compared to the likes of David Bowie, who also possessed gender ambiguity; Yoko Ono, who performed a duet with Gaga where the pair yelped and screamed on stage; and Andy Warhol, since Gaga also “manages her own star power.” When making these comparisons, Halberstam tried “to find musical, gender, generic, (and) cultural hybridity that takes root and has cross appeal.”

Halberstam said that Gaga combines the popular or mainstream with the avant-garde. The “Telephone” music video, from which a clip was shown, is what Halberstam believes turned Gaga from a superstar into a megastar.

A Thelma and Louise-esque plot fills the video, where after Beyoncé bails Gaga out of jail, the two women go off on a killing spree.

In the video, Gaga critiques the emphasis on technology in society and even enters realms of lesbianism in the scenes taking place in the jail courtyard, Halberstam said.

“She’s infectious,” Halberstam said. “There are a million songs out there, and not all imprint themselves on your conscience in that way.”

Jamie Primeau can be reached at


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