Monday, February 7, 2011

An Open Letter To Lady Gaga, From A Fan And Fellow Feminist



Dear Lady Gaga,

I love what you do. The populist spirit with which you insist that pop culture is art. Your devotion to performance. The sense of community that you're building with your fans. That you're not afraid to make out with butch women in your music videos, or be photographed in drag. I love that you've taken up the phrase "born this way," not only as the title of your next single and album, but almost as a slogan. In light of the constructedness of your image, it's very post-modern, and speaks strongly to self-determination - you become the person you want to be, and no one else can tell you who you are. And I relate to you - your upbringing, your feminism, your desire to create and to be heard. I relate to "Wonderful." In other words, I'm a huge fan.

But I need to tell you something, not as a fan, but as a fellow feminist. Specifically, as a fellow white feminist.

It's about "Born This Way." You released the lyrics a little while ago. A lot of people found them inspiring and life-affirming, as they were intended to be. A bunch of people thought they were trite - but honestly I don't think that will matter once the lyrics are set to music. And some people found them offensive. Normally, you don't respond to criticism, and often that's a good thing. But you need to listen to those people.


Those would be the people you refer to in your song as "Cholas" and "Orient made". Terms that are both racist.

You didn't mean to be racist. But that doesn't matter. The words you used hurt people. The hurt remains, whether you intended it or not.

Maybe you know people who refer to themselves as "Cholas". And that's fine for them. It's called "reappropriating the pejorative" - the same thing as what you do with the word "bitch". But you can't reappropriate if you're not part of the group that the pejorative is applied to. So you can call yourself a "bitch" or "guidette" as much as you like - but use the word "Chola"? Not so much. Or maybe you know women who refer to themselves as "Cholas" not because they're trying to make anything positive out of it, but just because they're buying into negative stereotypes. Doesn't change anything. My partner's father is Chinese-Canadian and tells Chinese jokes all the time, which I am not going to repeat anywhere. Because that would be racist. The jokes don't stop being racist just because I heard them from someone who is Chinese.

Maybe you didn't realize that "Orient" is considered offensive. A lot of people don't. But that doesn't make the word less exoticizing, or less associated with imperialism and stereotypes. And, as someone trying to write about race, it was your job to find out what is and isn't considered offensive.

There will be a lot of Hispanic and Asian people who will say that they aren't offended by the words you used. Okay. That doesn't erase the hurt of other people. That doesn't change the fact that the words that you chose convey negative stereotypes.

There will be people who say that you shouldn't be criticized because you created a song that is supposed to be positive and life affirming. But if you want to create something positive, you need to listen to such criticism. If you're using language that is hurtful and offensive, then you have not achieved your objective.

There will be people who say that this doesn't matter. But it does. This is the type of thing that white feminists are known for: being oblivious to racial issues. Thinking so highly of their own (trite) opinions that they do not take the time to listen and understand before speaking and acting. And then getting defensive and denying that they did anything wrong. As one white feminist to another I need to tell you that we need to stop doing this. Otherwise, we're just hypocrites, and we will never get anywhere. You've made the first two mistakes. Please, please don't make the third.

Here's what to do instead: Acknowledge the criticism. Apologize. Listen to what groups like Chicanos Unidos Arizona and MEChA have to say. If there's time, change the lyrics to "Born This Way". Learn. And do better.

You're new to this feminism thing. You're going to make mistakes. The important thing is how you react to those mistakes.

So many young people look up to you. You've set a good example for them  before, by advocating for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I hope you set a good example again by addressing dealing with the criticism of "Born This Way".

Sincerely,
Marissa (A Little Monster)

Edit: Related reading at Racialicious: Lady Gaga Brings Cholas Back To Pop Culture – Like It Or Not


Image source


21 comments:

  1. Well said.

    Are you actually sending this to her, or just posting it on your blog?

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  2. I can never find where to send fanmail.

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  3. Oh No They Didn't! livejournal's largest community, a celebrity gossip blog.

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  4. "It's called "reappropriating the pejorative" - the same thing as what you do with the word "bitch". But you can't reappropriate if you're not part of the group that the pejorative is applied to."

    Omg yes this and thank you for explaining that SO PERFECTLY. I hope Lady Gaga gets the message.

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  5. I appreciate that you are taking the time to sensitively address this issue with an artist without being mean-spirited in your language. She does read and respond to Twitter posts. Respectfully, I felt as though this was meant as an open critique and not an actual letter. Thank you for your time in reading this and caring so much for these issues of equality! - Bethany

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  6. Respectfully, I felt as though this was meant as an open critique and not an actual letter.

    Yeah, it's kind of both.

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  7. You might try sending it through her label, Interscope Records -- if there's nothing on their website about contact information their mailing address appears to be:
    Interscope Records
    2220 Colorado Avenue
    Santa Monica, CA
    90404

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  8. Thanks for writing this. I'm so disappointed in her and a lot of her fans.

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  9. I was wondering what you thought of her new song. I think you summed up my current conflicting feelings about Gaga, as well.

    I'd just like to add her cissexist comments into the mix. Her saying "I really am a lady," in response to the rumor that she is trans, is very troubling. She has also had her picture taken with fans who were wearing black face (she looks a little out of it in the picture, so I'm willing to believe that she was drunk/high, but she's made no comment about it so far).

    I really do like her... or, at least, I want to continue to really like her. I'm on the fence right now.

    I don't like that there seems to be a backlash against her already because she may have "jumped the shark" with this new album. I want to see her continue to succeed and be a good, sex-positive, feminist and *actually talented* role model and continue to be a damn good performer who puts out some good music. I don't want to see her burn out or become Nigel from Spinal Tap.

    But I also don't want to overlook any of the racism and cissexism. I'm also hoping that the other songs on her upcoming album will not be as sucky as "Born This Way". Even without the racist lyrics, the song is still cheesy as hell and the into is cringe-inducing. I like the chorus, though.

    I have thought of maybe writing (as in an actual hand-written letter) to her. If she loves her fans as much as she says she does, then maybe there's some possibility she'd read it, but I'm not getting my hopes up. I wouldn't even know where to send it... I guess to Interscope?

    I'm disappointed in her. I know she can do so much better than this.

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  10. This is supposedly her fan mail address: http://www.fanmail.biz/110118.html

    And ladygaga(at)musician(dot)org

    I found them in the ladygaga.com forums, but I don't know how accurate they are.

    Someone also said this: "If anyone wants an autograph by Lady Gaga, your BEST bet is sending mail VIA Venue! Send a SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), photo and a small index card asking the venue to kindly give the stuff to her to sign. Also when asking for an autograph, make sure you ask it to be addressed to you and not it just saying "lady Gaga" because they think you're going to sell it."

    I guess you could use the same method to give her a letter? Anyway, this is supposedly a list of the venues that do and don't pass on fan mail: http://www.fanmail.biz/mboard/viewtopic.php?f=125&t=24711

    I guess it's worth a shot.

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  11. I hadn't heard the "I really am a lady," quote. She gets asked about being trans a lot, and she's typically vague and "so what if I have a penis, does it matter?" Its weird that she gave a definitive answer.

    I saw the black face picture, and was wondering about it, whether she was with people she actually knew or not. I'm kinda disappointed in the fans.

    The other thing that kind of grates about "Born This Way" is all the god stuff. On the one hand I'm sure she's writing from the heart, and as someone who went to Catholic school and is privately religious, I can see why bringing god into would be important to her. On the other hand I think it diminishes the song's inclusiveness, and could be insensitive to LGBTQ people who were rejected by their communities for religious reasons. And that she refers to god as a H-I-M also bugs me.

    I'm rather fond of the line, "subway kid, rejoice your truth."

    As with "Born This Way," a lot of things she says when she talks about equality seem trite and kinda clueless. But they're the same things that I have, or could have, said a few years ago. So I really want to believe that she can do better than this.

    Thanks for the info.

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  12. I think people need to relax. You know she meant no harm by it. And how dare you ask her to change the lyrics of her song? I am an independant artist, while my songs do not have words (I do piano solos, I write poems and I would never change the lyrics / words. Words to a song are straight from the heart. You cant ask her to change it, because then it wouldnt be from her. She can't change her songs for her fans. She writes what comes from her heart, what I mean is, in an interview she said she goes to the piano and sings what comes to her mind and writes it down. You wouldn't want to ruin her originality would you? She even says in her songs like "Hair" that she is her self and asks everyone to let her express herself. She wasn't being offensive, she was using those words to relate to everyone and stand up for everyone. And I think that the OP is a little nuts.

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  13. Hey if you're going to criticize Born This Way lyrics, you have to blame the people who wrote the song, produced it, etc. You can't only blame it on GaGa. Everyone who helped make the lyrics and the song needs to be blamed if the lyrics are that bad.

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  14. Lady Gaga did write the song. She writes all her own songs.

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  15. i also think that gaga is the best artist in pop music she inspires me so much that i decited to take an entrest in singing may be one day ill be as talented as gaga

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  16. sorry that i put myself anonymous it just a trust thing

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  17. hi iam hunter the one who said that lady gaga was the best pop singer but let me rephrase that she is the queen of pop stay strong gaga stay strong cause your doing an amazeing job please write back hunter

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  18. When a pejorative is reclaimed, does it continue to be useable only by the group that has reclaimed it? If so, reclamation is an exercise in vanity. If not, the above criticism is groundless. "Chola" and "Oriental" are only negative as long as we allow them to be. Thus is the nature of language. Virtually every identifying term used in the song has been considered negative at one time or another--even "Lebanese" has surely been used hatefully by someone--and that seems to me the point of using the words regardless of how people currently think of them.

    In fact, I would disagree that you can't reclaim a term if you aren't part of the group to which it is applied. Without partners from outside the group confirming that the term is not negative, you might as well just be a group of sullen teenagers sitting in a dark room muttering, "we're not the uncool ones, they're the uncool ones." It changes nothing. Everyone's perceptions remain the same. Convincing others that a term is not negative is a constituent of victory.

    I find some of the complaints that have come up in the comments a little strange as well. How is cissexist to call oneself a lady? Does she not have the right to self-identify as a lady? Couldn't she say "I really am a lady" even if she's trans? I would have no problem with an FTM saying "I really am a gentleman." But even if it is a confirmation that her self-identification and her phenotype align in such a way as to make her cis rather than trans, what's wrong with that? Is it only okay to be trans now?

    Finally, the complaint about God makes no sense. To those who have been rejected for putatively religious reasons, saying that God made them this way means that it was the bigots who were wrong. And to those who don't believe in God--like myself--it can be read merely as a send-up of all those religious arguments that say anyone who isn't white/straight/Christian/etc. is somehow wrong. The very phrase "born this way" originates as a response to the claim that being queer in any way is somehow unnatural, and that claim is typically pushed on religious grounds. Using God in the song takes the battle to their field and says "if God exists, I don't think He's a bigot."

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