Friday, May 7, 2010

Sex Scandal? What Sex Scandal?

How many times in recent years has the world’s attention been riveted by revelations of the utterly mundane: a man having sex with someone who doesn’t happen to be his wife? This is the unexceptional event at the heart of virtually every major sex scandal in modern memory, and yet the extramarital dalliances of politicians, celebrities and athletes can dominate headlines for days on end. But when a group of U.S. soldiers—while on duty—stage an elaborate video featuring our boys parading around half-naked while miming sex acts with each other, no one bats an eyelash. What gives?

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with a bunch of GIs slapping on cardboard chaps and grasping at each others packages while the infectious beats of Lady Gaga blare in the background. In fact, I think it’s kind of great. I’m just saying it makes me wonder about what does get coded as a sex scandal in our society, and what doesn’t.

It also makes me wonder about the woman who enjoys the title not only of reigning Queen of Pop, but also High Priestess of Vaguely Deviant Sexuality: Lady Gaga.

In March, Lady Gaga released her epic music video Telephone. Telephone is classic Gaga, and it has justifiably won her great critical acclaim and popular adoration. But like Lady Gaga’s earlier videos (e.g. Paparazzi and Bad Romance), Telephone gleefully glorifies violence. In the new math of pop feminism it would seem, female empowerment = females acting like violent sociopaths. Personally, Lady Gaga’s valorization of violence—even in its most Tarantino-esque moments of self-parodic excess—strikes me as a wrong turn. I mean, is feminism really just about a woman's right to be as dominating and dehumanizing as a man could ever be? I hope not.

I may not like Lady Gaga's glamorization of violence, but it has definitely made her a fave femme fatale among the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And hey, what soldier these days wouldn’t love a video starring two American-flag-clad hotties unleashing a murderous wrath upon anyone who dares to disrespect them? (Trust me, Telephone is sooo much more fun to watch than Hurt Locker.)

For all its edginess, then, there is something predictable about the appeal of the Telephone video. But what to make of the viral video sensation Telephone: The Afghanistan Remake? Watching America wrap this video in a warm embrace (as of this writing, it has almost 4 million hits on youtube), I feel like I'm the only one surprised that the popular reaction hasn't been a completely homophobic one--although CBS’s Harry Smith did try his best to bait Sgt. Gaga in a recent interview:

Smith: “… And is there, ah, have you had any sort of, ah, negative repercussions? I mean you are a mechanic in the motorpool there in, in Western Afghanistan—has anyone given you the business for, ah, your ah, portrayal in the, in the music video”?

Sgt. Gaga: “No sir, not at all, ah, work has been normal…”

How’s that for the power of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? While I am no fan of the policy, perhaps one surprising effect of homophobia’s code of silence has been to push the boundaries of socially acceptable masculinities to places they might otherwise not have gone (see sociologist Michael Kimmel’s Guyland for a brilliant account of the in's and out’s of being a "guy" in today’s world.) It's almost as if the prohibition against acknowledging same-sex sexualities has enabled these guys to act in ways that otherwise would be marked as “gay”(except that it’s the military, so we can’t talk about “gay.”) As a result, military officials and the viewing public alike seem content to treat the Telephone remake as an innocent spoof and to ignore what otherwise would surely register as a major act of gender transgression.

In this respect, it’s kind of interesting to compare Telephone with the recent SNL spoof of Beyonce’s Single Ladies video. In that skit, Beyonce finds herself contending with a band of backup dancers who turn out to be three men (including the always delightful Justin Timberlake). The guys camp it up—and the audience laughs, one suspects, because in our homophobic society we tend to think it is hilarious when straight guys mockingly act “so gay.”

But the Telephone spoof is different. The guys aren’t acting gay exactly: they’re acting like Lady Gaga...who is a woman, not a man. Or is she?

If you want a quick index of the state of existential angst in the world, go to Google and type the word “is” followed by a space (my thanks to Law Professor and cultural critic Paul Campos for coming up with this ingenious exercise.) A helpful drop down menu will magically appear, revealing the most common web searches beginning with the word “is.” Now, you might not be all that surprised to find that “is santa real” and “is the world going to end in 2012” make the list. But did you really expect the top two queries to be 1) “is lady gaga a man” and 2) “is lady gaga a hermaphrodite”? That’s right: uncertainty about whether or not Lady Gaga is packing a Y chromosome tops the world’s list of most burning questions (a fact apparently not lost on Lady Gaga herself, who winks at the controversy in the scene in Telephone where two prison guards strip off her clothes. One guard comments to the other: “I told you she didn’t have a [bleep],” to which the other replies, “Too bad.”)

The point of the prison sequence in Telephone, however, is not to establish that Lady Gaga is really a lady--rather, it is to highlight how utterly meaningless the question of whether one has a [bleep] has become. The Telephone sequence features some magnificent performances of queer femininity, working with familiar archetypes of female masculinity and even creating some new ones.

All of this strikes me as pretty scandalous—but in a good way. Gender roles and expectations remain a real source of regulation and restriction in all of our lives, and Lady Gaga deserves a lot of credit for challenging those roles and expectations. And hey, the same goes for Sgt. Gaga and his crew in Afghanistan. I just wish they all didn’t have to do it by glorifying (in the case of Lady Gaga) and committing (in the case of the U.S. military) acts of senseless violence. Oh well.