Sharon Irish holds a joint appointment in the School of Architecture and the Community Informatics Initiative/Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign. She is the author of Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between (Minnesota, 2010) and Cass Gilbert, Architect: Modern Traditionalist.
*Title is an ode to Barbara Creed's The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993).
On September 12th, Lady Gaga (aka Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) wore at the MTV Video Music Awards an ensemble of shoes, dress and hairpiece made of raw beef that was designed by Franc Fernandez (photo, left, from JustJared.buzznet.com). Out of all her costume changes that evening, the meat dress made audiences agog, repelled and angry. Lady Gaga is a self-proclaimed “fame monster.” In "Teeth," from her earlier “The Fame Monster,” she demands: "Take a bite of my bad girl meat." Bad. Girl. Meat. Fame. Monster. So many threatening, gendered, sexualized images here! Still, Lady Gaga’s music videos and costumes have historical contexts worth exploring.
Lady Gaga is certainly not the first pop-culture icon to challenge gender norms and slam violence and sex together. Madonna, of course, comes to mind. But pop culture exists on a continuum with avant-garde art, such as the performances of the Vienna Actionists, and U.S.-based female performance artists in the mid-twentieth century. Because bodies enacted these often-bloody art performances, they were inevitably gendered—predominantly male for the Actionists (O. M. Theatre, 1957 on), female for artists such as Carolee Schneemann in Meat Joy (1964) (see also Meat After Meat Joy) or Suzanne Lacy in Anatomy Lessons (1974-78), as a few examples. So often did these artists use non-human animal bodies as stand-ins for their own mortal selves that references to dying and death, ritual and religion were woven into the complex meanings of these events. In 1987 when Canadian artist Jana Sterbak created a meat dress using heavily-salted flank steak and allowed it to “cure” on a mannequin in a gallery, her title overtly referenced the traditional vanitas imagery from art history that stressed the transient nature of life: Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic. We are what we eat (or do not eat, in some cases); our flesh will decay and die.
Suzanne Lacy used blood, guts, organs, and bodies to counter stereotypes about women, express rage and grief, represent violence, and enact new roles for herself and others. Lacy’s series Anatomy Lessons explored violence against women in these staged photographs that made her naked body appear eviscerated (one of the works was reproduced on the cover of Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between, at left). Lacy floated on or beneath the surface of a pool with cow innards on or nearby her body. In another performance, she donned a leotard with organs painted on it as she reflected on body parts, violence, death, and evil. Beauty and horror intertwined in Lacy’s work; carcasses and organs represented destructive feelings and violent states, and also the vulnerability that attends them.
Lady Gaga in her meat dress turned herself inside out, but seemingly to enact her own power. To vegan Ellen DeGeneres, Lady Gaga said: “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.” Lady Gaga was trying to make a political point, I think, about fighting for “our rights.” The Video Music Awards show occurred about the same time she made a direct appeal to the U.S. Senate and to youth to organize for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which forbids non-heterosexuals (LGBTQ) from serving in the military if they identify with or are outed about their sexual orientation. That repeal failed on September 21, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” continues to be the law, with controversial enforcement.
Among the many things to unpack about Lady Gaga’s public persona, at awards ceremonies or in music videos, is the “why” of her transgressive behavior (see "Lady Power," by Nancy Bauer). There are situations in which a transgressor is so narcissistic that actions are not strategic but merely naughty, pointless, or worse. But while Lady Gaga seems to contradict herself, and does not often link her politics clearly to her art, her elaborate, surreal, sometimes hideous performances may well communicate to her peers the mixed-up dysfunction that is today’s society. She certainly grabs the spotlight with her confounding self-objectification, feeding her “fame monster.” While her flesh-and-blood outfits owe something to past artists, her slender body, superstar status, and ambiguous stances on feminism, patriotism, and power seem remarkably mainstream. And profitable.
Sharon Irish is author of Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between. She has also created a video for the book, which includes footage of Suzanne Lacy's The Crystal Quilt (Minneapolis, 1987).
The author would like to thank Bronwen Welch, Meadow Jones, and Carol Inskeep for their assistance with this post.
UPDATE: Not only is Lady Gaga's meat dress now on sale for $100,000, it has also become one of the year's most popular Halloween-costume requests.