Sunday, October 5, 2014

Trans Space: Exploring Lady Gaga's Transgender G.U.Y.

"I'm in charge like a G.U.Y.
I'll lay down, face up this time"

Lady Gaga

New and Exciting Positions

I first heard Lady Gaga's "G.U.Y." from her ArtPop album, while on a train from Prague to a nearby suburb in November 2013. The high concept of the album sets the listener on an allegorical space journey, encountering aliens and goddesses along the way who promise  sexual transformation through the exploration of "new and exciting positions." Experiencing the album while on a queer adventure of my own, the music gave a voice to many of the subtextual forces already at work around me, reorienting my body and denaturalizing my social relations. Being marked as a transgender woman and identifying as politically trans, at home in Washington DC I often find myself positioned in an indeterminate middle space between places that govern sexual identity. Where I am supposed to go to the bathroom, change in a locker room, buy my clothes, go to meet singles or go on dates are in a state of perpetual social questioning or uncertainty. It all depends on the context of a discourses on gender in that community. Music and music plays no small role in developing this imagined sensed of an ordered place or a space of queer wanderings. Given that force, I was attentive to the music of Prague as I negotiated my arrival into new cultural soundscapes.

In ideology of place, where identities and geographic features are established as relatively static structures, one expects to move about as a passive recipient to power. Neoliberal capitalism has helped develop this docility in our bodies through the deployment of "guides" that direct and order our movements. In the case of G.U.Y., our guide is none other than Eros himself, "God of sexual desire, son of Aphrodite." G.U.Y.'s opening plays on expectations for submission by bringing out their erotic undertones. "Lay back," recites the narrator, "and feast as this audio guides you through new and exciting positions." At this point the listener's attention may be roused. Passivity usually comes along with the promise of security. We follow the architecture of power so we can depend on its strength to keep us on safe routes. By bringing us into "new" paths, the familiar places will be left behind and we may find our bodies put in dangerous positions. Whether this is frightening or simply arousing, the prospect is exciting!

Lady Gaga GUY bent over in bottom sub space
Sub Space Travel

"Leading from below" is a political concept developed within certain strains of feminism that oppose the mere replacement of men with women within the positions of power, choosing to destabilize the structure of hierarchy on the grounds that women (along with many other marginalized communities) will continue to suffer violence so long as the apparatuses of governance are structured as such. This subversive theory of socio-sexual dynamics has since exploded within queer and kink communities, where the position of the penetrated, called "the bottom," maintains strategic power in the community.  "Touch me, touch me, don't be sweet," begs Gaga, asserting that it is the bottom sets the terms of the encounter, the limits and safe words, while bestowing on "the top" the means to act on their bodies. It is not simply that the top who gives and the bottom who receives, but the flow of force runs both ways. "Let me be the girl under you that makes you cry," insists Gaga. Instead of a passive reception of the apparatuses of pain, pleasure, and power the framework of bottoming transforms the tools that put bodies in a specific "place" into the dynamic and negotiated work of sharing intimate "space."

The transformation of social relations do not leave bodies and identities unchanged, but are integral in a critical trans politics that seeks to liberate the mechanisms through which the self is constructed and performed. By becoming the enactor of power, the girl becomes the guy in Gaga's sexual revolution. "I'm going to wear the tie," asserts Gaga, "want the power to leave you." The new and exciting positions we explore are not merely restricted to the bedroom but alter how we structure our body through the reclamation of clothes and liberties. Likewise, politics can never be merely personal but have social repercussions. "Know," warns Gaga, "you will wear my makeup well." After knowing the exchange of positions in a carnal mode, the act marks a body with a knowledge forbidden by normative sexual restrictions. Neither a man nor a woman enters into a position naturally nor can their place we so naturalized that they can explore new dimensions without it affecting their experience of lived space. The change gets embedded in the "makeup" of their body, whether or not it is accompanied by the markers of cosmetic makeup. In fact, the critical trans exchange of gender positions and compositions is an ongoing process that Gaga knows well.

Lady Gaga in Telephone behind bars doesn't have a penis
G.I.R.L. Underneath You

Lady Gaga has a history of trans identifying as a guy or G.U.Y. When she hit the music scene with Fame and Fame Monster, the media had begun circulating rumors that she was transgender. Specifically, the claim was that Lady Gaga, a female pop-singer, had a penis. These suspicions were fueled by the adaption of many drag performance traditions into Gaga's act as well as an open support for queer and L.G.B.T. politics. The singer responded to these allegations in the music video for "Telephone." At the opening of the video, Gaga is stripped naked and thrown into a jail cell. As the correction officers lock the door and walk off, Gaga jumps at the bars, spreading her legs open for the camera, revealing a censored but recognizable vulva (and no penis). In case viewers miss the message, one of the two butch correction officers comments to the others, "I told you she didn't have a dick" to which the other replies, "too bad."

By Lady Gaga's next album, Born This Way, Gaga's became committed to more overt pro-L.G.B.T. politics, stated explicitly in the album's title track. Despite claiming this agenda, most of the album's music still kept pretty normative in terms of representations of gender and sexual. The notable exception came through Gaga's new persona, "Jo Calderone," in "You and I" for the accompanying music video and its live performance at the Video Music Awards. In short-black hair, a white t-shirt, and black pants, Jo sneered at audiences of the VMAs and reminisced about a failed romance with Lady Gaga. Writer J. Jack Halberstam, while admitting to not be a particular fan of Lady Gaga's music, praised the disruptive effect of taking on the masculine persona in his book Gaga Feminism. Jo's presence so shook and delighted reviewers with such artificial authenticity, that they began again to question Gaga's gender and sexual identity. More than an identification as transgender or a drag king, Halberstam argues, the indeterminacy of gender and realness liberated conceptions of both.

Lady Gaga at VMA awards in drag as Jo Calderone
G.U.Y. I Romance & Love

Coming into ArtPop, Lady Gaga had been identified, unindentified, and then performatively re-appropriated her guyness. All of this history was brought to bear on listeners when G.U.Y. was released as the third single and second music video to be released from the album. In the lyrics, Gaga claims the title "Guy" for herself but transforms its meaning in the process. "I want to be the Girl underneath you," she sings, "I want to be your G.U.Y." By embedding the description of a submissive, traditionally feminine sexual position in the word guy, Gaga articulates her manhood as coincident with the position of women. In the first case, this continues an identification that Gaga has long established with the gay-male community. She likes to be a bottom, being penetrated, by men, like some gay men. Here identity is not an essential category of being but a common position. In the second case, the movement goes the other way. A guy can share the feminine (or gay) position adopting it as a critical politics. At once a girl within the term of Guys and a guy in a woman's position, G.U.Y. suggests that it is more important what (or who) you put between your legs, than what happens to be there from birth.

In particular, G.U.Y. explores new positions in sexual relation, by proposing new understandings of two terms of systematic gender, "guy" and "girl." While guy, a product of "bro-culture," has arisen to be a quintessential term for not only cisgender male bodies but masculinity writ large, Gaga breaks the word apart into constitutive letters to mean the "Girl Underneath You." By embedding this act of female sexual submission within the phrase "I want to be your guy," Gaga at once asserts an identification with women, transmen, and gay men. Likewise, she takes a common term of sexual condescension, "girl," and reworks it to mean the "Guy I Romance & Love." Here the objectification associated with the term "girl" and the male gaze is shattered by the female and queer look. This crossing of gender markers has further substantial affects on the proposed sexual positions being proposed. "I'm going to say the word," sings Gaga, "and own you, you'll be my G.I.R.L." Rather than taking the position of being "the girl underneath you" as a position of submission, Gaga demonstrates how you can lead from below. In the process, G.U.Y. puts forth a critical trans politics that is not interested in simply disturbing the architecture of identity and place, or in creating separate alternative cultural locations, but demonstrating how these structures are already being adapted to serve a more dynamic flow of space, the song works to open up "new and exciting" possibilities.

Lady Gaga in GUY from Artpop exploring kinky sex as venus
Watch the ArtPop video to discover 
new and exciting positions
Lady Gaga in GUY from Artpop exploring kinky sex naked

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