“and I will also devise my own cruelties,
rejecting utterly the banal sufferings imposed by nature.”
-Katherine Anne Porter ‘the Princess’
“I am not real. I am theater.”
Long ago, before pop divas ruled the airwaves and “you’re only as good as your last concept album” was the law of the land, people actually had to read to get any sense of culture. And among the great male authors of the time such as Hemingway, Salinger and Fitzgerald there stood one of the few women to distinguish herself as a literary artist; her name was Katherine Anne Porter.
The American equivalent to Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter was an American essayist and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist known in her time for her short stories, though committed to posterity for her first and only novel Ship of Fools. Which also in turn outside of scholarly circles is primarily remembered because it was made into a film of the same name starring Vivien Leigh in her final role.
I stumbled across Porter after her novel was seen being read by Betty Draper (January Jones) in an episode of Mad Men, and in effort to understanding the mental faculties of the often bitter, sexually frustrated and acerbically minded 1950s/60s housewife I managed to procure a copy of the novel.
While the connections to the character(s) of the show remained somewhat illusive during my first delves into the novel I did manage to find an odd passage where the mysteriously tragic and forlorn character of La Condesa describes her affections for a group of immature Cuban university students, calling them her “charming young madmen who must go running off after something they call Revolution!” Whether this is a deliberate move on the creators of the show’s part or some sort of delightful coincidence has yet to be determined and the original mission of understanding Betty Draper’s psyche ultimately digressed into a rather unexpected journey down the rabbit hole of feminist discourse.
In order to get a better sense of context as to what exactly was the purpose behind Porter writing a 500 plus page novel about the most miserable group of people to ever make a transatlantic journey together, I checked out Mary Titus’s The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter. Within its pages of literary and psychological analysis both of Porter and her work, I not only found the various matrices that make up the women of the Mad Men world but I also stumbled across something (or rather someone) quite unexpected; Lady Gaga.
Titus opens her treatise of Porter’s body of works by introducing us to a little known previously unpublished and incomplete short story of Porter’s called ‘The Princess’. Set in a fantastical world based in primitivism reminiscent of earlier civilizations (both Western and New World), a rebellious and unnamed Princess defies the axioms of womanhood and creates art by transforming herself into an object devoid of sexuality and in clear rejection of it. She adorns herself in strange and bizarre accoutrement that compliments and “[exalts] culture over nature”, despite the fact that it physically pains her. As a result she suffers and is ultimately condemned at the hands of her own society, betrayed by even the Foremothers who should’ve encouraged and abided with her.
While I’m summarizing the story greatly, what began as a casual comparison between the pop artist and the Princess of the story began to stretch infinitely further than I suspected. The startling similarities within the two artists reveals an unsettling condition of the state of feminism today. Though having published her works almost a century ago, conflating Gaga with Porter’s Princess is not simply a literary insight and view into Ghosts of Feminist Past but is telling of the flaws in which feminism is still failing us as a society. Indeed, yes there are lessons to be learned from Porter and once they are learned they do not simply exonerate Gaga as an artistic presence but transmogrify her from an icon to a revolutionary leader; Gaga Feminism – but we’ll get to that later.
Comparatively, Katherine Anne Porter and Lady Gaga were both born in a time of culmination for great feminist movements; Porter; the suffragettes movement and Gaga at the end of what has been described as Third Wave Feminist movements which focused primarily on women’s equality in the workplace and education. In the aftermath of these movements we notice an acute inability to reconcile a woman’s identity as an artist and a woman versus her identity as a sexualized object. This results largely from a disparity of generational envisionment. To put it bluntly, for example; the high fashion and sexually liberated flapper girls of the 1920s were not exactly what the suffragettes had in mind when they began their movement.
Biographically Porter and Gaga also share a striking array of similarities, so much to the point that one would think that Gaga is actually Porter reincarnated. Though they both came from radically different backgrounds, both were nostalgic about their family heritage, Gaga from Italian lineage and Porter of Old Southern legacy (Porter was literally granddaughter of the Confederacy), and often spoke of it with great reverence. Amusingly, both Gaga and Porter infused their social sphere and preferred the company of homosexual men (Porter’s GBFF was actually Vogue photographer George Platt Lynes). And interestingly enough, just as Gaga is public “frenemies” with Perez Hilton, Porter had a similar “frenemy” styled relationship with author Truman Capote. They both often made each other’s guest list but rarely had a kind word for one another, or at least none that didn’t come with a personal dig.
Gaga and Porter also surrounded themselves with artists of diverse mediums as a way of both inspiring and igniting their own work. Gaga most famously has become the muse and follower of Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic and Bob Wilson while Porter in her time was close friends with and drew much inspiration from her association with the poet Salomón de la Selva, artist Diego Rivera, his wife Lupe Marin and presumably Rivera’s second wife Frida Kahlo (though sources differ on the certainty of this acquaintanceship).
Generational disenfranchisement left Porter to constantly question her identity as an artist, as it was commonly held in those days that the idea of the female artist was little more than an oxymoron. While I think we’ve taken considerable steps of progress from those days, in Gaga’s case we notice a shockingly disturbing inability to reconcile the terms “pop artist”, emanating both from Gaga as well as the public mainstream who scoff at her every movement.
Like the Princess of Porter’s story, Gaga embodies the spirit of what is regarded in feminist discourse as “the Blank page”; a woman’s only medium for creating art is to become art. The canvas is her body but at the same time it is a canvas used as a vehicle for male inscription. A direct reference to this we can see is in Gaga’s song ‘Do What U Want’, where she masochistically declares and beseeches “Write what you want, say what you want about me, I’m not sorry… You can have my heart but you won’t use my mind…”
There’s an astonishing amount of similarities also in the subject matter of Porter and Gaga. Both borrow heavily from history and romanticize the exotic with particular regard to Mexico and the Orient. Also present in the works is referencing to pagan mythology (Gaga with her Greco-Roman deities and Porter with her Aztec and North American Goddesses). There’s also a peculiar similarity within the titles to the songs and the stories and even the lexicon both women use. Porter was known to describe female empowerment as “monstrous” just as Gaga has taken on a “monster” persona. We notice titles from Porter like ‘Flower Judas’, ‘Maria Concepcion’, and ‘The Martyr’ very easily become Gaga’s ‘Judas’, ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Bad Romance’; and that’s just a small comparison.
For while both tell radically different stories, the subject matter of each oeuvre also dabble heavily in religious iconography and the masochism within the ascetic ritual of Catholicism and its aesthetic. To name a few. There’s also pervasive themes of sexual ecstasy versus sacred. And I know what you’re thinking: “didn’t Madonna do that too?” Let me just put the old “Gaga vs. Madonna argument” to rest once and for all.
Madonna and Gaga are two sides of the same coin; though the one intracle difference is that Gaga utilizes the aforementioned images as part of the artististic experience which may touch upon sexuality but is not exclusively focused on it. Madonna’s work on the other hand is steeped and rooted in the sexualization of the exotic experience. This isn’t to say the Madonna is any less of an artist because of this, rather though it speaks more to my point that Gaga’s (like Porter’s) artistic divorce from sex likewise divorces her from her identity as woman as well as an artist. Early rumors of Gaga’s transvestitism serve as evidence of the public’s mistrust of a biologically female manifestation of art. In other words, “She’s creative, likes fashion and looks good in a wig – she MUST be a man!” At no point has anyone ever challenged Madonna’s double X chromosome. We speak more of Madonna later, but for now…
Gaga, like the Princess of Porter’s story, stands at an axis stripped of an identity due to the lack of compliance with sexual moree and forced to forge an ostentatious persona – though it might be a vacant one. Gaga’s separation from sex like the Princess also garners her harsh criticism and admonishment from the previous generation’s female hierarchy. The High Priestess of Porter’s fantastical world speaks openly against the Princess’s heresy of her rejection of sexual duties, just as in this world older feminists such as Camille Paglia have gone on record declaring Gaga as “the death of sex.”
In response to this, or rather in spite of this, queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam has spurned what they (I say ‘they’ because Halberstam is genderqueer and I’m not sure which pronoun they prefer) have described as Gaga Feminism, which is outlined in detail in their book of the same title. An excitedly more enthusiastic outlook on Gaga as a revision of feminist ideals and goals, in it Halberstam notes “the gay lib movement understood that the way to political power was through popular culture.”(Conversely, perhaps Gaga understood the way to pop culture was through the gays but that’s another story.) And with this thought, Gaga’s work and lyrics take on a deeply more profound meaning. One of anarchistic proportions.
According to Halberstam, gaga originates out of a French etymology which appeared sometime before the Surrealist movement and is a precursor to dadaism (sometimes called “anti-art) and roughly translates to “slightly off”. And while we don’t see much of Gaga or her work within the Halberstam piece, Gaga’s work takes on a tone that challenges previously established outlooks and expectations of feminism. Indeed, Gaga’s work becomes quite evocative of anarchy and her larger than life personality provokes a new wave thinking with particular regard for feminist discourse.
And just as Porter’s Princess stood as a figure revolt in her fantasy world by transforming herself into living art, Gaga with her ArtPop album stands as the Princess of Art in this one, a revolutionary figure, focused and dedicated fully to beauty and freedom of self expression without the need or duty to be obscenely sexualized. And in that she has managed to successfully reconcile the term “pop artist”. Where Madonna preached from the altar of sex, Gaga preaches the Gospel of Art and serves to reflect as a vision of the future. Going back to Madonna, where Gaga has succeeded in demonstrating pop music as an art form she has also ratified and serves to recognize Madonna’s work as art in themselves – though highly sexualized they may be.
Because perhaps Gaga is the infusion that was needed for a philosophical and a political movement that is clearly dying by choking on its own exhausted rhetoric. A quick search of a Youtube yields hundreds of videos posted by women and men alike decrying feminism, or at least what they interpret feminism to be. And yet the presence of Lady Gaga and seen from the lens of the timeless works of Katherine Anne Porter serve as a reminder of how desperately we still need feminism.
Indicting Lady Gaga for dressing in the high fashion couture ensembles she wears, or her complete embrace of pop culture, or for her utilization of the social media available to her, or her outspoken beliefs on gay and youth rights, with particular regard to bullying, as a whole not only sabotages feminism but hinders our progress as a society. As the works of Katherine Anne Porter stand to demonstrate that when feminism is not preserved, women and sexual minorities become compartmentalized and regress to feudalistic mind sets: chiefly serve a role assigned by biology or die.
Words: Aria David