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11 Things I Learned From Watching “Telephone”

(C.L. Minou occasionally consumes pop culture! It’s true! And among that culture she recently started to follow is Tiger Beatdown unofficial patron saint Lady GaGa. In fact, she watched the Bad Romance video like ten times in one day because of its thrilling mix of gender identity and politics, surrealism, shout outs to German Expressionism, and even the obvious influence of Bauhaus–the design philosophy and, quite possibly, the band! As Sady has already covered “Telephone” at Feministe, C.L. thought she’d share her thoughts with you. And also write her own introduction in the third person, which is completely not annoying.)

1. Tarantino provides a visual idiom for everything.

Perhaps our zeitgeist has deteriorated to the point that it is literally impossible to touch upon any subject even remotely related to B-movie subjects from the 1970s without reference to QT — up to and including people of color fighting, prison movies, and God help us but I fear this will prove to be so, lesbianism. This might make the choice of, shall we say, mise en scene for “Telephone” forgivable.

What would be scary to consider is that it is no longer possible to conceive of any subject outside the purview of Tarantino, especially if it involves women doing anything besides falling in love with Colin Firth.

2. There is only one Tarantino movie, ever.

That’s not entirely true, of course. In fact, it is not even remotely true — his movies have shown a unity of look and conversational tics (like his fellow explorer of the “art as misogyny” trope, David Mamet), but have varied all over the place in precise subject, visual style, and even theme.

However, whenever you make something that is Tarantinoesque, you may only refer to a movie I call Pulping Bill To Kill Fiction Volume III. And you must never, ever mention the only movie that has a female character who is both sympathetic and not trying to murder other women so she can be the Nice Mommy, Jackie Brown. ‘Cause that shit don’t play.

3. By Now You’re Sick of the Tarantino stuff, so I will continue in that vein.


I mean, seriously, if you’re going to consciously imitate the Tarantino ouevre, and do the whole “deadly women are sexy” trip, do you have to also include the goddamn Pussy Wagon, which was owned, I should point out, by a rapist who rented out an unconscious woman to other rapists? I mean yeah Uma drove it around and was all bad ass and killing-folks-cool (where folks=women), but seriously.

4. Setting a video in a woman’s prison isn’t exploitative.

I mean, it doesn’t have to be–there’s tons of issues nowadays with women being incarcerated, and the horrific conditions they endure, and…

5. Even if you call it the “Prison for Bitches.”

Um. Well, you know, she’s picking up authentic prison slang…

6. And feature a cat fight, scantily clad prisoners and guards, lots of people of color hurting each other, and a lesbian kiss.

Oh, sigh. Just sigh.

However, I concur with Sady that it was very refreshing to see the kiss be a butch-femme pairing, consciously avoiding turning it into a Strate Dood fantasy.

7. Murdering an abusive man is an act of female rebellion.

Well, look. I’m not going to get all Mary Daly here (trust me — that just won’t be happening), but hey, I like a good female revenge fantasy every now then, even the flawed ones like “Enough” or “Hard Candy.” So no marks off for offing Tyrese.

8. Mass murder is also an act of female rebellion.

This one I have a harder time getting. Why kill the whole diner? Including a lot of women who, it seems, had been victimized by their main target in the less than five minutes he’d known them? I mean, if you want me to think he deserved it, I’m there. I just don’t know why the everybody else needed to get killed too.

9. You don’t want to think too hard about the racial politics in this video.

I mean, seriously. From the prisoners who scream and curse at each other or attack each other, to the woman at the counter who thinks in Japanese, and not even a word that makes any sense in context — just stop. There is some effed up stuff going on in here.

10. Speaking of effed up, what’s with the shot of GaGa’s…

Yeah. Okay. I guess I kind of need to field this one, right? I’ve written elsewhere about the whole backlash against GaGa by calling her trans, or intersex. And I think she’s handled it pretty well, including that infamous magazine cover:

So okay! I am down with that, and the way she’s mostly shrugged off the “accusations” and done so in a way that is commendable.

But this video? Aaaaah not so much–from the prison guards (who, I must add again, are dressed like they bought their outfits from the Sexy Cop section of your local Halloween costumer) who in context are implied to be trans of some variety, to the implicit equation of gentials = gender.

Which is ludicrous. I have a vagina. I am also trans. I could flash my Vajazzle target around — actually, I should probably Vajazzle a target on it beforehand — and that wouldn’t “prove” one way or another what I was.

Aaand more? Even before I had surgery, I was a woman. So I’m not sure what the message here is supposed to be, besides the aforementioned equation of gender and genitalia and the simultaneous idea that if for whatever reason they didn’t match, that would be bad or shameful or maybe not get you put in the prison for bitches.

Now sorry to be a downer, but this isn’t a small concern. Lots of trans women who are arrested are locked up with men, no matter what their genital status is, which surprise! — puts them at high risk of being abused. In prison, it is even worse: depending on where they were imprisoned, they may be housed with men in general population. Or, at best, be put into solitary — normally a punishment. Trans prisoners often can’t get hormone medication, even if they were receiving it outside of prison, and then further get put into the Catch-22 of not being able to be housed with their expressed gender until they have surgery, and not being able to get surgery because they’re in prison.

And I could go on, but I’ll just be back to my beginning, which is that it’s kinda callous to even start with a prison setting, given the pretty craptastic quality of the US prison system. I get that it’s being done “ironically.” In that hipster irony way, though.

11. Lady GaGa is a feminist.

Well… the song actually is kinda feminist — a woman telling her controlling boyfriend to stop calling because she’s out with her girlfriends having a good time and him calling her isn’t going to make her come home any sooner.

Too bad it seems like there’s only 50 seconds of it in the video.

22 Comments

  1. BMICHAEL wrote:

    It doesn’t make sense to me, it seems incoherent, that someone who is a major player in the image culture could make any sort of incisive critique that goes beyond, well, images.

    Monday, March 15, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Elizabeth wrote:

    In Lady Gaga’s defense, I guess, the rumor wasn’t that she is trans, but “she has a dick! you can totes see it when her costume flies up in this blurry youtube video!” So by showing her vulva she addressed the specific rumor. I agree that the trans imagery in by the video is very problematic.

    Monday, March 15, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  3. hn wrote:

    Hey, Inglorious Basterds has a woman that has no other motive for murdering people other than these people being Adolf Hitler. (Oh and annoying rapists!)

    Monday, March 15, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  4. charley wrote:

    god, the whole video just had me upset for hours. I don’t hate lady gaga, but I sure do hate that video!

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 2:23 am | Permalink
  5. Gnatalby wrote:

    I just have a question of clarification, because I’ve watched the video a couple of times. Is there some backstory for how we know Tyrese and Beyonce were in a ((n) in story) relationship that was abusive?

    I just ask because I keep hearing that this is the specific revenge they plotted against B’s abuser and then the diner is just random, but it ALL seems random to me, so I’m just wondering if I missed something, very possible since the video is confusing!

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  6. Haiki wrote:

    GNATALBY/ I think it’s because after the guy gets killed Beyonce says that she knew he’d eat it all by himself, so there’s obviously some history of the guy acting pretty self-centered even if it wasn’t abuse.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  7. Miles wrote:

    Regarding the diner — Beyonce says something about the guy taking all her honey, right? So, I understood the scene to mean that the people who died were all people who took all the honey (or whateverelse the food was of whomeverelse they were there with). Which is not to say that I think it is a valid justification, but, that’s the reason-for-mass-murder I got from the clip.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  8. madaha wrote:

    y’all forgot the all-important Almodovar reference!!!!

    If you and Sady haven’t seen High Heels, run and get it. There is a prison dance sequence with a drag queen in it. Coincidence? I think not.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  9. Eneya wrote:

    I am sorry but the song is as feminist as “All the single ladies” was, which was pseudo-feminist at best.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  10. Ebichu wrote:

    Am I missing something – you’re talking about Quentin Tarantino, but this video was made by Jonas Ã…kerlund?

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 6:01 am | Permalink
  11. Ebichu wrote:

    Ah, homage this and that. Nvm me.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink
  12. Yeah, I had some real problems with this video, which made me sad, since I thought she was a lot more on the money in “Bad Romance” (it’s a more musically complex song, too, but that’s personal preference, not culture criticism).

    She’s doing what she did in “Paparazzi” (which, I love the song, but the video… again, problems), appropriating other people’s lived experience for “artistic” purposes, without going deeply into what those experiences mean, and interpreting them form the outside, that is to say, the stereotyped viewpoint.

    Which, much as I love Lady GaGa (and I do), is difficult for me, because I want her to be deeper and more thoughtful than that. I want her to show the same awareness in her use of disabled/trans/GBLT imagery that she (sometimes) shows in her awareness of feminine stereotyping and power.

    It doesn’t have to be serious, it can be fun, but it really shouldn’t be fun at the expense of marginalized groups that she does not belong to. Though I do like her indifference to the ridiculous “She has a dick!!!eleventy!!!” nonsense. So what if she did? Some women do; they’re still women, obvs.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  13. Anne wrote:

    I’m not a Gaga fan, so I’m coming from a different place than a lot of people, but when I saw the whole internet going “Telephone!!! Gaga and Beyonce!!! HOMG!!11!” I decided I had to check it out. I got halfway through before I shut it off in disgust. So many things upset me, many of which you’ve articulated here better than I could. The whole beginning looks like a kinky Halloween party, which is both extremely dismissive of the real horrors of prison, and exploitative/objectifying of the women it portrays. For a little while at the beginning I was like “Okay, she’s taking a traditionally male setting (as its shown in media) and turning it on its head, so maybe I’m on board…?” and then it just got ludicrous, with the practically-naked dancing and etc. I watched long enough to see some of Beyonce’s bit, then I turned that shit off. So very very disappointing. This is our strong, brave female role model? This is why I take exception to her art – when you have that kind of influence and visibility, why not use it to say something that could actually better the world? Instead of propagating the stereotype that “Women in prison are hot! And have hot catfights! lolol!”

    Believe me, I know that not all artists have to have some nobler purpose. It just happens to be one of the reasons Gaga doesn’t appeal to me personally.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  14. Irised wrote:

    I enjoy Lady Gaga’s music but her level of fame and the way she gets held up as something special pretty much baffles me. I mean, I’m not surprised to hear this about the video because I can’t tell her songs from any other songs on the radio … she just seems very ordinary to me, and I’m not surprised when messed up stupid shit appears in your run of the mill music video. Not that I don’t love me some mainstream music, I’m all about lightweight fun tunes and just turning on the radio and enjoying some pop, but people talk about Gaga like she’s something special and different? Where the hell does that come from, I don’t know. I’m just ignorant about pop culture, I guess.

    Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 6:54 am | Permalink
  15. Librarianlord wrote:

    I’m an English major… I jump into symbolic interpretation pretty naturally. I tend to think that the whole stripping scene was meant to be commentary on the idea that people have a right to knowledge of her body. And I could go on to interpret the use of masculine women in that scene as symbolic of the ways women can participate in perpetuating sexism and the overall kyriarchy. I doubt the latter was well-thought out & certainly could be an accident of her overall desire to create an entirely female space while still playing with male & female roles. That doesn’t change the fact that it can also be read as transphobic. I just tend to think that there was something she was generally going for that wasn’t fully realized.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  16. Leah B wrote:

    The poisoning of the entire diner was an accident, according to the making of video. That confused me too.

    So guys, she’s a pop artist. She does pop. She comments on pop, and maybe sets trends, but her life isn’t politically centered. She has a jail scene in there because she finds it hot — the fantasy, not the reality.

    Look, I want someone who will tie me up and be forceful with me, right? Why? Is it because I don’t take rape or torture seriously? No, it’s a fantasy.

    This prison stuff? Fantasy. Gaga knows prison sucks. Everyone knows prison sucks. THe mere mention of prison need not come with a rant about the state of the prison-industrial complex. Sure, that’d be a good cause, but she’s not Bono, and people hate Bono because he’s so cause oriented.

    If you don’t like it, I can understand. It’s a fucking WEIRD video. But quit expecting her to be Betty Freidan.

    Oh, and Minou: There’s nothing inherently feminist about a revenge fantasy simply because a woman does it.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 2:31 am | Permalink
  17. Leah B wrote:

    Argh, no edit feature. Gotta think before I post next time. The Betty Freidan bit went too far. I’m just trying to say there’s nothing wrong with having fun with the things you like, even if you know they’re wrong.

    And the “there’s nothing feminist about” comment was supposed to be in regards to ignoring your BF’s phone calls so you can dance. That’s not feminism.

    If anyone’s curious, the songs a metaphor for Gaga’s inability to escape work and just enjoy herself. Even when she’s out trying to have fun, thoughts of work keep ringing through her head. She misses the old days when her personhood wasn’t always on display (which fits into the theme of the entire album — the dark side of fame).

    The video, on the other hand? I have no idea what that’s about.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 2:36 am | Permalink
  18. latinist wrote:

    A couple things.

    1. “Telephone” celebrates female power/independence without really being feminist, or particularly thoughtful about gender; also, it’s a song by Beyonce. This fits into a pattern I hope people have noticed by now. I mean, I love Beyonce, there are many things to celebrate about her, but Jesus Christ, if she spent the rest of her life working tirelessly for NOW, it would probably not be enough to undo the damage done to feminism by the song “Upgrade” alone.

    2. I am always noticing that nobody, in discussing Tarantino, is ever talking about Jackie Brown. Which is a shame, because I love that movie (better than the Elmore Leonard book, I think, and I’m a Leonard fan too). And this certainly has to do with the heroine being black, and middle-aged, and not sexy-killer-psycho-ninja. But it’s important, I think to put the blame for this where it belongs — basically, on audiences. Because Tarantino did make the movie, after all, and presumably didn’t WANT it to be less popular than his other ones.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  19. lydia wrote:

    I saw this video because of the hype. I’m not one to spend much time on pop culture. But my first thought was “Russ Myer-Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill1″. And really, I’m not that old.

    And what’s kyriarchy?

    Monday, March 29, 2010 at 3:30 am | Permalink
  20. Sam wrote:

    While I see the problematic parts, I have to admit I liked the video for a lot of reasons mentioned in this other review of the video: http://www.fatshionista.com/cms/index.php?option=com_mojo&Itemid=69&p=357

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  21. R wrote:

    @Leah B

    You probably already know this, but Lady Gaga wrote that song for Britney Spears, since she didn’t want it, Lady Gaga just stuck it on her own album. I don’t think the metaphor here is work, it is a pretty straight-forward song. It does seem to play into the whole flirting-with-the-illuminati thing she’s been doing.

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  22. lycia wrote:

    @Lydia http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/05/01/word-of-the-day-kyriarchy/

    Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink

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