An Open Letter To Lady Gaga, From A Fan And Fellow Feminist

Cross-posted at This Is Hysteria!

Dear Lady Gaga,

I love what you do. The populist spirit with which you insist that pop culture is art. Your devotion to performance. The sense of community that you’re building with your fans. That you’re not afraid to make out with butch women in your music videos, or be photographed in drag. I love that you’ve taken up the phrase “born this way,” not only as the title of your next single and album, but almost as a slogan. In light of the constructedness of your image, it’s very post-modern, and speaks strongly to self-determination – you become the person you want to be, and no one else can tell you who you are. And I relate to you – your upbringing, your feminism, your desire to create and to be heard. In other words, I’m a huge fan.

But I need to tell you something, not as a fan, but as a fellow feminist. Specifically, as a fellow white feminist.

It’s about “Born This Way.” You released the lyrics a little while ago. A lot of people found them inspiring and life-affirming, as they were intended to be. A bunch of people thought they were trite – but honestly I don’t think that will matter once the lyrics are set to music. And some people found them offensive. Normally, you don’t respond to criticism, and often that’s a good thing. But you need to listen to those people.

Those would be the people you refer to in your song as “Cholas” and “Orient made”. Terms that are both racist.

You didn’t mean to be racist. But that doesn’t matter. The words you used hurt people. The hurt remains, whether you intended it or not.

Maybe you know people who refer to themselves as “Cholas”. And that’s fine for them. It’s called “reappropriating the pejorative” – the same thing as what you do with the word “bitch”. But you can’t reappropriate if you’re not part of the group that the pejorative is applied to. So you can call yourself a “bitch” or “guidette” as much as you like – but use the word “Chola”? Not so much. Or maybe you know women who refer to themselves as “Cholas” not because they’re trying to make anything positive out of it, but just because they’re buying into negative stereotypes. Doesn’t change anything. My partner’s father is Chinese-Canadian and tells Chinese jokes all the time, which I am not going to repeat anywhere. Because that would be racist. The jokes don’t stop being racist just because I heard them from someone who is Chinese.

Maybe you didn’t realize that “Orient” is considered offensive. A lot of people don’t. But that doesn’t make the word less exoticizing, or less associated with imperialism and stereotypes. And, as someone trying to write about race, it was your job to find out what is and isn’t considered offensive.

There will be a lot of Hispanic and Asian people who will say that they aren’t offended by the words you used. Okay. That doesn’t erase the hurt of other people. That doesn’t change the fact that the words that you chose convey negative stereotypes.

There will be people who say that you shouldn’t be criticized because you created a song that is supposed to be positive and life affirming. But if you want to create something positive, you need to listen to such criticism. If you’re using language that is hurtful and offensive, then you have not achieved your objective.

There will be people who say that this doesn’t matter. But it does. This is the type of thing that white feminists are known for: being oblivious to racial issues. Thinking so highly of their own (trite) opinions that they do not take the time to listen and understand before speaking and acting. And then getting defensive and denying that they did anything wrong. As one white feminist to another I need to tell you that we need to stop doing this. Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites, and we will never get anywhere. You’ve made the first two mistakes. Please, please don’t make the third.

Here’s what to do instead: Acknowledge the criticism. Apologize. Listen to what groups like Chicanos Unidos Arizona and MEChA have to say. If there’s time, change the lyrics to “Born This Way”. Learn. And do better.

You’re new to this feminism thing. You’re going to make mistakes. The important thing is how you react to those mistakes.

So many young people look up to you. You’ve set a good example for them  before, by advocating for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I hope you set a good example again by addressing dealing with the criticism of “Born This Way”.

Marissa (A Little Monster)

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    You’re exactly right. We can justify our inconsistencies from now until forever, but until we really look within ourselves, we are not practicing what we say we do.

  • Lauren

    While I agree with everything in this letter, I have to add something myself: I find it offensive that the excuse for being GLBT(etc) is that we are “born that way.” It negates the idea that ALL sexuality is a choice – we choose when to have sex, who to have it with, where to do it, how we like it, what we are doing it for. I wasn’t “born” with the idea that I would end up having sex with Jacob or Lisa or Mark or whoever – I CHOSE to do that.

    Using the idea that we are “born that way” is sex-negative in its own way because it implies no control for anyone. If someone is born straight, they still choose how they want their sexual lives to go. The same with those who identify as something other than heterosexual. And I think it’s naive to assume that there is no one whose sexuality is influenced by something other than genetics. For example, I have had a girlfriend who was sexually abused in the past and is terrified of being around men – maybe she was born a lesbian, but more likely, she has been conditioned to associate men with pain and abuse and now prefers women.

    The idea of being “born that way” also does not help us win our arguments against the super religious; they only say that all of us are born sinful and that we must overcome our sins. Instead of playing into their hands, we need to argue that sexuality is NOT a sin and leave the idea that people may be born that way in the past. Whether we were born that way or not, it’s still not a problem – THAT needs to be our focus.

    • marissaao

      I think there are multiple readings of the significance of the phrase “Born this way” (at her concerts Gaga always says, “remember that you’re a superstar, and you were born that way!”), which is where my interpretation of it as a kind of postmodern statement of self-determination comes from. But I think your reading of it – as an explanation for the existence of LGBTQ folks – will be more common, and I don’t think that’s unintentional on Lady Gaga’s part. So I agree with you.

    • brianna-g

      The truth is, we will never convince the religious right that sex isn’t a sin and homosexual sex an unforgivable one. But they’ll die and their kids already accept or support gay rights. The “born this way” argument is, however, INCREDIBLY persuasive among the average, kinda dense, not really exposed to homosexuality people who respond to the idea that homosexuality is a choice with “Oh, okay, well, they can choose not to like the same gender! No big deal. What’s the point in changing all these laws and offering all these protections?” The argument is used because it works– the only more effective argument is to actually make friends with gay people, and that’s a big burden on gay people…

      Personally, I don’t believe any of us control who or what we like, even something as simple as Jim or Tim– we can choose not to date someone we do like, but not to like them or not. It seems much more likely that your female friend, like most people, existed somewhere along the continuum of gay and straight and her abuse causes her to have a trauma response that precludes sexual interest in men, just like someone can have a trauma response to preclude sexual interest in anyone. That doesn’t mean she chose to be a lesbian because she fears men.

  • Miriam Mogilevsky

    What a great post! The only thing I’d disagree on is that, unlike you, I’m not so sure that Lady Gaga is really a “feminist” in the way most would define it. Everything she does is so calculated that I feel like her girl-power aesthetic is just an attempt to fit with the prevailing spirit of the times. Yeah, she’s unique and independent and whatever, but I think she’s unique and independent because it makes her a ton of money.

    Maybe I’m just a cynic, though. And I do realize that everyone defines feminism differently. I do wish, however, that Gaga wouldn’t send the message that walking around in ridiculous outfits is the only way for a woman to succeed.

    • marissaao

      The thing is, Lady Gaga identifies as a feminist now, when she didn’t just a couple of years ago, and seemed to completely misunderstand what it was about. So to me, that says that she’s learned about feminism.

      I don’t think the outfits are related to her feminism (except for maybe the meat dress). They have more to do with other themes that she keeps coming back to – fashion as self-expression, being who you want to be (the construction of the self).

  • saynathespiffy

    Um… didn’t Lady Gaga says she wasn’t a feminist?

    She certainly acts like one at times, but… I don’t know. =/

    • marissaao

      She now identifies as feminist.

  • elmiragultch

    Let me first say that I fully agree with the author of this letter. Gaga has a social responsibility to show her fans respect and to work toward a higher consciousness for things like this. I feel like she will make changes or at least engage in a conversation. She seems like a feeling and considerate woman.

    But I did think that the tone of the article was pretty condescending. Especially this line:

    “You’re new to this feminism thing. You’re going to make mistakes. The important thing is how you react to those mistakes.”

    It makes the author seem like they are the total authority on feminism, which I’m sure none of us claim to be. The intro was really nice and full of complements and then as it went on, the tone of the letter changed. It seemed more and more like Gaga was not a woman who is, in reality, very socially conscious, but in fact a child who called another child a bad name. I think its important for women to learn how to not engage in passive agression and to speak to one another with respect and consideration.
    I say this with total respect and do not mean to start anything, but I thought I should share how it sounded to me.

    • marissaao

      I’ve been reading a lot of comments on the lyrics to “Born This Way,” and was responding to the common defences that I’ve seen.

      Lady Gaga may be socially conscious, but she did mess up here. And she did call other people by “a bad name”. And she is new to feminism. I basically wrote what I think we all (including me) need to hear from time to time when we mess something up.

  • Tiffany

    I totally agreed with this post. I’m not the best writer but there is two things I thought about:
    As a member of a privileged group (white) I have to constantly be conscious of how I perceive other races concerns. I am always trying to take into consideration their perspectives. It is extremely important that a feminist in spot light do the same.
    Secondly how she responds to her mistakes is key to being in the spotlight. As I know being a feminist is hard. I feel like feminism has gotten such a bad rap publicly because of a backlash, we can’t afford it to be further made a spectacle or joke. We need as many strong images of feminism in the media, advertising, directing etc.. as we can get.

  • athenia

    I didn’t realize that Chola/Cholo was a negative term. I thought it referred to latin street fashion.

    • Vallejogirl

      Chola doesn’t refer to fashion. It’s a term used to categorize Hispanic women as being of street./gang/ criminal culture. It’s highly offensive to Hispanic women who aren’t a part of that scene, to be referred to as such as though all Hispanic women are Chola’s. We’re not.

    • marissaao

      From the article linked in the main post: “The word chola according to the critics refers to Latina girls in gangs, Latinas from the barrio who have a certain look about them and conjure very negative stereotypes. “

  • Zoe

    Good article. I was afraid this was going to be another opportunity to attack Lady Gaga for not being as good of a feminist as she could be but that was worded very well. I really do believe that she has good intentions and just doesn’t get that some things are actually offensive. I’m still working those kinks out myself. It takes sincere effort to change from what society has told you all your life.

  • Vallejogirl

    Personally I don’t care for Lady Gaga and this is just another reason to care even less for her. It’s one thing to shout at the top of your lungs demanding attention like a child and wearing flamboyant clothing to “shock” people in to seeing you and yet quite a different thing to really believe in what it is you’re saying . I’m a feminist and it bothers me that I now have to contend with the likes of Stefani Germanotta being considered a “feminist” icon. I take feminism seriously and find her use of outlandish language and “fashion” to draw attention to her caricature, counterproductive. She’s an individual. I get it. She’s comfortable with sexual ambiguity and promiscuity, cool. She receives loads of media attention and praise for her activism as well as her music…whatever, but I take exception to her claiming feminism and distorting it for profit.

    • marissaao

      I really don’t think it’s valid to criticize a singer for wanting attention.

  • Chris HVH

    I like this article, and I agree with it on many, but not all points. We’re certainly not in a post-racial society yet and I, too had misgivings about Gaga’s use of the term “orient,” but I must admit, I had never heard “chola” before. I now understand the issues that this term poses. I believe we have to consider the fundamental goal of her song, which is to bring people who are typically (or stereotypically considered to be) discriminated against together and encourage them to be proud of who they are. It doesn’t excuse the possible offensiveness of some of her lyrics, but I think it puts them in an interesting, if not, empowering context, despite their traditional associations. Lady Gaga is not without her flaws, and she is by no means privy to every current socio-racial issue or even every queer issue for that matter, but she still is trying her best to use her celebrity and creativity to foster a celebration of differences, and I have to commend her for that.