Lady Gaga saying “retarded” contradicts equality-driven persona

Lady Gaga, why are you trying to piss me off so much lately? Specifically, why do you keep using derogatory language in song lyrics and interviews? As someone who wants to define herself as a leader in the social justice movement and a champion of equal rights, why do you use language that is intended to make people feel unequal? As someone who acts as a “mother monster” to the “little monsters” who are taunted, ridiculed, and not accepted by society, why are you othering people even more? WTF?

Let me explain. Lady Gaga said this in a recent interview, in which the interviewer asked about the accusations that Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was a ripoff off Madonna’s “Express Yourself”:

No. Listen to me. Why the f**k? I’m a songwriter…Why would I try to put out a song and think I’m getting one over on everybody? That’s retarded. If you put the songs next to each other, side by side, the only similarities are the chord progression. It’s the same on that’s been in disco music for the last 50 years. Just because I’m the first f**king artist in 25 years to think of putting it on Top 40 radio, it doesn’t mean I’m a plagiarist. It means I’m f**king smart. Sorry.

Really Lady Gaga? REALLY? I despise the word “retarded” when used as a synonym for stupid, moronic, dumb, etc. It makes me cringe; it makes my blood boil. And I never thought I’d see the day when Gaga — maven of the people who feel left out, who feel othered, who feel like they don’t belong, who are ridiculed, who aren’t “normal” by society’s standards — would use a word that synonymizes being disabled with being a moron. That’s ableist language — language that implies that if you have a disability, you are less of a person. (Go here for a fantastic description of ableist language and why it’s problematic.)

But it’s not the first time that Gaga’s language has made her fans feel uneasy. In February, Feministing posted an open letter to Lady Gaga that outlined why words she uses in her song “Born This Way” — “chola” and “orient-made” — were racist:

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.

The author of this blog gave Gaga the benefit of the doubt, as “chola” has different meanings depending on where you say it geographically, and many people don’t know “oriental” has racist undertones. It was instructional rather than an attack, meant as a lesson for a 24-year-old young woman who might not be aware that in some circles those words are hurtful.

I get that people can’t be politically correct 100 percent of the time, but I hold Gaga to a higher standard. As someone who has built her career as the voice for the outcasts, as someone who was called a freak, as someone who was bullied, as someone who wants to make equality a reality, I expect her to live by those words. But when she freely throws around the term “retarded,” it makes me think she is full of bullshit.

And it’s not just her — throughout social justice movements, people focus on causes that affect them and don’t pay enough attention to the other inequalities around them. There were/are sexists and homo/transphobic people in the civil rights movement; there were/are racists and homo/transphobic people in the feminist movement; there were/are racists and sexists in the gay rights movement; there are ableists in all these movements, and some of these -ists are in the disability rights movement. Sometimes they aren’t malicious, but just ignorant. It hampers unity within and among movements, which can hamper their ability to achieve their goals.

It’s frustrating to see Lady Gaga follow this path of advocating equality for some while actively perpetuating inequality for others. Is she just naive? Does she think she is above scrutiny? Does this speak to her own privilege? I don’t know; it’s probably a combination of all three. But recognizing your own privilege and learning about what privilege other people lack is an integral part of the social justice movement — especially for someone trying to be a leader in it. I’m waiting to see if she responds or apologizes. Until then, I’m questioning her “Mother Monster” persona — inclusive for some outcasts, but not for others.

Join the Conversation

  • Kristofer

    It’s certainly frustrating to see such an “ally” use such a problematic word. Even sadder is the fact that the vast majority of people won’t think twice about it. Thanks for the good read!

  • Justice Hound

    criticizing an artist? words are strong and can set off a lot of emotion in many people but in the end without art we die

  • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    Damn. Cathy, I had always thought that if one charged someone a penny for saying any of these words: “that’s retarded,” “that’s so gay,” “lame-o,” or anything that takes a name of a group and uses it as an insult. Then collected all the money and sent 5% to a charity. THAT WILL STILL KEEP SAY 45 FAMILIES FED. Kind of like a Swear Jar, unfortunately that doesn’t seem possible. And I just gave up on correcting people’s vocab and teaching them how that it’s demeaning to those groups. The people I’ve personally talked say this is all p.c. stuff, glad to see you write this post. Thanks from those hoping for a little more compassion in our vocabulary and attitudes.

    • Tracy


      I agree with you — Lady Ga Ga, being such an activist, should not have used the word “retarded” in such a manner. It was rude and thoughtless of her, and I’m sure, in hindsight, she probably regrets saying it. I know a lot of people, when they feel they are being attacked (for whatever reason) will say things they necessarily would never say, had they not been upset. I’m not EXCUSING this by any means — it was plain wrong of her to say it — but she is constantly having to defend herself as a person and as an artist, and though, as I said, it was wrong of her to say “retarded” in that context, she more than likely did not mean to be insulting.

      As for her lyrics… The word “chola” was not something I was familiar with. I looked it up on-line to see if I could find a definition of it being a racial slur, and I did find a lot of them.

      In addition to that, though, I also found “The Chola dynasty was a Tamil dynasty in parts of southern India, with inscriptions dating it from at least the 3rd century BC and the dynasty continued to govern over varying territory until the 13th century AD. The Chola dynasty created all sorts of art, architecture, literature and public administrative tools in order to govern their vast lands and popluations. Some of the more famous images associated with India are from the Chola dynasty.” There is a Chola bronze at the Ulster Museum and also at the NY Met.

      I’m not entirely too sure if Lady Ga Ga meant it as a slur or if she was talking about the dynasty or not. From what I’ve seen of her/read in her interviews, she is a very bright woman. She could have very well been talking about this — I don’t know. If she was, it wasn’t meant to be an insult.

      As for the “orient made” portion, well, there is really no way around that. It is a slur and it is insulting. The thing I wonder about is her intention.

      Was she saying these words to be malicious? Is she racist? Or was she simply saying those words in a different context? The whole message of the song is to not be ashamed to be who you are, no matter what. These words were perhaps put in the song for a purpose — for the words to be “reclaimed.” A lot of people would argue that Lady Gaga is not Asian or Latino, so, it is not her place to reclaim these words, but by speaking them in the song, she is asking Latinos and Asians to reclaim those words.

      Just a thought?

      • Cathy Wilson

        I accidentally hit “report” instead of “reply” to that comment, so I apologize in advance if that causes any trouble, I didn’t mean to report it!

        Regarding Chola: there are a lot of different definitions on the Internet; I really think it depends on where you are geographically. A friend of mine’s husband is from Ecuador, and he says that “chola” is a very racist term and a term he would never use; I’m not sure how that compares to other places in the world.

        • Tracy

          I read, too, that there are different definitions of it. I also found on some blogs/forums that the term “chola” wasn’t racist at all. I guess it depends on your perspective and your culture and how you view the term.