Sometimes pop culture actually gets it right. By that I mean cultural icons can tap into something so foreign, so crazy, so insane that it actually wakes us up to a deeper truth about ourselves through our cult worship of the stars themselves. We don't quite know what's happening until it's too late.
Let me digress. One of the most influential books I ever read as a teenager was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I know: a real pageturner. But what I found fascinating about the book was the how Kuhn explains the way knowledge, even in science, is not absolute. Truth is a moving target and subject to groupthink, or as Kuhn calls it, a paradigm shift. We all believe the earth is flat—and that is our truth—until one day somebody sails across the Atlantic. That piece of data is a fly in the ointment of the existing belief structure. Once there are enough data points contradicting the existing paradigm, the entire edifice of what is truth has to change to a new paradigm, whether a round earth or an earth that orbits the sun or the theory of relativity.
Of course what is true of science is true of everything else too. That's why I have always been suspect of those who lay claim to first-hand knowledge of eternal truth. I really believe that supposed facts are all relative and we are always one anomaly in the data away from having to rethink everything.
Which brings me to my two new favorite paradigm shifters, Lady Gaga and Chelsea Handler. Ask even their fans why they love them and they come up with a wide range of bizarre answers. The following, I would argue, is based on our collective intuition that these women have got something right that we all know too but have been missing for way too long.
Any discussion of what it means to be a man involves what it means to be a woman. We define ourselves in large part via this inextricable dance of being male and female. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people are, perhaps, the most impacted by the rigid historic definitions of gender.
As we have tried to foster a nationwide discussion about what it means to be a good father, son, husband, worker, and man, we have come back again and again to how we relate to women through sex and relationships and the various ways men treat women well and not so well. It has become very clear that defining manhood in isolation is a futile exercise without the context of considering changing conceptions of what it means to be a woman.
So to talk about manhood it seems we have to be willing to talk about womanhood. And just like men are at a point of profound transition, so too are women. We have these relatively traditional vestiges of what it means to be feminine propagated by mainstream media, porn, and even politics. But under the surface there is a revolution going on against the very basis of those beliefs.
I saw Lady Gaga at Radio Music Hall when she was just on the cusp of breaking out (you can read about that here, "Poker Face: Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). One of the things I loved most about her is that she is not traditionally beautiful; the weird makeup is part of her performance art. What I also loved about her then and still do now is that at the core of all the insanity is an amazing voice. Check out this a capella version of her song "Born This Way" and tell me the woman doesn't put Madonna to shame.
I also recently watched the 60 Minutes segment in which Gaga explains her "little monsters." Her message is really for all of us, especially girls and women, who don't fit into the traditional stereotypes of what it is to be female. She calls herself, and us by proxy, the "freaks." In other words, the anomaly in the scientific theory about truth that has worn down at the edges so much that it is no longer working because, well, most of us no longer feel like we fit in. Her message is one of encouraging her audience to embrace their freak nature, to accept who they are with radical honesty, and thereby find the superstar hidden within.
Yes she is a brilliant choreographer of her own fame through insane fashion, half-naked performance, and self-promotion taken to the extreme. But all the swirl of activity, I would argue, is needed to break down the barrier of the edifice of truth about women that is no longer useful to them or us as men. You don't have to be stereotypically beautiful, you don't have to feel like a freak, you don't have to accept homophobia, you don't have to shun your sexuality. Be who you were born to be is the Gaga mantra.
I love Chelsea for the same reason I love Lady Gaga: she fearlessly breaks down the barriers of what it means to be female and, frankly, a human being. Homosexuality, race, sex, and little People for crying out loud, she just doesn't care what you think. She is brutally honest and, as a result, incredibly funny. At least to me.
What I value most about Chelsea, though, is her approach to female sexuality, which is the constant refrain on her show. She just refuses to live within the boundaries of what women are supposed to be like. She jokes openly about her sex life and just about anyone else in the news or on her panel. And in so doing she becomes another powerful anomaly in the received truth about women.
Objectification in the context of human interaction, it seems to me, is the reduction of a living, breathing, and three-dimensional person to an object. If Albert Einstein showed up in a centerfold naked, we'd all agree it was truly wrong, even if for some strange reason men with mustaches became a huge sexual fad. It'd be wrong not just because we don't really like to see old guys in the buff, but because it would reduce a genius to a two-dimensional object.
One of the central issues in gender relations, in both directions, is the objectification—the reduction and over-simplification—of the opposite sex.
Men are currently being painted with broad brush of bad-boy celebrities and the supposed slackers in their 20s. It is "the end of men" at the very moment where more men are staying home with the kids and thinking hard how to love in a way that works for women.
Women continue to be portrayed as sexual objects, where superficial beauty matters infinitely more than soul. The explosive growth of the pornography industry demonstrates the desire on the part of men to see women who turn them on not in the flesh and in relationship but as some kind of skin-deep fantasy.
The "bad boy" media frenzy is all about objectifying men, making them all the same, just like we airbrush every freckle, every wrinkle, and every bulge on a Playboy centerfold's body. We want our female stars to be all the same under their clothes—drop-dead gorgeous. And we want our men to be all the same under their clothing too—not so powerful, not so suave, but flawed and exposed.
So the question becomes: How do we as men deal with women in a more meaningful and ultimately fulfilling way? And how do women break out of the preconceived notions of being female?
Lady Gaga and comedian Chelsea Handler are part of a move toward a new paradigm of womanhood. And that's why I just can't seem to get enough of either one of them.
Call me crazy, a freak, a lover of women dressed in raw meat. Guilty as charged. But there's a lot more here than a singer running around in outrageous outfits and a comic talking incessantly about her Kaslopis.
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