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)