Near the end of last year, Clementine Ford called out Lady Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly as another example of when a celebrity woman who is seen as “fierce” and “fearless” collaborates with a man known for his (sexual) violence against women. Clementine points to a broader misogynistic celebrity culture, where violent men have been repeatedly excused for their behaviour. I think it’s also important to think about Gaga’s collaboration with R. Kelly in relation to the intersections of the institutional privileging of whiteness, the commodification of Black bodies, and in particular the devaluation of Black girls and women. More than anything, Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly speaks to me about how a Gaga-centric version of feminism is white feminism, a narrative that calls for recognition of white women’s sexual agency (and the sexual agency of gays and lesbians) but which continues to promote the privileging of whiteness and the degradation of women of color.
Jessica Hopper’s excellent interview with Jim DeRogatis, the journalist who has been responsible for trying to bring R. Kelly’s sexual violence against young Black women to the public eye, gives a profoundly disturbing account of the multiple accusations against R.Kelly. It’s worth reading in it’s entirety, so there are really two aspects that I want to draw on here. Firstly, that the ongoing accusations by young girls as meant that there has been an ongoing celebrity climate of suspected knowledge about this, which has been tolerated within the celebrity and music industries. It’s not that Lady Gaga wouldn’t be aware of the accusations against R.Kelly. Derogatis discusses the ‘vicarious thrill’ available to listeners who are aware of the accusations when R.Kelly’s lyrics repeatedly refer to sexual violence.
Secondly, Jim DeRogatis poignantly sums up what is at the heart of the music and media industries continued dismissal of the considerable evidence against R.Kelly. DeRogatis says:
The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,” plain and simple.
So how is it possible that a celebrity like Gaga – who is largely read by a white feminist audience as someone who if not self-consciously at least conspicuously troubles dominant representations of gender and femininity – can collaborate with R.Kelly? Certainly, feminist and queer attention has preoccupied with our ability to give feminist readings of her visual aesthetics and at times, have offered ambivalent readings of aesthetic acts of cultural reappropriation. There is a broader need to bring deconstructive analyses more closely into conversation with analyses of media industry within contemporary global capitalism.
But what I want to focus on here is how Lady Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly, in the song and video for “Do What U Want” gives us insight into how whiteness continues to function as a privileged system of meaning-making that can be invoked in white women’s sexual agency, but that simultaneously continues to promote the exploitation of black women and girls. I’m deliberately not going to include a link to the song and video – obviously you can google it – but it would be too at odds with my stance to drive people to it.My contention is that in a media context where there has been ongoing speculation about R.Kelly’s sexual violence against young Black women, Gaga’s lyrics “Do what you want, what you want with my body” needs to be read in the context of a politics of differential consent. In the black and white video clip, Gaga is straddling R.Kelly who is standing. Gaga wears a black bikini, R.Kelly is fully clothed (including black leather pants and a kilt). The context of “Do what you want..” looks erotic, where the most obvious reading is Gaga giving permission to Kelly to enact his sexualized agency over her body-as-object.
Through the lens of white feminism, Gaga’s actions and phrasing can be read as a call for sexual agency. It almost slightly invokes a popularized bdsm narrative (think Fifty Shades) where Gaga is self-consciously occupying submission. It looks like Gaga is laying claim to sexual pleasure from the passive subject position that women are subscribed to in a way that subverts its imagined lack of agency. At it’s most liberatory, the lyrics can be interpreted as a deliberate wink at the media’s representation of women’s bodies, her negotiation with the industry, and her perhaps less evidenced claim that “you can’t have my heart and you won’t have my mind”.
But we need to be able to read this as a racialized narrative. Recall bell hooks famous argument about the commodification of black bodies for white consumption, as bodies which as able to create a salient, edgy cultural capital for white people. Bell hooks points out that this ‘edgy’ representation is links to historical representations of black bodies as slaves. That is, black bodies are still made available as bodies-to-be consumed for white pleasure.
My reading of “Do what U Want” is that the extent to which a video where Gaga appears to be giving sexual permission to R. Kelly looks edgy and sexually liberating rests on America’s social history of anti-miscegenation (which included anti-miscegenation laws in various states between 1913-1948) and white fears of Black masculinity as “hyper-masculinity”. The pervasive fear of Black men raping White women was invoked in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and has been used to bolster white supremacy, and ongoing acts of institutional and direct violence against Black men. So at first glance, Gaga seems to be taking back white women’s sexual agency and decision-making from white men, and explicitly invoking the possibility of white women’s sexual desire for Black men. Yet this sexual desire is still transfigured through a rape story, that both the phrasing “Do what you want..” and the video positions Gaga and R. Kelly’s bodies as if his body were more powerful. The pleasure of the video then, for consumption by Gaga’s fan base, might be simultaneously in the consumption of R. Kelly’s body as a site of eroticized Black masculinity, and in the slippage between imagined desire/ sex between R.Kelly and Gaga as boundary crossing or rape fantasy.
When Gaga says “Do want you want…with my body” who is she speaking for? What kinds of permission-giving is she invoking? For white women, it certainly looks like increased sexual agency. But for women of color, non-white female bodies have repeatedly been invoked as a site of hypersexuality on one hand, and on the other have been subjected to ongoing bodily interventions by the state and it’s privileged players (forced sterilizations, genocide, slavery and so on). The consequences of “Do what you want..” are very different for white women and women of color. What if we imagine the “you” invoked as a powerful you, as the narrative suggests, as a “you” we would rebel against?
Perhaps cynically, we can read Gaga’s collaboration with R.Kelly as a form of public permission-giving. It functions in celebrity-land as a means of signalling that despite the testimonies of the young Black women raped by him, that R.Kelly is okay and is respectable as an artist. It is effective because the testimonies of young Black women are worth so much less than the public consent granted by Gaga as a white celebrity.
Finally, as DeRogatis points out public speculation about sex with underage girl feeds into the subtext of R.Kelly’s songs and is part of what makes his lyrics that implicitly seem to refer underage sex more real, edgy and exciting. Gaga’s call to “Do what you want..to my body” reads like privileged sexual permission-giving that invokes other instances of (real and imagined) differential consent. Gaga can give consent to R.Kelly precisely because her ability to consent has not been impuned; she is white, over age, and economically powerful. Not so the young Black women that R.Kelly usually has non-consensual sex with, as per their testimonies. So Gaga can appear edgy and contentious precisely because of the sexual exploitation of young Black women, in context that further silences Black women’s experiences of sexual violence.