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Jo Calderone: Another publicity stunt or public aknowledgment of gender fluidity?

August 31, 2011

Lady Gaga is clearly known for her theatrics and pushing the boundaries of femininity. Whether you’re a fan or not, it cannot be denied that she thinks outside the box. I am shamelessly a huge fan of hers, not only for her music, but also for the unabashed pleasure she takes from stirring the pot.

This weekend, Lady Gaga appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards as her alter ego, Jo Calderone. Calderone identifies as male and reads as Italian-American, possibly in honor of Gaga’s own Italian heritage. In one of his acceptance speeches, he explains that Gaga is not present and he would be accepting the award Best Female Video in her place. Calderone embodies so many great contradictions: A masculine person accepting a female’s award, a biological female dressed as a man who preaches acceptance for being “born this way,” and even enacted racial attributes in his stereotypical adherence to Italian-American representations of masculinity.

What I find compelling about this story is the way Calderone has been received and read.  Obviously, popular news outlets have reported on this. Many refer to Calderone as Gaga in drag and refuse to use male pronouns. While some do refer to Calderone as “he”, other articles avoid pronouns completely and refer to Calderone as his name or simply, “the pop star.”

Further indicating general unease with this gender play, Calderone introduced a tribute to Britney Spears at one point in the night and greeted Spears with a friendly kiss. However, when it was clear he wanted more than a friendly peck, Spears backed away and said, “I’ve done that before,” obviously in reference to the much talked about kiss with Madonna several years ago. Did she read Calderone’s gender as female?

We can see how conflicted the news media and Spears are with Lady Gaga’s gender bending. The media is inconsistent in how to treat Calderone’s gender. Is it Gaga in drag? Is Jo Calderone transgendered? Is Lady Gaga ultimately androgynous? Is Britney Spears uncomfortable with kissing Calderone because she assumes his sex is biologically female? Our culture is often uncomfortable with representations of gender that is difficult to place in the male/female dichotomy. Regardless of how you feel about Lady Gaga’s shenanigans, I think this incredibly public display of the fluidity of gender highlights how important it is to have such public representations.

Some popular press articles covering this story:

This essay was submitted to fulfill an assignment in my WOMS620: Feminist Theory course.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 9:19 am

    I totally missed the VMAs because Hurricane Irene is an asshole, but this Lady Gaga bit reminds me a little of Brangelina spawn, Shiloh. The media has a HUGE issue with her “boy” haircut and her boyish clothes. It’s fascinating how uncomfortable everyone gets when gender isn’t easily identifiable.

  2. August 31, 2011 10:44 am

    I missed this as well – thanks for posting about it.

  3. August 31, 2011 11:48 am

    I was really really hoping that you’d post a bit on this.

    Lately it’s become obvious to me that even the most “progressive” and accepting people I know have a hard time with gender fluidity, or even that gender and sex are completely differing constructs.

    I know a lot of people out there had a hard time wrapping their heads around and understanding what Lady Gaga was doing as Joe Calderone. It took me a minute to figure out what she was doing. But I think drawing more attention to gender fluidity can only be beneficial.

  4. August 31, 2011 2:53 pm

    I think there is certainly some gender fluidity or “performative gender,” to use Judith Butler’s term, going on here. In her own way, Gaga, as her character, does point to the fact that all the attributes that we associate with a particular gender, dress, behaviour, speech, body language, can be entirely divorced from an individual’s biological makeup. We can see these attributes and will call someone male or female based on them, but we can often find that we’re wrong.

    Of course, we knew if was Gaga, and real examples of gender fluidity and “performativity” are more drastic (I suppose Boys Don’t Cry and the Crying Game are such examples).

    Either way, great piece. It almost makes me wish I watched the VMAs just to see the reactions in the crowd, emphasis on the almost 🙂

  5. August 31, 2011 4:46 pm

    I didn’t watch the VMAs, either, but after reading this, I’d love to see what it was all about.

    “Regardless of how you feel about Lady Gaga’s shenanigans, I think this incredibly public display of the fluidity of gender highlights how important it is to have such public representations.” –> And that? Totally 100% agree.

  6. August 31, 2011 7:47 pm

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! Thank you!

  7. August 31, 2011 8:12 pm

    I didn’t watch the VMA’s or even hear about this until reading this post. The second week back at school has been ROUGH. I think that it was probably just a publicity stunt on Lady Gaga’s end, but you are right, it brings up a whole slew of other issues. If Lady Gaga really were transgender, I think Britney might have acted differently, but it is sort of off putting when someone who is clearly female decided to change it for a night. Interesting arguments!

  8. September 1, 2011 11:55 pm

    I love your take on this. Personally, I feel like so many people try to dismiss Gaga’s actions as simply “attention-seeking”; while this may be true, I do feel that she knows what she’s doing and thinks about it ahead of time. Her critics make it sound as though she’s doing things just for the sake of being different, whereas I truly think that she was trying to stir the pot in a good way, not just (solely) for publicity.

  9. September 25, 2011 12:07 am

    I have to say…

    Normally, I’m a fan of Lady Gaga. I thought her performance of Paparazzi on the VMAs a few years back was one of the most stunning pieces of music/art I’ve ever seen.

    But the Jo Calderone thing was annoying. I was fed up with it about 30 seconds in. And it just kept going. Couldn’t take it. Weird concept, bad execution. She’s not a good enough actor to pull things like that off and still be dynamic.

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