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by cathyjwilson
APRIL 21, 2011 1:18PM

Gaga saying "retarded" contradicts equality-driven persona

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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.

Update: Lady Gaga has apologized for the remark, saying:

I consider it part of my life's work and music to push the boundaries of love and acceptance. My apologies for not speaking thoughtfully. To anyone that was hurt, please know that it was furiously unintentional. An honest mistake, requires honesty to make. "Whether life's disabilities, left you outcast bullied or teased, rejoice and love yourself today."

This apology is meh to me. Maybe I'm just still annoyed about the whole thing ... maybe it's because quoting song lyrics you wrote to prove you aren't ableist seems even worse. Almost like, "Hey, I'm not racist, I have a friend who is [insert ethnicity here]!"

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