Excerpts — Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion, and Music Video by Ryann Donnelly

I’m interested in how new performances can fuck up and expose old performances. Gender need not reenact meanings that are socially established, nor can representations of sexuality and desire reflect the same stasis.

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From “Queer Feminism”:

What this category rejects — the historically limited archetype of womanhood — is necessarily more clear than what it is. Included amongst these queer feminist representations are works made by artists who self-identify as women, though may not be a sexed female, heterosexual, or whose performance of the female gender does not readily play into a hetero-normative model of beauty or desire.

One of the most iconic figures in this discussion is Lady Gaga. Her early videos such as Beautiful and Dirty Rich and Just Dance, both released in 2008, present her as a carefree leader whose outlandish image and catchy choruses laid the foundation for the identity she continued to visually develop. Between 2009 and 2012, Lady Gaga released eleven music videos dominated by extravagant, defiant representations of gender and sexuality. In an interview in 2013, she reiterated statements made earlier in her career identifying her queer sexuality saying, “I like girls. I’ve said that. I know people think I just say things to be shocking, but I actually do like pussy.” Perhaps most indicative of a queer feminist approach to gender representation are her roles ranging from a lesbian prisoner making out with a fellow inmate in the 2010 video Telephone, to an androgynous, celibate, bionic widow turned nun in Alejandro, also released in 2010, and a drag king, as her male persona, Joe Calderone in 2011’s Yoü and I video.

These works express the instability of binary gender categories (she plays not only man and woman but machine and mermaid in these videos), defy expectations of femininity and womanhood, and proliferate gender identities across the medium. These works also reinforce Butler’s assertions that “the appearance of substance is simply a created identity.” Though Lady Gaga’s core “substance” may be consistent across these identities, it is through performance that she defies the myth that gender identity is produced from that substance.

Vital to the production of these identities is the Artaudian strategy discussed earlier as one of the elements that unifies the work explored in this book. Artaud’s brand of “extreme action pushed beyond limits,” toward a severe production of thought “diligent and strict” is dramatized by Lady Gaga in relation to the limits of gender norms. But, does Lady Gaga’s own intellectual teleology mirror the perceived effects of her work? In considering Lady Gaga’s own intentions, I would like to compare her performances of these characters with how she outlines the motivations behind her songwriting. She has said of writing the track “Born This Way” that she wanted to write her, “this-is-who-the-fuck-I-am anthem, an attack, an assault […] Harkening back to the early ’90s, when Madonna, En Vogue, Whitney Houston, and TLC were making very empowering music for women and the gay community and all kind of disenfranchised communities.” Her desire to make an “attack” reflects the severe theatrical approach of Artaud. Furthermore, what she strives for with this attack — a sense of empowerment for women, the gay community, and other disenfranchised communities — she also seeks to achieve in the subversive representations of gender and sexuality in the above examples of her videos.

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From “Homo Masculinity”:

Until 2016, Frank Ocean was a notable exception in this category, as a cisgender, queer male artist who avoided queer imagery in his work. In a confessional narrative posted to social media site Tumblr in 2012, Ocean detailed his unrequited love and desire for a male friend. This preceded the release of his album, Channel Orange, where Ocean references his romantic interests with masculine pronouns. In “Thinkin Bout You,” he croons, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when I’m thinkin’ ‘bout you,” and in the confessional, “Bad Religion,” he laments, “This unrequited love, to me it’s nothing but a one-man cult and cyanide in a Styrofoam cup, I could never make him love me.” Ocean revealed his sexuality only after signing with a major label and having an established fanbase with rap collective, Odd Future. This is to say: he was not an artist consciously signed and marketed with the interest of selling to an LGBTQ fanbase. Rather, his public outing subverted the image Odd Future had constructed of the boyish and vaguely violent, if still artistic, indie skateboarding rap clan from Los Angeles. As the first, and one of the still very few mainstream rappers to be out as queer, Ocean’s importance to defying the homophobic norms associated with rap culture cannot be overstated. I have specified that homophobia is widely associated with rap culture, rather than asserting that rap culture is homophobic, for as queer rapper Mykki Blanco has stated, “let’s not be racist and target hip-hop! Why is the music business in general so homophobic?” Blanco makes a strong point supported by the lack of queer artists in mainstream music. Though perhaps is it encouraging to note emerging rap artists such as Young Thug, who seem to be of a generation whose relationship to gender norms has shifted. Young Thug maintains a fluid gender style, sometimes wearing feminine clothes, such as the Alessandro Trincone couture dress worn on the cover of his album Jeffery. Young Thug has also stated, “You could be a gangster with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”

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Mykki Blanco is another gay, sexed-male rapper whose inclusion in this category is somewhat tenuous for their historically fluid gender identity. But before exploring Blanco’s work, I must refute another alignment drawn by (ML Editor’s note: Stan) Hawkins, who claims that some of the direct influences on Blanco and other of their contemporaries, such as queer black rapper Zebra Katz, include the coming out of mainstream artists such as Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks, and ball culture.

I see little correlation amongst the artists Hawkins draws together. Hawkins views Blanco’s open expressions of queerness as inspired by the more mainstream figure of Frank Ocean. This is a marginalization of Blanco on several fronts. By the time Ocean released the letter online which delicately, if not ambiguously, addressed his sexuality in 2012, Blanco was living as a transgender woman, was a published author, and emerging as a buzzworthy artist, touring with established rap/noise act Death Grips. Hawkins also maintains that Blanco’s identity stems from ball culture, which Blanco directly refutes:

I did not start in the drag community. Mykki Blanco began because I was actually, for the first time, having a bit of my own sexual revolution — I started cross-dressing and living a transgender lifestyle. Mykki Blanco came out of that, but it wasn’t a lineage of drag performance.

In addition to the above assertion that Blanco does not identify with the drag community, Blanco further distances themselves from ball culture, and identifies the cultural movements with which they do identify by saying, “You can’t tag me as the rapping transvestite. I never Vogued in my life. I’m from a punk and Riot Grrrl background.” Hawkins aligns Blanco’s success with Ocean’s despite their highly discrepant musical styles, and the fact that Blanco was gaining notoriety even before Ocean publicly addressed his sexuality. Hawkins also wrongly asserts that Blanco was inspired by ball culture, whose foundations of drag and glamor starkly contrast to the subcultural dogma of punk and Riot Grrrl, whose tenets are rooted in DIY politics and non-conformity. Hawkins does later mention Blanco’s ties to punk movements, but in the same passage again asserts that Blanco is inspired by mainstream artists:

Blanco’s identity is inspired by mainstream artists such as Rihanna, Lauryn Hill, and Lil’ Kim, as well as the entire Queercore and Riot Grrrl movement. There are also overt references to the drag queen, Vaginal Davis, and the controversial Canadian director and writer, Bruce LaBruce.

In this, and the above section, Hawkins has conflated several artists and subcultures, only categorically unified as queer, black, and performative. Though this passage notes Blanco’s interest in Riot Grrrl, which Blanco has directly affirmed, attributing influence to pop stars such as Rihanna contradicts Blanco’s punk ethos. In several other interviews, Blanco has also said that they wanted to be “the next Yoko Ono,” reinforcing their desired identity to be a performance artist, rather than one of the more commercial and glamorous figures which ball culture emulates, and that Rihanna simply is. And, while Blanco does share an aesthetic with Davis, Hawkins calls Davis a “drag queen” without elaborating on the fact that Davis, like Blanco, critiques drag culture (and the culture it imitates) rather than participating in its conventional lineage. Reinforcing this interpretation of Davis’ work, José Muñoz has called Davis’ performances “terrorist drag,” “insofar as she is performing [America]’s internal terrors around race, gender, and sexuality.” Because drag performance typically imitates established standards of beauty and femininity, Muñoz’s quote suggests the fear of those standards being appropriated and corrupted by a figure whose doubly marginalized status as black and queer confronts the racist, hetero-sexist infrastructure of those standards.

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From “Cyborg Feminism”:

In Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman she explains, “Although the ‘posthuman’ differs in its articulations, a common theme is the union of the human with the intelligent machine.” What may once have been a fantasy of science fiction is now close to reality. In our Western post-internet era we are often tethered, if not yet fully hardwired, to the clever mobile devices that relentlessly deliver us texts, emails, reminders, news, photos, songs, and a plethora of other media and information. As the internet and the technology required to access it have become fundamental to our contemporary mode of being, articulations of the cyborg have been explored to feminist effect in music video.

One of the ways in which this has been executed is through a glamorization of technology, where artists embellish themselves with machine-like accessories, reinforcing an image of modernity and intelligence. Brooke Candy clads herself in gold metallic armor akin to that of the Star Wars humanoid C-3PO in her video Das Me, and wears a silver version of the robotic suit when featuring as a character in Grimes’ video Genesis. Similarly glamorized is Lady Gaga’s complete cyborg becoming in her video for Yoü and I.

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Though technology’s connotations of intelligence, ingenuity, and modernity are aspects of what reinforces the above-mentioned artists’ cyborg imagery as feminist, we might also consider how technology is being put in service of a contemporary glamor. The work of Carol Dyhouse offers a potential response via the historic idea of glamor, which she qualifies as powerfully transformative. Rather than a restrictive or prescriptive aesthetic, Dyhouse claims that a desire for glamor represents an audacious refusal to be imprisoned by norms of class and gender or by expectations of conventional femininity; it is defiance rather than compliance, a boldness which might be seen as unfeminine.

The glamorous iterations of the feminist cyborg fully reinforce Dyhouse’s characterization of glamor as a progressive vehicle. Artists such as Brooke Candy and Lady Gaga glamorize and mystify themselves through cyborg personas whose feminist impulse is tied to the intelligence and power deflected by their machine state.

However, these works also propose a question posed by Paula Rabinowitz: “In claiming space for the posthuman are we erasing yet again women’s lives and stories?” Rabinowitz suggests that perhaps the female body requires greater political visibility before it is obscured by the posthuman. Rabinowitz’s question can also be asked of queer representation or the representation of other marginalized groups. This, indeed, draws us into further concerns about what constitutes womanhood, feminism, queerness, or whether queerness always includes feminism, or vice versa. I would like to explore this in relation to London-based Venezuelan electronic artist Arca’s most recent suite of videos as compared to their earlier video work.

Arca’s videos have always been of interest to me, but typically lacked the kind of additional images or narrative that might complicate and contextualize relationships, environments, and identities. They often focused on a single image — either Arca’s body, or a computer-animated figure of ambiguous gender — moving in vaguely sexual manner. In Sad Bitch we see a digital figure, naked, with an oleaginous, variegated green skin dancing slowly from behind. Small red bursts explode out of their back to the beat, then linger and float around their form. The figure’s back appears polyped and grotesque as more starry red bursts accumulate in the frame. The figure in Thievery is similar; digital, naked, bald, and androgynous, with the same sickly skin color. We again see them from behind as they dance, but this figure shakes their ass, twerks, and squats to the floor with their knees spread and their hands above their headThis figure eventually faces the camera, revealing breasts, but amorphous genitalia, which defy our initial inclination to gender the figure female. Close stills of the forward-facing body reveal demonic, child-like faces, inset in the figure’s hips. These are some of director Jesse Kanda’s signature characters. The video Soichiro marked a turning point for the inclusion of Arca’s body, but still lacked broader context. Arca’s recent works, however, have included more homoerotic and feminine imagery and costumes. These aesthetics have been compounded with images of wounds, prosthetics, and fusions with machine, suggesting an invincibility. This culminates in a posthuman feminism, enacted on a body further signified as queer through performances in the video which I will explain below. This work seems to defy the erasure that Rabinowitz identifies as a potential byproduct of the posthuman.

In Reverie, we first see Arca’s hand protruding from a heavy, white lace sleeve of a bullfighter’s jacket. A small bit of torn fabric hangs from the cuff, set against a hot pink background. The delicate lace and saturated color read of the classically feminine. The shot slowly moves up and away from their body, revealing complicated leg prosthetics. The attachments are made of leather and metal rods and are modeled after a bull’s leg shape. Arca’s feet are held in a stirrup of each attachment and they stand on metal hooves. Around the knee, there is a white globular shape, the texture of which is bumpy, covered in a lacey black fabric, and vaguely reptilian. The construction of the attachment gives the illusion that this is Arca’s exposed skin. They wear black thong underwear. As the shot pulls further back we see that Arca is in an abstract space with neon red floors, flanked by curving hot pink walls. A sudden close-up on Arca’s face shows them in unexpected anguish. They look up with eyes wide and mouth drawn. The camera moves to the level of their pelvis. Another close shot shows that they have been penetrated from behind, straight through their body by a bull’s horn. As Arca grapples with the horn, however, the image looks simultaneously masturbatory. When the camera returns to their face, the suggestion of sexual pleasure gives a new reading to their expression. However, the image also suggests queer sexual penetration. Arca staggers away, grabbing their buttock, which is smeared with the blood from their wound. They collapse, and the light changes to dark blue. They begin to crawl, and flower petals descend upon them. Their backlit, slow-moving body now looks wiry and animal-like. The music surges again, and they stand in a kind of resurrection. The pink hues return to the light. They flail and reach their arm out while the shot staggers as if the Earth too is in a quivering state of trauma. They collapse for a final time against the bright pink stage, the song ends, and the shot cuts to black. Sexual pain and pleasure, masturbation, and queer sex are weighted with a valor imbued by their character as bullfighter. There is further gender dissonance proposed throughout, in the pairing of Arca’s high, feminine, and operatic vocal with the more aggressive, industrial electronic sounds of the track. Arca has addressed this layered meaning, saying of the video that, “Bullfighting is a piercing metaphor: you are fighting a bull, and at the same [time] yourself. You are not the victim or the oppressor, you are both — Animality and bestiality are conflated. Evoking sex invokes our animality.”

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The value of fantasies such as the cyborg is echoed by Judith Butler in her essay, “The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess.” Butler explores fantasy as a means of achieving a unrealized futurity. She says that “feminist theory relies on the capacity to postulate through fantasy a future that is […] not equated with what is not real, but what is not yet real.”

Anchored to these fantastical representations, however, are the inescapable implications and questions of a posthuman existence. As Rabinowitz asks: “Do posthuman bodies have histories, genders, or sexualities?” While the fantastic fictions created in music video find a way out of the restrictive confines of gender, the mythic taxonomy of cyborgs are all still ultimately man-made.


Ryann Donnelly holds a practice-based PhD from the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she is currently an Assistant Lecturer. She was the lead singer of Seattle-based band Schoolyard Heroes, who were signed to Island Records from 1999-2009.

Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion, and Music Video is published by Repeater Books.

Image: still from the music video for ‘Reverie’ by Arca on YouTube.