Wednesday, December 19, 2012
How to Sexually Harass a Woman (Or Anyone, Really) as Seen through the Lens of a Lady Gaga Video
If you've known me for any length of time, you are probably sick of hearing about Lady Gaga. I am a Monstrous Fan...for a number of reasons: she shares my lone superpower of wearing heels so high that we breathe clouds (not plain air like all you plebeians...I kid...mostly), she doesn't take herself very seriously (she falls down in those heels on stage all the time and gets up laughing), I find her songs imaginative, and, sue me, I love the added layers synthesizers can bring to a piece of music in the hands of the right musician. But I'm also a fan because of her videos, which are rich with complex meaning.
The video for "Bad Romance," however, has always stood out for me above all others, even "Born This Way," which is the video responsible for completing Lady Gaga's very own cosmology, another world that exists apart from the quotidian for the short bursts of time she performs live. There is something about "Bad Romance" that practically eviscerates me. After the news broke about my sexual Harasser being arrested for taking upskirt shots of women in a local big box chain, the first thing I did was watch videos of him taking videos in the store. Surreal.
Then, I watched "Bad Romance," and I realized what it is about the video that elicits such a visceral response, and it's the constantly shifting point of view. When the video begins, the person whom we call Lady Gaga is a sleeping queen on a throne—an example of "subjectness" although, a, perhaps, lax subjectness. In a plot twist, she touches a button on a console next to her (actually a Parrot by Stark speaker) and is shaken awake into a dream. The facts of this dream are what shock because as she morphs (the way I do when I'm dreaming) into the different people who populate the dream, she becomes a different example of the dark side of objectification (ending with the darkest of all). I realized that day, after seeing the news and subsequently watching "Bad Romance," that I was being shown a movie about my own existence. And this is where our instruction on sexually harassing a woman begins.
Step One: Kill Her
After pressing the button, the queen is projected into the Bath Haus of Gaga. Make no mistake: this is not a spa; it's a morgue. Gaga emerges from a sleek white coffin in the form of a ghost in white latex. In current popular culture ghosts possess two characteristics. First, watch any reality show that attempts to prove the existence of ghosts, and you will learn they don't speak. Second, they are beings whose ability to act upon the world is severely limited, if possible at all.
For the typical sexual harasser, who is a misogynist, to be successful at his project, he must first "kill" his victim, rendering her into a ghost-like figure. The guy at the table who talks over a woman trying to speak during committee meetings is a sexual harasser in the making if not one in fact. In my case, the harassment began discreetly the summer before the Harasser felt comfortable enough to make an open display of it. To recap, I was taking part in the professional development workshop that I would later help administrate. As part of that workshop we handed in pieces we had been working on that were in draft stage. I had asked that no feedback be given on my work. The Harasser's response was "Well, how are you going to improve if you don't receive any feedback."
True, but having taught writing for 17 years, I know there is a time when feedback is valuable and a time when it isn't, and the writer should be the one to decide when it's time. Additionally, verbal feedback is better because it tells the writer something about this one audience member's attitude, emotions, and frame of mind. Not only that, but I had a bad experience in graduate school with a male classmate who felt we were in competition and basically "ripped me a new one" in an attempt to eliminate me, and I still had that bad taste in my mouth.
So I asked, "Could you record your comments and send them to me?"
"No, that's not the way we do things."
When I got the comments back, I looked at the first page and threw the copy in the recycle bin. The feedback was not going to help me...and not because I planned to ignore it...but because the Harasser was responding to his idea of what the final product would be and not to what it was at the time, which was unfinished. I was becoming the ghost who doesn't speak or, rather, can't make herself heard.
The fatal wound occurred on the day I've described in "Bad Romance: Part I." Having given this a lot of thought over the last few months, I now understand that the harasser's ideal victim is the one who attempts to ignore the harassment, in other words, the ghost who does not or cannot act on the world. As I mentioned in Part I, this allows the harasser to fantasize that the victim is giving chase. In Lady Gaga's video for "Yoü and I," which is a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, she sings, "Something, something about the chase," and we all know the titillation of that game...those first few weeks of infatuation where the would-be lovers play tag like children. This is what the harasser seeks, except the chase isn't mutual, nor is it about infatuation, nor is it ultimately about the freedom to play and experience joy (a point I will come around to later).
There are other responses: I could have done as my friend advised and simply stood up, put my hand out, and said, "No." I could have reported it to his supervisor that afternoon. I could have "seen his 10 and raised him 20" by whispering, "Why is being married a problem?" And while my response was the worst possible because I allowed myself to be turned into a ghost thus giving him exactly what he wanted, none of the other responses really suffice. Saying "No" only sends him to some other victim. And I mean no offense to the director, who is still a good friend, but reporting it at that stage would have gotten him a slap on the wrist and me an apology of sorts: "I'm sorry; I really didn't mean anything by it." That's as far as any upper-level administrator could have legally gone. And reflecting his mirror image back to him may have made the situation worse, another point I'll return to later.
Step Two: Make Her into Your Own Image
In one short scene of "Bad Romance," Gaga is pictured standing in front of a mirror in a black dress, with that odd crown (this time in black) she's famous for, wearing black sunglasses. While singing "I want your drama, the touch of your hand, your leather-studded kiss in the sand," she reprises Madonna in her "Respect Yourself" parody of Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. To me, this symbolizes the point at which, after having metaphorically killed his victim, the harasser must now make the shadow-self that is the object of his "affection" into his own hyper-sexualized image. In order to keep up the charade that the shadow-self is giving chase, she must want what he wants. It is also, of course, a way to justify actions he knows to be wrong. My Harasser has a wife and daughters; I'm 100% certain that if anyone did to them what he did to me, his reaction would have been similar to my husband's. But he felt no guilt because I was like him and, despite all evidence to the contrary, wanted what he wanted. However, this does not make me "one of the boys." In "Respect Yourself," Madonna is wearing pants when she grabs her crotch. In "Bad Romance" Gaga is wearing a dress, and I think this is intentional because she is not mocking a man in so much as she is questioning what happens when a woman in the garb of a woman makes the same gesture. In making the victim into his own image, the harasser does not confer male status onto the shadow-self, he makes her a slut...all the more worthy of harassing.
Step Three: Make Her Think She's Crazy
The scene of Lady Gaga in the insane asylum is so reminiscent of the bathtub scene in Valley of the Dolls that I'm convinced the director had it in mind. Tellingly, Gaga appears doll-like with curly pink hair and eyes disturbingly shaped like anime characters. She appears in a bathtub wearing earbuds and some sort of asylum-issued bath suit while being placated by the music she listens to like every stereotypical psychotic we've ever seen in a movie. She is unwillingly made to drink something by two nurses who force her mouth open and pour the elixir down her throat. Intermittently, the video flashes back to the ghost, and we hear the words "I want your love and all love is revenge; I want your love, and all your love is revenge." There are two psychical states being enacted here. The first is the deep anger a harasser feels over the lack of control over the "other" as evidenced by the lyrics, which switch point of view as often as the video, and the second is the age-old scheme of making the victim question whether what she believes to be happening is actually happening.
For the harasser, "love" is revenge.
I'm a technical writer and a rhetorician. It's my business to know the most efficient ways of communicating with people. So during the time I was working on the presentation submission form for the conference our organization was hosting, I often received e-mails from the Harasser about changes that needed to be made. Mostly, the changes took less than five minutes, so instead of initiating an unnecessary chain of e-mails, I took care of the problem immediately and assumed that, as happens with tech writers collaborating on a project, he was monitoring the document as the changes were being made, which I had shown him how to do. Instead, I got angry e-mails asking why I hadn't responded to his e-mails (which left me wondering why he hadn't just checked the document for the changes he asked for...as we had agreed). For him, this accomplished three goals: 1) it gave him further reasons to engage me, 2) it allowed him to assert authority over me (where he actually had none), and 3) it caused me to begin questioning whether the e-mails, which varied from sycophantic begging to acrimonious demands to obsequious apologies, were actually a form of sexual harassment. None of this behavior was described in the training I have to undergo every year as part of my position. My thought was "Maybe he is doing the best he can at his job and is truly stressed, and I'm the one being paranoid." Hell, he had me apologizing for things I didn't do wrong while dehumanizing me at the same time. His anger was a subterfuge designed to manipulate me into questioning my own sanity.
So when I saw two stills of him angrily stalking the aisles of the local big-box chain, I knew that the anger was part of the MO. Now, I don't know what he's angry about in those photos...maybe he's not finding a skirt-wearing victim quick enough for his satisfaction, maybe he and his wife got into an argument before he left for the store, maybe he's angry because he's disgusted by his own behavior. It doesn't matter, he's angry. And this brings me back to two points I promised to come back to earlier. First, his endeavor is devoid of joy. The way he approaches it, with that countenance of consternation, it's more like a job taken on strictly to make ends meet. Second, anyone who's angry is dangerous. I believe it was the b-movie The Seduction where Morgan Fairchild plays a newscaster who foils a rapist by returning his "advances." He later begins stalking her with vengeance in mind. And while that was fiction, the mind that objectifies others in "violent" ways (in my case the violence was purely emotional, but it was there) experiences an es muss sein, "this must be." He considers any alternative that does not put him in control a violence against his own psyche, and he will most likely carry out an act of retribution. Which is why returning the harasser's advances is not a good idea. He must be in control at all costs, and while he will generally walk the fine line between ignorance of wrong-doing and open transgression so as to get off the hook when called out, if the axis of his world goes off kilter, the power of that anger remains. Emotional violence can transmogrify into the physical.
There is no doubt that the man in the next scene of the video is the one responsible for sending Gaga 1) to the morgue, 2) to the mirror, and 3) to the asylum. Once this is a fait accompli, there is only one step left.
Step Four: Possess Her
I only want to touch on a few scenes in the final sequence of events in "Bad Romance." Lady Gaga is brought out against her will before a king who quite possibly now occupies her former throne and is made to dance for and then crawl to him for his pleasure. She is later shown frozen, as an object, in the middle of a circle of seated men as stocks in Lady Gaga, as a corporation and not a real person, continue to rise. We see her naked in a cage with monstrously huge vertebrae that force her spine to curve grotesquely. She has fulfilled the darkest stage of objectification possible: she has become a possession, a bauble, a sideshow freak, a slave.
This is ultimately what a sexual harasser, a child molester, a peeping tom, a rapist wants: to claim ownership of another human being because that is the ultimate source of power for him. I'm no psychologist, so I can't identify where their sense of self got stuck or what may have caused this to happen. I just know they have issues with power and control, which they can only regain by dominating those they consider weak.
In the end, Gaga tricks the new king and sets him on fire, Farrah Fawcett style, while he sits on his bed as she pretends she is about to perform for him and him alone.
The article on "Sexual Harassment" at Wikipedia discusses how victims have coped in the past by taking on the personae of "the lady," "the flirt," and "the tomboy." The message is that we, as women, cannot be ourselves when being victimized by a harasser. It goes on to give the common side effects of sexual harassment, which include the following: stress, humiliation, being the subject of public scrutiny, decreased productivity, loss of support, etc. All of this says to me that I bear the burden for seeking counseling for and rectifying what was done to me. No mention is made of what someone who commits sexual harassment should do to make recompense. Is this an oversight? Or have we given into the idea that men simply can't control their sexual urges (to which I say, "Bullshit." I know way too many good men out there to buy into that load of hegemonical crap.)?
I'm enjoying the fact that my Harasser will live in ignominy for the rest of his life. But that's not enough. I've got a blog, a voice, two hands, and a laptop. And this, not counseling, is the solution that will finally have to suffice.
And to those who would lament the death of flirtation because feminists see sexual harassment around every corner, have no fear. There is a huge difference. Real flirtation arises out of mutual admiration and a respect for someone that goes beyond the sum of her/his parts. It is childlike and free of darker motivations. It is play and joy. And it is wonderfully summed up by the wink, which is always accompanied by a smile.