The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Disabililty Chic? (Temporary) Disability in Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"

First, a confession: I want to like Lady Gaga and be able to enjoy her music, ideally as something of a pop confection: sweet, not very long-lasting, and ultimately disposable. As a person who listens to a wide (and admittedly weird) variety of music, this is something that I would like to strive for. As a person with disabilities, however, I am left wondering about what, exactly, I should find at all progressive about Lady Gaga's representation of (temporary) disability in the video for "Paparazzi." Other bloggers--most notably Wheelchair Dancer--have covered the now-infamous 2009 MTV VMA performance of this song; however, the promotional clip is also worth examining at length, particularly due to its messages about (temporary) disability, race, and the public/private binary.

The disability-related segment of this video starts at about three minutes in and lasts for about 50 seconds.

For those who need a description: Around the three-minute mark, Lady Gaga emerges from a limosine, the door of which is opened by a tuxedo-clad man. She is dressed in a reliably over-the-top manner, complete with a bejewelled neck brace. Three other tux-clad male dancers--all men of color--break dance and "vogue" around her as they remove her from the limo and place her in a wheelchair that one of the dancers has rolled out as the music starts. Lady Gaga is then wheeled down a purple carpet and into a lavish mansion. This sequence is intercut with shots of an apparently able-bodied Gaga lounging on a plush couch and lip-syncing, and shots of an anonymous model sprawled in an empty bathtub. After Lady Gaga is wheeled into the mansion, her male backup dancers remove her clothing to reveal a black catsuit underneath. The male dancers outfit her with a very Metropolis-esque molded gold bathing-suit garment as female dancers, all outfitted in navy dresses, come into the frame and begin to dance. One of the backup dancers delivers a sleek pair of arm crutches to her, and she gets up from her wheelchair with some difficulty as all of the dancers move around her. Lady Gaga uses the crutches during her dance routine, in which she moves in a rather stiff, avant-garde manner. This is intercut with more shots of dead-looking anonymous models.

There are a few things about these 50 seconds that are somewhat promising in terms of disability representation, not least of which is the fact that disability and persons with a wide variety of disabilities are sorely underrepresented in popular culture, particularly in music videos. As someone who uses a cane, witnessing Lady Gaga's use of shiny silver arm crutches in this sequence makes me wonder if there might be a market for crunk canes (a la the Crunk Cup). Decorated wheelchairs (with the caveat that Lady Gaga's wheelchair in this clip is not quite as bejewelled as her attire, or as fantastically bizarre as her hair)? Yes, please.

However, there are some things with which I have issues, one of which is that Gaga's disability in this video is temporary, and it's clear that we as viewers are supposed to know that. The representation here lasts for less than a minute. Her temporarily-disabled status has also been caused by someone else: at the beginning of the clip, she is pushed off of a ledge by her partner as paparazzi photograph the two together, and she exacts her revenge at the clip's end by poisoning him (while wearing a very confusing outfit that seems to take its inspiration from the Bee Girl in that Blind Melon video, Mickey Mouse, and Bjork). Are we supposed to pity her, since her disability has stemmed from her intimate partner's actions? Should viewers side with one of the sensational newspaper headlines--"LADY NO MORE GAGA"--that appears right before the music begins, implying that she just isn't as fabulous as she was before her dis-ablement?

No dance video would be complete without a heaping helping of skeevy racial issues, and "Paparazzi" certainly delivers. Without question, Gaga's "assistants" in this video are amazing dancers; however, save for a few seconds, viewers are not supposed to focus on them. The privileged white woman, of course, is the focus of this video, and people of color are reduced to little more than dancing window-dressing who help Gaga with her "recovery." Given the long history of widespread exploitation of the labor of people of color--in both the public and private spheres--this representation is not particularly transgressive.

Interesting, too, is where we see the temporarily dis-abled Gaga: she is wheeled into her mansion from a limo, and wears giant sunglasses so that she, presumably, cannot be recognized by photographers. The disability scholar Susan Wendell argues that individuals with disabilities make clear the split between public and private; in "Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability" (1989), Wendell writes that "[t]he public world is the world of strength, the positive (valued) body, performance and production, the able-bodied and youth," while "illness, rest and recovery, pain, death and the negative (de-valued) body are private, generally hidden, and often neglected."

Wendell's argument about the disabled body as not public gets to the very crux of why the "disability chic" representation in "Paparazzi" is so problematic: the temporarily disabled Lady Gaga is hidden not just from the paparazzi, but also from public space. The only time that viewers see her in the wheelchair is as she is being wheeled down a purple carpet--an ostensibly "public" space--from her limo (private), into her mansion (also private). The mansion (private home) is where her highly stylized "recovery" takes place, with the "help" of people of color. The split between public and private is yet again reinforced in the guise of disability-as-chic representation. The overall message: Disability can be "cool," but only if it is temporary, not shown to the public, and that your eventual recovery from it can be portrayed through the timeless medium of dance! Oh, and be sure to have people of color around to assist you with your wheelchair and with your "recovery"-cum-dance routine.

While I certainly do not expect one music video to change the light in which many people view persons with disabilities, there is much about "Paparazzi" that wavers between potentially subversive and downright troubling. Ultimately, Lady Gaga's small steps (and rolls) for "disability chic"--with the uneasy racial and ability-related messages that are also part of this video--may not exactly signal a giant leap for disability representation in modern pop culture.

Comments

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I find Lady Gaga really

I find Lady Gaga really interesting a lot of the time. And I feel like at least some of the stuff she does is in the nature of social commentary (including, in fact, aspects of "Paparazzi"--the song and the video).

But the way she deals with disability in this? That, I have a problem with, for the reasons you articulate so very well.

I felt a lot of the same things...

There was a lot of room to really make a statement here WRT to temporary disability. I am not sure if this is a hit or a miss for her (whose music I like a little too much!) in that respect.

The racial aspect is a lose for me, every time. It never fails to feel as if it is the beautiful privileged white woman decorated by her exotic black (or brown) imported furniture.

Great post, annaham.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

Although not demarginalizing

Although not demarginalizing the status of the disabled men and women of color, I think the article rather misses the point. I find this article to utilize this video to address an issue to be refreshing, but "Paparazzi" isn't seeking to utilize the models as black or brown furniture. The point of the song, the video, and her VMA performance was-- in my opinion-- how people treat celebrities, people working in the beauty industry, etc as furniture. You said it best-- sweet, surprising, yet ultimately temporary and disposable. The lengths by which some of these artists go to horrifically objectify themselves reflects the objectification of our culture. I interpreted this video and the VMA performance to show just how dark and twisted some of these artists become in order to retain status. The fact that Gaga is now platinum blonde and white has more to do with what our culture defines as "acceptable". And yet, she is an artist that delightfully toys with that notion through her art and bizarre fashion choices.
I think Gaga's point was not to show how people should be treated, but to show a concept of how they are treated. You should be shocked and horrified. If Watermelon Man was remade today, think of the reaction on some people's behalf. Personally, just watching the original made me sick from all the racism, bigotry, etc... but it was utilized to show how messed up it is, not to condone it.

I agree

I can see what you're saying here, Sara. If you look closely, when the guys are taking her out of the limo, there are a couple of white gentleman helping out and while she's in that robot-esque outfit with the silver cane, there are white women dancing around her as well, so it's not just colored people catering to her. If anybody is getting treated as the furniture, as you said, it's the celebs and the people who take care of them, no matter what race. As much as I love her music, I always have to re-watch and question her music vids.

Okay

As a person with disabilities, my reaction was mostly to the segment of this video that was disability-related.

I don't think it's up to you to tell me that I'm "missing the point."

To be fair, you spoke a lot

To be fair, you spoke a lot in your article about race, so it clearly wasn't just about the disability portions. I really don't think the original commenter was trying to insult you by saying the article missed the point, she was just offering an alternate interpretation of the video.

Yes, but it seemed like she

Yes, but it seemed like she was basically saying that the fact that LG plays around with "art and fashion" somehow excuses the disability and race fail, which I don't think is the case.

You can't disqualify someone

You can't disqualify someone from expressing an opinion on race or disability for not being disabled or being caucasian. I have a wide variety of friends and family, childhood friend who has never walked on her own without aid (guess what, her condition doesn't effect my dear affection for her in any way). How society treats marginalized people affects me, too. You will never see/hear me support oppression or bigotry.
I had a huge list of really important issues that should be addressed here, but since my personal status doesn't qualify me to even speak. I'll gladly withhold it for my publication.

I'm sorry

I wasn't trying to disqualify you from speaking, Sara, and I apologize if that seemed like the case.

I still sort of don't understand your comment that you are not trying to
"demarginaliz[e] the status of the disabled men and women of color," but that my post "misses the point" regardless; the whole aim of my post is to show that LG's disability representation is troubling, even if it's not the entire point of the video. The fact that disability is used as a plot point and a prop is something that I think viewers should question, overall "point" of the video or no. I also do not appreciate her appropriation of disability to show the "messed up" ways in which celebrities are treated--to me, it smacks of appropriation without doing any actual questioning of how *actual people with disabilities* are treated. It strikes me as very surface-level.

Oh, yeah... and I never said

Oh, yeah... and I never said that Gaga is excusable for being fashionable. That was one line you took completely out of context.

The line you're referring to was directed more to a general sense of the idea that she is successful because she defies convention by reinterpretation and playing on ideas and being radical. That line was meant to illustrate that her fashion choices are interesting because it can't precisely be defined. Lace and armor plating? Why does her wardrobe choice seem objectionable, offensive, or obscene when she's covered from neck to ankle? What is it about her weirdness that is provoking?

As a woman, I find those to be equally interesting, valid, thought-provoking questions. I myself have been sexually assaulted while modestly clothed from neck to ankle. Does this mean sexual assault and body image is not relevant to the disabled, non-disabled, or people of varying ethnicities? Even her costuming is related to such issues-- she herself might not have done a good job at addressing specifically issues of race and the disabled; however, would you say that people don't react with shock, horror, prejudice, and slackjawed awe because of the way she looks/dresses or simply her celebrity status without regard to merit or validity? How are these issues not related?
Is her art, like her fashion/costume choice meant to make the audience question everything? Is it meant to provoke conversation or simply entertain? Is she exploiting an exploitative society?

Okay, got it. My references

Okay, got it. My references to her fashion sense were meant to be tangential--my issue with this video is, overall, that she *does* seem to be using disability as some kind of accessory, and does not say anything particularly radical about it (which is quite unlike her message about clothing, as you point out). To but it bluntly, I have issues with one facet of my identity--that of a PWD--used as a music video plot point by a privileged musician who is NOT disabled.

Certainly, issues related to sexual assault and body image are important to PWDs, but that is *not* what I am discussing in this post, and I also don't feel that I can do those issues justice in this comment.

What struck me most about

What struck me most about the video is also the constructions of domestic assault and abuse that it illustrates. Whats interesting is how she becomes disabled i.e. we see her in the wheelchair after the abuse occurs... this risks conflating all of the problematic constructions of the disabled community with the damaged and broken female victim theory of rape and domestic assault...

I think you are on to

I think you are on to something here. I interpret the wheelchair segment as a metaphor for the rehabilitation process that victims of sexual assault go through.

I think it's a poorly chosen

I think it's a poorly chosen metaphor, though. I read it as a very adolescent revenge fantasy -- "Paparazzi, you'll be sorry when I'm dead...or in a wheel chair." The wheelchair and crutches are props, which are used to draw attention to her victim status...to invite pity and horror. Her movements become less human, almost robotic, and she becomes (if only temporarily) something acted on by the world around her. The wheelchair and crutches are not things that give her power and mobility. They are reminders that the paparazzi and her sex partner/murderer guy have taken power away from her. It's almost as if disability stems from these items. Very troubling from a feminist and disability standpoint.

On a side note, I really enjoyed reading annaham's analysis of this video. The transcontinental disability choir is ripping it up.

That's a really good point.

That's a really good point. I agree with your assessment. It's too bad, because she's making a point to talk about the dangers of sexual violence, which is something that's generally absent from pop music videos, but she's doing it in a way that reinforces negative stereotypes about disability.

Fame, Paparrazi, Love-Hate and Danger

Thank you for posting Lagy Gaga's music video Paparazzi. I am sure she did not intend offense to disabled people in the course of the time/lapse brush with death and disability portrayed. It intends to portray a close call and miraculous recovery, but the MAIN THEME of the music video is about the danger and the love/hate relationship with the paparazzi that comes with those seeking and getting fame. The music is beautiful. Thank you.

What about patriarchy!

An interesting read on Gaga's video, indeed.

However, what may be interesting to consider rests in the sequence of events that lead to Gaga's disabled scene. She has been "killed" by a man, and is thus now considered nothing with out his presence. After all, her fame is largely associated with her beau's presence, and immediately plummets the moment she's pushed off the balcony.

My interpretation of the disabled scene rests in the transformation Gaga makes in ridding herself of a man. She’s lost the white lingerie, a nod to impurity and virginity; and wears black to represent how she is considered dead without a man in her life. Gaga’s crippled presentation reaffirms how she is incomplete and incapable. And yet the point is made that domestic violence can happen to anyone. Domestic violence is represented by twenty or so images of aestheticsed women who are dead, and speaks to the fact that female viewers are not exempt from the same outcome.

Gaga makes a visual recovery in the video as she ditches the crutches and ends the video by wearing a very Minnie Mouse-esque outfit in which she poison’s the boyfriend. Her child like attire surely reassures her innocence and harmlessness; and yet she kills the guy. Gaga’s triumphant return to society truly marks her ability to have broken free from the inflictions of patriarchy her boyfriend subjected her to.

Take a look at the Bad Romance video as well, and we’ve got Gaga throwing depictions of women as monsters enslaved in a world of sex trafficking at us. She kills that guy too, establishing equality among men and women. Too many people like to dismiss Gaga as strange and yet another pop culture artist that will surely fade away. However this woman has a message that subtly resonates in her videos, and there’s definitely something to be said about that.

Black background dancers

I'm coming way late to this discussion, but I wanted to offer a counterpoint to the racial discussion. While I agree it's problematic that her assistants are all black while Gaga herself is bhite, and the focus of the video, I do see one positive in this. The men in question are doing vogue moves. The Ball (vogue competition) scene is, by and large, a black + gay phenomenon. I did feel at least a glimmer of joy that the dancers in the scene are probably genuinely involved in vogue culture and not just white backup dancers "stealing their moves". (Which isn't to say that white folks are never involved in the Ball scene, but the chances of choosing three random voguers and having them all be white is pretty remote.)

I also thought of vogueing

I also thought of vogueing when I saw her backup dancers; Madonna did the same thing (mostly black backup dancers acting as servants and vogueing) 20 years ago here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWyqjVjBMe4.

"Religion is a crutch" comes

"Religion is a crutch" comes to mind. Her dances are symbolic of change, rebirth, and most obvious, death. So when she drops the crutches, it's symbolic of dropping religion.

Please, let me know me if I

Please, let me know me if I got an incorrect impression from your blog post, but it seemed you were upset that Lady Gaga's time in the wheelchair was only temporary and that you think she was just using it as a fad/throwaway prop. I must respectfully disagree with your conclusion. Though there are many cases in real life where something happens that puts someone in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, there are also many cases where people are only temporarily in one during their recovery/physical therapy time. I think that this video is referencing the latter case and that she meant no disrespect to PWD. (If I'm using any of the terminology incorrectly, I apologize, I must admit I'm not well-versed in it.) I think it would have been stranger if she had fallen off the balcony and then had no recovery period in the video, miraculously taking no harm from her fall.

Regarding the briefness of Lady Gaga being in a wheelchair & crutches in the video, the timeline of the whole story is necessarily compressed. I think the focus of the video is on the relationship between her and her boyfriend, so any subplot would be shortened, not out of disrespect to it, but due to time constraints.

As for the races of the backup dancers, that could have been merely coincidence. She may have just picked the best dancers from the auditions regardless of race, which I think is better than the white singer denying minority dancers jobs so that she can surround herself with similarly pale-skinned people.

-Jen/prismkitty

Where it could have gone

I really agree with everything in this post. Particularly toward the beginning, when you said, "Decorated wheelchairs (with the caveat that Lady Gaga's wheelchair in this clip is not quite as bejewelled as her attire, or as fantastically bizarre as her hair)?" made me think of other currents in differently abled awareness. There is a fantastic TED Talk by Aimee Mullins and she talks about all these beautifully made prosthetic legs she is able to choose from. It seems to me that Lady Gaga passed on an opportunity to ennoble being differently abled, though it seems like she was trying to do this with the bejeweled neck brace. It does put disability in the popular culture spotlight, but I'm not altogether sure it is a positive representation.

Heather

WOW!!!! you people are

WOW!!!! you people are digging at the video WAY too deep. those black men are her friends and Dancers that have been in almost EVERY video she has made, including every show/tour. SO you cant say it's a racial issue. and you guys clearly dont know Gaga's vision or explanation of this video....

...

A little late in commenting,

A little late in commenting, but I always believed the crutches and and wheelchair were representations of what she said they were, that fame can "kill you". I was not at all enraged by any of it. And the black dancers? A) They are probably members of the Haus of Gaga that she knows very well and/or B) it is just an honest representation of what upper class white people live with, help usually coming from minorities. Am I delusional?

Just saying.

This is really helpful.
Thanks for sharing! :D

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