South African Feminism, Lady Gaga, and the Flight Toward “Queer Utopia”

By Desiree LewisSeptember 28, 2015

South African Feminism, Lady Gaga, and the Flight Toward “Queer Utopia”
Left: Miss Divine, photo by Zanele Muholi.


“THIRD WAVE” FEMINISTS argue that performances and icons in commodity culture can be redeployed for radical, feminist ends. In Gaga Feminism for example, Jack Halberstam takes the third-wave argument and expands it to show that boundary-breaking phenomena and symbols in the present (for example, queer marriage and families, pregnant men, transgendered bodies) all speak powerfully to the playful, outrageous, and carnivalesque celebration Jose Munoz conveys with his concept of “queer utopia” (Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity). For Halberstam, this outrageous and deeply liberating subversion is epitomized in one of the 21st-century’s most flamboyant music icons. Lady Gaga exemplifies the possibilities of bodies, relationships, and desires that refuse heterosexuality and stable gender performances and, in so doing, imagine new freedoms at the most intimate bodily levels.

Essentialists (including many racists) would argue that this kind of argument has no place in Africa, where so called “bread and butter” politics demand primary attention, and where play and subversion is basically the self-indulgence of privileged groups in the North. This view is problematic in several ways. For one, it reduces what human and social freedoms entail in contexts like South Africa and other countries in the global South. As a fundamental human desire, the power to imagine new worlds that explode existing ones through gender performance and symbolism is universal. No less than cross-dressers, transpeople, moffies, and other sexual dissidents in the global North, certain South Africans, irrespective of their class, gender, or race, give voice to this imaginative desire. One example is Zanele Muholi’s photograph of Miss Divine.

Miss Divine represents bodies, performances, and deviant desires that are recognizably “South African,” but that also invoke the subversion of gender scripts, behaviors, and icons, (the flight toward “queer utopia”) that Halberstam associates with Lady Gaga.

In all societies, however repressive, there have always been and will always be bodies, personalities, symbols, and human behaviors that go against the grain and refuse the tyranny of the normal. What is complicating and variable, though, is how publicized these are, in which kinds of cultural and social contexts they are celebrated, how influential they become, and the extent to which a broader society and culture picks up on their subversive resonance, rather than represses, censors, or rebukes them.

South Africans inhabit an increasingly globalized and hybridized media and information landscape, where many globalized subversive symbols and icons, especially those that convey new feminist and queer messages, have become celebrated in the public domain. In fact, there is a phenomenal wave underway of icons who now “speak feminism,” and have become well known in South Africa. In the face of an international backlash against feminism in the form of, for example, mounting pressure on women (especially young) to alter their bodies and starve themselves, virginity testing, female genital mutilation, femicide, wife-battering, Christian and other religious fundamentalisms policing women’s reproductive and other freedoms, there’s been a consistent swell of interest in and production of pop music conveying varied forms of “feminism.” Jessie J, Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor, Iggy Azalea, Tove Lo, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé, to name a few, are some of the music icon promoting undeniably “feminist” messages, ranging from urging women to claim and act on their sexual desires to asserting women’s financial, emotional, and material independence and power in the public domain. These messages have compelling significance for many young women in their own personal struggles to resist sexual, physical, financial, and other forms of patriarchal oppression.

I have seen this influence among students I teach, and have learned tremendously from it. Like a number of older feminists, I came to voice in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the strong belief that politics was a deeply serious and pre-eminently collective business. I faced racial injustice, class exploitation, and gender struggles by confronting them soberly, angrily, in groups, and with very little sense of the playfulness or irony that could be part of radical opposition. Like other activists, radical students, and scholar activists in the 1980s and ’90s, I understood “political agency” primarily in relation to the mind, neglecting attention to how the constructed and re-sculpted body — through dress, technology, or play — could be an integral part of personalized radical action that had profound political consequences. I therefore immersed myself in feminist, anti-racist, and even queer thought and action with a very limited sense of the personal unraveling and re-invention that comes with confronting, dismantling, and re-assembling the self and the body associated with much contemporary feminist and queer identity politics. For me, the wave of iconoclasm, play, irony, gender-bending, and general carnivalesque-type subversion has been extraordinarily energizing, personally liberating, and educative.

I’ve learned a great deal about the impact of new feminist and queer pop icons, especially in a postgraduate class that I teach each year on the history of feminist theorizing. I have been challenged by my 20 and 30-something students about what feminism can mean, about its possibilities in the present, about its limits in the past, and about the particular value of play and irony in postmodern commodity culture. Each year, a different group of vocal, confident, and resourceful students testifies to the powerful impact of the innovative genres and media that convey and articulate the political in relation to where young women are at, and where they hope to be, in the 21st century.

That Gaga feminism conveys this hope for many young South Africans, irrespective of class, race, or gender, is therefore undeniable. And Gaga does this symbolically in similar ways to the “shaking things up” that certain South African icons, such as Brenda Fassie and Lebo Mathosa, for example, did in relation to many young women’s self-esteem and psychosocial energies in the 1990s. But Gaga feminism, especially as celebrated by Halberstam, also unsettles me. There are two main reasons for this. A first is my disquiet about the terms on which many pop icons, including Lady Gaga, are celebrated and acknowledged as icons. A second, related to this, is how the emphasis on a kind of free-floating individualized identity overrides any attention to the various material and structural factors that influence such identities.

My first reason can be explained with reference to the strange fact that for some reason, Gaga fans are referred to as “little monsters.” Why “little monsters,” and why not simply “monsters”? What is it about monster that conveys such a deep sense of threat and dread that it needs to be modified by one of the meaningless adjectives that so often define (and tame) women and reduce them to the recognizably “feminine”? I suspect this reveals the flaccid underside of the pompous face of our laissez-faire neoliberal age, which celebrates equality and culture where “anything goes,” and which seems to relish the grotesque heterogeneity of what the individual and her body does “in private,” but that also has a compulsive need to suppress what might just be too threatening. (It is interesting that some fans I know of in South Africa do refer to themselves only as “monsters” and so refuse the broader neoliberal recuperation of the grotesque and subversive.) So Gaga fans are turned into “little monsters,” in the same way that many other pop icons, either in their own performance or through the way in which they are branded and marketed, are tamed, made cute, and manageable: they become feisty women[1] with strong messages — but not so strong that they threaten the very bastions of racial, heterosexist, capitalist patriarchy.

Beyoncé’s media representation might be instructive here, even though Beyoncé is indisputably a very tame icon compared with Gaga. In a article, I found the following reasons why Beyoncé is a feminist icon. Among these: “She knows that girls run the world”; “She calls out the impossible beauty standard”; “She doesn’t need a man to support her.” Alongside all this, however, were some extraordinary images: a conventionally beautiful and groomed Beyoncé, holding her baby, hugging her husband, and conveying the message that “strong as I am, I exemplify the dominant (impossible) beauty standard for women, heterosexist normalcy, (being-a-mother, and being-a-loving-wife), being a ready consumer of capitalist commodities, and being a subject who eagerly follows the rules of competitive individualistic enterprise. In other words, the radical message was yoked to the tempering message: feminism is fine as long as feminism coexists with capitalist hetero-patriarchy.

In similar ways, to an icon like Beyoncé, Gaga is actively taken up in neoliberal contexts where the individual and his or her body can claim to be and do anything she/he likes — but at the same time, the individual and her body must also submit to the terms of a racist, neoliberal, and western-centric messaging. (So Lady Gaga on the pages of any mainstream popular “international” magazine, such as Vogue, would be just fine, but Miss Divine, for example, in that same magazine, would somehow just be — unthinkable.) As defined by Halberstam, Gaga seems to speak to the courage, possibility, and zeal of the totally unfettered imagination that believes it should and can find freedom beyond the normal — embodied, sexual, financial, erotic, performative, sensuous. This is in many ways a very individualistic imagination, one that well serves numerous young people today (irrespective of their class, racial, or gendered positions) who’ve been interpellated[2] by neoliberal ideology and highly individualistic notions of personal freedom. Subversive certainly. But transformative? I’m not sure. What is ultimately troubling for me, then, is that Gaga’s identity politics exists outside of any attention to what Nancy Fraser describes as the co-existence in feminist imagining of the politics of recognition (identity politics) and the politics of redistribution (class struggles, anti-capitalism, anti-global corporate authoritarianisms, resisting group and personal injustices, and authoritarianism).[3]

Many would argue that within my critique here lurks the cynical, joyless shadow of a feminist who came of age decades ago, one who simply does not get it, one who doesn’t understand the extent to which identity politics is all-important. In fact, some of my students have argued the same position. But I continue to be troubled by the unqualified hype around Gaga feminism, Gaga (little) monsters, and the critics, like Halberstam, who celebrate her radical (global?) significance in such effusive ways. I continue to believe that what Jose Munoz had in mind in his configuring of queer utopia in performance among racially marginalized, poor, and Southern-based subjects and communities is something very different. And also far more interesting and radical.


[1] I do hate this term “feisty” in relation to women; never ever have I heard of a man described as such.

[2] Yes, the use of Althusser here is deliberate. I was reminded recently of the need for radical intellectuals to use “interpellation” among young students today by a colleague, John Higgins.

[3] See Nancy Fraser, 2005. Mapping the Feminist Imagination: From Redistribution to Recognition to Representation. Constellations, 12, 3.


Desiree Lewis has taught literary studies at the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Kwazulu Natal, and the Western Cape. She is the author of Living on a Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Desiree Lewis has taught literary studies at the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Kwazulu Natal, and the Western Cape. She has also lectured on Women’s and Gender Studies at universities in and beyond South Africa. She has a research interest in literary and popular culture, global feminist knowledge and politics, the politics of visuality and representation, and postcolonial writing and culture. She has been a Fulbright scholar-in-residence, a research associate at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala Sweden, and a visiting researcher and lecturer in the United States and Sweden. She currently serves on the editorial boards of four academic journals and is a Council Member of the National English Literary Museum.


Desiree Lewis has also been active in developing feminist intellectual activist networks throughout Africa; within South Africa, and in the Western Cape. She undertook research and editorial work on feminist networking and knowledge production at the African Gender Institute between 2001 and 2003; taught course on feminist theory and epistemology for postgraduate students in the Zimbabwean-based network, SAPES between 1993 and 2005; has participated in webinars, workshops, and seminars on gender, race and sexualities in South Africa, produces accessible writings on and mentors new writers’ work on feminism and gender. She is the author of Living on a Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining, among other publications.


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