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15 September 2010updated 09 Feb 2015 5:20pm

Laurie Penny: On Lady Gaga and that meat dress

Upsetting vegetarians was only part of the point of this ensemble.

By Laurie Penny

Don’t you just hate Lady Gaga sometimes? She seems to take a special pleasure in thinking up gorgeously anodyne ways to get us talking, and her latest stunt is a delicatessen of breathlessly significant cultural connotations.

One imagines that when Gaga strutted up to the podium at Sunday’s MTV awards wearing an elegant couture minidress made entirely of raw meat, complete with a little steak fascinator, a thousand critical theory students wet themselves with excitement. On this occasion, though, I must reluctantly join in with everyone else in asking: Gaga, a meat dress? What does it mean?

Personally, I found Gaga’s gory getup rather less off-putting than the standard uniform of today’s lady pop-stars – tiny hotpants and a saccharine smile – but then, I am an eater of flesh.

Upsetting vegetarians was only part of the point of this ensemble. With a cheeky little crack about asking Cher to “hold her meat purse”, The Face that Launched a Thousand Theses made explicit her wink towards the well-worn notion of women’s sexual bodies as pieces of meat, slaughtered and dressed – quite literally – for public consumption.

This is a metaphor with precedent. A 19th-century guidebook to French brothels informed punters that –

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[the Madam] does not keep her meat long on the hooks, though she will have her price, but nothing to get stale here. You may have your meat dressed to your liking, and there is no need of cutting twice from one joint; and if it is to your taste, you may kill your own lamb or mutton, for her flock is in prime condition, and always ready for sticking.

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Carol J Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, agrees, saying that “fashioning clothing out of flesh for women to model is nothing new – as recently as 2008, contestants on America’s Next Top Model were required to pose in a meat locker wearing bras and underpants made from recently killed dead animals.”

Lady Gaga is far from the first person to think of dressing in steak and sausages – the theme of decorating women in bits of rotting flesh has been an ‘edgy’ refrain of experimental fashion since the early 1980s. “Raw meat may express a more immediate sense of violation, connected to consuming dead flesh and nearly-naked sexualized women,” says Adams. “Women and animals are consumable beings in a male-dominated visual culture.”

Lady Gaga (credit: Getty Images)

Lady Gaga has an eye for iconography. What is truly delicious about the imagery here is the way the raw red flesh of the steak dress throws the artificiality of Gaga’s “real” body into sharp relief. Next to the bloody bacon couture, her platinum-dyed hair and impossibly glossy, polished skin, decked in diamonds, look artificial, unreal, plasticised. The effect calls to mind the iconic cover image of Germaine Greer’s vintage feminist bible The Female Eunuch, which portrays female sexual organs as a hanging garment to be flung over the sterile, alienated body of the erotically tamed woman in consumer society.

Is Gaga appropriating the image of the eunuch for her own ends? Is she making a statement about the artificiality of pop music as opposed to the sticky actuality of real flesh, real sex, real death? Is she conjuring a symbology of slaughter and rottenness to expose the barren, blasted heart of the music video industry, churning out brutally identikit images of female sexuality, as sterile and tasteless as processed meat?

Well, no. In point of fact, she’s wearing a dress made of bacon. And that’s the point of Gaga: she probably thinks of a hundred kinky ways to fuck with us before she has breakfast, if indeed she does have breakfast, rather than subsisting on soundwaves, the blood of virgins and the adulation of her fans, of whom, grudgingly, I am one.

Of course she wouldn’t stoop to explain it to us: she’s too busy being fabulously weird. Besides, real stage magicians — and Gaga is undoubtedly a stage magician before anything else — never reveal how their tricks are orchestrated. It’s far more satisfying to watch the little people scrabble for an explanation whilst raking in a meaty moutain of money.

Lady Gaga is not here to save feminism, but that doesn’t stop her being a whole lot of fun.