The following is the fourth piece in our series on Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I.” For previous analyses, click here.
Yüyi the Mermaid was introduced to the public imagination when choreographer Laurieann Gibson leaked a faint notion of the concept for Lady Gaga’s music video “The Edge of Glory”: “I just know that we’ll be feeling very fishy.” The ichthyologic teaser was enough to spark speculation that Gaga would be appearing as a mermaid in her next video. Of course, even after a performance on the French talk show Le Grand Journal where she first unveiled her aquatic alter ego, Gaga remained bipedal throughout “The Edge of Glory” video. The hype surrounding Gaga’s mermaid guise laid out on an operating table and hacked by couture doctors was never brought to fruition. Nevertheless, the specter of Yüyi still lurked and continued to develop via tweets, live performances, and, finally, an appearance in the “Yoü and I” music video.
She perfectly summates Lady Gaga’s project thus far, combining the spectacle of The Fame, the demonic metaphor of The Fame Monster, and the dichotomy of living halfway between reality and fantasy of Born This Way. She’s not a sultry siren floating through the crystal clear waters of a blue lagoon; she’s a grotesque aberration, a welding of woman and fish, inelegantly lying on a slab, carting herself around stage in a wheelchair, or writhing in a filthy bathtub. Her tail is a squamous stub, a black latex taper with an overgrown, misshapen flipper, or a braid of scales concluding in a filiform fin. A squamous bra fuses her breasts together and erases her nipples. In exploring the creation, both literally and figuratively, of Yüyi, she bears more relation to P.T. Barnum’s strange Feejee mermaid than Disney’s beautiful Ariel (The Little Mermaid ) or Daryl Hannah’s sexy Madison (Splash ).
Barnum’s sideshow creation, touted as an authentic mermaid, was nothing more than a hoax (as sideshows often are), the creature in question being the taxidermied upper-body of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish, dipped in papier-mâché for good measure. Meant to lure ignorant consumers and spectators into the show for their patronage, Barnum exploited mythology and disfigurement in the name of commerce. Scholar Stephen T. Asma, in his book On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, relates Barnum’s hoax to our contemporary cultural condition of ostracizing those who do not fit in with archetypical social structures, be they gender, sexuality, aesthetic representation, or biological functions. He says,
In Barnum-style hucksterism, we have completely fabricated monsters, such as the Feejee Mermaid, but also real disabled or abnormal individuals who were cloaked in fabricated exotic narratives. Often those fabricated narratives had implicit (and explicit) moral and political significance (Asma, 140).
In applying this theory to Yüyi and extending it to Lady Gaga overall, her transgressive nature and embracement of “the freak” typify the moral and political significance of abnormal individuals, and, in a way, reject the strictures and labels placed upon them (Corona, 2). The utilization of the wheelchair, while initially purely functional, bonds the creature specifically with handicapped individuals and even sufferers of Sirenomelia. Naturally this is nothing new, as many performers have exploited transgressive performance tactics to comment on mainstream society. However, none of these performers have over 12 Million followers on Twitter, music videos with over 1 Billion views, and constant attention in a 24/7 news cycle. Why has someone who so vigorously performs the monstrous, who impersonates men and mermaids, become so popular?
As Asma suggests, “Monsters were intrinsically exciting but also extrinsically useful in giving audiences a sense of relief and possibly even gratitude about their own station in life” (Asma, 140). This may account for Gaga’s initial rise to fame, when she did not yet tout life-affirming messages of acceptance, but rather bled on stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards while singing about celebrity voyeurs. She made the celebrity an exciting spectacle, a freak at which all normal people could gawk. She still does that, although the shiny sequined shell of The Fame has cracked and given way to a new pop organism that headlines a new race instead of a new trend.
In this exploration of Yüyi as a biological extension of Gaga’s persona, it’s clear that it comes to a pinnacle through bestial intercourse. While the iconography of the mermaid is explicitly sexualized, even in Gaga’s incarnation, there is a logical dissonance with the creature as an object of desire. They may be alluring, seductive, and provocative, but mermaids in effect neutralize sexual activity, as it is impossible for coitus to occur between man and fish. This doesn’t stop Yüyi’s human lover from having sex with her, of course, adding to the confusion and blatant disregard for boundaries Lady Gaga engenders.
Gaga’s lover, portrayed by Taylor Kinney, dominates her to the point where he becomes her master. He administers oxygen to her via a mask and pours water over her in life-sustaining acts. He keeps her immobile, trapped in an aluminum tub in the middle of a barn in the landlocked state of Nebraska. Is this her savior? As Gaga tweeted, Yüyi is “a reincarnation of my birth+artistic spirit. In incubation, awaiting a human lover to save her…” Where was Yüyi incubating? Within Gaga’s creative unconscious? Within a barn in Nebraska? And how does her lover save her? There is no doubt Gaga is feeding into the cultural mythology of the mermaid figure, mirroring Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the little maiden of the sea who barters her voice in order to attain companionship and humanity. For Anderson’s character, of course, the story ends in heartbreak: she does not marry her prince and consequently dissolves into sea foam. Yüyi is a bit more Disneyfied, ultimately forming a union with her lover, her creator, her Dr. Frankenstein, both in their final embrace in the bathtub and the wedding scene, where Gaga sports teal blush, tying her to Yüyi.
Just like Jo Calderone and the Lady herself, Yüyi draws upon precedents established in mythology, literature, music, and film. Originating in Assyrian legend circa 1000 BC, the mermaid has existed as a staple of crypto-zoological lore. The image has been continually re-appropriated by popular culture, and in her own way Yüyi pays homage to many of the depictions of mermaids that preceded her.
Her second performance of Yüyi in Sydney sparked mild controversy when Bette Midler reacted by tweeting, “Dear @ladygaga Ive [sic] been doing singing mermaid in a wheelchair since 1980-You can keep the meat dress and the firecracker tits-mermaid’s mine.” Midler was referring to her own alter ego Delores Delago (which, interestingly, means “Pain of the Lake”), a mermaid in a wheelchair act that she has performed since 1979 in several of her shows. The “fight” fizzled out as quickly as any trivial news story, and it would come as no surprise that Gaga would stage a re-performance of a cult figure. Surprisingly, though, Lady Gaga responded to the controversy a few days after the Divine Miss M’s tirade, pleading ignorance to Access Hollywood:
I didn’t know that she’d done [it], but I do now and I think it’s great…Obviously I feel connected to women in theater and women from the past … Maybe we’re just cut from the same cloth. I couldn’t hop around in that tail so I just stuck myself in a wheelchair.
That seems like a reasonable enough explanation, although considering the uniqueness of the staging, it might provoke further inquiry into whether she was truly ignorant of the character. Ultimately the research would be fruitless since authorial intent does not have supremacy over readings, and since Yüyi in practice confounds logic to begin with. She has little thematic development, she has inexplicable sex with humans, she has no clear demeanor attached to her monstrous flesh.
This is perhaps the most important aspect of Yüyi: she exists primarily as a visual representation of the female monster. Lady Gaga’s creation of the mermaid figure inextricably binds woman and monster, a relationship that has permeated the arts and philosophy for centuries. One of the most infamous demons featured in the Christian Canon is Lilith, a monstrous female associated with storms, illness, and death (Isaiah 34:14). While only mentioned tangentially in the Scriptures, Lilith is a figure prominently displayed among many cultural mythologies, dating back to ancient Sumerian tradition. While historically Eve is credited as the first woman created by God, there is evidence that suggests there was another before her (Genesis 1:27). The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a satirical medieval text, states that God created Lilith from the earth, as He did with Adam, before the creation of Eve. When Lilith refused to become subservient to Adam, as she believed them to be equals cut from the same cloth, God sent three angels to retrieve her and then created Eve from Adam’s rib. While both stories have receded into mere folklore, the exploration of the two females in Christianity prompts an interesting dialogue regarding the association between demons and the female sex.
Marie-Hélene Huet draws from Aristotelian theory to suggest, “The monster and the woman…find themselves on the same side, the side of dissimilarity” (Huet, 85). Just as, she writes, demons are engendered due to the power of a mother’s imagination during pregnancy, usurping the place of the father as progenitor, Eve is deformed when she is birthed from Adam’s body (Huet, 85). She is dissimilar from man. Eve is not, however, dubbed a “demon” as Lilith was, in spite of the fact that Lilith was not the distorted offspring of a human. This concept of the monstrous birth repeatedly factors into Lady Gaga’s self-creation, alter egos, and her femininity and feminism. Especially in “The Edge of Glory” video, while sans Yüyi, Gaga displays her embracement of perhaps mythology’s most famous female monster, Medusa, in her bearing of Versace’s emblem.
Huet continues in her discussion of the monstrous imagination by examining the etymology of the word “monster,” deciding that it stems from the Latin monstrare, meaning “to show, to display.” She claims, “This tradition confirmed the idea that monsters were signs sent by God, messages showing his will or his wrath…” (Huet, 87). Demonic imagery acts as a reminder to faithful Christians of the dangers of sin and defying God’s word. This idea stems from the story of Original Sin, in which Eve plights humanity for her disobedience to God’s strictures, cementing the connection of the woman and the demon. The theory that the word “monster,” now inextricably bound with Gaga’s narrative, comes from a verb expressing the action of presentation and exposure illustrates how she uses spectacle as a tool in uncovering the monstrous aspects of the human psyche, exposing them to literally millions of people in hopes to reveal the lie and make it true.
Yüyi exists as a metaphor, manifesting all facets of her personality, in an attempt to make “this complex + incomprehensible force to be true” through acceptance of all personas, elements and processes of being, the incomprehensible force being the cultural phenomenon of Lady Gaga, a continuing effort designed to marry reality and fantasy and exist simultaneously in both.
Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Corona, Victor P. Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga. Journal of Popular Culture 44(2): 1-19.
Huet, Marie-Hélene. Monstrous Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1993).
The New Jerusalem Bible. Ed. Susan Jones. New York: Doubleday, 1985.
“The Story of Lilith,” JewishChristianLit.com, http://jewishchristianlit.com//Topics/Lilith/alphabet.html
Alexander Cavaluzzo (@AleksandrJohn) is a Fashion-Sexual and unpaid laborer at Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and the art blogazine Hyperallergic.com. He graduated with a BS in Art History from the Fashion Institute of Technology and is an MA candidate in the Arts Politics program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. On the occasional nights when he is drunk on Jameson, he blogs at alexandercavaluzzo.tumblr.com. His lifelong dream is to become the intelligent version of Camille Paglia.
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