By Evie Edwards
Artwork by Tasnim Isma
This article is part of our ‘UNKNOWN’ series. Next piece to be published on 11th December.
Forty minutes into Chris Moukarbel’s new Netflix documentary, we see a young woman lying on a sofa, crying out in pain as a physiotherapist massages the right side of her body. We know her as the pop sensation Lady Gaga, but Moukarbel’s documentary, ‘Gaga: Five Foot Two’, portrays a far more vulnerable and previously unknown side to this pop-star’s life. Throughout the film we follow Gaga as she endures several physiotherapy sessions, all with the purpose of relieving the pain caused and aggravated by her profession. Stefani Germanotta – her real name – has recently revealed publicly that she suffers from fibromyalgia, a condition which causes chronic pain throughout the body. However, Gaga was not ‘born this way’. Her condition began during her 2012-3 world tour; the relentless performing caused her to badly break her hip bone, triggering the chronic pain which still plagues her today, 5 years later. In an interview with Buzzfeed, director Moukarbel said, “so much of the film is about the expectations placed on her body, the limitations of her body”. Seeing Gaga in such a raw, vulnerable state forces us to not only acknowledge the physical expectations placed on performers, but also to question the extremity of such expectations, particularly on female artists.
By being vocal about her chronic pain, Lady Gaga is entering unknown territory. For so long, female performers have been pressured into creating the illusion of physical perfection. Speaking about the documentary on her Instagram, Gaga wrote ‘I’m most touched that the veil behind the aura of my fame reveals that fame is not all it’s cracked up to be’. For women in particular, fame means having to live up to the public expectations of perfection and beauty, but for Gaga, the reality of fame means having a body that is far from perfect, a body in pain, a body that’s broken. It’s important to remember that Lady Gaga is primarily a singer; perhaps we would expect damage to her throat or vocal chords, but damage to elsewhere in her body points to that fact that in order to please audiences, she is having to do much more than merely sing.
The fact is, female performers have far greater physical expectations placed on their bodies than male ones. It is undoubtedly a gendered issue; compare the choreography performed by Little Mix, an all-female pop group, to the recently retired boyband One Direction. The former churn out meticulously rehearsed, borderline acrobatic dance routines with every song, whilst you’d be lucky to see the 1D boys do a couple of side steps in sync. With the exception of Adele, most major female solo artists or groups perform using not just their voice, but their entire bodies, conjuring perfect, often sexualised, dance moves with apparent ease. But what Gaga shows us is that these performances do not come easily; later in the documentary we see her rehearsing for the Superbowl halftime performance, and despite complaining of severe hip pain she continues to practice the routines again and again, until they are perfect. The flaws of female performers have previously been hidden and stigmatised, but Gaga wants us to know just how hard she works to meet the expectations of audiences, and the consequences that doing so has on her body.
But why do we expect female singers to have both fantastic voices and earth-defying dance skills? Ultimately it comes down to the patriarchal system, in which women are valued for their appearance over their skill. Whereas male performers can rely much more heavily on their vocal talent and personality to win over audiences, when a woman gets up on stage, not just her voice, but her entire body becomes an object of performance. Perhaps it’s time to stop placing such high physical expectations on our female performers; Gaga recently had to cancel her entire European tour, because her chronic pain made her unable to perform to the standards expected of her. Until we begin respecting female singers for their musical talent, rather than how many hip thrusts they can do per-minute, it’s unlikely Lady Gaga will be the last to buckle under the physical expectations of her profession.