Sometimes pop culture actually gets it right. By that I mean cultural icons can tap into something so foreign, so crazy, so insane that it actually wakes us up to a deeper truth about ourselves through our cult worship of the stars themselves. We don't quite know what is happening until it's too late.
Let me digress. One of the most influential books I ever read as a teenager was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I know: a real barnburner. But what I found fascinating about the book was how Kuhn explains the way knowledge, even in science, is not absolute. Truth is a moving target and subject to groupthink, or as Kuhn calls it, a paradigm shift. We all believe the earth is flat -- and that is our truth -- until one day somebody sails across the Atlantic. That piece of data is a fly in the ointment of the existing belief structure. Once there are enough data points contradicting the existing paradigm, the entire edifice of what is truth has to change to a new paradigm, whether a round earth or an earth that orbits the sun or the theory of relativity.
Of course what is true of science is true of everything else too. That's why I have always been suspect of those who lay claim to first-hand knowledge of eternal truth. I really believe that supposed facts are all relative and we are always one anomaly in the data away from having to rethink everything.
Which brings me to my two new favorite paradigm-shifters, Lady Gaga and Chelsea Handler. Ask even their fans why they love them and they come up with a wide range of bizarre answers. The following, I would argue, is based on our collective intuition that these women have got something right that we all know, but have been missing for way to long...
Any discussion of what it means to be a man involves what it means to be a woman. We define ourselves in large part via this inextricable dance of being male and female. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, perhaps, are the most impacted by the rigid historic definitions of gender.
As we have tried to foster a nationwide discussion about what it means to be a good father, son, husband, worker and man we have come back again and again to, how we relate to women through sex and relationships, and the various ways men treat women well and not so well. It has become very clear that defining manhood in isolation is a futile exercise without the context of considering changing conceptions of what it means to be a woman.
So to talk about manhood it seems we have to be willing to talk about womanhood. And just like men are at a point of profound transition, so too are women. We have these relatively traditional vestiges of what it means to be feminine propagated by mainstream media, porn, and even politics. But under the surface there is a revolution going on against the very basis of those beliefs.I saw Lady Gaga at Radio Music Hall when she was just on the cusp of breaking out (you can read about that here, "Poker Face: Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). One of the things I loved most about her is that she is not traditionally beautiful. She is frankly weird-looking even before all the performance art and make-up. What I also loved about her then and still do now is that at the core of all the insanity is an amazing voice. Check out this a capella version of her song "Born This Way" and tell me the woman doesn't put Madonna to shame:
I also recently watched the 60 minutes segment in which Gaga explains her "little monsters." Her message is really all of us, especially girls and women, who don't fit into the traditional stereotypes of what it is to be female. She calls herself, and us by proxy, the "freaks." In other words the anomaly in the scientific theory about truth that has worn down at the edges so much that it is no longer working because, well, most of us no longer feel like we fit in. Her message is one of encouraging her audience to embrace their freak nature, to accept who they are with radical honesty, and thereby find the superstar hidden within.
Yes she is a brilliant choreographer of her own fame through insane fashion, half-naked performance, and self-promotion taken to the extreme. But all the swirl of activity, I would argue, is needed to break down the barrier of the edifice of truth about women that is no longer useful to them or us as men. You don't have to be stereotypically beautiful, you don't have to feel like a freak, you don't have to accept homophobia, you don't have to shun your sexuality. Be who you were born to be is the Gaga mantra.