#SeniorSeminar: Mallory & “Mother Monster’s Message: An Exploration of Sexuality in Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’”

Thu, 01/26/23
Mallory Malman

Hi, I am Mallory Malman, I am a senior at FSU, double majoring in History and English – Editing, Writing, Media. I came to Florida State University because I was selected for the Presidential Scholar program. I became interested in History during my Freshman year when I worked with Dr. Piehler, the Director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, on a project through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. Over the years, through the coursework for the History major, I have come to realize that History is what I want to do with my life. Eventually, I want to pursue a PhD in History and go into academia. First, I want to take a few years off from school and get some life experience outside of university.

My favorite area of History is the 1960s and 70s in the U.S, particularly the social changes that were going on at the time. But I have also been interested in pop culture. One of my favorite past-times is looking at pop culture magazines and catching up on news and gossip. I had not thought about pop culture in the context of a History class, and when I saw that Dr. Mooney offered a senior seminar on the theme of pop culture, I thought: “how cool is that, I will try it out.”

I wrote my paper on Lady Gaga. I have loved her since I was a little kid, listened to all of her music and watched all of her performances. So, when I joined the senior seminar, I decided to turn my love for Lady Gaga and her music into an academic paper. My favorite album of hers is ‘Born This Way’ which was what I wrote my senior thesis on.

My paper was entitled “Mother Monster’s Message: An Exploration of Sexuality in Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way.’” I focused on the album’s core theme of celebrating monstrous otherness in art to evolve perceptions of queer identity in 2011 mainstream society. Monstrous otherness is an important theme in queer performance art, and ‘Born This Way’ is an activist album that promotes and uplifts queer voices. Gaga used the album’s literal lyrics to create a safe space for the queer community while also calling out anti-LGBT legislation. She reinforced this with metaphorical visuals such as alien figures, the meat dress, and drag performance to deconstruct heteronormativity on a large-scale platform. To give you some context, the album was released in 2011, at a time before gay marriage had been legalized nationwide. However, anti-LGBTQ+ policies were slowly being overturned, as evidenced by the recent repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military bill, which prevented gay people from openly serving in the armed forces.

For my research, I relied mostly on her music videos and the album itself. I used the close-reading skills I learned as an English major to conduct a literary analysis of the lyrics. I also read and watched a lot of interviews with Lady Gaga in which she explained her work and the meaning behind her album. I also looked at a few fan reactions, tweets, YouTube comments, and social media posts. In my previous history coursework and research, I had done a lot of film analysis, which helped interpret the messaging in the music videos. I took an interdisciplinary approach to my senior seminar work.

Through my research, I discovered that there was an academic field called ‘Gaga studies.’ Quite a few academics have written about Lady Gaga and her work and how it has impacted pop culture. There is even a book called “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.” I worked with this secondary literature to help situate my thesis.

My paper was concerned with locating ‘Born This Way’ at the specific moment in time when it was released. To contextualize that, I looked at Lady Gaga’s career prior to ‘Born This Way’, where she built her platform with popular albums 'The Fame’ and ‘The Fame Monster.’ Her shocking performances and fashion made her an ‘out there’ voice with massive influence in the entertainment industry. The impact of ‘Born This Way’ was so great because she was one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and she wanted to use her voice for positive change. I also looked at the after-effects of the album, and how it has been viewed since its release. It was groundbreaking at the time, and its significance was emphasized by its 10-year anniversary re-release and anniversary party in 2021.

What surprised me most in my research was the discovery that Lady Gaga had failed with properly addressing intersectionality in some of the topics she discussed. Obviously, I have a 2022 perspective when looking at her work, but at the time Gaga presented herself as a stereotypically attractive white woman who attributed stereotypes to several groups that she did not belong to. Specifically, in the song, ‘Born This Way,’ she refers to Asian people as ‘oriental’ and to people from Latin America as ‘cholas.’ Having to grapple with these statements and acknowledge that this was part of her work was difficult for me, especially in the context of my thesis. I had to figure out a way to evaluate her music while understanding that it was released at a moment that was less sensitive to such statements. She was called out for this at the time, but not by the mainstream media or the majority of her American fans.

Writing the senior seminar paper itself was not as much of a challenge for me. As part of my study abroad semester in the summer at Cambridge University, I wrote a 20-page history paper. I came back from England the day before the semester started and went immediately into the senior seminar. I tried to work a little bit on the project every week. There were many texts to read and staying on top of that was important while balancing other course work and research. Writing has always come naturally to me, and how Dr. Mooney structured the course – first, we had to submit five pages, then ten pages, and then the full paper - helped make the writing process manageable. In the past, I have sat down and written most of an assignment all at once, so having to submit sections of the paper throughout the semester allowed me to use the full sixteen weeks to produce my best work.

I usually write research papers by first making a broad bullet-point outline of everything I want to say and listing different sources to support my points. When I first did this with my senior seminar paper, I realized I had way too many points to fit in a twenty-page paper. I started out thinking I would write about the album’s themes of religion, sexuality, space and place, and her identity as a New Yorker, however I soon cut most of the other aspects to focus only on sexuality and what the album meant for LGBTQ politics at the time. I soon realized the theme of ‘monstrous otherness’ was the best way to streamline my paper and link it all together. For my first five pages, I wrote my introduction and stated my thesis. I figured that once I had solidified my thesis, I could move forward and connect my arguments back to it. The rest of the paper I wrote in a linear fashion.

Doing the presentation was my biggest challenge in the class. We had ten-minute slots to present our 20-plus-page papers. Dr. Mooney told us that this is what happens at an academic conference and that it was an important skill to learn how to condense our material and still present the overall argument. When I did the first run-through of my presentation, it took 20 minutes. I had to work quite a bit to shorten my presentation and figure out what I needed to pull from my content to make the biggest impact. The presentation forced me think more clearly about what I needed to say. I was still wrestling with the intersectionality aspect, and the feedback I received on my presentation from both my peers and Dr. Mooney allowed me to make some important changes and additions to my paper.

If I could go back in time and start again, I would try to pace myself better. I would try to take even more time for my writing and preparing. It was still quite stressful putting together the senior seminar paper. To destress, I would go for a walk to clear my head, take time off to be with friends, and watch TV.

My advice to other History majors planning on taking their senior seminar class is: “pick a class with a theme that you are most interested in and do the same for your individual project topic.” The senior seminar takes a lot of effort, and if you are not interested in the topic you chose, you might not produce your best work possible. Being really passionate about my topic and having a very supportive professor made my senior seminar the great experience it was. After sixteen weeks of working on Lady Gaga, I still totally love her. I saw her three times in concert last year!