Whatever Philosophy Is, It’s Most Certainly Not About Girls: Or, why people hate Nancy Bauer’s NYTimes column on Beauvoir and Gaga

Readers of this blog have probably safely assumed that I totally endorse Nancy Bauer’s recent contribution to the New York Times philosophy blog, “The Stone”. Her reading of Lady Gaga through Beauvoir (mainly through The Ethics of Ambiguity’s first few pages) hits the nail right on the head: we philosophers often wrongly assume that we are independent, autonomous beings for whom subjectivity stands directly opposed to objectification. Beauvoir, of course, argues that humans are fundamentally interdependent, and that we can’t not take others (and even ourselves) as means/objects. Put differently, the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative (treat others always as an end in themselves, never as a means to other ends) rests on false assumptions about the fact (or rather, facticity) of human existence. Following Beauvoir, Bauer argues that the line between being a “subject” and being an “object” is ambiguous; consequently, Lady Gaga’s status as socopophilic object of visual (and aural) pleasure doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of her autonomy and artistic agency. I completely agree with Bauer’s argument, and would extend it as follows: We often use “objectification” as an excuse to deny female pop stars artistic agency. If she’s an object of pleasure, there’s no way she can actually, you know, have interesting ideas or make decisions for herself—so the excuse goes. This is an all-too-common method to trivialize women’s accomplishments. Also, it bears noting that for all her efforts to posit herself as spectacle, Gaga is emphatically not sexualizing herself. She always, always presents herself as monstrous, ugly, grotesque, or otherwise just not properly feminine. She may bear a lot of skin, but she’s presenting us an image more disgusting than (traditionally) desirable (of course, insert remarks about the abject here…).

SO, what’s really fascinating is Bauer’s follow-up post to her original piece; this follow-up appears here:


Bauer addresses comments to her original post. What’s notable here is that many comments argue that the work of a 24-year-old woman is somehow inherently not philosophical. Responding to the “many people [who] criticize me for what was taken to be my claim that Lady Gaga herself is espousing a philosophical position that we ought to take seriously,” Bauer states: “I can understand why people might balk at the claim that, at the tender age of 24, a pop star should be seen as having a coherent philosophy that we should both take seriously and hold her to.”

But why should we doubt that a 24-year-old woman has the capacity to say something philosophically and/or artistically valuable? At 24, I was a Ph.D. student; I was working on my dissertation and teaching a few sections of undergraduate Intro to Philosophy and Business Ethics. While I certainly wasn’t at the front of some philosophical vanguard, I did have contributions that journal editors and conference referees thought valuable enough to include in their respective scholarly venues. In a well-known paper, Sally Hasslanger recounts her experience as a graduate student: professors and other students often dismissed her remarks (only to have them later taken seriously and rewarded, when uttered by male students), her interests, and her scholarly competence (http://www.mit.edu/~shaslang/papers/HaslangerCICP.pdf). I’m 32 and have the grey hair to prove it, I’ve been at my current institution for four years, I’ve been publishing and attending philosophy conferences for more than ten years, and it is still not uncommon for students, faculty, staff, and colleagues in philosophy to express surprise when they learn that I am, indeed, an assistant professor in philosophy. Why is it so hard to believe that young(ish, in my case) women are philosophers/like philosophy/are good at philosophy? Why are we continuing Plato’s practice of/desire to shoo away the “flute girls” so that the “real philosophy” can begin? Plato states:

I next propose that the flute-girl who came in just now be dismissed: let her pipe to herself or, if she likes, to the women-folk within, but let us seek our entertainment today in conversation (Plato, Symposium 176e).

Sadly, it seems to be the case that both Bauer and her commenters want to follow Plato’s lead and treat Lady Gaga as just another of philosophy’s many “flute-girls”.