By Sarah Muzillo
Lady Gaga is a powerhouse. Not only has her music garnered both critical and commercial acclaim for nearly a decade, the artist has gained a massive following, performed during the Super Bowl, and advocated for many social justice causes. She’s also widely known for her avant garde, over the top looks and performances.
That’s not her whole story, though.
As soon as, Gaga: Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga’s new Netflix documentary began, I instantly knew it was going to be important. In the film, we see the pop artist, makeup-free, hanging out with loved ones while cooking in her apartment. We also see her discussing the death of her aunt, who was the inspiration for Joanne, her critically acclaimed album. Gaga openly struggles with intense anxiety and feelings of not being good enough—nervous that the public won’t like her most personal music yet. Sobbing on a couch while in immense physical pain, she asks if she looks pathetic. This is the most vulnerable Gaga we’ve seen yet––she’s shown stressed out, wearing nothing but a hospital gown, as her physician examines her.
Although the film touches on several issues, perhaps the most impactful and groundbreaking is Gaga’s discussion of her struggle with fibromyalgia, a debilitating chronic pain illness that impacts approximately 5 million people in America, 80 to 90 percent of whom are women. This struggle is a consistent thread throughout the documentary and gives much needed visibility to the condition that has no specific cause or cure.
Gaga’s documentary feels genuine, raw, and intimate. As viewers, we feel her creative energy, her passion, her frustrations, her sadness—her pain. Yet, critics say it’s honest, but not honest enough. Even when women share our lives in the most vulnerable ways, it never seems to be quite enough. We’re not being transparent enough, or we’re sharing too much. Lady Gaga has a right to tell her story in whatever way she wants.
We also need to recognize the toll fame takes on someone like Lady Gaga, in addition to the mental and physical consequences of celebrity, especially as a woman in the spotlight.
“If I’m gonna be sexy on the VMAs and sing about the paparazzi, I’m going to do it while I’m bleeding to death and reminding you of what fame did to Marilyn Monroe,” she says. “The original Norma Jean. And what it did to Anna Nicole Smith. And what it did to…Yeah. Do you know who?”
We idealize, objectify and put celebrities, especially women, on impossible pedestals. We take and take and take from our idols as we regard them as perfect. We place them in neat little boxes and then criticize them for not being real.
Not only are critiques of the film frustrating (because women should be able to share our personal stories however we desire), this criticism also relates to a troubling pattern of doctors discounting women’s physical pain and illness as rooted in psychology (or all in their heads). For example, studies show that doctors misdiagnose, diminish, or completely dismiss women at risk of heart attack compared to men. And a National Institute of Health study shows that women tend to wait 16 minutes longer than men when they are receiving pain medicine in emergency rooms.
From a young age, women are frequently told we are weak, we’re over exaggerating, or we’re being hysterical. And this stereotype saturates all societal spaces, including medicine. A woman’s pain, therefore, can’t be that excruciating because, you know what they say––women are always so dramatic.
That’s not to discount Lady Gaga’s immense privilege. She’s a rich, white woman who has access to life-changing resources many desperately need and are increasingly being stripped of, through attempts to dismantle social services and the Affordable Care Act, for example. In a moment of insight, Gaga recognizes this reality while folks tend to her as she copes with excruciating pain.
“I just think about other people that, like, have maybe something like this, that are struggling to figure out what it is, and they don’t have the quick money to have somebody help them,” she says. “Like, I don’t know what I’d fucking do if I didn’t have everybody here to help me. What the hell would I do?”
I can’t relate to Gaga’s struggle with chronic pain. But, despite our very different lives, I found myself nodding a long many times when she discussed her experiences with sexism and anxiety. Women are expected to be everything to everybody until we reach a breaking point. As a public figure and pop culture icon with extraordinary influence, I’m glad Gaga filmed her life. She shouldn’t have to, but she did with incredible vulnerability and honesty.