A Star is Born, Authenticity, and Misogyny

asibI don’t generally do many reviews, because I feel like that isn’t my beat (whatever beat a perhaps-monthly niche blogger can have), but at heart, cultural critique is what I love, and I think we can find so much truth by analyzing the art that we make and consume.

Which is a fancy way of saying “I can’t stop thinking about A Star is Born so here we go.”

I’m not going to spoil the ending, but will talk about the general arc, so if that’s not your jam, here’s your warning.

Like many seemed to, I went through this emotional journey: BRADLEY COOPER(??!) and Lady Gaga are remaking  A Star is Born?? Pass…Hmm, that trailer looks pretty good…Oh damn it, Shallow is such a good song…Guess I’m excited to see it now?

But unlike seemingly the entire moviegoing public (and nearly all the reviews I’ve read), I didn’t instantly love it. Some of the music is great (some is not). Lady Gaga is by turns fantastic and overacting to a hilarious degree. Cooper turns in a nice if unmemorable performance–give any other bearded white dude the role and they’d have done fine. Though I did find his choice to lower his voice an octave both hilarious and distracting.

Mostly, though, I have found the stark difference between what Cooper seems to think he’s saying and what was on the screen fascinating. “He wanted to make a version of the movie in which the man isn’t jealous of the woman.” (From this frankly bananas NYT profile you should read.) It’s true, sort of. At least, the overarching problem isn’t the jealousy (though it’s clearly there). It’s the contempt Jackson Mayne (Cooper’s character) has for Ally (Gaga). A contempt that, let’s say, he really went method on. It’s undergirded, certainly, by a fetishization of “authenticity” (and if you haven’t seen Cooper’s auteur schtick in his marketing campaign, it’s really something else), but I can’t help but see misogyny and a devaluing of traditionally feminine aesthetics in this fetishization.

Gaga’s Ally is a poorly fleshed out character, all over the place in terms of personality and motivation (and wardrobe! This piece is great and helped spur this line of thinking for me). And her arc is equally baffling, careening from a self-doubting singer-songwriter type to a shallow imitation of Gaga, with no concomitant personality development or explanation for these choices.

Lady Gaga, the musician, is a master at what she does, and has shown over and over again how you can have depth and fun and subversion of expectation, genre, and misogyny, while being at home within the pop-star genre. And yet he gave her some shitty Gaga knock-off schtick to contrast with his rugged, damaged man authenticity with, I think, the thesis being that his schtick is more authentic (which is hilarious when we remember that he’s essentially aping Sam Elliot) and, thus, purer, but comes with a higher cost.

As her fame grows and she turns into Gaga-lite, his contempt for her grows, and it’s hard not to nod along, as she sings truly terrible songs (that butt one??) that notably didn’t make it onto the soundtrack while wearing bizarre outfits that are such a radical departure from everything she had been building. He remains steadfast in his rugged hurt man authenticity, while she goes from “having something to say and a way to say it” to some strawman version of a popstar, utterly departed from her musical style and established aesthetic.

It feels like a retread of that same old cultural phenomenon where the things that women (and especially teenage girls and young women) like and do are devalued, while the equivalent behaviours coded male are vaunted (see: reality tv vs sports; women be shopping vs men buying power tools; gossip vs, well, gossip but when men do it it’s called serious conversation, and on and on ad infinitum). While Ally-née-Gaga plays with aesthetic and voice, Cooper literally steals Sam Elliot’s aesthetic (something he cops to in both the movie and the NYT profile linked above) and calls it authenticity.

Ultimately, I think it’s encapsulated in this story that has been told over and over as if it’s some adorable anecdote but speaks to something darker to me:

She walked downstairs and there he was, staring at her. He stepped toward her, examined her face: concealer, mascara, rouge.

“Take it off,” Bradley Cooper told Lady Gaga.

She noticed something in his hand. It was a makeup wipe. With it, he erased the colors from her forehead down to her chin.

This is the woman Cooper wanted in his film, “A Star Is Born.” Not the pop star masked with face paint and headdresses and hairpieces. Just Stefani Germanotta. “Completely open,” he said. “No artifice.”

Now, Gaga, the artist, plays with artifice constantly and to great effect. And of course you aren’t casting Mother Monster in this role. But the audacity and entitlement of a man going up to a woman and literally stripping her of her makeup is both shocking (well, not at all) and mirrored in the movie’s obsession with some nostalgic Americana (read: white white white) version of authenticity.

The hilarious gall of stripping her of artifice while growing a beard, lowering his voice by an octave (I can’t underline enough how weird this and how forced it sounds), being Sam Elliot-lite, and calling it authenticity is something else.

There’s also this, which again seems to speak to something darker:

When I spoke with [Gaga] on the phone, she referred to a scene in which Jackson and Ally get into a fight while she’s taking a bath. He’s drunk and calls her ugly — a soft spot for her character, and as anyone who has followed Gaga’s career knows, herself. The moment isn’t in the script, and her devastation is real.

As Kristy Puchko wrote, “Cooper’s behavior here suggests that he’s not too different from those ranting MRAs who denounce makeup as a feminine lie. He’s just gussied up this sexist double-standard for mainstream movie audiences.” And much like said internet warriors, who alternately denounce makeup and demand to bed conventionally attractive (make-up wearing) women while rendering all other women invisible, he seems utterly unaware of the double standard he imposes and enforces. (Finally, as an aside, there is truly no genre I love more than men publicly complimenting women wearing heavy makeup for not wearing makeup.)

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