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Lady Gaga’s Meat Metaphor: Why We Need to be Careful About our Language when the “Steaks” are High

October 15, 2010

In September, pop singer Lady Gaga addressed a Maine rally advocating for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She called her speech “The Prime Rib of America,” basing the last half of it on a metaphorical connection between civil rights and a buffet of choice meat: “Equality,” she says, “is the prime rib of what we stand for as a nation.” Lady Gaga’s been on a bit of a meat kick lately—she gave this speech shortly after wearing a dress made out of meat at the MTV Video Music Awards (which was allegedly somehow creative and shocking despite the fact that both artist Jana Sterbak and that guy from “The Silence of the Lambs” had the same basic idea in the late 80s).

Anyway, Lady Gaga’s whole metaphor made me a bit uneasy.  At first, I thought it was maybe because I don’t get the whole prime rib thing and could only come up with images of bloody cuts of raw meat.  Then I thought that maybe it was a problem with Lady Gaga herself, and how self-serving the entire thing seemed.  After all, the only reason I could think of to make such a metaphor in the first place is to be all self-referential; she even says at one point “shouldn’t everyone deserve the right to wear the same meat dress that I did?” After some thought, though, I realized that the problem wasn’t with the meat, but with the metaphorical connection of basic rights to food.

See, despite the fact that we use them pretty much every time we open our mouths, metaphors can be tricky business.  In the very act of saying that something is akin to something else, you’re also saying that it’s not akin to lots of other things.  And sometimes, when we’re making metaphors about big, complex, important issues, we do so at the risk of ignoring or being reductive about some potentially important “other things.”

Lady Gaga’s intended meaning in her metaphor (beyond “hey look I’m eccentric and I do shocking things, remember when I did that other shocking thing not too long ago?”) is kind of obvious. Equality, in this speech, “is the greatest cut of meat my country has to offer,” so therefore everyone should get to share in it.  I think the metaphor would have had more force and made a bit more sense if she’d said “tenderloin,” but we won’t go there. The point is that food is comforting, familiar, universal. Everyone loves it, everyone needs it, most of us probably could go for more of it than we have.

If Lady Gaga’s point that equality is the best part of America, we can all get behind that. But the meat metaphor is still problematic. It steers us away from being able to see why everyone deserves that equality. After all, we don’t think that everyone has the right to eat prime rib whenever they want it.  Americans don’t really think choosing our food is an inalienable right—rather, choosing whatever you want to eat is a privilege that comes with age, independence, financial wherewithal, and so on. People who haven’t yet earned that privilege are often told, in not so many words (and sometimes in exactly that many words), to eat what’s put in front of them or go without.  Also, not getting what you want for dinner, even for those of us with the means to do so most of the time, isn’t really all that big of a deal. No one’s going to storm the National Mall if their grocery store is out of what they want and they have to choose an alternative. Also, comparing equal rights to a meal also smacks of choice, a word that the gay rights movement has been attempting to remove from talk about homosexuality for quite some time.

Furthermore, if equality really is “the greatest cut of meat,” then the metaphor doesn’t just make it hard to see why everyone has the right to have it, but it also makes it hard to see why anyone should have it all the time. How many people do you know that eat “the greatest” anything for every single meal? “Greatest” foods are things we save for special occasions, celebrations, parties, weekends, what have you.

So despite bringing up all the positive connotations we associate with good food, comparing civil rights to a favorite dish also associates equality with privilege and special occasions. Lady Gaga’s metaphorical connection focuses on the idea that equality is something that everyone wants, but the same metaphor can’t be used to explain the real issue—why equality is something that everyone deserves.

If you want to know more:

  • For an interesting example of the ways in which metaphors can push us towards or distance us from particular ways of thinking about things, see Carol Cohn’s “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.”  For a similar discussion regarding linguistic practices in general, see pretty much everything ever written by Benjamin Lee Whorf.
  • If you’d like to read the full transcript of Lady Gaga’s speech, you can find it here. Also, see the last paragraph for a link to a picture of her meat dress.
  • If you’d like more Lady Gaga meat puns that I could have put in the title but didn’t, here are five:
  1. Lady Gaga Butchers Civil Rights Metaphor
  2. Lady Gaga’s Metaphorical Mis-Steak
  3. Lady Gaga is Full of Bologna on Gay Rights
  4. Does Lady Gaga Have the Chops to Master Metaphors?
  5. Lady Gaga Minces Words

(extra thanks to Doug Cloud for help with these)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Johnstone permalink
    October 15, 2010 11:17 am

    I like this analysis. Anyway, isn’t the idea that prime rib is the best cut of meat also potentially (a) dated and (b) classist? Prime rib is what they serve at big one-size-fits-all buffets like the brunch at the Grand Concourse. I doubt you could even get prime rib at the coolest restaurants in Pgh., much less New York.

    Also, “prime rib” makes me think of Adam’s rib …

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