By Catherine Schmidt, Georgia State University
In part one of this series, we looked at how Mary Magdalene was depicted in popular culture prior to Vatican II. This second installment will discuss both the history of Vatican II in relation to Mary and Lady Gaga’s interpretation of Mary in her music video for her son “Judas”.
In the 1960s the Catholic Church held a council to essentially modernize the Catholic Church. This was the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II. One of the many things done was the changing of the suggested readings for Mary’s saint day. No longer did the readings include the Biblical verses that Pope Gregory I attributed to Mary, making her a prostitute in the eyes of the church. The verses suggested would now be verses to highlight her greatest biblical achievement: being the first to see the resurrected Jesus. After almost fourteen hundred years, Mary would no longer be thought of as a prostitute, sinner, or repentant whore, right? Unfortunately, not quite. Just because her designation on a calendar was changed by the Catholic Church, it did not change fourteen hundred years of thinking. Due to all the depictions of Mary as a prostitute in pieces of art, theater, novels, sermons, and film, the “error was so firmly entrenched in Western thought” and it would take more than an official change in Catholic Church thinking to change Mary’s reputation. According to some scholars, even after Vatican II, many Catholics were unaware, until The Da Vinci Code in 2003, that Mary was not a prostitute. Since American popular culture continued to portray her as such, the views of her stayed the same in the public eye. Even after the novel and film The Da Vinci Code, Mary continues to be portrayed as a prostitute. Mary’s depiction in The Da Vinci Code will be discussed in Part 4 of this series.
On May 5, 2011, popular culture icon Lady Gaga released the music video for her song “Judas” from her album Born this Way. In the music video, Lady Gaga plays the role of a modern day Mary who is a member of a motorcycle gang. Though Lady Gaga states she is a Catholic, the way she represents Mary both lyrically and visually in the video shows that she does not pay close attention to scripture. As with pre-Vatican II artistic renderings, Lady Gaga’s Mary is still portrayed as a “fame hooker, prostitute, [and] wench.” Though unlike The King of Kings (see Part 1 of 4) in which Judas is only Mary’s favorite client, the lyrics and music video for the song argue that Mary was in love with Judas with the chorus repeating the line “I’m in love with Judas, Judas!”
Throughout the music video, Lady Gaga’s Mary is dressed very provocatively, which can be expected from something produced by Lady Gaga. Her Mary goes through several different costume changes. There are three interesting outfits that I will comment on. The first is the very first image we see of Lady Gaga as Mary. In the opening scene of the video, Mary is riding on the back of a motorcycle holding on to Jesus. While the other disciples have their names written on the back of their leather jackets, the viewer knows this is Jesus because of his crown of golden thorns he is wearing. The visual is reinforced with the lyrics “a king with no crown, king with no crown.” Mary, likewise, has a crown but it is made of jewels. Here, Lady Gaga is suggesting that Mary is Jesus’ queen. The second interesting outfit is from one of the many dancing scenes in the video. The outfit is a red bikini (the bikini not being the unusual aspect of a Lady Gaga video) with gold crosses on the breasts. Attached to the lower portion of the bikini is a train. This train brings back images of Mary’s cape from the opening scenes in The King of Kings. In an online article responding to the music video, Ed Masley stated:
This isn’t the first time an artist has turned to the Bible for metaphors, of course. But [Lady] Gaga dances in her underwear, so it probably seems more sacrilegious than when someone like Bob Dylan does it, even though the central theme of both the lyrics and the video is humanity’s inner struggle to choose virtue over vice, as represented here by Jesus over Judas.
Lady Gaga’s last outfit of the video has her dressed in a large, elaborate white gown. She is again suggesting that Mary is the bride of Jesus by wearing what looks like a wedding dress. As well, Lady Gaga, like Pope Gregory I, combines the many women of the New Testament in her music video into one Mary. Song lyrics include “I wash his feet with my hair if he needs” and there is a scene where Mary washes Jesus’ feet—as well as Judas’ which is unique to Lady Gaga. Something that is not depicted incorrectly in The King of Kings, but is in this music video, is Mary being stoned at the very end of the video (in reference to the unnamed sinful woman that Jesus saves from being stoned. In Gaga’s video, Jesus does not arrive in time to save this woman).
It is as if Vatican II never happened in Lady Gaga’s world. Mary is still confused with other women in the New Testament. To go even further, Lady Gaga’s Mary, unlike many other depictions of Mary, is not the repentant sinner. At one point in the song she sings “in the most Biblical sense, I am beyond repentance. Fame hooker, prostitute, wench” and while “Jesus is [her] virtue. Judas is the demon [she] clings to.” Mary has not been freed of her demons by Jesus nor is she remorseful of her past. Lady Gaga’s video/lyrical depiction of Mary consequently allows the misrepresentation and “mud-slinging job” to live on for another generation. Yet another generation, even after the Catholic Church no longer supports the same opinion officially, sees Mary portrayed this way and believes it is true. “Seeing engages us in the activity of the transmission of knowledge. Knowledge is power. Images have power, and an essential part of that power is their ability to communicate authority and reality.” Since the Mary in Lady Gaga’s video is what audiences expect Mary to be (that is confused with other women in the New Testament, and not dressed in a bikini) it becomes their reality of what Mary should be.
Lady Gaga’s representation of Mary is not that of a powerful woman. The video suggests that her stamp in history is that of a whore in love with both Jesus and Judas. Varying interpretations of Mary are not only due to Pope Gregory I’s sermon, but also the lack of canonical information on her. Ingrid Maisch argued that many interpreters of Mary are “eager to describe her significance, but they believe that the New Testament evidence yields too little information; hence the evidence is ‘enhanced’ by making the connection to other women…The confused picture is ‘used’ as a means of pursuing various ends.” Mary continues to be marginalized and demeaned even forty-two years after Vatican II.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the 4 part article that will build even further the myth of Mary’s reputation. Jesus Christ Superstar will be discussed that adds an extra element of Mary’s sexual love of Jesus.
Catherine Schmidt is an associate editor of Religion Nerd. Catherine earned her BA in Religious Studies at Arizona State University (2005) and her MA in Religious Studies at Georgia State University (2012). She has presented her work at academic conferences in the local, regional, and national level. Catherine’s interest range include: religion and popular culture, women and religion, Mary Magdalene, and early Christian history. She hopes in the future to pursue her PhD where she can combine her many interests.