Anna Kemball | November 20, 2017
Microphone in hand, her bejewelled boots dangling, Lady Gaga rises into the heights of the NGR Stadium to rehearse an aerial performance in her Super Bowl halftime show. Rising higher, out of the camera’s focus, the singer disappears from view as a choir is heard singing Kaval Sviri (better known as the fight theme of Xena: Warrior Princess). So begins Gaga: Five Foot Two, a feature-length Netflix documentary. Although the documentary covers the release of Joanne, Gaga’s latest album, and her Super Bowl performance, reviews have focused on the coverage of her fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), a long term condition characterised by widespread pain, fatigue and other symptoms. The name alone – referring to the singer’s height – suggests our focus should be on Gaga’s physicality as we watch Gaga: Five Foot Two. On the face of it, documentary coverage of FMS is a much-needed representation of an “invisible disability” that affects around 1 in 20. Making the condition “visible” must surely be a good thing, right?
Yes! Well, maybe … Possibly …
We see Gaga ascending into the heights of the NGR Stadium. We see her determination to do one last take when filming the video for “Perfect Illusion”, even if the frenzied dancing is damaging her ankle. Although critics have applauded the humanising presentation of the singer’s vulnerability, these examples suggest Gaga: Five Foot Two subscribes to the “supercrip” narrative. By this, I mean that it seems to be yet another representation of disability that “focus[es] on individual attitude, work, and perseverance rather than the social barriers, making it seem as if all effects of disability can be erased if one merely works hard enough.”
Now, I’m sure Gaga’s performance conveyed exactly the level of spectacle needed for a halftime show watched by 117.5 million. But when her performance, her costume and her jewelled mask are taken out of the NGR Stadium and presented in the arena of a disability documentary, her flying body surely adds to the heroic “supercrip” tropes abounding in representations of illnesses and disability.
In contrast to the halftime show (already seen by millions earlier this year), Gaga: Five Foot Two offers exclusive, intimate footage of Gaga’s ongoing treatment for FMS. This includes an as-yet-unseen side of the popstar, a patient who must undergo physiotherapy and various clinical procedures to manage the pain. Yet even in these private moments, the documentary’s style refuses to separate Gaga-the-patient and Gaga-the-pop star. Nowhere is this more apparent than when, during a rushed appointment (Joanne has been leaked online ahead of its release), the trigger points on Gaga’s back are marked for injections as a makeup artist hastily works in time for the pop star’s next public appearance. In Gaga’s own words, “who gets their makeup done whilst getting a major body treatment?”
Neither side of Gaga (as patient or popstar) is representative of a “normal” experience with FMS. Most patients will not have access to such levels of private care and complementary therapies shown in the documentary but, on the other hand, other patients aren’t under pressure to immediately inhabit the popstar persona needed to publicise an album. Admittedly, Gaga is aware of her privilege: “I just think about other people who have maybe something like this […] And they don’t have the money to have somebody help them. Like, I don’t know what I’d f**king do if I didn’t have everybody here to help me.” But here lies the paradox of the documentary. Gaga’s attempts to empathise with other patients are framed within a supercrip narrative that “foster[s] unrealistic expectations about what people with disabilities can achieve, what they should be able to achieve, if only they tried hard enough.” Though Gaga recognises her access to a unique network of support and treatment, the documentary projects this message via a genre that prioritises individualism, exceptionalism and personal achievement.
Gaga: Five Foot Two has sparked conversations about a condition that, were it not for the documentary, many viewers might never have known about. The “Lady Gaga moment”, as editor of the Fibromyalgia Magazine UK describes it, has raised more awareness than any campaign in the magazine’s 18 years. If those conversations move towards improving public support, the documentary will have a remarkable legacy. But how FMS is treated and managed by a famous, wealthy “ambassador” will be hugely different to any ordinary experience of the disability. Let’s not attach the high-wires and place others upon this “supercrip” pedestal, expecting a song and dance from everyone else with fibromyalgia.
 Schalk, S. (2016). Reevaluating the Supercrip. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 10(1), 71-86 (73).
 Berger, R. (2008). Disability and the Dedicated Wheelchair Athlete. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 37(6), 647-678 (648).
I’m a first year English Literature PhD student at the University of Edinburgh studying representations of mental health across a range of indigenous literatures. With a BA and MA from the University of Leeds, my research interests include: critical medical humanities, mental health, postcolonial and indigenous literatures and disability studies.
Article edited by Valentina Paz Aparicio, Vivek Santayana and Penny Wang.