Lady Gaga and The Battle To Understand Chronic Pain

Lady Gag’s new documentary is a revolutionary representation of life with chronic pain – if you’re a celebrity.


In the 80s, when thousands of gay and bisexual men were dying from AIDS, activists were desperate for a celebrity to reveal that they had the condition. It was not out of heartlessness, but it was due to desperation. If a celebrity had it then it was believed that something surely would change and governments would be forced to care about HIV. Yet, arguably revelations of Hudson and Mercury contributed little. There is still that hope though that if celebrities reveal how human they are, then the world may take action. It’s why the new documentary on Lady Gaga is so powerful.

The entertainment industry is saturated with reality TV shows and documentaries on our favourite celebrities. Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017) however, goes beyond just giving fans a sneak-peak at their favourite celebrity. It’s an earnest and raw tale of living with chronic pain. You don’t have to be a Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) fan to enjoy the documentary. Much of the film is about the every day struggles of being a disabled woman.

“Much of the film is about the every day struggles of being a disabled woman”

It’s rare to see the realities of chronic pain. One worrisome product of this is that the documentary may well serve for voyeurism for those who want to see people in pain, who need to see it to believe it and who just get a kick out of seeing a star on her back in agony. But that’s not the problem of the documentary, but of humanity. Disabled people are often treated with a twisted fascination. The documentary itself though is raw and empowering. It doesn’t shy away from just how painful life can be but it also does not exploit Gaga’s pain. Throughout, she retains her autonomy. For many, it would have shown their lives represented and perhaps would have created some solidarity or connection as narratives of chronic pain are so lacking in the media.

The most powerful moment was when Gaga asked, while in tears from pain, “do I look pathetic?”  as it is a moment all people with chronic pain go through repeatedly. There’s the constant worry about whether we look weak or are somehow failing. It’s even worse for chronically ill women. That’s not to say that disability is easy for men (far from it) but the pressure on women is so often brushed aside. Women also have to appear strong. Women also have to push through. Women also cannot afford to look weak. We talk about the pressures of masculinity but there is infinite pressure on women to have it all, do it all, never complain and shatter that ceiling for any sense of self-respect. We’re not just representatives of ourselves but of what women can do. We carry the burden of womanhood. Any individual failure is so often treated as an example that women are somehow weak. We talk a lot about how men suffer in silence but so too do women, and even more so non-binary people. Gaga shows the pressure disabled women face to just get on.

“Do I look pathetic?”

Yet, Gaga is in a privileged position even with such intense pain. It’s something Gaga acknowledges, admitting she wouldn’t know what she would do if she didn’t have the financial capacity to access the support she does. She understands her relatively fortunate position. With the future of healthcare on Trump’s agenda of cuts, it was a timely reminder that the reality of chronic pain for so many is also mixed with fear over how to survive every single day.

The documentary doesn’t focus solely on chronic pain – but that’s what makes it an authentic reflection of disability. Even on a good day, the fear of a pain episode being triggered lingers. Pain is in the backdrop of the production.

Gaga is also very human with her struggles, admitting sometimes she just does what she wants – including dancing – and won’t let her pain inhibit her even if the pain is worse down the line as a result. The limitations pain puts on life are frustrating and it’s so easy to just do what you want to do regardless of anyone’s advice. Gaga shows the realities of life with pain and the desire to fight against it. In the opening minutes, Gaga states her tolerance for bullshit from men is non-existent and puts the reason down to her age but to be honest, with everything she endures every day, it’s little wonder she hasn’t got time for bullshit. There’s not many disabled women who do.

The documentary also gave an honest commentary on the reaction to Gaga, without her usual audacious outfits and makeup. Gaga was slammed for it. Many wanted the ‘fun’ Gaga back. They wanted her to just be the performer. While Gaga should be celebrated for being brave as hell to go out and be bold with her styling, she also deserves just as much applause for choosing not to, and for just being herself in a world constantly telling her how she should be. Gaga loves to entertain but she’s going to do it her way and she deserves respect for whatever choices around that she makes. Women performers, and disabled women especially, are not performance tools. They’re people with talent and their own autonomy. We don’t get to dictate how they live. The backlash to Gaga’s stripped back style showed the demands the audience place on women.

Five Foot Two won’t be for everyone, and it’s still a world of privilege and celebrities, but there is a realness to it that goes so far beyond anything we usually get from these kinds of documentaries. It shows the lengths to which chronic pain controls lives, that it’s always there even on days when people seem fine. It’s a true reflection of how women battling through doesn’t mean that they’re okay or in less need of help. Maybe one day we’ll get a society that cares about those living in pain, but it’s a long way off. For now though, Gaga’s documentary is at least an empowering distraction between pain episodes.

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