Amy Levin:  Last year it was Jo Calderone performing at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, and this year it was Roman Zolanski at the 2012 Grammy Awards. If these names aren’t ringing a bell, you might otherwise know them as the now famous male alter-egos of singers Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, respectively. After Minaj, the rising female rapper, showed up at the Grammys with the Pope as her date and performed an exorcism on stage, she joined both Lady Gaga and Madonna in the line up of performers with Catholic-themed spectacles. Unsurprisingly, both pop entertainment media and Catholic organizations (namely the Catholic League) equally denounced Minaj’s performance as overboard, vulgar, disrespectful, tasteless, and silly.

Nicki Minaj at the 2012 Grammys

At the Grammys, Minaj debuted her single, “Roman Holiday,” where she performed as Roman Zolanski, her gay, nihilistic alter-ego, and executed the first ever Grammy mock exorcism. An LA Times article described the event as “performance-art” in which Minaj “levitated, writhed, appeared to speak in tongues and romped through a stained-glass-windowed set surrounded by white-robed celebrants.” Confused by the immediate and vitriolic reactions, Minaj explained that her performance “was part of a movie she’s writing” and partly inspired by the 1973 film, “The Exorcist.”

Minaj’s creative director and choreographer of the performance, Laurieann Gibson, a self-described “believer” and “Catholic,” was equally surprised by the overzealous public reactions. In a Rolling Stones interview Gibson stated that, “To be honest, no, we didn’t do anything for controversy. . .We never had that conversation at all. Nicki just truly wanted Roman to be exorcised, and I just went to work.” So is the hubbub an extension of an age-old culture war of religious-art boundary pushing (think Piss Christ), or might there be more to this recent trend that utilizes religious imagery and gender-crossing in the world of emerging entertainment icons?

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone

Let’s over-read. In the weblog “ReadWriteWeb,” Alicia Eler pauses on the religious heresy of “Roman Holiday” for a moment to marinate on the gendered narrative. She quotes Menda Francois’ thesis, “Step Your Pussy Up: Nicki Minaj and the Signifyin(g) Tropes of Hardcore Female Rap” (yes it’s real and amazing):

Implicit in Minaj’s signification onto the male narrative is a strategic process of identity construction, relying primarily on the male narrative and male voice to help shape the hardcore female rapper’s public image. Essentially, by engaging in dialogue with the male narrative, Minaj is aligning herself with male rappers and creating her identity as one of (pseudo)masculinity, an asset valuable to her role as a hardcore female rapper. It is within this genre that femcees [female rappers] operate as performers of gender and are most harshly judged by an injurious rubric of masculinity.

I believe Francois and Eler are pointing to a crucial symptom of something larger than religious anxiety – this controversy might equally be about gender anxiety, and do we have cultural precedents! Forgive my preferential treatment for funny girls, but I can’t help but hark back to that other “soul of a man living inside of a woman” performance, otherwise known as Barbra Streisand as Anshel in Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. Streisand fought to break the glass ceiling as a woman who wrote, produced, and directed “Yentl,” a film about a Polish Jewish woman who poses as a man in order go to a Yeshiva and study Torah (yes, the metaphor is palpable).

Barbra Streisand as Anshel

Might Anshel and Roman be calling out to us, signifying something about our culture, gesturing toward the challenges of occupying male physical and discursive spaces in the public arts to gain legitimacy through the use of religious ritual and male performativity? Religious blasphemy aside, those who interpret the way religion is mediated and made visible for cultural audiences might want to read gestures like Grammy exorcisms not as merely excessive spectacles for shock value, but perhaps as liminal conduits for uneasy gendered, racial, what-have-you identities to puncture through the entertainment bubble. Yes, religion-on-stage makes for delightful exhibition for audiences, but it might do something a bit more substantial for its performers.