If Beyoncé says she is a feminist, well, she is a feminist. It would be just stupid to argue against that.
But Beyoncé’s feminism, which is projected out to the world by way of the mass media, isn’t without its criticism, just like Katy Perry, Lily Allen, Miley Cyrus, Madonna and other pop culture fem-positive artists being perpetuated as girl power entertainment. They too feel validated in their feminism and have face stiff critique because of it. And fear of the white feminist gaze, and stan (blink, blink) be damned, I, who too revels in anti-sexism and anti-racism, am going to speak on it, sister to sister.
[Warning: this post may contains some non-Beyoncé affirming critiques. Reader discretion is advised.]
Without a doubt, the most intriguing song on the surprise Beyoncé visual album has to be “Flawless.” After leaking a snippet of the original song, “Bow Down/I Been On,” earlier this year – and causing quite a stir among many women, including both self-identified and non-identified feminists alike who objected to some of its hyper-aggressive lyricism – has been re-imagined and remixed with the words of famed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In an April 2013 Tedx Talk, Adichie spoke about everyday sexism and what feminism means to her. Adichie’s talk is a 30 minute listen (and well worth the time if you ask me), and couldn’t fit on the track as a whole. But here is what was sampled in the song:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls – you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful otherwise you will threaten the man. Because I am female I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. A marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing. But for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: A person who believes in the economic, social and political equality of the sexes.
There is little denying the fem-positive themes in the music and overall persona of the Beyoncé visual album. The electronic-infused ballad “Pretty Hurts,” which is basically Beyoncé’s ode to the pressures of perfection and trying to abide by – and uphold – a narrow standard of beauty, would make a perfect musical accompaniment to David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model, a documentary about preteen impoverished girls who often are treated like endless disposable supply for the modeling industry pipeline between Siberia, Japan, and the U.S. The in-your-face raunchiness of “Partition,” “Blow” and “Haunted” spits in the face of what we chiefly believe to be an appropriate display of a woman’s sexuality (i.e. asexual) post-motherhood. While “Drunk in Love,” which features a bikini clad Beyoncé on the beach, holding a trophy, seductively twerking and singing about animalistic, raw and often frank love making with her adoring husband Jay Z, almost becomes the antithesis to the silent, stiff and emotionless display of female sexuality in the recently released “Bound 2” video by Kanye West.
The Beyoncé we see on the visual album is about power. She is also about sexual liberation, control and self-ownership, which all are the backbones of most feminist ideologies. However, there are other themes on the album, which often run counter to those ideas as well. As mentioned by many casual listeners, there is the misappropriation of Ike and Tina Turner domestic abuse by Jay Z, which adds a bitter pill to the lovemaking in “Drunk in Love.” And there’s the groan-inducing factor in “Partition” while watching Beyoncé, a black woman, dancing around in a cage with leopard spotted lights all over her body. However, more notable, is how much of the Beyoncé visual album becomes a pageantry of opulence and extravagance. Both through song and visuals, we see Beyoncé toasting up all sorts of caviar dreams and champagne wishes, including the following: being surrounded by butlers and maids; unapologetically riding private jets and being draped in diamonds, furs and exclusive and hard-to-pronounce labels. Through her self-empowering message, Beyoncé wants us to know that she is not just a boss, but queen. She is not just a queen, but a king. Oh yeah, and she is not just a king, but a rich one as well. In essence, this visual album is as much about Beyoncé affirming herself among society’s aristocrats and one-percent as much as it is about her feminism. And while there is girl power, it’s at the expense of what other girls and boys?
In the video for “Partition” she, just for fun, drops a napkin for the attention of her preoccupied husband. However, when either fails to fetch it, a silent maid dutifully dashes from across the room and retrieves it for her mistress, who doesn’t even bother to make eye contact. She repeats the same playful, yet carefree debasing imagery again in the video for “Haunted,” where an indifferent Beyoncé takes a single drag off of a cigarette and then tosses it at the feet of the same upscale hotel employee, who had dutifully lit the cigarette and once she is gone, will likely have to clean up her ashes. And in “Flawless,” which has been taken by many as the new black feminist anthem, Beyoncé doesn’t offer camaraderie and solidarity for aspiring women, but instead divisively boasts the lyrics, “I know when you were little girls. You dreamt of being in my world. Don’t forget it, don’t forget it. Respect that, bow down b***hes…” In fact, many of Beyoncé’s themes of self-empowerment involves little attempt to dismantle or challenge in any way, the hierarchy, which says that some folks, regardless of gender, are more important than others. The same hierarchy, which brings about the vicious racism, classism and yes, even sexism, which disempowers economically, politically and socially the equally hardworking, and unrecognized feminists.
It all kind of reminds me of what black feminist theorist bell hooks wrote recently about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook billionaire and author of the best selling Lean In, and her brand of neoliberal feminism. In part:
Feminism is just the screen masking this reframing. Angela McRobbie offers an insightful take on this process in her book, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, explaining: “Elements of feminism have been taken into account and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice,’ these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism. These new and seemingly modern ideas about women and especially young women are then disseminated more aggressively so as to ensure that a new women’s movement will not re-emerge.” This is so obviously the strategy Sandberg and her supporters have deployed. McRobbie then contends that “feminism is instrumentalized. It is brought forth and claimed by Western governments, as a signal to the rest of the world that this is a key part of what freedom now means. Freedom is re-vitalized and brought up to date with this faux feminism.” Sandberg uses feminist rhetoric as a front to cover her commitment to western cultural imperialism, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
It’s interesting that the Beyoncé visual album, with its proclamations of self-empowerment, comes after noted black entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte criticized both Beyoncé and her husband Shawn “Jay Z” Carter for what he called unbridled capitalism, particularly turning their backs on social responsibility. Thus far, Jay Z has responded with Magna Carter Holy Grail, which included a song that disrespectfully referred to Belafonte as “Mr. Day-O” and “boy.” Carter also responded to Belafonte’s comments on social responsibility more directly in an interview by saying in part, “My presence is charity.” Beyoncé, however, hasn’t said much in the way of what she believes her social responsibility is as an artist. This visual album, doesn’t offer any response in the way of clarity, and for some folks, her social responsibility is a very important thing.
And I suspect for many critics, it is probably a more relevant question than whether or not Beyoncé is a feminist. Or if there is a question of Beyonce’s feminism, how does her feminist image of sexy girl power, particularly as it exists at the intersection of wealth, power and even privilege, work to help bring about a more egalitarian society? There is no shortage of musical artists, both women and men, willing to brag and boast about their positions of power and wealth. And yet, none of them, or us, are any freer. As such, it’s not enough that we as women and/or feminists just “lean in”; we must work to dismantle our oppression as well.