by Lucy Thomas
There is no doubt that Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter runs the world of pop music. She has grown “Beyoncé” into a globally recognized brand born from grit, pure talent, and tightly constructed brand management. Today Beyoncé stands as one of the greatest performers in history: a businesswoman, wife, mother, and straight up incredible human. And now, she has publicly identified herself as a feminist, trumpeted by the letters emblazoned across the stage in her recent MTV Video Music Awards performance. However, this political statement serves as a backdrop for sexed-up choreography and mixed messaging around gender equality, prompting questioning around whether Beyoncé’s newfound feminist pride is legit.
To frame this debate, let’s start at the beginning. Beyoncé had her first big break when Destiny’s Child signed with Columbia Records in 1996, and she has maintained unrelenting growth and success as a performer, selling over 75 million records as a solo artist and a further 60 million as part of the bootylicious trio. These accolades set her up as a seemingly flawless (rigghhhhht?!) figure of female empowerment.
However until recently, Beyoncé’s feminist leaning has been somewhat loose. In 2010, she told the UK publication, You Mag, “I think I am a feminist, in a way. It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be.” Similarly she commented in British Vogue in 2013, “that word [feminism] can be very extreme… but I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I believe in equality.” Regardless, there has always been a strong feminist agenda in Beyoncé’s brand, as themes of equality, female sexuality, and empowerment of women are staples of her work. This initial reluctant feminism may have been a strategy to avoid alienating a mainstream, heteronormative, and sometimes even misogynistic audience. Feminism might not have the sexiest rep, it might not sell records, and we can trust that a marketing genius like Beyoncé is fully aware of this. After all, everything that she sings, posts, and performs is born from a carefully considered brand strategy. And now that Beyoncé’s celebrity has escalated to demi-god status, it appears that feminism has finally made the marketing cut. Take for example her sampling (on “Flawless”) of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s no-nonsense definition of a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political and equality of the sexes.” And this endorsement is further backed on Beyoncé’s Instagram account, where you will find images of the pop queen appropriating Rosie the Riveter, a symbol of economic empowerment for American women during Second World War. Yes, Beyoncé does see herself as a feminist and she is finally proud of it.
Although Beyoncé has finally come out as a feminist, the truth remains that her commercial brand treats her body and sexual identity as a commodity. I’m just going to say it in layman’s terms: she’s beyond hot and the way she moves her body is like, woah. Old-school feminists might argue that by “objectifying” her own body, Beyoncé subjugates her voice as an intelligent, independent woman, but this is overly simplistic. After all, there are other politics implicated in this type of performative sexuality. In a country with such deep-seeded racial prejudice as the USA, Beyoncé defies the cultural appropriation of skinny and predominantly white models and captures a sexually powerful persona for women of color that has not previously been marketed or widely visible at all.
Make no mistake, Beyoncé likes to shake what her momma gave her and she doesn’t mind that millions of people lose their shit when she does. But she also uses her “assets” as a soapbox to speak to an audience who may not otherwise be receptive to feminism. Take for instance, when Beyoncé graced the cover of men’s style magazine, GQ, wearing next to nothing in a pose clearly constructed for the male gaze. In the same issue she said, “money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine.” And there you have it, folks—Beyoncé serving up the problems of gender inequity and economic power to an exclusively male audience.
Beyoncé has also copped scrutiny by association with her husband Jay-Z, that guy who made her “crazy in love.” To be frank, “I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” is not an empowering slogan for women. Naming her 2013 world tour “The Mrs Carter Show” seems to further undermine her status as a married, independent career woman, but lyrically she addresses this problem (again in “Flawless”): “I took some time to live my life, but don’t think I’m just his little wife.” Plus, the couple does seem to model a strong and balanced partnership, both taking the non-gendered, hyphenated marital surname, “Carter-Knowles.” Right? But then there’s the epic lyric-fail that Jay-Z dropped in the Carter-Knowles duet, “Drunk in Love”:
“I’m Ike, Turner, turn up / Baby no I don’t play /
Now eat the cake, Anna Mae / I said eat the cake, Anna Mae.”
Here Jay-Z appears to be paying a bizarre homage to the abusive relationship between Ike and Tina Turner (born Anna Mae Bullock) as portrayed in the 1993 biopic, What’s Love Got To Do With It. The lyric refers to a scene in a diner where the couple is celebrating the release of Tina’s first single. Basically they order cake, a couple of kids ask for her autograph, and enraged by jealousy, he orders her to “eat the cake” before forcing it into her mouth. This message is seriously messed up, given that other tracks on the album speak directly about the singer’s own independence, empowerment, sexuality, and commercial success. To add insult to injury, Beyoncé actually sang along smiling affectionately at Jay-Z as he rapped the offending lyric at this year’s Grammy Awards. I’m all for booty-shaking feminism—how you own your body and celebrate your sexuality is your choice—but, I’m sorry, Bey, violence against women is NEVER something to smile about.
The truth is, Beyoncé is not flawless. Although she offers a ridiculously impressive example of what people are capable of, she is human. I challenge you to find a person whose ideology is not tempered by the brilliant imperfections of being a real person. We may be “flawminists,” but we are also feminists and that’s ok. I’m inclined to believe that if Beyoncé says she is a feminist and thereby brings awareness of gender inequality to a whole new generation of young women, LET HER.
Perhaps we should let the woman speak for herself. In her lyrics, Beyoncé has encouraged girls to be “always 50/50 in relationships” (“Independent Women”). She has proclaimed to errbody that women are “strong enough to bear the children then get back to business” (“Run the World”). She has reminded us through break-ups that “after all of the darkness and sadness, soon comes happiness” (“Survivor”). When some of us questioned her suitability as a feminist, she asserted that “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want” (“Grown Woman”). What a mantra to live by! If Beyoncé wants to be an intelligent, powerful female role model with a strong sense of her sexuality and does not want to wear pants on stage, I’m cool with that.
Title image source: elle.com