Recently I had a long-delayed bus ride and a longer-delayed train ride during which I had to keep myself amused, so naturally I listened to a lot of Beyonce. Now normally when I have a long Beyonce jam-sesh I’m in the car and I’m belting out the lyrics in my worst Beyonce voice. You better believe I do a mean rendition of “I Was Here,” although my “Halo” could use some work. As I was sitting on the bus, and at Penn station, and on the train, I started thinking about Beyonce as a cultural producer rather than as the person who I most want to be in this world. And I started thinking about what it means to listen to Beyonce as a woman and, beyond that, a feminist. After all, Beyonce sings primarily about being a woman in a heterosexual relationship, with the occasional power ballad or club anthem thrown in. However she is also widely acknowledged as a badass diva extraordinaire, and one not to be trifled with. So as I sat listening to her belting that she’d rather die young than live her life without me (yes, I believe it was directed towards me specifically), I couldn’t help but think about what Beyonce means to women. Is she a feminist?
Destiny’s Child Roots
I’ll try not to linger too long on the Destiny’s Child days, because I think it’s hard to judge Beyonce on what she did 11+ years ago when she was still young enough to sing a song called Bootylicious. However it’s fairly undeniable that Destiny’s Child did something pretty important when they were around. Though they were not the first to do so (they continue a legacy somewhere between the Supremes and TLC), they were a group of strong, unapologetic women who were talented and confident enough to keep the limelight on them. No doubt when the group released Survivor the world was aware they were not girls to be trifled with.
Other songs of theirs, however, seemed decidedly simpering and hollow. Cater 2 U might be one of my least favorite songs ever, and not because I hate on love songs or the idea of giving selflessly in a relationship (I’m not a heartless freak). I just think that the group that took such pride in female independence and forcing men to own their actions could do better than, “Let me run your bathwater” and “I’ll keep my figure right, I’ll keep my hair fixed, keep rocking the hottest outfits.” Come on, Kelly drips herself against a car and sings “I know whatever I’m not fulfilling another woman is willing.” If my man ever told me to step it up because another woman would run his bathwater and keep her hair fixed he’d find himself free to pursue that other woman far far away from me.
Fast forward to 2011 and the album 4. The album may not have been as widely praised or critically successful as her previous releases, but it was undeniable that Beyonce now knew she was a badass woman that any man would be lucky to have, bathwater or not. In some songs she seemed to trumpet her love of her husband, but there was always a hint or more of undeniable female swag. On “Countdown” in between the touting of her love and the praise she heaps on her man, she sings, “Don’t ever let me go, say it real loud if you’re fly, If you leave me you’re out of your mind.” It’s clear she knows that she brings as much to the table as her man, and in my mind that’s a far cry from Cater 2 U.
Sasha Fierce & Ego
With the release of her third solo album, Beyonce introduced the world to her alter-ego, Sasha Fierce. Accompanied by a duo of backing dancers, she strutted and swagged her way to the top of the charts. For those of us who read gossip magazines, there was a disconnect between her “Single Ladies” anthem and the fact that she was a recently married woman, but none of us were willing to deny that she was indeed fierce.
In my mind, one of the undeniably “fierce” songs on the album was “Ego.” At first I was hesitant. A woman singing about her man’s big ego and how sexy it is? Seemed like the kind of song that could serve as kindling for a big ass ego fire. But the more I listened the more I grew to love the song, not for any grand musical genius, but because it touched on that same “Countdown” vibe: my husband is awesome, I’m awesome, and we just work. Who can argue with that? I think that if I had been in the spotlight since I was 17 I’d be curled up in a ball somewhere right now, but instead Beyonce sounds more sure than ever on “Ego” that she’s a catch (And let’s face it, she is. I’d date her). With sex appeal just a touch of attitude she sings, “I talk like this cause I can back it up. I got a big ego, such a huge ego. But he love my big ego.” On someone else it might sound arrogant (like, for example, the Kanye verse on the remix), but she pulls it off by reminding us that “he” loves her big ego, oh and don’t forget she’s got the goods to back it up.
You may not worship at the temple of Beyonce the way I do, but I think there’s something to be said for that kind of message being out there. Too often female empowerment in popular culture takes the form of man-bashing or pure sexuality. Beyonce, instead, tells girls that they can love who they are, that they can know how incredible they are, and that the man worth writing love songs about will appreciate that strength and knowledge. How’s that for a sexy message?
Beyond just knowing that she is worth something, Beyonce tends to demand respect in her music. ‘Irreplaceable’ is a prime example of that, although certainly not the only one. Any girl I know who has been cheated on or wronged gets immense satisfaction out of singing along to “I could have another you by tomorrow, so don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.” What’s interesting about her confidence is that not unlike J. Lo in “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” much of Beyonce’s confidence and self-assurance comes from her monetary power. She, like many other women of power, derives much of that power from her money and her sexuality; it’s easier to demand respect and kick a man to the curb when you have the resources, and when you know the power of your own sexuality. However, the same could be said for many men who derive power from money or good looks, so it’s hardly easy to fault her for falling into that trap.
In addition to “Irreplaceable” songs like “If I Were A Boy”, “Best Thing I Never Had”, and “Single Ladies” are all brimming with Beyonce’s swagtastic demands for respect. “If I Were A Boy”, despite all its shortcomings and the strange way in which she switches between the things she could get away with and the things she knows a man should do, tells the men of the world exactly what it looks like to respect a woman: “I’d listen to her ’cause I know how it hurts when you lose the one you wanted ’cause he’s taking you for granted.”
On “Best Thing I Never Had” she lets her betrayer know “I’m gonna always be the best thing you never had. I bet it sucks to be you right now.” She knows she’s the best, and doesn’t stick around to hear anything else. And seriously, you cheated on Beyonce, it probably does suck to be you right now. Even her slightly scary growl on “Ring the Alarm” warns that you best not be the man who wrongs Beyonce, because she’s not putting up with anything less than the utmost respect and love.
And then there’s “Single Ladies.” Oh, “Single Ladies”, how you call to me. I know that a lot of the discussions of feminism and Beyonce have arisen around “Girls” but for me this was the song where I first thought “Wow, she really is not messing around with the whole I am woman hear me roar thing.” Sure, it’s a club song. Sure, it’s got a silly and fabulous music video. Sure, a million scorned women have probably sung along badly to this song. But when it comes right down to it, it’s the ultimate in demanding respect.
Before you interrupt, I know that “putting a ring on it” is not everyone’s goal, and doesn’t mean respect, and maybe there’s something to be said about Beyonce playing into gender and relationship expectations (Hey B, you could buy him a ring). But there’s also something intensely satisfying about hearing her tell her man, “You can’t be mad at me, ’cause if you like it then you should’ve put a ring on it. Don’t be mad when you see that he want it.” Not ready to deliver Beyonce to infinity and beyond? “If you don’t, you’ll be alone, and like a ghost I’ll be gone.” That’s a woman who knows what she wants and, better yet, what she deserves. Respect, and a shiny ring.
So this may be where people are thinking, “But hey isn’t this the same woman who sings ‘Halo’ and ‘1+1’? Those are so not chick-anthems.” Okay, so maybe not. But I don’t think to be a feminist you have to sing chick anthems and only sing better off alone songs (although “Me, Myself and I” is a fabulous better on my own song). What Beyonce does is sing the (heterosexual) female experience, from staggering heartbreak and soaring love, to moments of introspection and relationship musings. Sometimes you feel like you’ve found someone perfect and they’re your “saving grace,” as Beyonce belts on Halo. Empowering women doesn’t mean pretending you’ve always done everything on your own, forsaking relationships and man-bashing. It does mean being honest, and if nothing else many of her love songs are the epitome of stark honesty. Admitting you need someone doesn’t make you un-feminist, and it certainly doesn’t make you less of a badass. In fact, on 4‘s “I Miss You” Beyonce sings “It hurts my pride to tell you how I feel, but I still need to. Why is that?” What it says to me, in tandem with her other music, is that she is willing to sing about real relationships good and bad, doubts and confidence.
I’ve saved the most-discussed for last, and “Run the World (Girls)” was nothing if not a point of discussion. Was it feminist? Did it promote the idea of a female-driven world that doesn’t exist? Globally, what is her responsibility? Is it problematic that her video made use of African dancers without explicitly acknowledging their role in the choreography?
For example, one article discussed the idea that her sexual dance moves negated her girl power message:
Does the ultimate message of female empowerment resonate with audiences, or are they too distracted by Beyoncé’s obvious pandering to the male gaze to take it seriously, or even notice it at all? After all, men joke all the time about how hard it is to think when all their blood has rushed south. And it’s hard to project a powerful persona when one is so subservient to the ideals patriarchy has set out for women: perfect hair, a perfect face and a “bootylicious” figure.
The article seemed to argue that Beyonce was pandering to a male ideal of beauty and only subverting norms when it served her. There may be some truth to that. But it ignores the idea that Beyonce may be one of those woman who is trying to own her sexuality. Aha, but is “owning your sexuality” just a post-feminist ploy to make you feel like you’re making a choice? I hope not, because I like to think I am a woman who genuinely owns my sexuality, from the clothing choices I make right down to my uterus. You can tell me heels and a “bootylicious” figure aren’t feminist and I can tell you to shove it.
Additionally, people were highly critical of the idea that girls don’t run the world, finding it problematic to suggest that they do without highlighting the problems faced by women around the world.
People were quick to discuss the song, in part, I think, because by the time Beyonce released the song people had come to recognize her as a powerful woman in a position to influence hoards of girls. There is an expectation around Beyonce in her post-Bootylicious days that she will be something of a role model to girls. Because there is no such expectation around Britney Spears or Katy Perry, both are free to say whatever they want about girls. But when Beyonce says that girls run the world, people listen and question whether that’s true, or whether it’s aspirational.
I’m not dumb, and I don’t actually think Beyonce is either. We both know that neither girls nor women run the world. But does that mean we shouldn’t aspire to? There are a hell of a lot more women helping run the world today than there were 30 years ago, and more then than 30 years before that. Should we only sing songs called “Run the World (Boys)” just because the majority of the politicians and bankers that we see are men? Not a song I’m trying to listen to, call me crazy.
So is she a feminist?
In the end, I don’t have any grand conclusions about Beyonce. She sings about relationships from a female standpoint, and she does it well. She continually expresses the fact that she knows her worth, and continues to demand mutual respect in relationships. I think, in the context of her subject matter, that’s not too shabby. True, she still plays into the male gaze and uses her money and sexuality as forms of power. But there are also messages of confidence and female strength throughout her music, and even her videos tend to be more varied and less blatantly sexualized that one might expect. And furthermore, she is an important female voice (a black female voice at that) and perhaps it’s better if we listen to her as an important but flawed female figure we can learn something.
I’m not willing to say for Beyonce whether or not she’s a feminist, and she herself has declined to call herself feminist. But I’d be more than happy to go on a road trip with my future daughters and listen to nothing but Beyonce. In fact, I intend to. And they’ll be getting an earful about feminism and pop culture, you’re welcome.
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