The debut of Beyonce’s newest album has many people asking “Is Beyonce really a feminist?” While several of her new songs are based off of, or include, feminist ideals, one has to admit that much of the female pop singer’s success is a result of her sexualized appearance and dance moves, a marketing tool which doesn’t always align with the spirit of feminism.
Putting Beyonce’s physical persona aside, if you listen to songs like “Flawless” which samples a Ted Talk given by famed feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or “Pretty Hurts” in which she belts “perfection is the disease of a nation,” or oldies like “Independent Woman,” which praises a woman’s ability to make her own money and support herself, and “Run the World (Girls),” which, as the title suggests, claims that girls run the world, Beyonce’s label as a feminist is considerably less contentious. These pieces are all about girl power, confidence, loving your body even if it is imperfect, and not relying on a man to find happiness.
However, for every feminist anthem Beyonce has come out with, there is at least one vapid, objectifying song to cancel it out. Take, for example, two more songs from her new album. In “Yonce” she explicitly references herself having sex and giving a blow job (to Jay Z presumably) in the back of a limo, while singing “I just wanna be the girl you like, girl you like, the kinda girl you like.” Then there’s “Blow” in which she sings: “I’m a show you how i stroke it, bring your work home on top of me, I’m a let you be the boss of me.” I’m not trying to slut-shame Beyonce just because she’s open about her sexual relationship with her husband. But I do have to say that her lyrics in theses cases carry some anti-feminist consequences by emphasizing degrading sexual behavior for women, such as having to give oral sex in order to be liked, or letting the man be the “boss” and dominate the sexual part of a relationship. Additionally, there has been a lot of controversy over the allusion to Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina Turner in the line “Eat your cake, Anna Mae” in Jay Z’s rap portion of the song, performed at the Grammys, and which Beyonce sang along with him.
But ultimately the question of whether or not Beyonce is a feminist cannot be solved by counting up her feminist and anti-feminist songs. Beyonce can sample as many feminists as she wants and that won’t change the fact that she got to where she is today because of skimpy clothing and provocative dance moves (and talent of course, but there are plenty of talented people out there whom we will never know simply because they don’t have the face/body). Naturally, many will wonder how Beyonce could expect anyone to take her seriously as a feminist considering she embodies everything our patriarchal system uses to make women feel inadequate (e.g. perfect hair, face, and figure). When I watch Beyonce in a music video as opposed to simply listening to her songs, it is a stark reminder that while girls can listen to and rally around songs like “Flawless” and “Independent Woman,” it is unlikely that the lyrical message here can overpower Beyonce’s arguably greater message that looks and sexuality are a woman’s greatest assets. At the end of the day, Beyonce’s look is an integral part of her art. It seems impossible to separate the songs from the woman, meaning that people are just as much exposed to Beyonce’s feminist ideals as to her hyper-sexualization and objectification.
One could also easily argue that Beyonce’s pull for “girl power” is entirely manufactured, another way of making money (Pencz). I think this point is ultimately moot, however, for even if Beyonce’s feminism is artificial, I for one am still very grateful that the feminist message (even if it is half-hearted) is being mass consumed. If nothing else, certain songs on her new album inspire and revive the discussion surrounding feminism, and that’s more than I can say about most (but not all) female pop artists. Besides, it would be wrong to chide her for being sexy. Feminism is supposed to be inclusive, and if Beyonce wants to evoke traditional femininity, then shouldn’t she be allowed to do that without everyone harping at her? (Kendall).
For those who adamantly refuse to grant Beyonce the label of feminist, I pose this question: what do you think it takes for a woman to gain power and make an impact these days? Intelligence, ambition, and discipline, perhaps. More and more women have these traits, yet women continue to be underrepresented in business, medicine, politics, and most other fields. Musical performance, however, is a field that is highly conducive to female success. Beyonce is known around the world as Queen B. She might even be more well known than most famous female politicians and activists. As I have argued, she achieved this status by objectifying her body. But I wonder, would she have had the chance to spread feminism in the first place if she went about her career any other way? Would people be worshipping her every song if she didn’t shave or wear make up, let her hair go natural, and danced in sweat pants and a t-shirt? Of course not! Because patriarchal society trains us to dislike that type of woman, or at least judge her for her lack of attention to her appearance. Sometimes, people must make sacrifices in order to send a message.
Being a twenty-year old woman, I give in every day to things that seem to contradict feminist standards. I do my hair, wear makeup, worry about my weight, and sometimes let slide remarks from other people that are obviously misogynistic. It can be painful…but if I did all the things I really wanted to, like not shave my legs, cuss like a sailor, and snap at all my friends and family anytime one of them violated a feminist principle, it would be incredibly hard for me to keep connections with other people and participate in social activities. To be honest, I’m not about to go to the club in jeans and a t-shirt. No one would talk to me, and if no one talks to me, I have no opportunity to slowly and strategically spread the feminist message.
In the end, I think what we should be taking away from Beyonce is how sad it is that women have such profoundly limited ways of capturing the public’s attention (positive attention that is). Beyonce should be able to display her sexuality and more traditional feminine aspects as she pleases…but she shouldn’t have to in order to gain a voice and make a change. Beyonce might not be the ideal feminist, but until the world is more welcoming of the female voices of those who do not embody patriarchal standards, she might be our only hope of introducing feminism into the lives of those who, more often then not, need it the most (Qureshi).
“Feminists Everywhere React To Beyonce’s Latest.” Narr. Bilal Qureshi. The Record. 19 Dec. 2013. Transcript. NPR. Web. 16 Jan. 2014. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2013/12/19/255527290/feminists-everywhere-react-to-beyonc-s-latest>.
Kendall, Mikki. “Beyonce’s New Album Should Silence Her Feminist Critics.” The Guardian 13 Dec. 2013: n. pag. The Guardian. Web. 16 Jan. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/13/beyonce-album-flawless-feminism>.
Pencz, Bianca. “Beyonce: Feminist or Fauxminist?” Huffington Post 26 Apr. 2012: n. pag. Huffington Post. Web. 16 Jan. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/26/beyonce-feminist_n_1456640.html>.