A few weeks ago, popular music sensation Beyoncé broke the internet.
Queen Bey, as she has been coined by her avid fans, dropped a much unanticipated eponymous album on December 14th, 2013. Since then, media outlets have been abuzz with reports on how revolutionary this event, and its product, has become. Another response to note and of particular interest to this blog is the onslaught of social commentary and articles (ahem, much like this one) discussing the role of Beyoncé as feminist. Before I continue, I would like to assert – although not particularly pivotal to the point of the post – that I do enjoy the phenomenon that is Beyoncé. I enjoy her music, her persona is entertaining, and I consider her to have incredible potential to be a great role model for girls. That being said, I am not necessarily a part of the “Beyhive” – the endearing term for her community of admirers – and so I believe I can muster a fairly objective perspective on Bey. I did indeed purchase the album (the VISUAL album, as it is called, complete with 17 music videos to accompany the 14 tracks) the night it was released – mostly because I was curious. I am very lazy when it comes to music so I’m not exactly one to judge the quality of the album. Rather, I intend on focusing on its implications and this notion that has taken the internets by storm: that Beyoncé is OMG, A FEMINIST.
Now, let’s begin with the track “Flawless.” It is of paramount importance in this discussion because this is where Beyoncé lays out a literal declaration of feminism. She samples a recent TED talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whom I realized is the author of a book on my “to read” shelf: Americanah. Well, that’s awesome) that reads:
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. Now 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: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
Beyoncé’s decision to include this excerpt on her album set fire to social media communities. Tumblr was abound with GIFs of Adichie’s original TED talk and crediting Bey for making such a profound statement. Earlier in the song however, she quips: “I took some time to live my life, but don’t think I’m just his little wife. Don’t get it twisted – this my shit … BOW DOWN BITCHES.” Months ago when beginning to promote her tour, The Mrs. Carter World Tour, audiences got a snippet of the track, specifically: “Bow down bitches” as Beyoncé was clad in royal attire – The Queen. Now, I had a problem with it when I first heard it because even before her feminist statement I generally considered her to be one on some level; so then, why are you exalting yourself above other female artists? That’s not playing nice. Frankly, I considered it contradictory: taking part in this avid competition with other women while putting out feminist declarations.
Right now I’m in the middle of reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and she touches on the notion of expectations for women to be communal and sentiments similar to my aforementioned “nice,” whereas men are encouraged to congratulate and give due credit to themselves, and go for the gold whatever the cost. So I was judging Beyoncé with a socially constructed mindset of ‘women please play fair and play nice’. It’s even included in the sample by Adichie where she mentions that competition can be good for girls, so technically it’s not contradictory. Do I agree with it? Yes and no – I think competition is great, it’s a necessary drive, but I still believe as women we have to work together and we shouldn’t be telling our peers to “bow down” because I’m better than you. But that’s just it: Beyoncé is not my blueprint. She is a celebrity, a public figure whose image is her career and whose success requires she stay on top. Personally, I believe it feeds into the exhausting, ongoing battle among women that permeates not just the workforce, but our personal lives as well (See: I am Tired of Competing With Other Women).
Now obviously, a few verses in a song do not embody the artist as a whole. And from a visual point of view, the Renaissance royalty look is titillating – it’s just, who says we can’t all be Queens?