some preliminary thoughts on
the question of Beyoncé’s
by elizabeth majerus
Is Beyoncé a feminist? Can she be a feminist when she’s up on our screen, shaking her beautiful ass and tossing her long, carefully stage-managed tresses? Can we presume to insist she’s not a feminist when she has owned the label herself and when she samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk (entitled “We Should All Be Feminists”) on her new song “***Flawless”?
These and related questions have been flying in the two weeks since Beyoncé released her latest album, Beyoncé. In the wake of that release, Beyoncé has been hailed as a feminist by feminist writers and critics like Bitch magazine’s Tamara Winfrey Harris and Gender Studies scholar Brittney Cooper and at the same time criticized as “helping the very system that creates … inequality rebrand itself as a vehicle for feminism” (Gaylene Gould at www.theguardian.com).
As a busy working mother—and an avid music listener who appreciates Beyoncé’s music for its supreme danceablity, but doesn’t really follow her career album-by-album—I have yet to take a listen to the new one. But the media attention paid to the album’s apparent feminist inclinations, both celebratory and dismissive, have made me resolve to get my digital hands on a copy and check out its messages.
In the meantime, however, I’m struck by two aspects of both the criticisms and the props that Beyoncé has been getting from feminist commentators. The first surprising thing is the seeming necessity for debate about whether Beyoncé can legitimately convey a feminist message while performing sexuality in the public eye. Public displays of sexuality don’t and shouldn’t negate feminist messages. In fact, part of what feminism has fought for throughout its history is the right for women to be sexual and still be fully human. To be sexual and intellectual and maternal and political. And whatever else we want to be.
The question of how Beyoncé is sexual is so fraught with complexities I could never begin to scratch its surface. But let me agree with Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, when she notes that feminist criticisms of Beyoncé’s performative sexual display fail to consider “the limited choices available to women in the entertainment industry and the limited ways Beyoncé is allowed to express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race” and observes that “black artists rarely have the same privilege of not conforming to dominant image expectations.”
Even putting aside the important question of race and sexuality and public messaging, I think it’s worth noting that any feminist who wants to be sexual in the public eye has a limited palette to work with. We can be “sexy” in a way that’s recognizably part of mainstream ideas about what’s sexy, or we can react against those mainstream ideas of sexiness. But we are enmeshed in that system of imagery, whether we choose to be or not.
I am a high school teacher. As someone who works with smart, complicated girls who often espouse feminist ideas while rejecting the label “feminist,” my first impulse is to be excited about any popular cultural figure that might expand young women’s image of what feminism is. I assume that girls who are fans of Beyoncé will be more open to feminism when it’s associated with a favorite pop icon. And even girls who are not Beyoncé fans are likely at the very least to have their preconceived notions about feminism challenged by a figure like Beyoncé embracing the title, whether explicitly in public statements or implicitly in the lyrics of her songs.
But while I find the need for the debate over sexual message vs. feminist message a tired and largely unnecessary (or at the very least a secondary) one, I’m not entirely surprised to be hearing it. We as a culture are still very wary of female sexuality, and even feminists at times have a pretty narrow definition of what’s acceptable in terms of women defining their own forms of sexual expression. Female sexuality remains a complex and highly contested terrain.
The thing that truly surprises me about the feminist debates I’ve come across on the topic of Beyoncé’s new album is this: no one seems to be talking about the actual feminist content of the album. I haven’t seen Beyoncé’s lyrics quoted once. I’ve heard mention of the sample from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but otherwise, the question seems to be more whether Beyoncé can be a feminist, and not so much what kind of feminist Beyoncé is evolving into, based on her own words and thoughts.
Bottom line, I want to hear more about what Beyoncé says on her album. As I admitted at the outset, I have yet to hear Beyoncé. But the buzz is making me want to hear what exactly she articulates on the album. It’s also making me wonder why I haven’t heard more about the album’s content in all the articles and posts that have taken up this issue. Why, with all the commentary I’ve come across on this issue, have I yet to hear anything about what Beyoncé actually has to say on her new record? Is it that even we feminists can’t really focus on what a woman is saying when she’s performing a version of sexuality that we’ve been trained all our lives to consume?