Ever since the word feminism first appeared in public discourse in the late 1800’s, it has stimulated debate and disagreement about its meaning and purpose. The basic definition of feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality with men. The fundamental tenor of this definition frequently gets lost, however, amidst conflicting views, myths and misconceptions. Nonetheless, from the suffrage movement through the fight for equal pay and reproductive rights to campaigns promoting access to education for all girls, proponents of feminism have worked tirelessly on multiple fronts to attain equality for women and girls. Great strides have been made, yet many challenges lie ahead. One obstacle remains constant: Feminism has an image problem. It is not only misogynists who see feminism as a dirty word. It is also young women, who, by most measures would say they believe in equality. Backlash and opposition follow feminism wherever it goes. If feminism is to achieve its goals, it must achieve mass appeal and ignite participation. Can a superstar celebrity, whose success depends not only on her singing voice but also on her looks and overt sexuality (publicly asserting agency over one’s body and the sexual aspect of that body) be the answer? In this paper, I assert that Beyoncé, the chart topping and controversial pop star, is exactly what feminism needs today.
Why does feminism have an image problem? According to an article in Truthout, a political news website and newsletter, polls show that although a majority of Americans believe in equality between the sexes, only one fifth of Americans identify with feminism. There are numerous factors that contribute to this resistance. Class and race have divided feminists since the beginnings of the movement. Women from different backgrounds have always had divergent ideas about what feminists should be fighting for. This lack of solidarity led some to disavow their association with the movement. In addition, many young women today have yet to face discrimination or threats to their rights and therefore see feminism as no longer necessary.
Another factor is that the mass media, often the first or only way people are educated about feminism, reports widely on the radical fringe, whose loud voices and extreme views and methods serve to attract an audience, but foster negative associations in the minds of the public. Balanced reporting of mainstream concerns does not, alas, raise ratings. In addition, conservative news outlets tend to foment backlash against feminism. Finally, Women’s Studies programs focus largely on theory and the voices of academics and scholars, which don’t often speak to the lived experiences of modern women. The rigid definition of feminism espoused in schools and in the media by scholars alienates a large percentage of the population. In order for the next generation of women to be engaged in the feminist movement, they will have to perceive it as positive and see it as relevant to their lives.
Enter Beyoncé. Many young female celebrities have distanced themselves from the word “feminist” for fear of being labeled “man-hating,” “militant,” or “angry.” While their concerns are warranted based on the wide-spread anti-feminist mentality (rejection of feminism as a movement toward equality of all people and espousing negative connotations regarding feminism’s motives) of our culture, the real reason for their rejection of the label is, ironically, their misinterpretation of the word, a problem frequently encountered among the younger generation. Examples include 23-year-old actress Shailene Woodley whom, when asked whether she was a feminist said, “No, because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.” Pop star Taylor Swift, 24, said, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have.” (Taylor Swift has since retracted this statement and embraced the feminist label.)
Until recently, Beyoncé was also reluctant to embrace the label. But on August 24, 2014, that changed with one remarkable performance. At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), Beyoncé made a huge splash by performing her new song “Flawless” with the word FEMINIST blazing behind her in enormous, lit up letters.
Also projected was the voice and text of Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (at left), from a speech she made titled, “Everyone Should Be a Feminist.” In this speech, Adichie defines a feminist as, “the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” According to Beyoncé, one of the things that inspired her to embrace the feminist label was coming across Adichie’s TED talk on YouTube as she was researching feminism. She has spoken about how the speech affected her deeply and about her decision to sample it in her song and feature it in her VMA performance. “Feminism,” a word that for many Americans conjures up negative ideas and emotions was being embraced by one of the biggest celebrities in the world and projected into the homes of 12 million people. As Jessica Bennett, writing for Time Magazine said, “As far as feminist endorsements are concerned, this was the holy grail.”
Many people in the blogosphere have questioned how much impact such a celebrity endorsement can really have. I would argue that whatever Beyoncé’s motivation in making this splashy announcement, whether personal or, as some believe, as part of a publicity strategy, the results are the same. And if the example of Janet Mock is any indication, I would say the impact can be great.
Janet Mock is a transgender writer, speaker, cultural commentator, activist for trans women’s rights and a best selling author. She has appeared on stage alongside the prominent feminist writer bell hooks and taken part in panel discussions about women’s rights. Yet, until she viewed Beyoncé’s VMA performance, she was reluctant to claim the feminist label. In describing the image of Beyoncé on stage that night with the word FEMINIST boldly lit up behind her she said, “To say I was emboldened by this image would be an understatement. It became the crescendo in my own feminist soundtrack.”
In her essay, My Feminist Awakening and the Influence of Beyoncé’s Pop Culture Declaration, Mock attests to the power of pop culture on young and old alike. She argues that, if she was so galvanized by Beyoncé on that stage, she can’t help but believe, “that image will be equally as powerful to young people who witness that moment, whose first engagement with feminism will be that moment.” Mock’s statement suggests that Beyoncé can motivate people who have been reluctant to use the label feminist, to finally embrace a feminist identity instead of rejecting it for lack of feminist models with broad appeal. As feminist activist Samhita Mukhopadhya said in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “The majority of women that need feminism listen to Beyoncé. They don’t take women’s studies classes.”
There has been much debate about whether Beyoncé can be a feminist role model. Questions swirling around in the mass media since her “coming out” at the VMAs revolve around two spheres of concern. One is whether celebrity feminism is empty or superficial, whether, as Amy Zimmerman questions in her article in the Daily Beast, “feminism is being invoked without being explored, highlighted in a million sound bites and headlines as a new universal cause but hardly connected to its worldwide applications or its every day drudgeries.” Put another way, can a pop celebrity be a spokesperson for a political movement or will she necessarily present an over-simplified message that reverberates louder than the important complexities articulated by intellectuals and activists?
The other debate is about whether Beyoncé’s feminism is “real” or pure enough. The apparent contradictions in her public persona make people question the validity of her feminism. Can she re-define what it means to call oneself a feminist or is she creating confusion about what the definition of feminism is? Is her feminism real or just a publicity stunt?
Addressing the first question about whether celebrity feminism is superficial or beneficial to the movement is a bit simpler than addressing the role Beyoncé, in particular, can play in promoting feminist politics. To be sure, the role celebrities play in social or political movements can’t be easily compared with the role of activists on the front lines of fighting for women’s rights and equality. However, I would argue that there are several reasons to embrace celebrity feminists instead of comparing them unfavorably to the more “legitimate” academic feminists. As Jennifer Wicke points out in her essay, “Celebrity Material: Materialist Feminism and the Culture of Celebrity,” more and more, “The celebrity zone is where we all reside” and celebrity feminism is a “new locus for feminist discourse, feminist politics and feminist conflicts.”
Celebrity culture encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and values from which a more diverse brand of feminism can grow. It has become increasingly clear that the narrow definition espoused by academics and radical feminists, who advocate women’s empowerment but only under certain terms, excludes much of the world. Examples of narrowly defined feminism include a rejection of overt sexuality and even of transgender women. We don’t need nor should we want one type of feminism. There is much to be learned from examining the “rough edges,” or the gray area, of celebrity feminism, and the multi-faceted feminism that comes out of that sphere. It is through debate and discourse about feminist ideology and identity that the movement gets more clearly defined. If the goal is to bring the next generation of women on board, feminism must open its doors to the many dimensions of being a woman in today’s culture.
Many people see a contradiction between Beyoncé’s public image and her self-proclaimed feminism. She has been criticized by feminists as performing for the male gaze in revealing costumes, being overly sexualized, and posing in photo spreads nearly naked. As the title of an article in the January 2013 issue of the English newspaper, The Guardian admonishes, “Beyoncé: Being Photographed in Your Underwear Doesn’t Help Feminism.” Beyoncé’s feminism is also discredited based on her public praise of her hyper-masculine rapper husband Jay-Z, not to mention her elevation of her new role as mother to the top of her list of priorities, while maintaining her sexual identity. There is pervasive discomfort in this society with a woman embracing both motherhood and her sexuality simultaneously. The bottom line of these criticisms is that there isn’t room under the feminist umbrella for making complex or seemingly conflicting choices. As Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of the blog Feministing, self-described as an online community run by and for young feminists, says, “[Beyoncé] is not allowed to be groundbreaking and traditional. She has to be Supermom or super hot stuff or super feminist.”
The standards by which Beyoncé is being judged would exclude most of us from standing under the feminist umbrella. The debate about Beyoncé suggests that you are either a perfect feminist or not feminist at all. There’s no space in between. I would assert that the grey area in between is where most people live. It might be difficult to square some of the things Beyoncé says or does with rigid feminist values about sexuality, for example, but policing women based on a strict moral code defined by mainstream, upper echelon, white feminists defeats one of the main tenets of the movement: challenging societal hegemonies and empowering women to have choices. As writer Tamara Winfrey Harris argues in her article, “All Hail the Queen?,” “Beyoncé’s attention to her image may well be her way of moving within the boundaries and limitations of gender and race . . . in a society (and industry) still plagued with biases.” She adds, “We make personal and professional decisions based on a variety of needs and pressures. Judging each other without acknowledging these influences is uncharitable at best and dishonest at worst . . . Women must be allowed their humanity and complexity.” Why would women want to label themselves feminists if our choices, and indeed our humanity, are going to be so severely scrutinized?
This is not to say that one can’t examine Beyoncé’s brand of feminism, or ask if it reflects her real beliefs, but we should examine the inconsistencies and complexities of feminists like Sheryl Sandburg and Lena Dunham under the same microscope. White women are often assumed to possess a more pure feminist identity than women of color. Sheryl Sandburg has been lauded for her success in a man’s capitalist world, while Beyoncé’s financial success has been critiqued as selling out to “the man.” The overt sexuality displayed by Lena Dunham and other White women on her television show Girls is seen by many as empowering women, while Beyoncé’s sexuality is lewd and transgressive. When pop star Madonna crossed lines of “tasteful” sexuality 30 years ago, Tamara Winfrey Harris of Bitch Magazine reminds us, she was hailed as “feminist provocateur, pushing the boundaries of acceptable femininity” with a “career that included crotch-grabbing, nudity, BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism], and authoring a photo book about sex. . . . Beyoncé’s use of her body is criticized as without value beyond male titillation.” Madonna is seen as having agency over her body and her sexuality while Beyoncé is seen as either a victim of objectification or as an example of the historically racist stereotype of the over-sexed Black female, a stereotype born of centuries of slavery and racial discrimination.
The backlash against Beyoncé’s feminism is largely about sexuality, complicated by the issue of race. For women in general, but particularly for women of color, feminism and overt sexuality must be mutually exclusive. This dichotomy has roots in the nineteenth century’s “The Cult of True Womanhood,” which held up purity, piety, domesticity and submissiveness as the four ideals toward which White women should strive. Not only did this construction serve to maintain men’s power over women, it also reinforced the stigmatization of African American women as sexually unrestrained, incapable of moral virtues and therefore unequivocally sexually available to White men. Today, while the parameters have shifted, some White feminists demand adherence to a certain “politics of respectability” as a litmus test for women of color to be accepted into their “club.” Women of color are held to a double standard, as if they have to prove they are honorable enough to be a feminist.
Beyoncé has responded to the feminism/sexuality debate by stating in numerous interviews that the overt sexuality she presents on stage is, for her, a demonstration of pride and empowerment, of ownership and agency over her body and her sexuality, something black women have not often had the authority to claim. “I don’t at all have any shame about being sexual. And I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me”. At the same time, she has publicly acknowledged the gender inequity she and all women face in the music industry. “Let’s face it, 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. It’s ridiculous.” I would argue that Beyoncé is wresting that power from men by owning her sexuality and expressing it in whatever way she wants, without subscribing to the ideals of respectability politics as defined by mainstream feminism.
It would be an omission if I didn’t directly address some of Beyoncé’s lyrics at which much of the feminist backlash has been directed. I have selected a few lines from the songs on her recent self-titled album, Beyoncé, as examples of what is deemed unacceptable because it is sexually explicit or derogatory towards women. There is no doubt that many people are offended or embarrassed by these lyrics, as they are with her provocative outfits and style of dancing. Her music and performances are not for everyone. But requiring a “White-washed” image as proof of Beyoncé’s feminism excludes all the people who can identify with her complicated and evolving exploration of her womanhood and her sexuality, about which, notably, she is honest and open. If her lyrics seem overly blunt and raw, maybe it’s backlash against the “Cult of True Womanhood” construction that to this day seems to have a grip on what is deemed authentic feminism, narrowly defined as far as sexual expression goes. All forms of sexual desire and pleasure should be allowed under the feminist umbrella.
Can you lick my Skittles
That’s the sweetest in the middle
Pink that’s the flavor
Solve the riddle.
— From “Blow”
Like blues lyrics written by Black women in the 1920s and ’30s, Beyoncé’s lyrics include sexual allusions, which trumpet her powerful sexuality and sexual agency. As Angela Davis asserts about the earlier blues songs in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, “While sexual metaphors abound in these songs, the female characters are clearly in control of their sexuality.” In the “lick my Skittles” lyric above, Beyoncé is metaphorically referring to oral sex, instructing her male partner in how to please her, while alluding to the fact that men seem to need help in solving the “riddle” of female sexuality. She is singing about women requesting and receiving oral sex, something much more typically heard in lyrics by men.
The line “Bow down bitches” from the song “Flawless” has been used by many critics to diminish Beyoncé’s feminism. How can you use the word bitch and not have it be derogatory towards women? And is she suggesting women bow down to men who order them (the bitches) to? Beyoncé has said about that lyric:
The reason I put out “Bow Down” is because I woke up, I went into the studio, I had a chant in my head, it was aggressive, it was angry! It wasn’t the Beyoncé that wakes up every morning. It was the Beyoncé that was angry. It was the Beyoncé that felt the need to defend herself! . . . But I feel strong, and anyone who says it’s disrespectful—just imagine the person that hates you, just imagine the person that doesn’t believe in you and look in the mirror in say ‘Bow down bitch!’ . . . And I guarantee you feel gangsta, so listen to that song from that point of view if you didn’t like it before.”
Beyoncé is turning a word traditionally used to demean women into an empowering anthem for herself and other women who can see the irony and humor in the phrase.
Here are some lyrics from other songs that illustrate her attempt to speak to her fans about empowerment and self-love. In the first case, she is lamenting the pressure on girls in our society to be perfect.
Pretty hurts. We shine a light on whatever’s worst.
Perfection is a disease of a nation. Pretty hurts. Pretty hurts.
— From “Pretty Hurts”
I took some time to live my life
But don’t think I’m just his little wife.
— From “Flawless”
In the second case above, Beyoncé is responding to people’s comments that she is a victim of patriarchy because she is married to a powerful man and must be controlled by him. She has spoken in the past about waiting to get married and have a child until she knew herself better, even though Jay Z wanted to marry her years ago. And she is known to have ultimate authority and control over her music, her performances and her image.
From Adichie’s speech in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless”:
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. 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.
There is value in Beyoncé’s allowing her fans access to her personal struggle on the path to being a feminist, to watch as she figures out her relationship to feminism. Young women should be given permission to make their own mistakes, be confused, explore on their own paths. One doesn’t have to have it all figured out before “becoming” a feminist. I would also agree with Time Magazine’s Jessica Bennett who says, “If Beyoncé does nothing more than spur a robust debate about what it means to be a feminist and how we “maybe too narrowly” define feminism, if she simply places that word into the ears and minds of people for whom feminism was not on their radar, she has served a great purpose . . . what feminists have long struggled to do. She has reached the masses.” Anita Little, Associate Editor at Ms. Magazine has written similarly:
Beyoncé is invaluable to feminism because she brings it from the fringes of public dialogue and throws it into the popular mainstream, forcing the masses to contend with both the word and what it stands for. Whether people accept or scrutinize her feminism is peripheral to the fact that at least they’re talking about it at all.
Beyoncé Knowles has been making music since she was a young child, working almost non-stop since then to become the mega star she is today. After years of participating in music talent shows and contests, she formed the music group, Destiny’s Child, in the early 1990’s, as a pre-teen, and with her fellow female band-mates she became an R&B sensation. The band’s songs dealt largely with gender roles, male-female conflict in relationships, and self-worth. Those who would criticize Beyoncé’s sudden turn to feminism as a publicity stunt should look at how she started down this path twenty years ago with Destiny’s Child. Eventually going out on her own as a solo artist, she has become the highest earning woman in the music industry, earning $115 million in 2014. In The New Yorker, music critic Jody Rosen described Beyoncé as “the most important and compelling popular musician of the twenty-first century.”
In a panel discussion on feminism I recently attended at the 92nd street Y in New York City, three prominent feminists, Janet Mock, Joy Reid, and Lizz Winstead were asked if there was one moment in 2014 that stood out as a defining moment for feminism. All three said it was Beyoncé’s “coming out” performance at the VMAs. Even before that performance and all the hype surrounding it, Kevin Allred began teaching a course at Rutgers University called “Politicizing Beyoncé: Black Feminism, U.S. Politics and Queen Bey.” Using her music and career as a lens through which to explore issues of race, gender, and sexual politics, he pairs her music videos and lyrics with readings from the Black feminist canon to foster debate and dialogue and critical analysis. Allred points out that Beyoncé pushes the boundaries of traditional gender roles and society’s conception of sexuality and race. “Beyoncé is a political figure because she commands attention—perhaps the most attention of any entertainer today. People listen when she talks and people question things when she raises the question herself,” he says.
A powerful businesswoman, Beyoncé has her hand in multiple business ventures from fashion to film. She has become involved in a variety of feminist causes including the Ban Bossy campaign and Chime for Change, both recent online girls’ empowerment movements. She is a wife and mother. Her husband, Jay-Z, (Shawn Carter), is one of the most successful hip-hop artists and entrepreneurs in America. He combined his last name with his wife’s to create the hyphenate “Knowles-Carter,” and he held their baby on his lap while Beyoncé performed as the star of the VMAs.
The Knowles-Carters are said to have a modern, egalitarian relationship, and to support each other in business and personal challenges. Her overt sexuality is a prominent part of her identity as a performer and she is a self-proclaimed feminist, proudly owning the label and her feminist identity. As the feminist movement struggles against backlash and resistance, as many women are renouncing the label, as feminism is threatened with insignificance in the minds of young people, I would argue that Beyoncé’s celebrity brand of empowerment and individuality is exactly what feminism needs right now.
Admittedly, Beyoncé’s feminism is a work in progress. The jury is still out on both the substance of her feminist awakening and her suitability as a role-model. The world will have to wait and see what, if any impact, Beyoncé can have on the younger generation’s embrace or renunciation of feminism. Her expansion of the definition of feminism certainly allows more people to fit under the feminist umbrella, a positive thing for any political movement. Ultimately, we cannot discount the impact of one of the most popular celebrities in the world publicly adopting the feminist label and literally singing its praises.
Emily Tobey is a documentary filmmaker, writer and a student in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Master’s Degree program at the Graduate Center at CUNY in New York City.
Emily would like to thank Professor Linda Grasso at the City University of New York Graduate Center for her guidance during the writing of an earlier draft of this paper and for encouraging her to submit it for publication. She would also like to express her appreciation to Zeteo editor and contributor Gayle Rodda Kurtz for her ongoing support during the publication process.
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