First things first: I like Beyoncé. I like her songs. I think she’s a great dancer and a phenomenal singer. She and Jay-Z are incredibly skilled at controlling their own images, and if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know how I love an exquisite case of star production.
What bothers me, then — what causes such profound ambivalence — is the way in which she’s been held up as an exemplar of female power and, by extension, become a de facto feminist icon….effectively the patron saint of every feminist blog, including the non-explicitly feminist blog to which I regularly contribute. And let’s be clear: Beyoncé is powerful. F*cking powerful. And that, in truth, is what concerns me.
But let’s explore the feminist/empowered woman case:
*Over the last decade, Beyoncé has repeatedly broadcast her independence, fiscally and physically. She refuses to hew to (white) body ideals, because her body is “too bootylicious.”
*She (and Destiny’s Child) believe women should be “independent” and self-reliant. To wit:
The shoe on my feet, I’ve bought it
The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it
The rock I’m rockin’, I’ve bought it
‘Cause I depend on me
*Aforementioned song was the theme for Charlie’s Angels, a film (ostensibly) about female empowerment, vis-a-vis fighting.
*The song “Survivor” is about women perserving through break-ups and thriving in the aftermath.
*She released a song called “Girls Run the World.”
*Three years ago, she owned the feminist label, but “in a way.” Her explanation: “My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship, because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.”
*She told GQ: “You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat?” she says in her film, which begins with her 2011 decision to sever her business relationship with her father. “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And 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.”
*Jay-Z is taking her hyphenated name (they’re both Carter-Knowles).
*She was awesome at the Super Bowl and broke the electricity.
Other misc. arguments: she is powerful, she is strong, her thighs are strong, she has a Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she has shown the music business what’s up while not being Taylor Swift.
The unsettling thing, then, are the contours of Beyoncé’s feminism — which is only coincidental, not owned, feminism. In the Destiny’s Child’s era, it is commodity feminism — which is to say, postfeminism. As many, many scholars have persuasively argued, the ability to buy commodities — the vast majority of which only serve to further subjugate women to men — is feminist, then feminism is a word without meaning. In the Beyoncé qua Beyoncé phase, it oscillates between fantasy (“Girls Run the World”) and striving-towards-monogamous-coupling (“Single Ladies”). To refresh: “Single Ladies” is not about how being apart from a man is awesome; rather, it is about how men fail to secure what they want. Bemoaning and satirizing men’s inability to commit to monogamous relationships is not feminist; it is, in many ways, regressive — the inability to “put a ring on it” is denigrated; by default the ability to “put a ring on it” is celebrated. I’m not saying that feminist can’t be married. But placing “putting a ring on it” as the ultimate — I don’t need you to to tell me that that’s problematic.
Beyoncé says, in the pages of GQ, that she wants women to be financially independent, claiming that financial independence will help women change what’s declared sexy, and then she poses on the cover like this:
…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.
As she puts on a superb Super Bowl show, but does it in outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishes the otherwise powerful female body….
…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.
Because Beyoncé does, indeed, hold a tremendous amount of power. She is revered by men and women alike. She is not “too much” in the way that other female artists are — she’s not too weird like Gaga, or too abrasive like Nicki Minaj. She’s struck just the right tone between empowered and, let’s be clear, objectified.
Her status as object was driven home during her performance at the Super Bowl, which just happened to coincide with my re-reading of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” If you’ve taken a film class, you know that Mulvey, and this essay in particular, is the most influential essay in all of film history. It effectively built film studies as a discipline, inspiring enough response to differentiate film scholarship from what had, to that point, been predominantly rooted in either communication or English. Today, people chide at the mention of this essay, in part because it’s so polemic — as Mulvey herself admits — and inspired so many effective, persuasive critiques. But the fact, or rather, the guiding principle, remains: The Male Gaze is the structuring element of all cinema. And not just cinema, but television and filmed performance, broadly speaking.
To summarize a complex and nuanced argument, Mulvey argues that women become powerful — in part through their lack of a phallus, and the threat that represents — and the way to neutralize that threat is actually quite simple: either punish them within the context of the narrative (think film noir or horror films and how sexualized, powerful women get the ax) AND/OR turn them into sex objects, primarily by fetishizing (read: doing close-ups on) various sexualized parts of their bodies. They become less powerful; less-anxiety inducing — a sum of beautiful parts, rather than a ball-busting whole.
Beyoncé submits herself to this gaze, over and over again. I feel like this is a painfully obvious argument.
And before you say that men make her do this, remind yourself that she controls her own image. These decisions are HERS. No matter how many times she throws you the Sasha Fierce look, no matter how much leather she’s wearing, the fact remains that she’s dressing herself, preparing herself, willfully submitting herself, to her own sexual objectification. We fancy her a self-realized subject, but before the gaze of camera, she becomes an object, defined, no matter how much her look and her power seems to argue against it, by her to-be-looked-at-ness.
To some extent, I can’t blame her: her power stems from her ability to temper her power with her own objectification. She can say “Girls Run the World,” but so long as she wears that outfit at the Superbowl, it’s not threatening, because girls will never actually run the world. She can say that women should become financially independent so that they can determine what’s sexy, but so long as she appears on the cover of GQ adhering to the dominant ideals of what is sexy, she’s a non-threat. She can pose for pictures looking strong and returning the gaze, so long as she also poses for pictures like the ones above. Her power is evident but highly negotiated, effectively innocuous, even toothless: am I actually just describing mainstream contemporary feminism manifest?
During this past week’s Super Bowl discussions in class, my ambivalence to Beyoncé’s image was met with resistance. The resistance was, at least on the surface, one of defensiveness: Beyoncé is awesome. No doubt, students. She is, as I say at the beginning, a tremendously skilled singer, performer, star. But there was a secondary reaction and defense that soon emerged.
To summarize: Yes, Beyoncé is objectified. Yes, she caters to the male gaze. But that’s the reality of the current moment. That’s the game. So she acknowledges it for what it is, and she runs it.
These students are not wrong. In fact, they are very, very right. Beyonce is so successful — and so tremendously, universally likable — precisely because she reconciles the ostensibly powerful with the objectified. Because these days, it’s not cool to be a non-feminist. You can’t disavow it strongly, publicly. Awesome women — POPULAR women — are strong women. And I want to be very, very clear that I see the ways in which Beyoncé is strong. And celebrating that strength is part of our current cultural moment. But we still live within a patriarchal culture; one within which norms of female behavior and appearance are very clearly circumscribed, even if only implicitly.
And that implicitness is what makes it all the more insidious, all the more dangerous: Beyonce appears feminist. She appears to be a role model. But in reality, she’s playing within the boundaries.
Now, some may argue that that’s the way to make progress: do what you can. Manipulate. Understand what society demands of you, then exploit it. Exploit men, exploit what they think they want. And I agree: that was a viable way of affecting progress…..in the 1880s. In the 1920s. Even in the 1960s.
But we are, to be blunt, fucking past that point. To play within the boundaries, however effectively, is to reinscribe the legitimacy of those boundaries. Either you believe those boundaries are legitimate and will be with us for the foreseeable future — and, as a result, it’s silly to challenge them — or you believe that they’re constructs and thus deconstructable. Either you think that a negotiated feminism is good enough, or you’re brave enough to ask for more — of yourself, of Beyoncé, of others who you idolize.
As I told my class today, this isn’t simply a question of representation. The way we think and revere women on the page and on the screen has very real, lived ramifications. If women are rendered implicitly passive, to-be-looked-at, inherently and necessarily sexualized — and if we agree to that, explicitly or implicty — that agreement has all matter of manifestations. Manifestations for which we must be held responsible.
When we look at the material realities of patriarchal culture — the persistent wage divide, endemic spousal abuse, the very public fight on the part of Conservatives against women’s rights — it’s easy to say that we disagree with all of those things. Obviously I’m in favor of women’s rights. It’s much harder to see how our own equivocation about what it means to be a “powerful” woman has led to the persistence of those issues.
Beyoncé will still sing songs that we like. But that doesn’t mean that we have to like the negotiated comprise — between feminism and objectification, between subjectivity and objectivity — her career so clearly represents.