Admire Beyoncé for her music, not her feminist credentials

It seems people have been determined to shoehorn Beyoncé into the role of feminist icon for several years

Beckie Smith
Friday 12 April 2013 10:37
Beyoncé Knowles, the most beautiful person in the world according to 'People'
Beyoncé Knowles, the most beautiful person in the world according to 'People'

You have to hand it to Beyoncé’s marketing team – they’ve certainly got a knack for creating a buzz.

They succeeded once again in setting rumours flying last week with a six-second video on her tumblr, which ends with the message “4.4.2013 9AM EDT #BeyHereNow”.

The video, it transpires, points to an advertisement for Pepsi. A slight anticlimax, perhaps, but it does give a preview of the video for her upcoming release, ‘Mirrors’. In the video, Beyoncé is faced with previous incarnations of herself from past singles.

The video arrives just two days after it was revealed that Bey has outed herself – if somewhat reluctantly – as a “modern day feminist” in the upcoming issue of British Vogue. “That word can be very extreme… But I guess I am a modern day feminist,” she tells an interviewer. As opposed to what? A suffragette in the early 1900s? By adding ‘modern day’ she’s presumably trying to separate herself from the more ‘extreme’ end of the spectrum – the feminism she perceives to be outdated and anti-men. She goes onto say “Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything?”

Beyoncé’s apparent reluctance to label herself should come as no surprise. Aside from a slightly tepid admission in 2010 – “I think I am a feminist in a way” – there are few recorded instances of her associating herself with the movement. Yet it seems to me that people have been determined to shoehorn Beyoncé into the role of feminist icon for several years. It strikes me as an odd thing to do, given that she rarely uses the word about herself.

So why is it that people seem so determined to analyse her feminist credentials? The new ad points to one of the main reasons – a discography of songs promoting female empowerment: ‘If I were a Boy’; ‘Single Ladies’; ‘Run the World (Girls)’.

‘Run the World’ – that feminist anthem. But is it? As a call to arms, it certainly feels empowering. But at a second glance, the lyrics are more problematic. Aside from its factual inaccuracies – in 2010, full-time working women in America earned 81% of what men did – the song seems to be more about female dominance and aggressive sexuality than equality or true empowerment. I’m not sure that’s a feminism I can buy into.

And what of the latest single? I always assumed that Jay-Z’s decision to drop the word ‘bitch’ from his lyrical lexicon at the time of his daughter’s birth was down to his wife’s influence. I was somewhat taken aback, then, by the dual teaser track to Beyoncé’s new album, ‘Bow Down/I Been On’, which was released a couple of weeks ago. In the first half, she throws down the gauntlet: “I know when you were little girls/You dreamt of being in my world/Don’t forget it… bow down bitches.” The last three words are repeated several times before the track transitions into ‘I Been On’, a mix of Southern hip-hop tribute and self-glorification.

It’s not clear exactly who the track is addressing. It’s fair to that it probably isn’t her fans, despite conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s accusations that she’s done a “total 180” since ‘Independent Women’ and is now telling women to “put up with it”. Instead, she’s re-asserting her status as Queen Bey (though does anyone sincerely believe her reign was ever challenged?). “I took some time to live my life, but don’t think I’m just his little wife” would certainly suggest she’s throwing punches in the direction of those who dared criticise her time away from the stage and the decision to tour under her married name, ‘Mrs Carter’.

The word ‘bitch’ in itself isn’t shocking; many female artists have used far worse language in their songs. But it’s not a word you might expect from an artist who has said that her idea of beauty is “someone who is confident but not competitive with other women – someone who is warm to everyone”. Given that Bey has built her image on female solidarity, it’s a shock to the system to hear her using such aggressively anti-women language – something that critics were quick to pick up on.

In the face of criticism, the Bey-hive rushed to her defence. They note that the ‘chopped and screwed’ vocals are a classic Houston style – as evidenced by multiple references to her Texas hometown “H-Town” in the track. They cite the hip-hop references – ‘I Been On’ is littered with nods to Southern hip-hop including Pimp C and UGK. She’s merely embracing the bravado and aggression of the genre. But I’m not sure I buy the slightly bland excuse that ‘that’s just hip-hop’. Misogyny, racism and arrogance don’t cease to be so once they are rapped; neither does the word ‘bitch’ lose all meaning when it’s used on a track produced by Hit Boy.

Others have pointed out that the song isn’t such a far cry from previous releases such as 2009’s ‘Diva’. Yet for all its bravado, ‘Diva’ still echoes previous songs encouraging female empowerment and independence: “Divas getting money… Where yo boss at? Where my ladies up in here that like to talk back?” ‘Bow Down’ isn’t about powerful women; merely a powerful Beyoncé.

In the aftermath of its release, Bey has been accused of only adopting the feminist label when it suits her. But it seems to me as though other people want to see her as a champion of the feminist movement more than she does.

There are, without question, plenty of things to admire about Beyoncé. She is phenomenally successful as a singer and a businesswoman, and known for her drive and tireless work ethic. No one could claim that she’s lazy. Nor could it be argued that she’s never done anything for other women; her calls for solidarity and financial independence from men are empowering. But why can’t we separate the things we admire about Beyoncé from the things to critique – cheer her assertion that it's "ridiculous" to let men define what's sexy and feminine, but not the accompanying photoshoot? Why is it that she’s seemingly always either lauded as a feminist role model or blamed for letting the side down?

Perhaps it’s time we finally stopped holding Beyoncé up as a feminist role model. Look up to her as a businesswoman or a singer. Enjoy her music. Admire her work ethic. But don’t call her a feminist icon.

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