“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What does Adichie’s definition of a feminist mean when it’s attached to Beyoncé, an album that, breaking the worldwide one-week iTunes sales record in only three days, reaches an audience more vast and variegated than feminist discourse could dream of reaching through any other medium? Beyoncé as a whole is by no means a comprehensive feminist statement, but by including this sample from Adiche’s TEDxEuston talk on the track “Flawless” — which is arguably the most aggressive song in Beyoncé catalog — the album is given a definite social purpose seldom found in music with such a substantial listenership. On this scale, sociocultural gestures like Beyoncé’s sampled feminist theory may seem inconsequential, but the implications can be surprisingly far-reaching.
It’s almost impossible to dissociate message from marketing, but do they have to be presented as oppositional? Beyoncé has encircled the album with corresponding media that substantiates the feminist claims on the album, including a (very) short essay on gender equality for the Shriver Report, but even her staunchest supporters can’t dismiss the potential of her feminism being nothing but a peddling ploy, especially considering the quantity of evidence that puts her feminism into question. So how then do we negotiate the startling amount of incongruity between Adichie’s borrowed sentiment and the representation of women that surrounds it on the album? And, most importantly, how well, if at all, does this feminist doctrine translate to Beyoncé’s vast fan base?
It goes without saying that Adichie’s definition now belongs to Beyoncé, but Beyoncé’s message to its audience is a little more pointed than Adichie’s broad strokes. The message essentially boils down to the idea that a woman can be a mother and a wife without compromising her agency or her sexual desire. This is indeed a fairly admirable stance, but from this outwardly straightforward message arises a set of complications and convolutions. When you’re dealing with a purportedly feminist pop icon/sex symbol (albeit a relatively tame one), there is inevitably some tangling of signifiers: one motif can signify the liberation of sexual desire while also signifying commercial sexualization; another motif can signify the importance of “feeling sexy” after childbirth as a mechanism of empowerment while also sounding like a postpartum weight-loss ad; yet another motif can signify feminine beauty as an important source of power while also potentially signifying that beauty is a woman’s only source of power. How do we begin to unravel such a complicated conversation?
The following is a dialogue between feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDxEuston talk sample and the content/context that surrounds it on Beyoncé — a semiotic remix, if you will. For the most part, the expressly-arranged texts will be left alone, allowed to speak for themselves, during which the conversation will be supplemented by a testing of how specific aspects of Beyoncé then converse with predominant feminist theory. While these exchanges tend not to favorably illuminate the purported feminism on Beyoncé, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the most important dialogue — that between Beyoncé and her audience — is equivalently inauspicious; in fact, it may even be successful.
The Housewife Syndrome
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “Mama said, ‘You’re a pretty girl/ What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter/… What you wear, is all that matters.’” (“Pretty Hurts”)
- “Underneath the pretty face is something complicated… I know I drive you crazy, but would you rather that I be a machine?” (“No Angel”)
- “See, we’re so much more than pointless fixtures/ Instagram pictures/ Consumers.” (“Rocket”)
[Note: On “Bow Down / I Been On,” Beyoncé claims, “I’m bigger than life, my name in the lights / I’m the number one chick, ain’t need no hype.” Considering the fact that this Soundcloud one-off is closest thing to promotion that happened prior to Beyoncé’s release — and that this larger-than-life mentality persists throughout the album — I’d be inlined to agree with her. That is, if it weren’t for her promotional insistence that “getting her body back” is the source of her postpartum sexual agency — sounds a lot like telling women to (quite literally) shrink themselves.]
There are a disconcerting number of occasions on Beyoncé that present a positive feminist message in close proximity with contradictory images that effectively nullify that message. For example, a few moments recall Virginia Woolf’s take on “the angel in the house” and what Betty Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name” in The Feminine Mystique, but more often than not, these theoretical perspectives are undermined in a way that ensures a misinterpretation by the general audience. The lyric highlighted above from “No Angel” — a title itself that evokes Woolf’s criticism — where Beyoncé asserts her humanity and internal complexity, seemingly illustrates the impossibility of the “infallibly selfless housewife.” But, even if this message actually exists within the song, it’s unlikely that it will escape the vacuum of the sexualized “bad girl” motif that encompasses it; from the breathy vocal affectation to the ghetto visuals in the attending video — not to mention surrounding lyrics such as “whatever you want, yeah baby I’ll bet it comes true” — there is plenty to obscure the audience from conjuring sympathy for an oppressed housewife.
Other songs similarly evoke the theme of dangerous mechanical domesticity but ultimately fail to translate its message. “Jealous” contains a powerful lyric about how destructive a gendered domestic/public binary can be for women — “Sometimes I want to walk in your shoes/ Do the type of things that I never ever do/ I take one look in the mirror and I say to myself/ ‘Baby girl you can’t survive like this’” — but when Beyoncé subverts this dichotomy by entering the public space in the song’s accompanying music video, she ends up running back to “her man” in tears, having failed to assert herself in the public domain. Correspondingly, the video for “Partition” begins and ends with the portrayal of a domestically dissatisfied women who, being (sexually) ignored by her husband, attempts to (and fails to) get his attention by displaying her body, while the bulk of the video (and the entire song) is then devoted to her/Beyoncé’s fantasy of being a sexually satisfying spectacle for “her man” (a reading verified by Beyoncé). When reading these signifiers in tandem, the causes of housewife syndrome are portrayed as the desire for a male presence and the desire to sexually satiate that male presence; something tells me Friedan would strongly disagree.
The Superstrong Black Mother
“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.’”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “Your challengers are a young group from Houston. Welcome Beyonce, Lativia, Nina, Nicky, Kelly, and Ashley, The Hip-Hop Rappin’ ‘Girls TYME’!… The judges give champion Skeleton Groove… four stars, a perfect score! And the challenger Girl’s TYME receives… 3 stars! Skeleton Groove, champions once again! Congratulations, we’ll see you next week.” (“Flawless”)
[Note: The subtle race commentary in the visual representation notwithstanding, if “Girls TYME” = women, and “Skeleton Groove” = men, then this three-to-four ratio of obvious injustice corresponds to Beyoncé’s assertions on the essay she contributed to The Shiver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From The Brink, “Gender Equality is a Myth!”: “We need to stop buying into the myth about gender equality. It isn’t a reality yet. Today, women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes. But unless women and men both say this is unacceptable, things will not change.” ]
- Pageant Host: “Miss Third Ward, your first question. What is your aspiration in life?” Miss Third Ward: “Hoh… my aspiration in life? Would be… to be happy.” (“Pretty Hurts”)
- Blue Ivy: “Hold on to me, hold on [Beyonce and Jay-Z laugh] Bee-sy-ay, Bee-sy-ay Bee-sy-ay! Mommy mommy mommy! Miss you daddy.. [more laughter from the parents] Miss you daddy.. [yet more laughter from the parents] Miss you daddy..” (“Blue)
[Note: An album that explicitly condemns marriage as a woman’s sole aspiration presents an incongruous comedic plot and traditional resolution: Beyonce aspires to be happy at the beginning of the first song — a song that provides a narrative impetus of problematic social impositions upon female self-image — and the remedy at the end of the last track is the happiness found in a typified nuclear family, complete with husband and child.]
The visuals that coexist with each song, however, do not always undermine the feminist messages found within the lyrics. The overwrought and overwhelming video for “Haunted,” for instance, takes the song’s ambiguous lyrics and proliferates their meaning into a superabundant madhouse of sociocultural signs. Most important among them are the one’s attached to Beyoncé’s appearance. By borrowing from an Annie Lennox-like androgyny, where both masculine and feminine signifiers are simultaneously exaggerated to the point of drag, her femininity relative to her agency is highlighted. Race and its relation to power is also foregrounded in that Beyoncé’s blackness is made questionable in the opening scene; the viewer is meant to contrast the lowly, mistreated, black busboy with Beyoncé, who is portrayed as wealthy, abusive, and comparatively white. Unfortunately, instances like this where intersectionality is dealt with in a meaningful way are dishearteningly rare. In fact, this video, along with the more subtle video for “No Angel,” are the only instances on Beyoncé that make any attempt to explicitly confront issues of class or race, and in neither case do the visuals corroborate in the least with the song’s lyrics.