Beyoncé’s Ass as Liberation Front
Parsing the complicated relationship between feminist theory and Beyoncé’s new album
“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.
In fact, much of the song’s lyrics are in disagreement with the contemporary black feminist theories of difference advanced by the likes of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins. By way of illustration, in “Flawless” — ironically the track in which Nigerian feminist Adichie’s sampled speech occurs — an especially problematic representation of the mother’s place within the family dynamic occurs: “Momma taught me good home training/ My daddy taught me how to love my haters/ My sister taught me I should speak my mind/ My man made me feel so goddamn fine”. Patricia Hill Collins asserts in the seminal Black Feminist Thought that “many African-American thinkers tend to glorify Black motherhood… by claiming that Black women are richly endowed with devotion, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love…. The controlling image of the ‘superstrong Black mother’ praises Black women’s resiliency… yet, in order to remain on their pedestal, these same superstrong Black mothers must continue to place their needs behind those of everyone else, especially their sons.” Fortunately, the image of the sexually vital and (mostly) self-acknowledging mother that Beyoncé reserves for herself effectively contradicts this historically rooted mindset.
The Pantless New Woman
“Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage; I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “All that I can think of is, we should get married / We should get married /… All I’m really asking for is you” (“Mine”)
- “I cooked this meal for you naked / So where the hell you at?” (“Jealous”)
[Note: There is a surprising amount of suburban femininity and valuing relative to one’s husband embedded in the album; aspirations towards wedded domesticity are still present despite the overt female sexual desiring that Beyoncé attaches to this social role. This vitality does, however, challenge conceptions of what suburban femininity means: “Just because you become a mother, it doesn’t mean you lose who you are…. You can have your child and you still have fun, and still be sexy, and still have dreams, and still live for yourself.”]
“Now marriage can be a source of joy…”
“Home is where the heart is/ Goddammit I’m comfortable in my skin/ And you’re/ Comfortable in my skin” (“Rocket”)
“In the darkest night hour/ I’ll search through the crowd/ Your face is all that I see/ I’ll give you everything/ Baby love me lights out” (“XO”)
“And mutual support…”
“Ride it so deep/ Ooh my shit’s so good it ain’t even right/ I know I’m right/ Hell yeah, you the shit/ That’s why you’re my equivalent” (“Rocket”)
“But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage…”
“Take all of me/ I just wanna be the girl you like, girl you like/ The kinda girl you like, girl you like” (“Partition”)
“And we don’t teach boys the same?”
Jay-Z: “I’m Ike Turner, turn up, baby, no, I don’t play/ Now eat the cake, Anna Mae said, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae!”/… We sex again in the morning, your breasts is my breakfast/ We going in” (“Drunk in Love”)
Regarding the videos, another seemingly innocuous observation can be made: other than “Haunted” (where she is explicitly performing sartorial masculinity) and about another 10 seconds of the video-album’s 76-minute runtime, Beyoncé is pantless. Considering the fact that Beyoncé’s mostly bare ass is without a doubt the most ubiquitous image in the album’s visuals (and an unlikely textbook example of overdetermination), this shouldn’t be a revelation. But as is shown in “Haunted,” pants as a signifier has very particular/powerful connotations. Bear in mind the importance of something as superficially innocent as pants during the earlier feminist movements: the “New Woman” with her pants and her bicycle a symbol of female vitality, an appropriation of masculinity in the face of patriarchal rule. But today, does merely appropriating a masculine signifier amount to power?
As an embodied woman, expressing herself bodily is important to Beyoncé’s self-expression in general. If we assume that the majority of Beyoncé’s fans see her as a powerful woman expressing her sexuality rather than a sexualized woman being sold as a product by powerful men, is there anything inherently constricting about these portrayals of overt femininity? In an article/narrative titled “Femmenism” about author Jeannine Delombard’s personal struggle expressing her femininity in the midst of feminist discourse, she discusses the “Renaissance Woman” as a more contemporary version female empowerment where lesbians reclaimed the expression of femininity as one plausible means of self-expression among many. With this in mind, Beyoncé’s feminism and her sartorial/gestural femininity could potentially be a powerful means breaking down the still-common binary between the feminist and the feminine. A large portion of the population still think that feminists are sexless, angry, man-hating, bra-burning women who can only look like this (still the first image that comes up when you type “feminist” into Google), so what happens when it’s Beyoncé’s shaking ass that’s telling the world that “Gender Equality is a Myth!”?
Does that make her recent and controversial (and explicitly pantless) GQ photo-shoot less a college football player’s fantasy and more a celebration of her womanhood and her visible blackness? But if that’s the case, why allow the extensive photoshopping that obfuscates the reality of her body? And if her motherhood is still inextricably tied to her sexuality, why be portrayed in every iteration of a sexualized twenty-year-old? One could offer a shallow abdication such as “industry obligations for a men’s magazine,” but that doesn’t do much for the empowerment of women.
A condemnation of traditional Western ways of knowing?
“We raise girls to treat each other as competitors…”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“I know when you were little girls/ You dreamt of being in my world/ Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/ Respect that, bow down bitches/ I took some time to live my life/ But don’t think I’m just his little wife/ Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted/ This my shit, bow down bitches” (“Flawless”)
“Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing…”
- Writing Personnel: “Beyoncé Knowles, Joshua Coleman, Sia Furler, Ammo, Boots, Noel “Detail” Fisher, Shawn Carter, Andre Eric Proctor, Rasool Diaz, Brian Soko, Charisse Hill, Timothy Mosley, Jerome Harmon, Pharrell Williams, James Fauntleroy, Hill, Justin Timberlake, Caroline Polachek, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Dwane Weir, Hill, Mike Dean, Miguel Jontel Pimentel, Noah “40” Shebib, Aubrey Drake Graham, Jordan Kenneth Cooke Ullman, Sidney “Omen” Brown, Ryan Tedder, Chauncey Hollis, Rey Reel Music, and Frank Ocean.”
- Production Personnel: “Beyoncé Knowles (executive production), Ammo, Boots, Noel “Detail” Fisher, Pharrell Williams, Caroline Polachek (production on track 5), Timbaland, Jerome Harmon, Justin Timberlake, Key Wane, Noah “40” Shebib, Terius “The Dream” Nash, Ryan Tedder, Hit-Boy, Rey Reel Music, Brian Soko, Mike Dean, Andre Proctor, Majid Jordan, Sidney “Omen” Brown, Stuart White, Chris Godbey, Bart Schoudel, Andrew Coleman, Ann Mincieli, Noel Cadastre, Jordan “DJ Swivel” Young, James Krausse, Mike Larson, Rob Cohen, Jonathan Lee, Ramon Rivas, Rob Suchecki, Hajiba Fahmy, Derek Dixie, Niles Hollowell-Dhar, Tony Maserati, Andrew Scheps, Noel “Gadget” Campbell, Justin Hergett, Tyler Scot, Matt Weber, Jon Castelli, Christian Humphreys, Paul Pavao, Edward Valldejuli, Chris Tabron, Matt Wiggers, Chris Cannon, Carlos Perezdeanda, and Tom Coyne/Aya Merrill (co-mastering).”
[Note: There are only four women as compared to 25 men who are given writing credit on the album, amounting to a total of 43 writing credits given to men and 19 given to women (14 of which are Beyoncé’s). The production team is even more skewed: there are 51 men involved and only 3 women (1 woman co-mastered the album, the other was only involved in producing one track, amounting to minimal creative input). For someone oft-championed for her employment of women, these numbers don’t look good.]
- “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker/ Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor” (“Yoncé”)
[Note: But Beyoncé is credited as lead writer on every single track, a rarity for female pop vocalists (although it is also potentially a formality).]
“But for the attention of men.”
- “I want you” (x6)… “Daddy I want you” (x2)… “Never tired, never tired” (“Drunk in Love”)
- “I know everything you want/ I’m a show you how I stroke (stroke it)/ Bring your work home on top of me/ I’m a let you be the boss of me/ I know everything you want/ Give me that daddy long stroke” (“Blow”)
- “Boy, this all for you, just walk my way/ Just tell me how it’s looking, babe / I do this all for you, baby, just take aim/ And tell me how it’s looking, babe” (“Yoncé”)
[Note: This type of sexual desiring attributed to Beyoncé becomes interesting when one considers the overwhelming influence that men had on the writing process. During the Victorian “lay-back-and-think-of-England” mindset of woman as a non-desiring sexual objects, these sentiments would be leaps forward for women, but today, the subjectifying of women is rather more troubling than the objectifying of women. Here we have Beyoncé presented as “wanting it,” but only relative to his (i.e., Jay-Z’s, the male writers’, the listeners’, et al.) wanting her to want it — sounds a lot like most of the porn that overpopulates today’s data stream (“I want your dick so bad,” etc).]
“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
- “You want me?/ I walk down the hallway/ You’re lucky/ The bedroom’s my runway/ Slap me!/ I’m pinned to the doorway/ Kiss, bite, foreplay.” (“Haunted”)
[Note: There is obviously no shortage of examples of female sexual desiring on Beyoncé, but the problem persists as it is mentioned above: is this desire fabricated by men, and for men?]
You may have noticed that I’ve thus far willfully neglected to address the sonic capacity for feminist theorizing within Beyoncé, but, to be honest, I think Beyoncé itself wilfully neglects this capacity, probably due to the overwhelming influence of industry men involved in fabricating its sound. I suppose if I were to liberally use(/misuse) my creative licence, I could claim that the producers obfuscate the culturally designated dichotomy between “natural” (acoustic) sound production and “unnatural” (electronic) sound production by placing a decided emphasis on non-replicatory electronic instrumentation. Maybe this comparatively “artificial” sound set highlights the inherent “constructedness” of binary distinctions such as gender. Maybe having hip-hop affectations and trap accompaniment rub shoulders with typical female pop balladry is meant to muddle assumptions about musical authenticity as it pertains to gender constructions.
[In reality, there are other artist who are doing much more interesting/obvious theorizing with gender and sound than that which is (potentially) happening on Beyoncé. Claire Boucher (of Grimes fame) contrasts a faux-queen femininity in her vocal affectation with an embodied female agency in her lyrics to disrupt the subject/object binary in feminine representation. Burial (especially/explicitly on Rival Dealer) uses the pitch-shifting of vocal samples to highlight the performativity of gender/sexual identity while manipulating the plasticity of genre conventions to the same effect. Le1f delivers ball culture references and queer anecdotes in his vocal fry register, placing his gayness in conflict with the lowness(/masculineness) of his vocals (Zebra Katz also pulls this off, minus the vocal fry). The voice appears to be a powerful locus of gender theorizing, and Beyoncé’s typical (though extraordinary) delivery simply doesn’t generate any interesting signifiers.]
Maybe these theoretical ideas potentially extend to the album’s marketing? Maybe the album cover offers a play on the “boys wear blue, girls wear pink” polarity, one that champions femininity as something that can be subjectively empowering and as something integral to Beyonce’s autobiographical success. Maybe the choice to initially sell the album exclusively through iTunes was in some way a condemnation of traditional Western ways of knowing, or American materiality, or whatever. Maybe I’m missing the point entirely by not spending more time analyzing each track’s visual accompaniment — this is, after all, a project marketed as her “visual album” — but other than the few examples used above, I didn’t find that the music videos contributed much to a feminist perspective on the album.
Beyoncé’s ass as liberation front for wives and mothers
“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Forbes profile: “Beyonce Knowles / Earnings $53 M (As of June 2013) / Actress, Entrepreneur, Musician / Age: 32 / Source of Wealth: Music, self-made / Residence: New York, NY / Country of Citizenship: United States / Marital Status: Married / Children: 1 / Forbes Lists: #4 in Celebrity 100 (2013), #33 in Money, #1 in TV/Radio, #5 in Press, #5 in Social, #25 in Marketability, #16 in 2012, #17 Power Women (2013)”
[Note: This is before Beyoncé dropped sans promotion and sold a record-breaking 828,773 copies worldwide in its first three days. According to Forbes’ analyst Zack O’Malley Greenburg, that’s a profit for Beyoncé and her label of almost $4 million dollars almost instantaneously. Pretty fucking perfect considering that the “message behind this album was finding the beauty in imperfection.”]
“The winner is… Beyonc(e) Knowles, female pop vocalist!” (“Ghost”)
Overly academic scrutiny ultimately proves fruitless as a means of revealing the important feminist attributes of Beyoncé. In fact, the failure of these observations essentially serves to highlight the album’s greatest successes as a source of feminist theory. Beyoncé may fail to meet the criteria of most academic feminist analysis — and indeed may also even fail to meet most of the criteria laid out in Adichie’s sampled definition — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a failure in terms of its own theorizing. Despite its many problems and contradictions, the positive message that the role of mother/wife and a woman’s claims to agency/sexual desire are not mutually exclusive perpetuates (mostly) uninhibited. If the listener allows this message to be the locus from which all other interpretations stem, Beyoncé’s ass could very well be a liberation front for wives and mothers all across the United States. What’s more, this message unostentatiously propagates without requiring its listenership to have read Judith Butler or Simone de Beauvoir (or even the actual books written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie); this is a message that does not require someone to have taken a few first-year undergraduate classes on the subject in order to digest, activate, and utilize its meaning (you might be surprised how many people this distinction excludes).
Imperfect? Absolutely. But collectively, Beyoncé is less an argument than an artifact, more conversation than condemnation. Like “Femmenism,” it’s theorizing by way of autobiography. It’s a presentation to elicit discussion, and Beyoncé has certainly got people talking (if nothing else). Time will tell if the result of Pharrell’s (surprisingly) astute observation of Beyoncé’s positionality materializes: “Only a momma can talk like that — you know what I’m sayin’? Only a wife can talk like that. That’s your strength…. You just ran through the jail and set all the women free!” Well, I don’t know about that, but at the very least, she has certainly danced their pants off.