Illustration by Irana Douer.
Who run the world? If entertainment domination is the litmus test, then all hail Queen Bey. Beyoncé. She who, in the last few months alone, whipped her golden lace-front and shook her booty fiercely enough to zap the power in the Superdome (electrical relay device, bah!); produced, directed, and starred in Life Is But a Dream, HBO’s most-watched documentary in nearly a decade; and launched the Mrs. Carter Show—the must-see concert of the summer.
Beyoncé’s success would seem to offer many reasons for feminists to cheer. The performer has enjoyed record-breaking career success and has taken control of a multimillion-dollar empire in a male-run industry, while being frank about gender inequities and the sacrifices required of women. She employs an all-woman band of ace musicians—the Sugar Mamas—that she formed to give girls more musical role models. And she speaks passionately about the power of female relationships.
But some pundits are hesitant to award the singer feminist laurels.
For instance, Anne Helen Petersen, writer for the blog Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style (and Bitch contributor), says, “What bothers me—what causes such profound ambivalence—is the way in which [Beyoncé has] been held up as an exemplar of female power and, by extension, become a de facto feminist icon….Beyoncé is powerful. F*cking powerful. And that, in truth, is what concerns me.”
Petersen says the singer’s lyrical feminism swings between fantasy (“Run the World [Girls]”) and “bemoaning and satirizing men’s inability to commit to monogamous relationships” (“Single Ladies”). The writer also accuses Beyoncé of performing for the male gaze and admits, in comments to the post, to feeling “grossed out” by the “Mrs. Carter” tour name. And Petersen is surely not alone in her displeasure.
Turns out, booty shaking and stamping your husband’s last name on a product of your own creativity makes a lot of folks question your feminist values. (Beyoncé recently told Vogue UK that though the word “can be extreme…I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I believe in equality.”) Some of the equivocation is no doubt caused by Beyoncé’s slick, pop-princess brand. It is difficult to square the singer’s mainstream packaging with subversion of conventional and sexist views of gender. But ultimately, the policing of feminist cred is the real moral contradiction. And the judgment of how Beyoncé expresses her womanhood is emblematic of the way women in the public eye are routinely picked apart—in particular, it’s a demonstration of the conflicting pressures on black women and the complicated way our bodies and relationships are policed.
In a January 2013 Guardian article titled “Beyoncé: Being Photographed in Your Underwear Doesn’t Help Feminism,” writer Hadley Freeman blasts the singer for posing in the February issue of GQ “nearly naked in seven photos, including one on the cover in which she is wearing a pair of tiny knickers and a man’s shirt so cropped that her breasts are visible.”
Of course, in that very same issue of GQ, Beyoncé makes several statements about gender inequity—the sort not often showcased in men’s magazines. Among them: “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.”
That Beyoncé speaks the language of feminism so publicly is even more notable in a climate where high-profile mainstream female entertainers often explicitly reject the very word. Katy Perry, while accepting a Woman of the Year Award from Billboard, announced that she is not a feminist (but she believes in the “power of women”). And when asked by The Daily Beast if she is a feminist, Taylor Swift offered, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
A popular star willing to talk about gender inequity, as Beyoncé has, is depressingly rare. But Freeman insists flashes of underboob and feminist critique don’t mix. Petersen concurs, calling the thigh-baring, lace-meets-leather outfit Beyoncé wore during her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show an “outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishizes the otherwise powerful female body.” A commenter on Jezebel summed up the charge: “That’s pretty much the Beyoncé contradiction right there. Lip service for female fans, fan service for the guys.”
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These appraisals are perplexing amid a wave of feminist ideology rooted in the idea that women own their bodies. It is the feminism of SlutWalk, the anti-rape movement that proclaims a skimpy skirt does not equal a desire for male attention or sexual availability. Why, then, are cultural critics like Freeman and Petersen convinced that when Beyoncé pops a leather-clad pelvis on stage, it is solely for the benefit of men? Why do others think her acknowledgment of how patriarchy influences our understanding of what’s sexy is mere “lip service”?
Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, says, “The idea that Beyoncé being sexy is only her performing for male viewers assumes that embracing sexuality isn’t also for women.” Jackson adds that the criticism also ignores “the limited choices available to women in the entertainment industry and the limited ways Beyoncé is allowed to express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race.”
Her confounding mainstream persona, Jackson points out, is one key to the entertainer’s success as a black artist. “You don’t see black versions of Lady Gaga crossing over to the extent that Beyoncé has or reaching her levels of success. Black artists rarely have the same privilege of not conforming to dominant image expectations.”
Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, who has gone for a natural-haired, boho, less sexified approach to her music, remains a niche artist, as do Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes, like so many black female artists before them. Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello—talented all, but quirky black girls, especially androgynous ones, don’t sell pop music, perform at the Super Bowl, or get starring roles in Hollywood films.
Black women (and girls) have also historically battled the stereotype of innate and uncontrolled lasciviousness, which may explain why Beyoncé’s sexuality is viewed differently from that of white artists like Madonna, who is lauded for performing in very similar ways.
A Seattle Times review of a recent Madonna tour stop praises the artist for “rocking us as a feminist icon” and applauds the singer for her brazen sexuality: “stripping down to a bra, then pulling her pants down below a thong and baring her cheeks to the Key [Arena].” Even the Guardian’s Freeman, in an ode to Like a Prayer, the writer’s favorite album, speaks longingly about Madonna’s midriff-baring ’80s fashion and the video to the title track, which “featured a woman named Madonna apparently giving a blow job to a black Jesus.”
Through a career that has included crotch-grabbing, nudity, BDSM, Marilyn Monroe fetishizing, and a 1992 book devoted to sex, Madonna has been viewed as a feminist provocateur, pushing the boundaries of acceptable femininity. But Beyoncé’s use of her body is criticized as thoughtless and without value beyond male titillation, providing a modern example of the age-old racist juxtaposition of animalistic black sexuality vs. controlled, intentional, and civilized white sexuality.
And then there’s the fact that some cultural critics are adding to this dissection of Beyoncé’s feminism through commentary on her relationship with husband Shawn Knowles-Carter, a.k.a. hip hop mogul Jay-Z. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey before the Life Is But a Dream premiere, Beyoncé spoke passionately about her partner of more than a decade, saying, “I would not be the woman I am if I did not go home to that man.” This comment prompted Dodai Stewart at Jezebel to write, “Wouldn’t you like to believe she’d be amazing whether or not she went home to a man? (She would be.) It’s a much better message when she talks about how powerful she is as a woman and what a woman can do—without mentioning Mr. Carter.”
Surely a woman can be powerful and simultaneously admit that her marriage is profound and life altering. Beyoncé did not pronounce herself useless without marriage. On the contrary, she has said she was in no rush to marry the man she met at 18. “I feel like you have to get to know yourself, know what you want, spend some time by yourself and be proud of who you are before you can share that with someone else.”
Being a feminist in the public eye should not require remaining aloof about relationships, including those with men who have helped shape who you are. We don’t require this of men. None other than Bey and Jay’s bestie, President Barack Obama, made a very similar claim about his spouse post-2008 election: “I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years…Michelle Obama.”
Feminist media activist Jamia Wilson says, “I think that it’s just hard for people to really grasp what it’s like to be extremely powerful but also vulnerable. Black women, in particular, are characterized as singularly strong figures. How can you be the mule of the world for everybody, but also have somebody carry you when you need them to?”
More problematic to some is the name of Beyoncé’s world tour—the Mrs. Carter Show. Jane Martinson of the Guardian wrote in a February 2013 op-ed, “There is almost something subversive about waiting until the strongest moment of your career, which is where Beyoncé finds herself now, to do away with the infamous glossy mononym in favour of a second name your own husband doesn’t even use.”
In a recent Slate article titled “Who Run the World? Husbands?” Aisha Harris wonders, “as a woman who has earned enough clout to inspire dance crazes, earn lucrative (if controversial) advertising deals, and perform for the U.S. president on multiple occasions, one can’t help but wonder why she felt the need to evoke the name of her beau in her solo world tour.”
If a woman loses feminist bona fides by becoming Mrs. So-and-So, someone best tell the 86 percent of American women who take their husbands’ names at marriage. If there is any woman not in danger of being subsumed by a man’s identity—no matter her last name—it is Beyoncé. In fact, the singer’s married name is not “Mrs. Carter.” She and her husband combined their names to create the hyphenate “Knowles-Carter.”
“This man, who has made a living—an extremely good one—perpetuating hyper-masculinity, patriarchal masculinity, took the last name of the woman he married,” Jackson says. “That in itself, to me, says something about gender in their relationship and the respect that exists there.”
Beyoncé’s race, once again, complicates the discussion. She is criticized for toying with the traditional “Mrs.” moniker at a time of relentless public hand-wringing about black women being half as likely to marry as white women. ABC News actually convened a panel to weigh in on “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” CNN has aired segments exploring whether the black church or single motherhood is to blame for rampant black female singleness. And men like comedian–turned–relationship guru Steve Harvey are making bank explaining to single black women what they surely must be doing wrong (see “Ill Advised,” Bitch no. 56). And what they are doing wrong is understood to be not conforming to traditional ideas of femininity and not mothering in the “right” way (i.e., too often being unmarried “baby mamas” rather than married mommies).
Black women are, it seems, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Our collective singleness, independence, and unsanctioned mothering are an affront to mainstream womanhood. But a high-profile married black woman who uses her husband’s name (if only for purposes of showbiz) or admits the influence her male partner has had on her life is an affront to feminism.
Wilson says that in the context of pathologized black womanhood and black relationships, Beyoncé and the Knowles-Carter clan “counter a narrative about our families that has been defined by the media for too long about what our families must look like and how they’re comprised.” Black women’s sexuality and our roles as mothers and partners have been treated as public issues as far back as slavery, even as family life for most citizens has been viewed as a private matter. Our nation’s “peculiar institution” treated human beings—black human beings—as property. And so, black women’s partnering—when and whom we partnered with and the offspring of those unions—were at the very foundation of the American economy. According to Jackson, “People would talk about black women’s sexuality in polite company like they would talk about race horses foaling calves.”
Like critiques of her sexed-up performances, response to Beyoncé’s recent pregnancy illustrates that black female bodies remain fodder for public gossip. Even with the devotion of mainstream media (especially the entertainment and gossip genres) to monitoring female celebrities’ sexuality, “baby bumps,” and engagement rocks, the speculation about Beyoncé’s womb stands apart as truly bizarre. Almost as soon as the singer revealed her pregnancy at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, there was conjecture—amplified by a televised interview in which the singer’s dress folded “suspiciously” around her middle—that it was all a ruse to cover for the use of a surrogate.
The HBO documentary, which chronicled her pregnancy, failed to quiet the deliberation. Gawker writer Rich Juzwiak proclaimed, “Beyoncé has never been less convincing about the veracity of her pregnancy than she was in her own movie…. We never see a full, clear shot of Beyoncé’s pregnant, swanlike body. Instead it’s presented in pieces, owing to the limitations of her Mac webcam. When her body is shown in full, it’s in grainy, black-and-white footage in which her face is shadowed.” There is, in this assessment, a disturbing assumption of ownership over Beyoncé’s body. Why won’t this woman display her naked body on television to prove to the world that she carried a baby in her uterus?
The conversation surrounding Beyoncé feels like assessing a prize thoroughbred rather than observing a human woman, and it is dismaying when so-called feminist discourse contributes to that. Feminism is about challenging structural inequalities in society, but the criticism of Beyoncé as a feminist figure smacks of hating the player and ignoring the game, to twist an old phrase.
“Beyoncé has no role in reinforcing or creating sexist structures,” says Jackson. “Despite the privilege of celebrity, she is subject to the same limitations other women are. In some ways, she is constrained even more, because she has to always be conscious about her image. It seems odd to critique her instead of the larger structure that creates the boundaries and limitations under which she exists.”
Beyoncé exacts considerable control over her public image. (And she wrested that control from her own father.) GQ revealed that she has an on-staff videographer and photographer documenting most every move. The singer, or rather, her “people,” famously requested that Buzzfeed remove some images from a slide show of the performer’s “fiercest” Super Bowl moments. (It seems that the Queen was looking less than serene in a few shots.) Beyoncé’s public life, from the reveal of her pregnancy to the first photos of daughter Blue Ivy’s face, appears choreographed. And while many critics view that control as merely mercenary, it is well worth noting that this level of power is an achievement in an industry where “suits” retain significant control over “creatives.”
Beyoncé’s attention to her image may well be her way of moving within the boundaries and limitations of gender and race that Jackson mentions. In GQ, Beyoncé noted, “I try to perfect myself.” A quest for perfection may not result in raw realness, but it just might keep a sister on top in a society still plagued with biases.
The dogged criticism of the way Beyoncé chooses to live out her feminism must add to the pressure of being a famous woman of color. But celebrity brings with it scrutiny. More problematic is that many challenges to Beyoncé’s status as a feminist role model make perfection the enemy of the good for all women concerned with equality, positioning feminism as nigh impossible to everyday women who can imagine being scrutinized for making the same choices Beyoncé has made.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of the popular blog Feministing, says, “[Beyoncé] is not allowed to be groundbreaking and traditional. She has to be Supermom or super hot stuff or super feminist. There isn’t enough flexibility for her to just be who she is and for us to be able to say ‘I’m not crazy about that decision, but this decision was amazing.’”
Juggling the personal with the political isn’t easy in a biased society. We are, even the most diligent of us, influenced by gender, race, and other identities. And 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. A tiny top and a traditional marriage should not be enough to strip a woman otherwise committed to gender equality of the feminist mantle. If we all had pundits assessing our actions against a feminist litmus test, I reckon not even Gloria Steinem and bell hooks would pass muster. Women must be allowed their humanity and complexity. Even self-proclaimed feminists. Even Queen Beys.
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Tamara Winfrey Harris’s work on race and gender and their intersection with pop culture and politics has appeared in Ms., Bitch, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Newsweek, and Psychology Today. She is senior editor at Racialicious and is working on her first book, an exploration of black women and marriage.