OK, first things first: I am a Beyoncé fan. However, fandom aside (well, sort of, because you can’t ever really throw fandom aside) I must say that I’m surprised by all of the negative pushback Bey’s latest video, “Run the World (Girls),” is getting. Not because it’s a perfect video with a flawless, amazing message (it isn’t), but because so many people are fired up about it. On the one hand, this pushback is terrific, because it means lots of people are talking about race and feminism and doing a close read of a music video, which doesn’t happen all that often. On the other hand, this pushback is a bit harsh and asks more of a pop song and pop singer (whose heart I believe to be in the right place—more on that in a minute) than is perhaps fair.
Much of the criticism I’ve seen of “Run the World (Girls)” has been about how girls do not, in fact, run the world. This is true, of course. Girls don’t run the world, and girls and women are oppressed all over the globe. However, this line of criticism also employs a literal interpretation of a pop song, which, unless you’re willing to claim that Lady Gaga unethically promotes casino gambling, doesn’t totally work. Lord knows I love to analyze song lyrics, but saying that because women don’t actually hold power no one should sing about women holding power is kind of like saying that since we don’t all live in a Rhythm Nation no one should sing about that either. Young girls singing along to a song about running the world is, to my mind, preferable to them singing along to a song about wanting a man to fill you with his poison or about “cuffing” a woman so she won’t cheat on you (both of those messages are present in songs from this week’s Billboard Top 10). In fact, I’d say it’s preferable to them singing along to most pop songs, since most pop songs contain off-putting sexist messages about how girls should do anything but run the world.
Again, this is not to give Beyoncé a feminist pass and say that her song, with its focus on female empowerment through sex and money, or her video, with its focus on female empowerment through sex and money, should dance on by without criticism. However, Beyoncé’s been served a gigantic slice of the criticism pie lately. After all, of the five most popular songs in the US this week (it should be noted that “Run the World (Girls)” is not one of these songs) three of them have videos that promote sexism and gender weirdness in some way (“E.T.,” “Give Me Everything,” and “Just Can’t Get Enough“—Lady Gaga’s new single “The Edge of Glory” doesn’t have a video yet and the fifth song is Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” which has an awesome non-sexist video) yet I haven’t seen those videos get anything close to the kind of blogosphere scrutiny Beyoncé’s video is getting. Why is that, I wonder?
I don’t know why exactly, but I have a few thoughts (and then of course I’d like to hear your thoughts too). Beyoncé, more than many of her pop star contemporaries, concerns herself with gender roles and women’s issues. Most of her hit songs are about being a woman and negotiating women’s roles in heterosexual relationships, for better or for worse. Sure, B often ends up equating having power with having money, but that’s likely what her experience as a mega-rich woman has been, and it’s certainly a common theme in her industry (see: just about any song where someone sings about having money). She’s no feminist scholar, but she is a woman who uses her considerable platform to talk about women’s issues, at least the ones that concern her and that she thinks might concern her audience (these include: standing up for yourself, making your own money, walking away from someone who treats you poorly, going out on the town with your girlfriends, achieving your goals, and so on). While I don’t think that Beyoncé should be our next choice to head up the Office of Global Women’s Issues, I for one do appreciate that she foregrounds the experiences of (some) women in her music. It’s more than we get from most pop stars, yet I think it’s also part of the reason Beyoncé—who considers herself a feminist, in a way—gets more flak than most pop stars.
We sort of expect sexist content from 50 Cent, Britney Spears, and Chris Brown (all of whom are currently topping that aforementioned Billboard chart) but since Beyoncé sings about feminist issues and and works with influential women like Michelle Obama and even Oprah, we have different expectations. And maybe we should, because as feminists we have high standards and we want our pop culture to live up to them. But maybe we should also remember that from within the gigantic pop culture industrial complex that makes women feel like shit about themselves a lot of the time, Beyoncé is trying to say something positive to and about women. Hell, she’s trying to say that girls can “run the world”! Is that really so bad, all things considered?