From Girl’s Tyme to Grown Woman, Beyoncé has come a long way in her 19 years in the business and had many career transformations along the way. But with the release of her latest self-titled album, and preoccupied with her identity as a feminist, the internet has become a minefield of Beyoncé critics. From Radio One’s Jameela Jamil, who bemoans “I’m so bored of having to use my eyes to hear a woman’s music” to writers hailing Beyoncé as a ‘feminist icon’, the singer certainly divides opinion.
Beyoncé contributed her essay ‘Gender Equality is a Myth’, to Maria Shriver’s annual report on the state of women in America this month. In it she proclaims; “Women are…more than 50% of voters. We must demand that we receive 100 percent of the opportunities.” It’s easy to forget, amidst the more problematic areas of her career,that for a woman so in the public eye of pop culture as Beyoncé, to openly identify as a feminist is a huge deal. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Madonna are just some of her peers who claim not to be, and it’s of crucial importance that young women have feminist role models to look up to.
Beyoncé is a performer, career woman, mother, entrepreneur and wife. In a world where women are frequently told they must choose between these identities, she proves that we truly can have it all.
Answering fans questions via Instagram, the singer said, “I wanted follow in the footsteps of Madonna and be a powerhouse and have my own empire…and show other women when you get to this point in your career, you don’t have to go sign with someone else and share your money and your success, you can do it yourself.”
Beyoncé employs more women, thanks to her all female band Sugar Mama, than any other performer in the industry. Her concert last year, Chime for Change, brought women and girls issues to a global stage, and she runs the Beyoncé Cosmetology School offering training programmes to women recovering from alcoholism and drug use. The aim of Beyoncé’s empire seems to be simple: help women.
Further to her essay, Beyoncé makes explicit references to her feminism in the track ***lawless. Featuring a quote from writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the song defines a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” This clear, accurate definition feels fantastically empowering to hear, but how do we understand this message within a song which also calls other women “bitches” and tells them to “bow down”?
As a long term Beyoncé fan and committed feminist, this writer found the album confusing at first listen. Musically, it can’t be knocked. The record is just over an hour of pristine production and playful beats featuring lyrics about empowerment, self-love and sexual fulfilment. When you come to watch the videos, however (and the album boasts 17 of them) things become problematic. In Partition for example, images switch between Beyoncé pole dancing for a fully clothed, cigar smoking Jay Z and the couple getting steamy in the backseat of a car.
For many critics, this presents a time old tradition of a manipulative industry objectifying the body of a female performer for the sake of a male consumer’s sexual appetite. We see a great deal of Beyoncé’s naked body, and there are barely any shots of Jay Z’s face. This dynamic emphasises that dangerous message that women are valuable only in so far as their bodies satisfy male fantasies.
With Beyoncé however, things are never so simple. Skip back a few tracks and you’ll encounter Pretty Hurts. The lyrical and visual content here performs almost exactly the opposite of Partition. Beyoncé, shown competing in a beauty pageant, laments “Mama said, you’re a pretty girl, what’s in your head, it doesn’t matter” and calls out the American obsession with perfect bodies.
How can we reconcile these conflicting images of Beyoncé’s feminist ideology? What do we make of an artist who on one hand rejects societal ideals of female value, and on the other produces videos where the sexualisation of her body is the main feature?
One way is to consider the balance evoked throughout the album. Beyoncé’s feminism means it’s okay to perform to her husband’s fantasies, because he performs for hers too. Before she dances for him in Partition we hear how he performs for her in Blow, a song openly celebrating cunnilingus. In this way the album presents a completely reciprocal depiction of a sexual relationship. The concept is mutual, loving, sexual satisfaction. Though Beyoncé may be a problematic feminist, it’s important to remember that feminism is hard, even for women as powerful and infuential as she is. Nobody gets it ‘right’ all the time, and varying beliefs of how feminists should act mean that it is a difficult path to navigate. Beyoncé’s feminism isn’t academic, and isn’t about waves; it’s about integrating a belief in equality into her everyday life as a performer, mother, wife and as a business woman; as Beyoncé.