Beyonce: Girls Run the World (Cue the Apocalypse!)

I’ve been an admirer of Beyonce since her Destiny’s Child days and always appreciated that group’s “girl power” anthems (think “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Independent Women,” or “I’m a Survivor,” ignoring for the moment that they’ve also put out more submissive songs like “Cater 2  U“–which I’ve been guilty of playing on a loop).  I’ve attempted to dance and wave my “ring-finger” hand to Beyonce’s solo “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” and have sung some of her catchiest hooks (“to the left, to the left”…)

But, I’ve also been highly critical of some of her decisions, whether it involved appearing in a skin-lightening ad by L’Oreal or donning “blackface” in this year’s L’Officiel fashion spread. In other words, Beyonce presents a mixed bag for me: promoting a decidedly feminist message (whether in her girl-power songs or in her forming an all-girl band for her tours) while also participating in racialized and sexualized self-fetishizing styles, lyrics, videos and choreography.

In light of the recent controversy over the Psychology Today article castigating black women’s physical attractiveness, Beyonce’s efforts to present the black female body in all its stylized  “Get Me Bodied” glory–courtesy of her “Move Your Body” video supporting First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign–takes on a certain power and subversiveness. It’s especially helpful in battling childhood obesity and getting young people (black girls especially) comfortable with their bodies and the way they move. Yet it’s still problematic to encourage girls to “move your body” in stilettos. And then again, femininity is so denigrated (even among some feminists) and viewed solely in terms of passivity and victimization that I appreciate artists who re-appropriate feminine items like high heels and lingerie, as signs of power, whether in burlesque or pop music.

So, it is with this complex response to Beyonce that I turn to her latest video, “Run the World (Girls).” Set against a post-apocalyptic backdrop, a “messianic” Beyonce, atop her dark horse, comes on the scene as two women–one emerging from a cage, the other laid out crucifixion-style–await their salvation. In a variety of different styles (replete with her latest bleached-blonde hair), Beyonce leads an army of lingerie-clad women of different races and ethnicities against what appears to be a rag-tag mix of street gangs and police in riot gear–the latter on the scene to quell uncontrollable female sexuality, which eventually surrenders to the discipline provided by both the male gaze and state surveillance. The choreography includes her signature “bootilicious” moves and fancy footwork, but such “power moves” and fashion sense seem like recycled images of a campy Broadway musical (think Sweet Charity’s “Hey, Big Spender!” number).  It couldn’t possibly be a send-up to the recent Slut Walk protests and the feminist wars over these, could it?

Beyonce suggests that women, just on the strength of their hyper-femininity, will rise again under her glamorous leadership  and create a New World Order.  Such a message, when reduced to sexual spectacle and performed before a threatening-yet-objectifying male audience, is hard to take seriously. It’s especially hard when 11-year-old Willow Smith does a much better job at presenting “girl power” with her “21st-Century Girl“: no thigh-high stockings and no male watchers, just grandmotherly wisdom (courtesy of Cicely Tyson‘s magic woman in the video’s prologue) that leads a new generation of girls to build their own worlds with non-violence and sheer creativity.

Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” merely provides a cliched, sexualized display of the Battle of the Sexes in which power derives only from sexual and embodied prowess. Even then, the women “salute” the men at the end, suggesting that, once the “power dance” is over, we will submit once again to their authority.

Girls running the world sure sounds like an intriguing possibility–but first we have to creatively imagine what such a world would look like (and not predict that  the world will come to an end because of it). Beyonce’s vision is woefully unimaginative.


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.