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.


  1. These are my thoughts on Beyonce exactly. I never know how to feel about her because she’s constantly sending a mixed message. As for this video, I hate the lyrics “pay me,” which are addressed to the men. She also takes a wallet from one of the men. Why can’t us ladies get our own wallets? I don’t want to steal from someone else, male or not. Personally, I think Beyonce will do and say whatever is paying the most. I highly doubt that she cares about womyn’s rights unless it directly pertains to her paycheck.

    Btw, did they just salute the men in the end of that video?

  2. Had this SAME discussion on my facebook page this morning! We were left wishing we could enroll Bey in one of the Intro to Women’s Studies classes we teach.

    • Janell Hobson says:

      I know! If she would only read some bell hooks at least (I know Jada Pinkett-Smith, Willow Smith’s mother, does).

  3. NewAgeAmazon says:

    I actually did a write-up on this video yesterday and took a look at the lyrics while doing so…and found the whole thing to be a shallow idea of empowering. I think what bothered me the most was that the idea of an “empowered” woman in the song/video is someone who earns her own money and then goes out dancing at clubs. There’s a shout out to motherhood and working moms and a brief mention of women with college degrees but…okay, for a song about how girls supposedly “run the world,” I didn’t hear much mention of HOW we do that or mentions of women who are powerful in the political or scientific or business areas. Apparently, women are secretly running the world while going to work (and still, on average, earning less than men) and then going out to party. Are these some kind of secret parties of an all-woman world-running cabal that just happen to have awesome music and a dance floor? Because if so…um…how do I get in?

  4. Every time I hear a song or see a video by Beyonce, I’m left feeling like I’ve just been given the traditional Playboy lecture on “female empowerment”. I understand that she’s trying to sell a product– her image, her music, her albums, etc.– but it seems that the only tactic used by the media to sell anything to modern womyn is “It’s empowering!”. I personally was unaware that I needed a product or a message to empower me… I’ll dance frakking circles around these kids with my empowerment, gosh darnit, and I didn’t have to buy anything to get it! I suppose I’m just sick of being pitched to with a pseudo-feminist or “enlightened sexist” message. I get it: sex is awesome, it’s okay for me to show my body, blah blah blah, but it’s only become okay when the media says so because hey! look what you can accomplish when you do what we’re allowing you to do! I thought empowerment would mean doing something for the heck of it, not for some sort of gain or because someone else is allowing me to? That having been said, I have yet to see any material from Beyonce promoting any sort of “empowerment”, what with me apparently needing to distract a man with sexual advances so I can get his wallet and then end my scantily clad power dance with mah gals saluting the very same men we’re supposedly overthrowing. Hardly what I would call feminist.

    …I also “feel” like I went a little “quotation mark happy” in this “post”. Eeeep.

  5. Beyonce uses sex to sell empowerment. She has an uber mixed message and I am always annoyed by it. She’s obviously a talented, hard working individual, but she constantly has a message of submission or empowerment through sex or money in her work. It’s ridiculous and conflicting.

    • i agree. she is just being seen as a sex symbol by men and not someone to respect. i think she should tone down the skimpy outfits a little.

  6. She gets it almost right.

  7. Honestly, I don’t believe every time a woman dresses in underwear or minimal clothing, she can be deemed anti-feminist or submissive. I don’t think I let any of my beliefs down when I walked out in sparkly hotpants for my friends birthday last night. If you’re looking for deep, thoughtful ideas of empowerment, don’t look for them in a catchy pop song, designed to sell.

    And honestly, I took the salute entirely as a sign of respect. One of the biggest challenges, in terms of negative views of feminism, is the notion that we are anti-men. Personally I think Beyonce steered away from that.

    I really like this video.

    • Okay, but when did the men salute the womyn with respect?

      • Don’t get me wrong, you make an excellent point there. But in this video I only noticed a group of bewildered or even worried men- to me that’s an acknowledgement of the idea the song is challenging anyway.

        There aren’t many lyrics to work with in a repetitive 4 minutes, but I took from it the impression that women do have their own strong position in the world, they are just as capable and it’s something society needs to learn to appreciate and admire. Perhaps just like the men in the video.

  8. Unfortunately, the stats show that at this point in time women do not run the world. I suspect that if we did, talented women like Beyonce would not have to reduce themselves to sex in order to make sales or have their art recognised.

  9. If ‘girls’ ran the world they would not need to be hypersexualised in a video like this. How could anyone seriously think that this video would be empowering. They are wearing fishnets and bra’s to ‘stand up to the man’ for gods sake. You know what would be way more empowering? Not participating in and encouraging your own objectification.

    ~Cat @feministletters

  10. Cassandra says:

    Can we ignore the fact that Beyonce is worth over 500 million? If money talks Beyonce has said more than a mouthful. She often makes references to her ability to generate capital and this song is no exception (working a 9-5 and cutting a check). I think Bey is envisioning a new world order in which women -can and do have it all: bodies, money, creative ability, leadership skills and unity. When she snatches the metal off the guard I see that as a sign of disapproval of men getting too much credit, almost like a dethroning.

    This message of women ruling the world moves beyond the independent women notion to female domination. With Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Janelle Hobson 🙂 and the list goes on as examples (I wouldn’t be so quick to shoot the messenger). I could not be happier to be a black woman at this time. It’s seems like we have come a long way from the Miss Celie’s notion of “being black, being ugly, and just thankful for being alive,” to living out loud and being alive in electrifying, colorful and graceful ways. All in all I say we give Ms. Carter a slap on the wrist while crowing her queen of practicing what she preaches!

  11. Laurie Penny in the Newstatesman has some good analysis

  12. This is such a 1976 idea of what feminism is, the world has changed and how women can feel to express ourselves has changed as well. Does sexy dancing mean someone is anti-feminism or confused about what it mean to be a woman? I highly doubt it. Being led around on a dog/animal chain by a man in photographs or videos? Yeah, that’s demeaning and gross. But sexiness and empowering songs coming from a woman who has been a performer since the age of 16, paved her own career path, and made tons of money for tons of people, ain’t all that bad. Can one little video from Beyonce shouting about women taking over the world make a difference, probably not. But a bunch of women hating on her efforts probably doesn’t help the cause either. In fact, it hurts.

  13. Jessee Matato says:

    Ms. Hobson,
    How can you refer to “Bills, Bills, Bills” as a “girl power anthem”? Have you ever actually listened to the song? In your Ms. article in the spring 2013 issue, you write, “Beyonce has been advocating for Women’s financial independence since her early Destiny’s Child years, singing about unreliable lovers careless with their money in ‘Bills Bills Bills.'” The lyrics speak for themselves – “Can you pay MY bills, can you pay MY telephone bills, can you pay MY automobile bills, if so maybe we can chill.” This is about women’s financial independence??? The fact that you can write this stuff and Ms. publishes it makes me seriously doubt renewing my subscription. This is a sad excuse for scholarship and journalism. I don’t have a problem with Beyonce, she’s a talented entertainer. I do think there are much more impressive role models for girls that teach empowerment from the use of girls’ minds, not their “bootilicious” bodies.

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