If you missed the MTV Video Music Awards last night, there was only one image you really needed to see: Beyoncé literally putting the spotlight on feminism. And seeing the word FEMINIST emblazoned on a huge screen behind the singer was a galvanizing sight to behold.
The millions of people who tuned into the VMAs last night found out what we at Ms. already knew: Beyoncé has been building up her feminist credentials for years now. From penning a piece on equal pay in the Shriver Report to sampling Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her latest album to evoking Rosie the Riveter on her Instagram, she’s been unabashedly feminist. In being so unapologetic and quietly outspoken, she’s made feminism accessible to young women around the world who otherwise never would have identified with the movement. Beyonce has shown, as bell hooks expressed in her epochal 2000 text, that “feminism is for everybody.”
By lifting verses from Adichie’s TED talk on gender equality and using it to inspire her own music, Beyoncé is bridging the gap between academic feminism and everyday feminism. If young women attendees at her On the Run tour can scream out the lyrics to “Flawless” and mean every word, who says they can’t eventually read Audre Lorde?
At the VMAs, in a mesmerizing 15-plus-minute medley from her latest album, Beyoncé celebrated all the different aspects of womanhood, from her caberet-inspired performance of “Drunk in Love” to her emotional ode to her toddler, Blue Ivy. She’s a businesswoman, a mother, a wife and her performative sexuality is just one facet of her identity. When feminists hone in so closely on racy lyrics and music videos, they’re only seeing one part of her message.
Beyoncé and her brand of feminism have been a polarizing topic in feminist circles, as we found out at Ms. after getting considerable response to our Spring 2013 Beyoncé cover. Some feminists have found her to be a problematic representation of the feminist movement, critical of her overtly sexualized dance moves and skin-baring costumes. But doesn’t feminism embrace every woman’s right to live freely and authentically? Beyoncé is in control of her art and her image, and many of her songs center on the independence and empowerment of women. If our bodies are our own, why shouldn’t any of us be allowed to claim feminism and prance around the stage in a leotard? Feminism shouldn’t be a monolith.
As Janell Hobson, the author of our Beyoncé cover story, wrote,
What certain feminists clearly want is to regulate the bodies of women of color in order to eradicate difference. Since when did feminism reinforce dress codes instead of women’s autonomy and solidarity with other women, in which we support all of our choices while also recognizing how those choices are sometimes limited by intersectional oppression?
Beyoncé is invaluable to feminism because she brings it from the fringes of public dialogue and throws it into the popular mainstream, forcing the masses to contend with both the word and what it stands for. Whether people accept or scrutinize her feminism is peripheral to the fact that at least they’re talking about it at all.
Who else could have so expertly and seamlessly inserted the “f-word” into a show like the VMAs? To a round of applause from the audience? It’s rare and it’s thrilling. Whether you stand behind Beyoncé-the-feminist or not, you have admit she’s pushing feminism even further into today’s national zeitgeist.
Screenshot of Beyonce’s VMA performance taken from MTV.com
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.