Beyonce’s Fierce Feminism

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Ms. Click here to get a copy!

The singer/actor/popular-culture icon known simply by her first name—Beyoncé—does not hesitate to embrace the feminist label. She has especially shined a light on women’s power: The power to perform in a male-dominated music industry; the power to acquire fame and fortune; the power to delight in one’s beauty and sexuality; the power to cross over into mainstream media while championing a “girl power” anthem. Yet when women like Beyoncé proudly proclaim feminism, they tend to invite more debates than affirmation.

There was no denying the sheer audacity of Beyoncé’s performance at this year’s Super Bowl in early February, as she strode confidently on a stage that highlighted her silhouetted figure. The spectacle invoked goddess power, represented by Oshun—an African orisha (spirit or deity) known for her self-love, generosity and wealth—and Durga, the Hindu warrior goddess whose multiple hands emerged via digital screen as an extension of Beyoncé’s essence. Beyoncé also summoned the collective power of women—representing diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds—by having an all-woman 10-piece backing band (The Sugar Mamas), women back-up singers and 120 women dancers. There was even a moment when the fans in the mosh pit seemed to be all women.

And while Beyoncé and troops captivated hundreds of millions of Super Bowl spectators and TV viewers with their overtly sexual moves, lead guitarist and music director Bibi McGill was given a spotlight moment to appr priate rock-star masculinity with her pyrotechnic guitar playing. In 13 minutes, Beyoncé exploded all the symbols associated with the Super Bowl: football, male virility and violence. Even the omnipresent objectification of women in Super Bowl ads momentarily lost its power.

“Lights out!!! Any questions??” tweeted Beyoncé’s marital and music partner, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, when the New Orleans Superdome had a power failure after his wife’s halftime show.

If this is what Beyoncé had in mind when she prophetically sang, “Run the World (Girls),” I say: Bring it on!

But despite this performance of feminism for a mass audience, Beyoncé’s critics still question her brand of female empowerment. There were those who wanted her to wear more clothes on stage, or not be so sexy in her dance moves.

And others who came to her defense.

In an article for The Telegraph in the U.K., Emma Gannon wrote, “If we accept that Lena Dunham [of the much-debated HBO series Girls] likes to take her clothes off and celebrate her body (with the majority of the media giving her a firm thumbs up), then how come Beyoncé is branded ‘not a feminist’ for doing the same?”

Blogger David R. Henson similarly interrogated our discomfort on Patheos by arguing that Beyoncé’s provocative dress and dancing suggest “power, not sex.” “It takes a warrior to be able to do something like that,” wrote Henson. “No surprise then…that the Hindu warrior goddess Durga shows up, incarnated by Beyoncé. Against the pop-up screen, hands emerge and encircle Beyoncé from behind. These are not male hands. These are not Justin Timberlake’s hands threatening to disrobe her in a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ [as happened with Janet Jackson during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show]. These are her hands and they reach out and around her, not to possess her but to expand her power.”

Aishah Shahidah Simmons, documentary filmmaker of NO! The Rape Documentary and a writer for the Ms. Blog and the Feminist Wire, agrees.

“Her Super Bowl performance clearly turned patriarchy on its head,” says Simmons. “Her inclusion of an all-woman band, owning her sexual power, her presentation of such a diverse group of women (African Americans, Latinas, Asians)—she was definitely in a place of power. There was so much estrogen on stage and [there were] open spaces for queer desire and performance.”

So does this performance cement her status as a feminist?

“I think I am a feminist in a way,” Beyoncé once revealed in an interview with Jane Gordon of the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be; perhaps it’s because I grew up in a singing group [Destiny’s Child] with other women…I never want to betray that friendship because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.” Beyoncé also identified as a “modern-day feminist” who believes in gender equality, in a recent interview with Jo Ellison for British Vogue.

However, not everyone acknowledges Beyoncé’s version of feminism. Danielle Belton of the blogs Black Snob and Clutch Magazine sees Beyoncé as “mere entertainment.” “Other pop icons like Madonna and Lady Gaga certainly seem more informed and more passionate about their gender politics,” Belton muses. “Whereas Beyoncé seems not as passionate. It seems more like marketing.”

Brittney Cooper, who blogs as Crunktastic in the Crunk Feminist Collective, thinks Beyoncé is much more complicated than that, but admits that, for some, the pop star is perceived to be an “untrustworthy feminist.” On the one hand, she and her fellow Destiny’s Child members Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams sing about being an “Independent Woman” or a “Survivor”; on the other hand, they sing about pleasing men and conforming to their desires in a song like “Cater 2 U.”

Belton similarly argues that “Beyoncé is reflective of a generation of women growing up with conflicted feelings about the double standards for women, and she’s doing it on a massive scale. She’s [a] super-empowered [woman] who has her husband and child in tow. She sings about being an ‘Independent Woman’ but also craves traditional marriage and motherhood.”

But do such conflicted feelings negate Beyoncé’s feminism? After all, feminists do marry and become mothers. They might then bring their feminist politics into traditional spheres, attempting to disrupt these identities and complicate the politics of respectability.

“I don’t think Beyoncé has aspirations toward respectability,” says Cooper. “She’s interested in exploding those categories, in which one can be a wife and mother and still be very sexual. But if Beyoncé is hypersexual—and therefore ‘inappropriate’—do we have a model for how women can be ‘appropriately sexual’ in the public sphere? When can a woman own her sexual power from a self-defined sexual standpoint?”

Not only that, but shouldn’t a woman who sings about independence and female power also be multifaceted in her expressions, whether about romantic desire, heartache or dominating the music scene? Is a feminist not allowed to contradict herself? Other pop icons, such as Madonna and Lady Gaga, routinely appropriate conventional portrayals of femininity and sexuality even as they invite us to contest their meanings.

Tamika Carey, a feminist rhetorician at the University at Albany, would certainly like to see feminists give Beyoncé that space. “I refuse to let a constricted definition of feminism blind us to her innovative engagements with female performance and artistic expression,” she says.

Filmmaker/blogger Simmons, however, believes that those who hesitate to view Beyoncé in feminist terms may be unduly influenced by racial politics. “If Beyoncé were white, she would definitely be called a feminist. But mainstream culture often doesn’t recognize women of color in that way,” she says. “As black women, we aren’t even viewed as acting, as performing. Everything we do is supposed to be based in reality. So, if there are any contradictions, you don’t get to be the face of feminism. Even though Bey is definitely in control of her image.”

Cooper-aka-Crunktastic acknowledges this racial element as well, noting that, “White women may have trouble seeing Beyoncé as a feminist because she is racialized as a woman of color. And for women of color, the politics of respectability limits who we’re willing to hold up as our role models in the public sphere, since it’s so easy to tear us down.”

In this year of the snake, 2013, Beyoncé is certainly feeling its tightening coil as criticisms have piled up against her—first with the report that she lip-synched the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and later with the online outrage over what many perceived to be a betrayal of her “girl power” motto with a leaked track containing the hook “Bow down, bitches.” It’s a return to Southern-style hip-hop, in which the Houston-born singer borrows from the rap “diss track” tradition of bravado and dirty-dozen vernacular put-downs, but these “anti-feminist” lyrics and gender-bending masculine style (including a deepening of her vocals) seemed to undermine her feminist credentials. It also didn’t help that she decided to entitle her tour “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour.”

Yet the “Mrs. Carter” title is hardly reflective of Beyoncé’s reality, as she legally hyphenated her name to Knowles-Carter, and there are even rumors that her husband, too, goes by the legal surname Knowles-Carter. If this is how they privately identify, doesn’t that suggest that “Mrs. Carter” is simply a public rhetorical performance—just as she performed as a “single lady” (or as her alter ego Sasha Fierce) at a time when she had recently changed her single status by marrying Jay-Z? As she reminds us in her “Bow Down/I Been On” track: “But don’t think I’m just his little wife.” We have to take clues about Beyoncé’s feminist beliefs from these lyrics, since she typically projects a public persona while barely revealing her private life, even in the recent documentary Life Is But a Dream, for which she was a codirector and executive producer.

The talented and successful entertainer has been performing in show business since the age of 15, but we need not dismiss Beyoncé’s brand of feminism as mere marketing. Feminism is political consciousness, not a product, and as Cooper notes, “Beyoncé has certainly evolved in her thinking about feminism—where before it was about her women friends, now she’s critiquing patriarchy.”

Here Cooper refers to Beyoncé’s interview earlier this year with Amy Wallace in GQ, in which the pop star declared: “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

Beyoncé 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,” or later, during her solo career, admonishing her ex to “not touch her stuff” as he exits “to the left/ to the left” in “Irreplaceable.” Especially telling is her financial bravado in a song like “Suga Mama” (“Puttin’ you on my taxes already…I promise I won’t let no bills get behind…”). In a culture that focuses too much on consumerism, we may rightly feel uncomfortable with this emphasis on materialism, but Beyoncé’s recognition of the economic inequalities between men and women certainly fuels her rhetoric and performance of what our society defines as “power.”

Without a doubt, Beyoncé holds both financial and cultural power, and it will be intriguing to watch how they unfold. Blogger Danielle Belton would like to see the pop star more informed about women’s realities: “There needs to be more substance behind the girl-power mantle she’s been carrying.” For Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Beyoncé is already practicing feminism—even if it’s confined to the music industry.

“I hope Beyoncé inspires young women artists to have a women’s band,” she offers. “I know for the women in her band, Beyoncé has changed their lives and given them so many opportunities [to get] other gigs. That’s the kind of model she gives us within the context of music and entertainment, so maybe she can inspire us to do similar work in other arenas. As far as I’m concerned we need all hands on deck [in ushering feminist social movements].”

Despite Beyoncé’s contradictions—finding it “ridiculous” that men still define what’s sexy while she maintains her body and image through conventional portrayals of sexiness and white beauty standards, or preaching “girl power” while calling us “bitches” in the next breath—her albums and soundtracks provide more than enough catchy beats and hooks to empower and encourage solidarity. If a battered woman can feel empowered to leave her abuser while booming “I’m a survivor/I’m not gon’ give up” in her getaway car, or if a woman running for public office can make “Run the World (Girls)” her campaign slogan, need we expect more from our pop stars?

“Beyoncé just needs to wear a T-shirt that says, ‘This is what a feminist looks like,’” Simmons suggests slyly. “Maybe she’ll wear it on her Mrs. Carter world tour.”

I can see it now. Lights on! Any questions?

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Photo courtesy of PHShanghai on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


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.