Beyonce’s Hip New Club: Feminism

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It’s been eight years since I got my master’s degree, eight years since my fingers turned the pages of feminist manifestos, longer since I’ve sat in Women’s Studies courses with wide-eyed enthusiasm and a silent promise brewing in my chest to embrace feminism in my everyday life in a way that would make Bell Hooks and Adrienne Rich proud.

Now, I’m a mother of three with a fourth on the way. Rather than abandoning my feminist stirrings to sleepless nights and slobber, I’m more determined to model in my words and my actions what it means to be a feminist, an individual who believes in gender equality, where equal does not mean same.

On Sunday night, I left the room after Nicki Minaj clapped her fresh cheeks together while women in animal leotards writhed around her during the VMAs. I looked for empowering imagery, and I found the same old, sorry representations of women I see in magazines and commercials. I tried to see her as an artistic woman embracing her sexuality, owning it, refusing to be the object of a male gaze, but I couldn’t find it. And I can’t find it in her “Anaconda” video either, even when she slaps Drake’s hand away as if to say, “You can look but you can’t touch.” Is that empowering: tempting, teasing and then walking away? Why? Because we can?

But the VMAs weren’t about Nicki. They were about Beyonce, Queen Bey. I didn’t catch her performance that night, but I watched it the next day. How could I not with all the buzz about her genius and her shocking, avant garde display of feminism?

After watching, I closed my computer. An unsettling feeling bubbled in my chest. Beyonce’s background dancers wore what looked like cages on their faces and bodies at one point. Was this a statement about the social and cultural confines in place for women? Would any 15-year old make that connection? Or would they see barely-dressed women worshipping Beyonce? What about the same background women who were reduced to shiny legs glistening like sugar-coated candy for us to watch opening and closing around Mrs. Carter? Will my high school students get that B is challenging the idea that woman are parts rather than a whole? When Beyonce embraces her sexuality by dancing around stripper poles and seductively crawling across a chaise, will young girls feel that they, too, can be in control of their sexuality without fear of judgement, without fear of being called names like whore or slut or worse, names rarely attached to men? Will they get that? Really?

Surely there’s more to feminism than sex? Beyonce knows that. I think she lives it, but does the message translate to the teens who sing “Drunk in Love” in the mirror while practicing their best Beyonce moves? When they mumble the words about Ike and Tina Turner while they put on their make-up, do they know they’re referencing domestic violence?

All over the internet Beyonce is hailed for bringing FEMINISM to the masses, for delivering it to teens and anyone watching who might have considered it a bad word. If Beyonce is a feminist, well, hell, then I am, too! Where do I sign up? But what are they signing up for?

Maybe this is the beginning. Maybe Beyonce is lighting a fire in the hearts of people everywhere, and it will be in vogue to make room for women and allow them to pave the way to the future they really want–without judgement. Maybe it will be Beyonce’s inspiration that wakes up the culture that watches Ray Rice play football after a mere 2-game suspension for beating his wife and dragging her out of an elevator. Maybe we’ll credit Beyonce for making feminism so mainstream that advertisers won’t distort or misrepresent bodies to sell products. Will Bey be the catalyst for widening feminism to include, without reservation, mothers and women who take their husband’s name and women who embrace men as partners? Is this the beginning of a real conversation? I hope so.

But I can’t shake my uncertainty that the feminism at the VMAs looked too much like the same-old, same-old with a woman at the center instead of a man. If you’re screaming at me that that distinction is huge. If you want to grab my shoulders and shake me and say, “but there’s a woman in the center!” I know. It’s Beyonce.

Are we worshipping a goddess? Or rebranding feminism to truly elevate all women…and men? I don’t know.

I do know I’m still a feminist. But I’m worried about the dress code. I hope leotards and a sultry expression are not required to get into the hip new club.

4 comments for “Beyonce’s Hip New Club: Feminism

  1. August 28, 2014 at 6:51 am

    *sigh* I don’t even know what to say when I see performances like this labeled as “feminist.” But I do think you hit the nail on the head: 15 year olds surely do NOT understand all the complexities. Maybe you should advocate for a new high school class: women in pop culture!

  2. August 28, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for this.. you are far from the only one asking these questions and wondering about the impact of Mrs. Carter et al.

  3. August 29, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    I have heard the internet rumblings about Beyonce and Nicki Minaj – I finally watched the “Anaconda” video the other day – and you are absolutely right, no young adult or teenager is going to see the symbolism or pick up on the social commentary in either video. Both videos will serve to reinforce the idea that a woman is powerful only when she is sexy and seductive and that being able to twerk and clap your butt cheeks is key. That is, unless they are asked to watch them and examine the themes within as an assignment. Those videos/songs aren’t meant to inspire social change, they are just being marketed that way to create media attention – it’s not as though either artist wrote those songs, they just picked them and let their teams of producers and stylists do the rest. I wish they were symbols of new strong woman, a new face for feminism, but it will just be a training video for catching men.

  4. September 1, 2014 at 9:28 am

    I wish I could comfortably say that the high school girls WILL get the message. Music is art, and is interpreted by all in their own way. As an adult I was confused by the message, so all I can do for my young girls is talk with them openly about all the mixed messages they will see over the course of their lives. Oh, and also be a shining example of living my life for ME and my happiness, playing by MY OWN rules. Because there’s that.
    We come from a strong matriarchal family going back 3 generations now, but my sisters and I are STILL confused by music videos and shiny magazines. *sigh* however their girls are in their 20’s and they are awesome, good caring women, strong and smart. One is about to become a doctor and the other is on the Honor Roll at DePaul, so I guess we do all right. As far as the media, oh who knows.

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