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.