All Hail the Queen?

All Hail the Queen?Click to see full image
Article by Tamara Winfrey Harris, appeared in issue Micro/Macro; published in 2013; filed under Social commentary.
What do our perceptions of Beyonce's feminism say about us?

Illustration by Irana Douer.

Who run the world? If entertainment domination is the litmus test, then all hail Queen Bey. Beyoncé. She who, in the last few months alone, whipped her golden lace-front and shook her booty fiercely enough to zap the power in the Superdome (electrical relay device, bah!); produced, directed, and starred in Life Is But a Dream, HBO's most-watched documentary in nearly a decade; and launched the Mrs. Carter Show—the must-see concert of the summer.

Beyoncé's success would seem to offer many reasons for feminists to cheer. The performer has enjoyed record-breaking career success and has taken control of a multimillion-dollar empire in a male-run industry, while being frank about gender inequities and the sacrifices required of women. She employs an all-woman band of ace musicians—the Sugar Mamas—that she formed to give girls more musical role models. And she speaks passionately about the power of female relationships.

But some pundits are hesitant to award the singer feminist laurels. For instance, Anne Helen Petersen, writer for the blog Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style (and Bitch contributor), says, "What bothers me—what causes such profound ambivalence—is the way in which [Beyoncé has] been held up as an exemplar of female power and, by extension, become a de facto feminist icon….Beyoncé is powerful. F*cking powerful. And that, in truth, is what concerns me."

Petersen says the singer's lyrical feminism swings between fantasy ("Run the World [Girls]") and "bemoaning and satirizing men's inability to commit to monogamous relationships" ("Single Ladies"). The writer also accuses Beyoncé of performing for the male gaze and admits, in comments to the post, to feeling "grossed out" by the "Mrs. Carter" tour name. And Petersen is surely not alone in her displeasure.

Turns out, booty shaking and stamping your husband's last name on a product of your own creativity makes a lot of folks question your feminist values. (Beyoncé recently told Vogue UK that though the word "can be extreme...I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I believe in equality.") Some of the equivocation is no doubt caused by Beyoncé's slick, pop-princess brand. It is difficult to square the singer's mainstream packaging with subversion of conventional and sexist views of gender. But ultimately, the policing of feminist cred is the real moral contradiction. And the judgment of how Beyoncé expresses her womanhood is emblematic of the way women in the public eye are routinely picked apart—in particular, it's a demonstration of the conflicting pressures on black women and the complicated way our bodies and relationships are policed.

In a January 2013 Guardian article titled "Beyoncé: Being Photographed in Your Underwear Doesn't Help Feminism," writer Hadley Freeman blasts the singer for posing in the February issue of GQ "nearly naked in seven photos, including one on the cover in which she is wearing a pair of tiny knickers and a man's shirt so cropped that her breasts are visible."

Of course, in that very same issue of GQ, Beyoncé makes several statements about gender inequity—the sort not often showcased in men's magazines. Among them: "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."

That Beyoncé speaks the language of feminism so publicly is even more notable in a climate where high-profile mainstream female entertainers often explicitly reject the very word. Katy Perry, while accepting a Woman of the Year Award from Billboard, announced that she is not a feminist (but she believes in the "power of women"). And when asked by The Daily Beast if she is a feminist, Taylor Swift offered, "I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life."

A popular star willing to talk about gender inequity, as Beyoncé has, is depressingly rare. But Freeman insists flashes of underboob and feminist critique don't mix. Petersen concurs, calling the thigh-baring, lace-meets-leather outfit Beyoncé wore during her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show an "outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishizes the otherwise powerful female body." A commenter on Jezebel summed up the charge: "That's pretty much the Beyoncé contradiction right there. Lip service for female fans, fan service for the guys."

These appraisals are perplexing amid a wave of feminist ideology rooted in the idea that women own their bodies. It is the feminism of SlutWalk, the anti-rape movement that proclaims a skimpy skirt does not equal a desire for male attention or sexual availability. Why, then, are cultural critics like Freeman and Petersen convinced that when Beyoncé pops a leather-clad pelvis on stage, it is solely for the benefit of men? Why do others think her acknowledgment of how patriarchy influences our understanding of what's sexy is mere "lip service"?

Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Boston's Northeastern University, says, "The idea that Beyoncé being sexy is only her performing for male viewers assumes that embracing sexuality isn't also for women." Jackson adds that the criticism also ignores "the limited choices available to women in the entertainment industry and the limited ways Beyoncé is allowed to express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race."

Her confounding mainstream persona, Jackson points out, is one key to the entertainer's success as a black artist. "You don't see black versions of Lady Gaga crossing over to the extent that Beyoncé has or reaching her levels of success. Black artists rarely have the same privilege of not conforming to dominant image expectations."

Solange, Beyoncé's sister, who has gone for a natural-haired, boho, less sexified approach to her music, remains a niche artist, as do Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes, like so many black female artists before them. Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello—talented all, but quirky black girls, especially androgynous ones, don't sell pop music, perform at the Super Bowl, or get starring roles in Hollywood films.

Black women (and girls) have also historically battled the stereotype of innate and uncontrolled lasciviousness, which may explain why Beyoncé's sexuality is viewed differently from that of white artists like Madonna, who is lauded for performing in very similar ways.

A Seattle Times review of a recent Madonna tour stop praises the artist for "rocking us as a feminist icon" and applauds the singer for her brazen sexuality: "stripping down to a bra, then pulling her pants down below a thong and baring her cheeks to the Key [Arena]." Even the Guardian's Freeman, in an ode to Like a Prayer, the writer's favorite album, speaks longingly about Madonna's midriff-baring '80s fashion and the video to the title track, which "featured a woman named Madonna apparently giving a blow job to a black Jesus."

Through a career that has included crotch-grabbing, nudity, BDSM, Marilyn Monroe fetishizing, and a 1992 book devoted to sex, Madonna has been viewed as a feminist provocateur, pushing the boundaries of acceptable femininity. But Beyoncé's use of her body is criticized as thoughtless and without value beyond male titillation, providing a modern example of the age-old racist juxtaposition of animalistic black sexuality vs. controlled, intentional, and civilized white sexuality.

And then there's the fact that some cultural critics are adding to this dissection of Beyoncé's feminism through commentary on her relationship with husband Shawn Knowles-Carter, a.k.a. hip hop mogul Jay-Z. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey before the Life Is But a Dream premiere, Beyoncé spoke passionately about her partner of more than a decade, saying, "I would not be the woman I am if I did not go home to that man." This comment prompted Dodai Stewart at Jezebel to write, "Wouldn't you like to believe she'd be amazing whether or not she went home to a man? (She would be.) It's a much better message when she talks about how powerful she is as a woman and what a woman can do—without mentioning Mr. Carter."

Surely a woman can be powerful and simultaneously admit that her marriage is profound and life altering. Beyoncé did not pronounce herself useless without marriage. On the contrary, she has said she was in no rush to marry the man she met at 18. "I feel like you have to get to know yourself, know what you want, spend some time by yourself and be proud of who you are before you can share that with someone else."

Being a feminist in the public eye should not require remaining aloof about relationships, including those with men who have helped shape who you are. We don't require this of men. None other than Bey and Jay's bestie, President Barack Obama, made a very similar claim about his spouse post-2008 election: "I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years...Michelle Obama."

Feminist media activist Jamia Wilson says, "I think that it's just hard for people to really grasp what it's like to be extremely powerful but also vulnerable. Black women, in particular, are characterized as singularly strong figures. How can you be the mule of the world for everybody, but also have somebody carry you when you need them to?"

More problematic to some is the name of Beyoncé's world tour—the Mrs. Carter Show. Jane Martinson of the Guardian wrote in a February 2013 op-ed, "There is almost something subversive about waiting until the strongest moment of your career, which is where Beyoncé finds herself now, to do away with the infamous glossy mononym in favour of a second name your own husband doesn't even use."

In a recent Slate article titled "Who Run the World? Husbands?" Aisha Harris wonders, "as a woman who has earned enough clout to inspire dance crazes, earn lucrative (if controversial) advertising deals, and perform for the U.S. president on multiple occasions, one can't help but wonder why she felt the need to evoke the name of her beau in her solo world tour."

If a woman loses feminist bona fides by becoming Mrs. So-and-So, someone best tell the 86 percent of American women who take their husbands' names at marriage. If there is any woman not in danger of being subsumed by a man's identity—no matter her last name—it is Beyoncé. In fact, the singer's married name is not "Mrs. Carter." She and her husband combined their names to create the hyphenate "Knowles-Carter."

"This man, who has made a living—an extremely good one—perpetuating hyper-masculinity, patriarchal masculinity, took the last name of the woman he married," Jackson says. "That in itself, to me, says something about gender in their relationship and the respect that exists there."

Beyoncé's race, once again, complicates the discussion. She is criticized for toying with the traditional "Mrs." moniker at a time of relentless public hand-wringing about black women being half as likely to marry as white women. ABC News actually convened a panel to weigh in on "Why Can't a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?" CNN has aired segments exploring whether the black church or single motherhood is to blame for rampant black female singleness. And men like comedian–turned–relationship guru Steve Harvey are making bank explaining to single black women what they surely must be doing wrong (see "Ill Advised," Bitch no. 56). And what they are doing wrong is understood to be not conforming to traditional ideas of femininity and not mothering in the "right" way (i.e., too often being unmarried "baby mamas" rather than married mommies).

Black women are, it seems, damned if we do and damned if we don't. Our collective singleness, independence, and unsanctioned mothering are an affront to mainstream womanhood. But a high-profile married black woman who uses her husband's name (if only for purposes of showbiz) or admits the influence her male partner has had on her life is an affront to feminism.

Wilson says that in the context of pathologized black womanhood and black relationships, Beyoncé and the Knowles-Carter clan "counter a narrative about our families that has been defined by the media for too long about what our families must look like and how they're comprised." Black women's sexuality and our roles as mothers and partners have been treated as public issues as far back as slavery, even as family life for most citizens has been viewed as a private matter. Our nation's "peculiar institution" treated human beings—black human beings—as property. And so, black women's partnering—when and whom we partnered with and the offspring of those unions—were at the very foundation of the American economy. According to Jackson, "People would talk about black women's sexuality in polite company like they would talk about race horses foaling calves."

Like critiques of her sexed-up performances, response to Beyoncé's recent pregnancy illustrates that black female bodies remain fodder for public gossip. Even with the devotion of mainstream media (especially the entertainment and gossip genres) to monitoring female celebrities' sexuality, "baby bumps," and engagement rocks, the speculation about Beyoncé's womb stands apart as truly bizarre. Almost as soon as the singer revealed her pregnancy at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, there was conjecture—amplified by a televised interview in which the singer's dress folded "suspiciously" around her middle—that it was all a ruse to cover for the use of a surrogate.

The HBO documentary, which chronicled her pregnancy, failed to quiet the deliberation. Gawker writer Rich Juzwiak proclaimed, "Beyoncé has never been less convincing about the veracity of her pregnancy than she was in her own movie.... We never see a full, clear shot of Beyoncé's pregnant, swanlike body. Instead it's presented in pieces, owing to the limitations of her Mac webcam. When her body is shown in full, it's in grainy, black-and-white footage in which her face is shadowed." There is, in this assessment, a disturbing assumption of ownership over Beyoncé's body. Why won't this woman display her naked body on television to prove to the world that she carried a baby in her uterus?

The conversation surrounding Beyoncé feels like assessing a prize thoroughbred rather than observing a human woman, and it is dismaying when so-called feminist discourse contributes to that. Feminism is about challenging structural inequalities in society, but the criticism of Beyoncé as a feminist figure smacks of hating the player and ignoring the game, to twist an old phrase.

"Beyoncé has no role in reinforcing or creating sexist structures," says Jackson. "Despite the privilege of celebrity, she is subject to the same limitations other women are. In some ways, she is constrained even more, because she has to always be conscious about her image. It seems odd to critique her instead of the larger structure that creates the boundaries and limitations under which she exists."

Beyoncé exacts considerable control over her public image. (And she wrested that control from her own father.) GQ revealed that she has an on-staff videographer and photographer documenting most every move. The singer, or rather, her "people," famously requested that Buzzfeed remove some images from a slide show of the performer's "fiercest" Super Bowl moments. (It seems that the Queen was looking less than serene in a few shots.) Beyoncé's public life, from the reveal of her pregnancy to the first photos of daughter Blue Ivy's face, appears choreographed. And while many critics view that control as merely mercenary, it is well worth noting that this level of power is an achievement in an industry where "suits" retain significant control over "creatives."

Beyoncé's attention to her image may well be her way of moving within the boundaries and limitations of gender and race that Jackson mentions. In GQ, Beyoncé noted, "I try to perfect myself." A quest for perfection may not result in raw realness, but it just might keep a sister on top in a society still plagued with biases.

The dogged criticism of the way Beyoncé chooses to live out her feminism must add to the pressure of being a famous woman of color. But celebrity brings with it scrutiny. More problematic is that many challenges to Beyoncé's status as a feminist role model make perfection the enemy of the good for all women concerned with equality, positioning feminism as nigh impossible to everyday women who can imagine being scrutinized for making the same choices Beyoncé has made.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of the popular blog Feministing, says, "[Beyoncé] is not allowed to be groundbreaking and traditional. She has to be Supermom or super hot stuff or super feminist. There isn't enough flexibility for her to just be who she is and for us to be able to say 'I'm not crazy about that decision, but this decision was amazing.'"

Juggling the personal with the political isn't easy in a biased society. We are, even the most diligent of us, influenced by gender, race, and other identities. And we make personal and professional decisions based on a variety of needs and pressures. Judging each other without acknowledging these influences is uncharitable at best and dishonest at worst. A tiny top and a traditional marriage should not be enough to strip a woman otherwise committed to gender equality of the feminist mantle. If we all had pundits assessing our actions against a feminist litmus test, I reckon not even Gloria Steinem and bell hooks would pass muster. Women must be allowed their humanity and complexity. Even self-proclaimed feminists. Even Queen Beys.



Tamara Winfrey Harris's work on race and gender and their intersection with pop culture and politics has appeared in Ms., Bitch, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Newsweek, and Psychology Today. She is senior editor at Racialicious and is working on her first book, an exploration of black women and marriage.

 

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Comments

81 comments have been made. Commenting is set to read-only for this post.

Amazing

*standing ovation* Nothing more to add except to thank you for such a thoughtful piece and for saying what I lacked words to say.

Co-sign

Exactly what Molly said. I've been thinking this in abstract, undefined ways but you managed to give those feelings and thoughts words. (and the comparison to Madonna was perfect!) Thank you! I'm so grateful!!

co-signing the co-sign

Wow. You said so beautifully what I've tried to say everywhere from bar stools to my blog. I love all of her contradictions; to me, they epitomize my definition of feminism. The fact that people keep questioning her cred really bugs. Now, if you could just help me understand the the Gwyneth friendship...

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Precisely what Molly said!

Precisely what Molly said!

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She accepted being

She accepted being photographed by Terry Richardson. She conforms to the beauty ideals and does nothing to fight them. she may not be an anti-feminist, but she doesn't seem like a feminist to me. Maybe she's a sex-positive "feminist".

Thanks for the thoughtful

Thanks for the thoughtful article - it brings up a lot of valuable issues around Beyoncé, her image, her feminism, and the way she's perceived. I think the comparison to Madonna was an excellent one, but terribly flawed in that you've inaccurately characterized Madonna as consistently embraced as a feminist icon. Virtually all of the criticisms that have been leveled at Beyoncé have at one time or another been leveled at Madonna, and often for the same reasons. I think the jury's still out on both artists.

Madonna is a sacred cow and a WHITE ELITE

Sorry. Madonna is where she is because she's white, stole blatantly from other women who came before who and because she was shoved down the public's throat pre-internet to the exclusion of an entire generation of more talented women. How many failed films has she had? How many major magazine covers did she get? How many hit films did Whitney have? TWO of the biggest films of the 90s. How many magazine covers outside of Ebony and JET? ZERO.

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Brilliant article..you should try reading it

First this is an incredibly well written and thought out article.Second who wouldn't want to be a sex positive feminist? It's much better than being sex negative, shouldn't part of feminism be about embracing and taking power of our sexuality? Sexuality is for women to, you obviously didn't even read the article as this point was so brilliantly pointed out in the article itself, read before you knee jerk comment.

There is no such thing as

There is no such thing as "sex-negative" feminism. That's a false dichotomy made up by "sex-positive" feminists to smear those of us who object to the increasingly blurred line between sex and violence.

Re: Beyonce, I can't get past the whole singing Etta James' "At Last" at the inauguration while Etta was alive, well, on tour, and deeply angered/hurt by the totally disrespectful slight of not even being asked to perform her own song at such an important historical event. Because Beyonce was the more patriarchy-compliant choice. Obama, Beyonce- somebody should have had more class than that.

Just gross all around.

"At Last" was covered by Etta

"At Last" was covered by Etta James over 20 years after it was written.

Etta James doesn't like

Etta James doesn't like Obama. And you need to look up what a standard is before you start losing your mind over covers and who needs to have class.

as a man i've always wondered

as a man i've always wondered what is so bad about a woman, any womam being positive about sex.

Yes!

I loved this article, beautifully written, brilliantly explored. Really nice to read something about Beyonce that attempts to evaluate her as a whole person, rather than picking her apart.

Thank you, thank you and

Thank you, thank you and thank you! Beautifully articulated. Like another commenter said, it's everything I've been thinking when I see these criticisms (often from white feminists who don't seem to realise that their comments come from a disturbing place of privilege).

Complete agree - very well done!

Thank you for your excellent writing and critical thinking.... Looking forward to reading more from you!

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Well done. Seeing her through

Well done. Seeing her through your eyes gives me a newfound respect for her. Thank you.

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I really hate the antagonism

I really hate the antagonism towards Beyonce for expressing her sexuality. The fact that it is a matter of even feminist public scrutiny is in itself an affront to feminism! Isn't one of feminisms' main tenants that WE are in charge of our sexuality? Maybe not every sexual encounter or experience or photo you take is for the betterment of feminism, but isn't that YOUR CHOICE as a human being? I think it was Jessica Valenti in "Full Frontal Feminism" that said something to the effect of "if you're going to wear makeup and heels and other societal 'requirements' that generally serve to make you more attractive to men and less comfortable for functional or capable, be conscious of why you do it and do it for the right reasons - because you like how it makes you feel or you enjoy it, not because you want to be attractive to men." (Not a direct quote, but still). Women need to stop judging other women for taking ownership of their sexuality! In a career that is predominantly feminist otherwise, why do OTHER FEMINISTS feel the need to judge and criticize Beyonce's sexuality? So, she took some revealing pictures for GQ. So what? Maybe she thought it would be fun. Maybe her physically demanding dance moves make her feel sexy and powerful, and not because it's what men might like, but because they are physically demanding and she must be strong and in great shape to do them, and getting your body to that point must be an incredible feeling? Maybe she made a mistake naming her defining tour the "Mrs. Carter" tour, or whatever, because she was caught up in the amazement and fulfillment we all get when we're in a wonderful relationship, with anyone, let alone the father of your child, whom you are immensely proud of? I think the first thing that we as feminists can do to help women everywhere is to STOP JUDGING THEM. Where there is societal pressure, expose it, i.e., the media scrutiny of Beyonce's pregnancy! Make women aware of the challenges and constraints that society tries to place on us, but then realize that part of the progress that feminism has made is getting women to the point where they are allowed to decide how to handle their own choices, bodies, and sexualities, at least for the most part. Yes, there is work to be done, but how can we accomplish it as one unstoppable feminist force if we divide ourselves by judging each other?

I don't get this Jessica

I don't get this Jessica Valenti quote. I'm a feminist and a straight woman who likes sex. Why wouldn't I want to be attractive to the people I want to sleep with?

Well, it's not a quote

But do you not get how conforming to sexist beauty standards for patriarchal approval is inherently unfeminist?

A woman abiding by

A woman abiding by patriarchal standards for her own safety and comfort in society is not unfeminist, expecting others to do as she does, and slamming those who go against the grain is unfeminist. I dont recall Beyonce demanding that we dress like her and tout our husband's last names. I think the attack on her is very unfair, and I say this as someone who doesnt give a shit about her music.

Who Gets to Decide?

Who gets to decide what beauty standards are sexist? Who gets to decide when, if, how and to what extent to embrace them?My ass is big and round, my waist is defined and my boobs are big without surgery. Do I change them because they fit patriarchal beauty standards? Do i not show them off IF I WANT TO? Who gets to decide when something is done for patriarchal approval? Can no display of sexuality be for personal agency and personal desire? You are viewing this through a very narrow cultural lens.

Yes!

Yes. I've always felt that "feminism" should support equal opportunities and the right of each individual to CHOOSE how they define their own unique sexuality, breaking from the idea of a "gender norm". Shouldn't absence of judgement be the overriding focus?

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Exactly, Caitlin!

Exactly, Caitlin!

THANK YOU!

I'm not sure if you're familiar with Third World Feminism (or Post-Colonial Theory perhaps) but I definitely see an influence of it here (for example when you mention animalistic black sexuality vs. civilized white sexuality) and I appreciate that because it gives a better, more well-rounded critique of not only Beyonce but the critique dont upon her. That difference of being able to call out first world arrogance is extremely crucial. I'm so so so glad you've written a strong and brilliant article that is most likely the best representation of many of Beyonce's feminist ideals and also what real contemporary feminism is shaping to be today. Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Agreed, amazing and

Agreed, amazing and thoughtful article!!! You're awesome. I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

Yes!

I'm so thrilled to see you write this! Like many of the other commenters I have been thinking the exact same thing in less eloquent words. It's so frustrating that we're sitting around picking apart a woman who is obviously pushing towards equality. It really bothers me when people go around constantly trying to strip women of their 'feminist' title, especially on the grounds of their sexuality.

I think it's ridiculous that people want to dismiss her feminism because she took some risque pictures. Doesn't dismissing the really valuable words she said in her interview and focusing on the pictures defining her by her sexuality instead of her words? Doesn't that make us enforces of patriarchy because isn't that policing her sexuality?

There are all kinds of feminists in the world and respecting women's decisions while simultaneously acknowledging the system that those decisions might have been based upon is perhaps the most important part of my feminism.

My questions about Beyonce's

My questions about Beyonce's feminism is based on slightly different issues - her "Run the world" video (for example) was, to me, very awkward. A lot of writhing in skimpy clothing in front of an audience (/opponent, which is also problematic because modern feminism isn't a men VERSUS women thing) of men. Also, the "animalistic" black female sexuality was played up, with jungle cats on leashes and cages (I believe there were cages...it's been a while). And the end pose is a salute, which is a gesture of respect - though often also of submission, making for a very nice dance move but a very mixed message (disclosure - I'm a dance academic :)).

So that's just one example of the sort of trouble I have with her - also, I am forever facepalming over her magazine interview where she was asked what a new word for feminism should be, and she said "bootylicious." I mean, reclaim agency over your body! But really...?

Might that be the point?

I haven't seen the video (and am currently trolling at work, and so am not in a position to watch it) but from your description it seems like the contraction might reasonably be seen as intentional. A person with more time and information could probably offer a convincing feminist reading of a music video: the statement that girls "run the world" is juxtaposed with what sounds like a pretty unambiguous acknowledgment of the many ways in which women are constantly subject to male scrutiny (the audience!) and control (the animals in cages!) which makes it sound like the statement itself might be understood as a parody of certain strains of "empowerfulment" type feminism. Just a thought -- as I said, I haven't done my most thorough research. But Ms. Knowles-Carter is a very smart and savvy woman, and I doubt she would have set up a contradiction like that without at least acknowledging its irony.

Great article

I liked your take on the "ownership" of Beyonce's body and, by extension, her expression of her own sexuality. She hasn't done anything different from Madonna, or GaGa, or any of the other powerful (*white) feminist pop icons ... and I'm the last person to criticize someone's feminist expressions. She says she's a feminist and believes in equality--great. We need more on the team, especially those prepared to speak out about it!

Thanks!

Excellent read!

This was one of the most nuanced and well-written pieces I've read about Beyonce's right to claim feminism, and how the binary between black and white feminists and feminist theory, plays out in this culture of modern feminism.

*Bookmarked*

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I just wanted to point out

I just wanted to point out the insane nonsense that is the assertion that Madonna has never been criticized for flaunting her sexuality. She absolutely has. Some do see her as a Feminist Provocateur, to be sure, but there have been no shortage of people who did not. Maybe you weren't born yet, but Mads has been catching flack for the way she presents herself and for the things she sings about since Like a Virgin came out. Perhaps it seems less impactful because most of it happened 15 or more years ago and because there was no internet back then to aggregate the negative opinions of her, but they definitely existed. People were freaked out by her and she was definitely seen as a whore. Although her response was to become more provocative and not less.

Now, that isn't to say you're wrong about how people see white female sexuality and black female sexuality, nor is it saying that the way people see her or Beyonce isn't messed up, but I don't think Madonna's the one you should hang your hat on to prove that dichotomy exists.

And, since I'm here, I'm grossed out by the notion that being attractive and being able to dance makes you not a Feminist. Isn't that what this boils down to? The assumption that Bey is catering to the Male Gaze so she's a bad feminist and a terrible person? We all have reasons for living up to a beauty standard or not living up to it, but don't you think that even in the rejection of a patriarchal beauty standard we are being controlled by that standard? Our reasons should be our own, not because we are forcing ourselves to either fit or not fit a mold we didn't make. We should make our own mold.

YES YES YES

"Through a career that has included crotch-grabbing, nudity, BDSM, Marilyn Monroe fetishizing, and a 1992 book devoted to sex, Madonna has been viewed as a feminist provocateur, pushing the boundaries of acceptable femininity. But Beyoncé’s use of her body is criticized as thoughtless and without value beyond male titillation, providing a modern example of the age-old racist juxtaposition of animalistic black sexuality vs. controlled, intentional, and civilized white sexuality."

THIS. I cringe whenever a white feminist assumes that Beyonce is just some mindless drone or glorified "video hoe".

When white women are hyper-sexual, it's "raw", "daring", "brave", "sex-positive". When a black woman does it its "misguided", "appealing to the male gaze".

White girls at ~Slutwalks~ can walk around bare chested with the word "Slut" scrawled across their breasts in period blood. But a black woman can't do a booty pop on stage in a cute outfit without getting some "feminist critique". Its because people still see white sexuality as being rooted in a"purity myth", while associating black sexuality with inherent ,mindless lust. Only white women can rebel against "purity" because black women were never pure to begin with. When it comes down to it, that's the reigning ideology in their minds.

White feminist writers, please think LONG AND HARD before you type out some racist BS. Thx.

I Second This

Just. Yes. A million times YES!

I am so tired of white feminist policing of Beyonce's feminism, and I am not even a fan of hers. Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham and Madonna at varying points in time have been hailed as feminists, but Beyonce gets slut-shamed by the very groups who decry such behavior. You don't get to say that Lena Dunham, who often appears naked on her extremely problematic series Girls, is okay, but criticize Beyonce for wearing skimpy outfits. It is patently unfair to demand the politics of asexuality and respectability for women of color (whom by the way have never had a sexual revolution), but rah-rah Lady Gaga. This is yet another reason why mainstream feminism fails miserably when it comes to women of color, lesbians and transwomen. They just can't seem to leave their unearned privilege at the door.

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THANK YOU

This ongoing discussion and criticism of Bey (and other women) has been driving me bonkers. You NAILED IT.

This article is perfect in

This article is perfect in every way. A million thank you's for being on target and articulate all the way through.

Well that was a bit conceited

This article really upsets me. I strongly believe that a true feminist does whatever she wants and isn't afraid to be seen as powerful. That's exactly what Beyonce is. If she wants to pose in her underwear, she can do that and no feminist should judge her. In fact, I think it's great that she isn't afraid to show off her curvy figure. For you to think you can judge women on whether or not they are "worthy" enough to be called feminists is a little conceited.

Jokes

Jokes. Hadn't read the last paragraph before I made that comment...Thanks for pointing out how judging women based on how "feminist" they are hinders the cause!

I just don't care about this

I just don't care about this so much as the way race (blonde wigs and whiter skin) gets played in the Beyonce artist personification. Sorry I just can't agree with the in awe comments here. Thanks!

Congrats Beyoncé! You are

Congrats Beyoncé! You are finally a "white" woman!

As long as you don't start speaking up against the injustices toward Assata Shakur, Lauryn Hill
or do something "black" like that, we will accept you as a white woman in feminism!

Welcome! :)

Really tho?

I actually read the entire article and I agree with the author that you can't expect Beyoncé to alter the structures in place because she doesn't have the power to do so. Beyoncé, like all of us, reaps the benefits of first/second wave feminism, but how much she actually does for sexual politics is all subjective. My interpretation and the author's is all an assumption given that she uses her sexuality in a way that is in accordance with mainstream notions, no? Beyoncé may take note of gender inequities but what in her career trajectory goes against the grain? Or is her simple acknowledgement enough?

And to say that it is not for the benefit of men after she does a GQ shoot in panties is pure fantasy. I recall the editor of Esquire, another men's magazine, aptly put it that 'women are like car ornaments' just decoration for their magazines.

What difference is there between the way she dresses than any other mainstream artist? A better question yet is what does it mean to own our bodies? How does the way Beyoncé dresses and the way she gyrates on stage reject the notion of that women are merely to be sexual objects? Or is she simply teaching women to be empowered within the existing paradigm?

Feminism is a spectrum, not a box. Beyoncé, with her girl power anthem and acknowledgement of gender equity, deserves a seat at the table. Granted, according to my litmus test, Beyoncé's feminism is a very lukewarm brand of the stuff. Like Girls Run the World vs Bad Girls by MIA. Just two different points on the spectrum. My question is more so why does Beyoncé have to be a feminist? At what point did she stop being an entertainer and start being an ideologue? I am more so confused as to what Beyoncé brings to the table that is so radical? And I'm just really super duper confused why anyone first started analyzing her through a feminist lens in the first place

Side note: The comparison to Madonna was crazy. The commentator was right that Madonna faced a lot of backlash. It was just wild they compared Madonna's BDSM/Sex crazed world to the glam one of Mrs. Carter.

Have to agree

These were all my thoughts while reading the article well that and Madonna has faced plenty of backlash. However, I think the backlash Beyonce gets is different although from the same train of thought. However, I don't really expect my pop stars to advance the cause of feminism or be feminist icons. I never thought Madonna was. The structure of the pop music industry is set up to maintain the status quo and the status quo does not involve advancing feminist ideas.

This.

I am more so confused as to what Beyoncé brings to the table that is so radical? And I'm just really super duper confused why anyone first started analyzing her through a feminist lens in the first place

I was wondering the same thing. I suppose it makes sense in analyzing pop culture as a whole, but I am wary of when people try to make something (or someone) more complex than they actually are. This read TO ME as a worship-party of Beyonce. Which, there's nothing wrong with that specifically...I was just kinda left wondering why it warranted being posted in this magazine. And kinda wanted my 15 minutes spent reading this article back.

- - - - -

Black Women In Rock -- There is an alternative.

Simple: Beyonce has declared

Simple: Beyonce has declared herself to be a feminist, tentatively and then boldly over the years, yet WW seem to feel that she should not do so or see her to be anti feminist. She has a huge impact on popular culture -> warrants discussion

Preach!

I wish Beyonce could read this well written piece. She would really appreciate it, as I have. If only there was a way....

Really Confused

I'm just really confused about the discussion around Beyonce. It's as if, because there are problematic critiques about her body or sexuality, she receives a pass on all other grievances concerning colorism, activism, and exploitation. Mind you, I'm aware of the importance concerning choice with black woman. If she wants to be like every other pop star and use flesh, go ahead. However, it is nothing nuance or memorable.

The support and neglect to FULLY look at what Beyonce represents and perpetuates is never discussed. There are articles lamenting about her, that at times, have sour intentions. So, I guess, because of that, bloggers have chosen to adopt Beyonce as some sort of initiative? I'm confused.

Also, the amount of theoretical attention given to Beyonce is outstanding. I find Grace Jones only in Afrofuturistic or queer context but Beyonce discussion is EVERYWHERE in the academic/feminism/womanism blogs. I can't fathom why she occupies these spaces when her embodiment (musically) and sexually is nothing new and does nothing to cultivate the female, black body. Should Janelle Monae and Beyonce both be able to artistically exist without guilt? Yes! But there are differences in their representation and the IMPORTANCE of those difference should also be discussed.

YES.

The support and neglect to FULLY look at what Beyonce represents and perpetuates is never discussed. There are articles lamenting about her, that at times, have sour intentions. So, I guess, because of that, bloggers have chosen to adopt Beyonce as some sort of initiative? I'm confused.

Also, the amount of theoretical attention given to Beyonce is outstanding.

My thoughts EXACTLY.

- - - - -

Black Women In Rock -- There is an alternative.

The comments defending

The comments defending Madonna (the plantation mistress and Bell Hooks once wrote) are baffling and sadly indicative of why many feminists-even third wave- are blind to racial inequity within pop culture and capitalism. Madonna FOUNDED raunch culture, she is the personification of sex as mass branding. Unlike Beyonce, she does not seem to know that once you get off stage you act with class and decorum or millions of little girls are going to think rainbow parties and free BJs are "empowering" and ley's face it; look at all those influenced by her and you'll see little talent and loads of sleaze sold to little girls ala Katy Perry, Britney Ke$ha. Adele, Any Winehouse? The gals with true talent and bravery do not fawn at the pre-scripted Madonna altar. Madonna is no different than Joe Francis and let's face it, she stands up for MONEY-not race equality, not women, not peace but MONEY. She yells about justice for Pussy Riot and then opens a fitness center that same in WEEK in Moscow. I would assume that an economic boycott would hurt Russia's sick laws against the GLBT but not Madonna, she'll profit from the same regime. Nor were Firestone's near century of severe human rights abuses in Liberia enough to dissuade Madonna from performing at the Firestone half time show at the super bowl. Remember, Madonna has been defended by feminists as 'helping Africa". It goes on and on and sadly what Harris overlooks or misses in her great piece is that Beyonce has embraced the false two faced actvism of Madonna. House of Dereon and Material Girl clothing are made in china's sweatshops not in Mississippi, Detroit or Malawi. Beyonce wears elephant skin Nikes....is there anything more to say? Harry Belafonte was correct about the Carters.

One can't deny that Beyoncé

One can't deny that Beyoncé caters to the male gaze, and I remember being a girl and thinking "So that is what a woman should be like." Still, without this catering she would never have become this popular, and that says a lot more about society than about her. And I think that criticizing her for adhering to the role that our culture has assigned (black) women (as sexual objects) can only go that far - especially considering that the older she has gotten, the more she has subverted that role. In the end I think she may not have been a feminist 5 or 10 years ago, but now she definitely is - because although she still caters to the male gaze, she owns it, and she does so much more.

And this is why we can't have nice things.

(Girls) will never run the world until we stop listening to men and needling each other over bull==t. It doesn't matter if you like dresses and bows or jeans and spiked collars; if you're married, single; working, not working; have children, no children; dating a man, a woman or a vibrator and everything in between all those choices. If YOU are happy then do THAT (whatever THAT is).

We claim to have come so far and yet when it comes down to it it's still all about what (women) look like. CC: Hilary Clinton's Hair, Beyoncé's concert outfits.

The whole point of feminism WASN'T to lock women in a box; it wasn't to pass judgment on other women's decisions; it was to give us the opportunity and the chances to even be able to MAKE a decision in the first place.

Everyone seems to

Everyone seems to conveniently forget she SAID she was calling it the Mrs Carter Show because she had stayed at home and not worked for a year and a half, i.e. had been "housewifing" and was back from that (I am pretty sure Bow Down states the message clearly). It was like "that's right, I was a fulltime mother and wife for a year, and yet I'm still a queen, watch me". It was meant to be clever. People just only look up and read what serves their pre-set ideas. I dispise feminists who seem to think approving someone else's feminism is more important than the common goal.

Yeah! I saw her live last

Yeah! I saw her live last night and damn - when a male artist can provide that sort of experience I'll be wiling to go see his show too. I suppose I'm what is called a third wave feminist. All I know is I don't expect a woman to be perfect. If feminism is about a woman who is in the public eye having to be some perfect example 24/7 then we've lost it. This article, on the other hand, really nails it. We all have our ambiguities.

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nobody gives a flying fxxk

nobody gives a flying fxxk

Love this, I am currently

Love this, I am currently citing it for an essay now.

Loved the article! Is it just

Loved the article!

Is it just me, or does it feel like feminists online will find something sinister and misogynist in just about everything? Not saying that Beyonce is perfect, but sometimes I just want to appreciate a step in the right direction without feeling guilty about it five seconds after going on Tumblr.

If she's not perfect, she's horrible?

I agree with the idea that it's a bit counterproductive to think that it's OK to completely pick apart a woman for being sexual while sharing feminist ideas. Why do people think her being sexual is for men? She posed in some men's magazines, so what? Why can't she own her own her sexuality and express it in whatever way she wants, because she likes herself, her body and who she is? Why do we assign negative, counter-feminist motives to someone who is sharing a positive message?

Shame on Beyonce for not conforming to each and every woman's specific and individual notion of what a feminist is. She should be a magical morphing mythical creature who satisfies everyone's ideas of pro-feminist, each diverse idea, all at the same time.

Ridiculous.

If having a slightly risque

If having a slightly risque photo taken is what it takes to get a feminist message into GQ of all places, I say kudos to Beyonce for doing it! If the movement spends all it's time talking to itself (and let's face it, we do spend most of our time preaching to the choir), then we're not reaching the men who haven't absorbed the message yet. Beyonce is using her position to reach out to folks who don't know they're feminists yet. A lot of guys don't understand the concept of male privilege for the same reason fish don't know they're wet- to them it's just a fact of life. Having the facts spelled out for them in a non-threatening way may be just what we need to dispel the fiction that all feminists are man-haters.

I think Beyonce's major fans

I think Beyonce's major fans are heterosexual women, not men.

"Women must be allowed their

"Women must be allowed their humanity and complexity. Even self-proclaimed feminists. Even Queen Beys."

Love that last line. I think that speaks beautifully to the right of every person to be themselves - a self that isn't perfect or perfectly pleasing to all tastes. Acceptance can be feminist, too :)

I just can't agree

I appreciate you writing this article, but I just have one question: if a successful male artist performed in tiny underwear, would we respect him? Would we pay attention to his talent or would we pay attention to his body? I am sick of street harrassment and men looking at me like all I have to offer is this body - I have so much more to offer than that, and so does Beyonce. I think the only reason that we scrutinize her is because she makes some heavy girl-power claims, but if she hadn't, I would totally support her just doing her thing, whatever that may be. I applaud Beyonce for being a survivor and not a victim, but as a feminist...not so sure.

bragging just a little ar'nt

bragging just a little ar'nt you?

Authority to define...

The purpose of feminism that doesn't require women swear off men and become radically political lesbians is true acknowledgment and appreciation of women as PERSONS with capabilities and value that is separate and apart from whatever they may be able to do for men sexually or how they may otherwise bring sexual benefit (even to self).

I think most would agree that a corporate colleague or VP OR CEO OR COO whose opinions, strategies, and directions are respected by males is a more preferable aspiration for our young daughters than twerking for a platform and backing it up into some guy whose only concern is popping a boner.

A person who follows the rules set by someone else and complies with a system of advancement set by that same someone else is by definition NOT POWERFUL OR A FREE AGENT. As far as gyrating almost naked for one's own sexual sense of "ownership" and gratification, the question becomes why not do this in your personal, private life in a mirror or shared with your one and only? Why the inasrnational stage? If it's ridiculous, Beyonce, then why are you giving yourself to it and being paid for it and seem to be having a grand old time drunk in love the whole time? She does not seem to be under duress, it's lip service; because at the end of the day she has her hundreds of millions and her dick at home, this will be her filter--especially if Jay was her first.

The people who started and developed and and doing truly courageous things to defy the unjust aspects of the societal structure are the ones who have the authority to define what a feminist really is; we need to keep the focus of this discussion on one thing at a time and the central question is one about being a woman, not about being black, young, pretty, voluptuous, etc. Those other things are elements and factors but the central issue is the BASIS of a woman's "power".

The real life experiences of women who both do and don't look like Beyonce are the quantifiable source of measurement for whether her claim as a modern-day feminist is truly progressive and helpful. Looking at street harassment, inequality in pay, increased mysoginy in entertainment products specifically marketed to males (especially video games), the symbiotic business correlation between the pirn industry and human trafficking--THESE are where the true issues and how we must analyze Beyonce's claim to feminism play out. Girls run the world? Simpliy false; women in IRAN are fighting for their right to drive a vehicle.

Beyonce sells fantasy and enables the already entrenched sense of entitlement so many males have concerning what women are for or should do for their masculinity or do for them sexually. The everyday woman and Beyonce cannot be compared as apples to apples; Beyonce has the money to restrict access to her body to a degree most females do not should a male see her doing what she does out of some need to "reclaim" and "own" her body. I wonder: people don't seriously think that if a woman twerks, gyrates, and slides around that he is interpreting that as a personal point of power and of notice to him to show respect and come correct, approaching her on the basis of ALL THAT SHE IS and can be besides sexually?

I've never understood the whole "reclaiming" or "owning" our bodies and sexuality claim; our bodies have been under our physical jurisdiction and control for quite some time; what exactly has been taken that we need to reclaim?

There is nothing "groundbreaking" or "revolutionary" about maxing your performance in an arena that men have never had a problem with you occupying and exercising "power" in. Men have never had a problem with women initiating sexual contact even if only in fantasy form, so how is this empowering for women? Can a woman own her sexuality with being salaciously suggestive?

There is a difference between a woman "expressing her sexuality" and simulating sex acts and calling it dancing or talent; Janet is a better example of being a talented woman entertainer and businesswoman who expressed her sexuality. When Janet danced she did so in a more technical and intricately aesthetic manner that was on equal par with the physical rigors that her brother did and later all influenced by him still demonstrate today. When Janet became sexually suggestive and even explIcit, she did so after having already established her foundation as a pure full-on entertainer on stage and lady off stage with social consciousness talking things like racism and educational disparity; if she never did any heavy breathing after Rhythmn Nation she would have still been top in her game, she only did so (while married mind you) because she truly discovered sexual pleasure for the first time during the Janet album era. She was learning about herself in that context--not merely using it as a commodity or the nucleus and trademark centerpiece of her commercial viability. Janet is a billionaire today from her own hard work, acumen, innovation, and frugality in touring budgets and a TRUE survivor of how the industry blacklists and persecutes you if you have true power as a free agent with real ownership of your brand and its publishing (which is why Michael was murdered but I digress). I'm not saying Bey doesnt possess strength in her own right, but let's face it, she has not been through nearly the hell Janet has been through and has Jay as a kind of protector to insulate her from such attack or anyone taking such attack seriously.

Janet is a better examplar for the cause of women's equality. She is a billionaire and also married to one. She is contractually a free agent musically but can come back on the scene now and STILL shut it down in her late 40's with pure showmanship. She is chilling working on the film side of her aspirations right now. Rodney Jerkins is on record as saying anything she needs she only need phone him and she has many other music producer, film, and art connections with the same sentiment toward her. THAT is closer to the real version of power that so many want so badly to ascribe to Beyonce.

Question: is this what we want for ourselves in relationships with men let alone for our daughters? Where can Bey go from "Partition"? How does she plan to stay ahead of Rhianna in the game? What's her plan for explaining these things to Blue?

No ladies, how well you twerk or slide or pop or suck or swallow IS NOT a form of power over self or men. After they take our goodies they decouple and compartmentalize in a way that enables them to still build their own empires and keep most of the money and make you sign a prenup--that's the clear difference. You will not pussy whip them to a point of giving up their position of dominance; especially when you look at their constant defensive claim that, "If a female acts like a how she'll be treated like a how" as a precedent for their behavioral irresponsibility and how they tend to put the burden back on the female to MAKE THEM do or not do.

A woman abiding by

A woman abiding by patriarchal standards for her own safety and comfort in society is not unfeminist, expecting others to do as she does, and slamming those who go against the grain is unfeminist. I don,t recall Beyonce demanding that we dress like her and tout our husband's last names. I think the attack on her is very unfair, and I say this as someone who doesn't give a shit about her music. https://www.rebelmouse.com/venusfactor_reviews/

I don't get this Jessica

I don't get this Jessica Valenti quote. I'm a feminist and a straight woman who likes sex. Why wouldn't I want to be attractive to the people I want to sleep with? https://www.rebelmouse.com/turbulencetrainingreview/

What a great article with so

What a great article with so many perspectives on Beyoncé's feminism. I was pretty convinced that I didn’t consider her performance and image to be empowering for women and agreed with the sentiments of Petersen and Freeman. This article has opened my eyes to seeing Bey and her complex selfhood through a different lens. Many thanks.

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thank you

Thank you so much for writing this. I've been making the exact same argument since the super bowl performance. At what point do I get stripped of my feminist identity because I own my sexuality and it makes me feel powerful? Such a strange judgment in the feminist community and it does seem to touch on some nasty race issues. Great article! Thank you.

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