Image Map

Power Pack: Beyonce Knowles

OK, first things first. I love Beyonce. There is no point in me pretending otherwise. I think she is an amazing performer and I totally heart her catchy dance jams. But there is more to Beyonce than a solid hook and a hot ass, and it's time we all took a moment to recognize.

Though her name may not make it onto a plaque in the Feminist Hall of Fame (OMG, wouldn't it be fun if there was a Feminist Hall of Fame?), Beyonce injects a healthy dose of female empowerment into just about everything she touches. She is like a feminist King Midas (right down to the gold accessories). Sure, Beyonce's not perfect, but she explores and challenges gender politics in a way that we rarely see from Top 40 pop stars. To help make my point, I give you the Beyonce power pack. A collection of music videos, audio (including a gabfest-style podcast discussion on the topic), and links that will arm you with all of the information you need to answer the burning question, Is Beyonce a feminist icon in the making?

(Disclaimer: This power pack assumes that you already have somewhat of a working knowledge of Beyonce and her career. To get filled in on her time with Destiny's Child, her acting career, her marriage to Jay-Z, and her solo work, click here.)

Many of Beyonce's videos deal with gender politics in some way, usually as they relate to heterosexual romantic interactions (see Irreplaceable, Check on It, Freakum Dress, et al.) but there are a few that stand out as especially interesting. Luckily, this is the 21st century, and we can all watch them together (although, due to copyrights or what have you, not all of the videos are available for embedding).

We'll start with the 2007 single Upgrade U, from the B'day album. Many of you may recognize this song from a current DirecTV commercial (so far, not all that feminist). Now sure, Upgrade U is blatantly materialistic. And B even sings lyrics here about men taking the lead "while the women keep the tempo." But hey, no one's perfect. And the way Beyonce plays both herself and Jay-Z (her then boyfriend, now husband) is worth a look (or several):

The self-confidence being exuded by Ms. Knowles here is off the charts. Who else (man or woman) could stand up to a hip-hop legend like Jay-Z and tell him, "I want to make you my project" or, "your dynasty ain't complete without a chief like me"? She presents herself as not only an upgrade to Jay-Z's career, but also his life. He tries to flip the script on her and tell her that the upgrade is vice versa, but you can tell she doesn't believe that for a minute. And neither do I.

As a side note, the relationship between Jay-Z and Beyonce is kept so private that I can't help but totally wonder what it must be like. This video makes them seem like the kind of couple whose party you'd want to be invited to, but who you would feel uncomfortable around if forced to make small talk. And what do you think about the way Beyonce plays Jay-Z in the video? It's interesting, because it's his voice but the video plays as if she is talking about upgrading herself. Maybe that's why the first line is, "I'm alone for a reason." More interesting still is how she plays herself in relationship to Jay-Z. On her own she is a powerful woman in a Rolls Royce, but with him she is pantless and kind of flighty. Is this to give her Jay-Z self more of the spotlight? Or does she really feel that way when she is with him? Hmmm...

The next video we'll look at here is a newer release, from B's 2008 I Am…Sasha Fierce. For those of you who don't keep tabs on such things, Beyonce has stated in interviews that she has a stage persona (Sasha Fierce) who is different than her non-performance self. The first half of her newest release contains songs that come from a more personal (read: ballad-y) place, and the second half is Sasha Fierce club hits. For now, we're going to look at a Beyonce Knowles' ballad: If I Were A Boy.

This song has been criticized for simply not being very good. It might not be as catchy as some of B's other ballads, but I don't think it's all that bad. Plus, like fine wine and stinky cheese, the song and the video compliment one another quite nicely:

There is a lot going on here. While Beyonce may not be pushing the envelope in this video when it comes to stereotypes (boy is mean and disrespectful to girl, girl gets sad), what the video does do is draw attention to some of the subtleties of stereotypical gender dynamics by literally reversing the traditional roles. It strikes a chord to see a woman dismiss her boyfriend to hang out with her coworkers, or to see a man stressed out because his girlfriend won't answer his calls. Not because this doesn't happen in reality (of course it does), but because it doesn't happen in music videos.

And though I may be giving B too much credit here (remember my disclaimer from earlier), I have to commend Beyonce for making such a sincere effort to draw attention to what she clearly sees are problems within typical heterosexual relationships. To us savvy feminists it might all seem fairly obvious, but there are a lot of people who will watch this video who haven't taken Women's and Gender Studies and who don't necessarily spend much time thinking about how men are disrespectful toward women in traditional boyfriend-girlfriend setups. I am a feminist who has been studying this stuff for years, and I still feel a pull on the old heartstrings when Beyonce says that, if I were a boy, "I'd listen to her, 'cause I know how it hurts." She doesn't like to see women being taken for granted, and that is pretty feminist if you ask me.

The real problem I see with this video from a feminist perspective is not the ways in which Beyonce points out gender inequalities in typical relationships, but rather how she portrays herself as the typical woman. Beyonce is not the type to get pouty or jealous (if her other work is to be believed), but rather the type to take action. Sure, we all have bad days where we just feel sad, but I can't believe that B would put up with a relationship like the one in the video long term, and I don't think she would want other women to do so either.

Alright, moving on to the final video in our power pack (I was told I could only include three). This video has been a permanent fixture in my daily routine for over a week now, and I have several friends who would say the same. Although it is ostensibly a one-shot video with a very basic concept, I can't take my Beyonce-lovin' eyes off of it. Also, the song is as catchy as they come, so be forewarned. Here is the second single off of I Am…Sasha Fierce, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It):

Whew! Talk about a dance routine! (For more on that, check out the Bob Fosse routine that inspired this one.) This video is Beyonce at her boiled-down best. She is singing about how if men don't respect the women they are with (by putting "a ring on it") then they're going to get dumped, and she is dancing up a storm while wearing a robot hand. And the song is interesting as well, especially seeing how there is little melody to speak of and the entire thing is made up primarily of percussion.

Let's break this song down a little bit. I know that the whole concept of putting "a ring on it" is heteronormative and that it glorifies marriage. Except that I don't think that Beyonce necessarily means a literal ring, so much as a figurative one. She is saying that if a man is not giving a woman what she deserves in a relationship, he shouldn't be surprised if she heads out the door (and to the club to get drunk and dance). And hey, if he doesn't like it, well, he should have thought about that before he started acting like such a jerk.

And what about the robot hand? While I know it sounds like a stretch, it is on Beyonce's left hand, and as they already suggested on the Slate culture gabfest, the robot hand could be symbolic of the confines of traditional marriage. It could also just be an accessory that highlights her superhuman-ness, or just something to make the video a bit more interesting. (I must confess, while researching the robot hand I found this Javno article that says the glove allows her to mentally become Sasha Fierce. But hey, no reason to stop speculating.)

Here is the portion of the power pack wherein I was going to upload a gabfest-inspired discussion I had with my friends Andrew, Anya, Jamie, and Chris about these topics. However, I am having a bit of trouble with the ol' podcasting equipment, so look for that awesome mp3 once I can get some audio help. In the meantime, leave your thoughts about Ms. Knowles in the comments section. And if you like it, you should put a ring on it.

Bitch Media publishes the award-winning quarterly magazine, Bitch:Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

All the Single Ladies!

I have to agree with you about Beyonce - she's always got something to say and she's not shy about saying it. I'm not crazy about all of her work, but I'm obsessed with that last song, and the video in particular. It's extremely derivative of the Fosse work (but too different to be called an homage, I think). However, the lighting, camera work, and editing really combine with the choreography, derivative or not, to create something amazing. And the song is a real ear worm. If I don't watch the damn video at least once a day, the hook plays on a loop in my head all day and drives me nuts!

oh so confused...

As I was watching these videos, I realized that I'm a bit torn. There is something to be said for a woman that is so willing, so eager to put so very much work into her trade. I can respect that. I really very much can... The problems that I'm having are probably pretty obvious. I'm not entirely sure what being half naked and/or wet and shiny has to do with anything, let alone the songs. It seems to me a pretty obvious way to get the (male) attention one requires to get record deals/radio play. To call this feminist seems counter productive. (By the by, I'm not really passing judgement, per se... I just don't think it's very progressive. Are we going to be calling britney feminist anytime soon? Doubtful.) Also, the last video... put a ring on it... put a ring on IT. IT. I like lots of things. Some of them are THINGS and some of them are people. I find making the distinction pretty easy most of the time. Maybe this is just me, maybe I'm getting caught up in semantics, but if the person I was involved with started referring to me with this kind of indifference, I can't think I would have a good response.

wait a minute...

Wow. I really appreciate the time and energy that went into writing this blog. Wow. So, thank you for that (really!).

But um, I think this is all a bit of a stretch. Her music is catchy and the girl can dance but umm..a feminist? I think sometimes, when we like someone we see them how we want to and not how they are (or how they want to be seen). If Beyonce was a feminist, she'd let us know and trying to pull hidden meanings out of blatantly heteronormative, gender normative songs and videos is a little...well silly. I love the catchy tune of Single Ladies but I'm not gonna pretend that the lyrics aren't about girls trying to trick their boyfriends into marriage. And I know this is gonna come with eye rolls out there in blogosphere but to debut this song during the prop 8 insanity...it felt a little thoughtless. All the songs you picked to highlight really I mean...If I Were a Boy is super fucking sexist unless you claim she was really (secretly) going for something else..but why would you think that? What has she done or said to make you think that she has these secret politics. And lets just say youre right, lets say she is a feminist, why not come out as such. Why not use youre huge popularity and pull with young girls to inch them in a more positive direction. 'Cause I'm pretty sure her target audince isn't pulling the same messages outta' these videos as you are and if that's not happening well then..what's the point?

Yo this post is something FIERCE know what I'm saying?!

Overall though I think Beyonce may not be a feminist icon, in you know, a political feminist sense, but as a role model she is not half bad at all! "All the ladies who're independentttt throw your hands up at me!!" Hello!?

Then again, she's a pop star, and it's impossible to tell what part of her, or Sasha Fierce, is manufactured by an industry for popular (and feminist...) consumption. It's a tempting way to say "that's not the reeeal Beyonce saying those things," but then maybe they also fabricated the Beyonce we want her to be?! Did i just blow your mind?

also.....this:

Fosse + Unk = FUNKY

____________
Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

Mind = Blown

Heart = Stolen

I am slightly torn between

I am slightly torn between the oh-so-subtle message in Beyonce's songs and that she is dancing and prancing around half naked, wet, and shiny i.e. objectifying herself for well, let's be honest, monetary gain. Only slightly. Yes, I think that Beyonce has never been shy about her opinions. But the need to practically decode the song's lyrics and video, which meanings are seemingly relative (e.g. robot hand) and to have to put blinders on so we can see through the obvious objectification of a woman's body doesn't scream feministic values. If she did happen to want to take a more feminist approach in relaying her message to the general public, I would suggest putting clothes on. It distracts from the message, whatever it might be.
I also agree with a-me for making a call to specify "IT."

Beyonce

I would agree that Beyonce is a good dancer. However ,she cannot sing nor can she act. Frankly, her high pitch voice is tortuous. The fact that she is portraying Etta James is truly an insult to a great artist.

Lengthy, but I have a lot to say about (and a lot of love for) B

While I would hesitate to call Beyonce a feminist, I do think that she can be viewed as a feminist icon (in the sense that I know many a feminist, myself included, that LOVE the girl).

I feel like something that sets Beyonce apart from other female singers is how she has decidedly presented her stage self as being incredibly powerful and full of agency. It is subtle and maybe I'm stretching it, but even in her most objectifying or cliche moments ("Survivor" anyone?), I still feel like Beyonce is celebrating independent and strong women. Watch live clips of her. She totally lights up a stage and lets it all go. And yet keeps herself out of the vanity machine of private-turned-public celebrity media. Amazing.

Yes, Beyonce is buying in. But I think it is a shame to write her off because of some instances of (self-)objectification. I mean, who are we to say that that isn't what she wants to be presenting? Who are we to say that Beyonce doesn't understand the reality of what it takes to be a successful female r&b singer and has decided that the pro's outweigh the con's? Yeah, she is presenting some very dominant ideas about femininity. But does that mean that we should demonize women who enjoy playing with that aspect of gender performance? I think some of this dialogue around people like Beyonce and (especially!) Britney regarding how they are constructed and are tools of the patriarchy is in of itself dehumanizing and patronizing.

Plus, I can't be the only one who watched "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" and was so in awe of Beyonce's celebrated not-twiglike body pulling out amazing dance moves (to the point of looking like an athlete). Work it, girl.

Damn! I love the Power Pack!

So...much...going...on...I am floored with all the implications and interpretations surrounding Ms. Knowles (by the way, is that her real last name? Because if she chose something with the word "know" in it as her stage name, that's another discussion right there). There is much to say.

However, I'm just going to start by addressing the "it" factor. I think the problem is that no one knows what each "it" referring to. My theory is that the "it" in the phrase "ring on it" always refers to "my finger." And the first "it," the one in "If you liked it," could refer to a multitude of things--I like to change them around in my head, so one minute "it" means "my booty," the next it means "my smart mind," the next it means, "my lovin'."That way, the lyrics make sense, and the second "it" is not demeaning or objectifying. So it goes a little something like this:

If you liked (my company), then you shoulda put a ring on (my finger)

If you liked (playing Scrabble with me) then you shoulda put a ring on (my finger)

Obviously, the above sentences make more sense, but they are a lot less sassy and fun—and a lot less powerful artistically. But if you consider that the second "it" has the consistent inferred antecedent as "my finger," then it's easier to understand, and you can kind of make your piece with it, in time to get to the dance floor.

Maybe I just have a dirty

Maybe I just have a dirty mind, but I dunno about the ring constantly being the wedding band-- one could attest that ring could mean condom and "it" could mean... well you get the picture. Either way, the heroine of the song isn't giving everything for nothing. I have to commend B for that. I wouldn't call her a feminist icon but she is an icon that can encourage feminism if she so chooses. I cannot bash her for being an outlet of a strong female voice-- it encourages young women to share theirs-- even if I don't particularly like her singing voice. Nobody's perfect.

Moving the Culture Forward...

I appreciate any artist who advances the public even a little bit beyond tired stereotypes. And the public won't listen if you don't capture their attention. No one could be as popular as Beyonce without also pandering somewhat to those same stereotypical images -- in this case, of what is "sexy" and "beautiful" in women, which she does very well. But a lot of feminists -- I'm one of them -- also enjoy the "power" inherent in dressing and accessorizing in ways that bring men to their knees SOMETIMES. We just want the option of doing that -- or not -- to be there for ourselves and all women, and we want our independence, social power and career prowess to exist separately of that -- to be secure whether we choose to "pander" or not.

To hook viewers with the things that the public pays attention to (since we know most of them don't read actual socio-biology studies, etc.) like long hair, lots of skin, sexual moves -- and then push them a little beyond their comfort level -- is okay with me. Otherwise how will we ever reach those people? Traditional feminists already know how bogus mainstream sexism & racism are. I write about how dumb men are in ways that in no way implies women can't be just as dumb, I just don't go out of my way to say the latter. After all, we've spent our lives hearing women be put down in so many ways that I think it's nice for men to have to think a little bit about defending themselves for a change. Turns out this sort of talk (Stupid Things Men Do) is quite inflammatory to some men.
Do I honestly think men are stupider than women? Of course not, but I do think it's about time someone pointed out how stupid men CAN be and how lazy so many men have become simply because patriarchy took all the resources away from women and forced them to put up with men to get any.
On another point (to Beyonce's "put a ring on it" song): the funniest thing about dating these days (in my forties) is that men very frequently suggest marriage right away (I see it as their way to secure the resources they realize they need as they age) and they're very surprised that women over forty don't leap at the chance the way they have learned to expect we should (in our twenties the myth was that women wanted marriage & men resisted). But if we women no longer associate marriage with social validation, we already have our children, and we're financially independant, why get married? And certainly not right away. So for men over forty marriage seems to have become a more urgent need (men definitely get more emotive and seemingly lonely over time) whereas women over forty are more independant than we ever were and not so quick to restrain ourselves to nurturing an aging male. Not unless he's an absolutely incredible companion, contributes an equal financial share, and has really learned to nurture back. And unfortunately there aren't so many of those sorts of men...

Beyonce as a feminist icon

Well, first of all I Love (capital L) Beyonce and her music, and as many of the people here, I have tried to find feminist statement all over her work... but it is difficult to succeed and, anyways, the "little" feminist statements I can find are waaaaay less present than the heteropatriarchal sexist representation of women on her videos.
Even though, what I find more interesting about the Single Ladies video is not B herself, but one of the dancers being a transgender person (and the actual choreographer of the video). Beyonce succeeds in including into her "gang of women" (remember that all her orchestra is essentially made up of women) a transgender, stressing the inclusiveness that the term "woman" should have as well as the importance of gender performativity (as in Butler). She "tricked" straight male audiences into objectifying a "trans" body.

Even if I find this whole "diva" discourse as an empowered woman (like spice girls did, looking up at THATCHER as an icon for girl power... no comments) rather inaccurate and simplistic (as many have said, being all shiny and naked is not a firm statement against sexism), we might have to consider as well the objectification of the male body in pop videoclips. Is not only woman wha have to expose their bodies. And at least we know that Beyonce, as Madonna, does it because she decides to. At least now.

I'm happy to see her videos are more mature and less shiny-naked than the first ones (crazy in love, naughty girl, baby boy...) and I love this "Sasha Fierce" identity, because it makes it easier to separate Beyonce's discourse as a diva than that she has as a person (and also, again, its related to the performativity of our identities).
Sure, she's mainstream and a product... but come on! she IS making statements and she's a great artist. Even if simplistic, way better than most of her colleagues!

PS: Gaga's statements are way clearer and the homoerotic history in Telephone can also be considered feminist and political.

Thanks for the blog! keep up this discussion!

Arnau from Spain.

I like your site, a person who is very much.

fantastic put up, very informative. I wonder why the opposite specialists of this sector do not understand this. You must proceed your writing. I'm sure, you have a great readers' base already!