But for professor Brittney Cooper, who studies black feminism, Beyonce’s videos aren’t degrading. Instead, the singer is empowering women of color. “I think it’s risque,” Cooper says, “but I think she’s asking us to think about what it means for black women to be sexual on our own terms.”
Writer Samhita Mukhopadhyay agrees. “The album made us feel really sexy, and that’s powerful. That means something,” she says. “Whereas the rest of popular culture may not have that impact on us as young women of color. […] Lean In and Beyoncé are exciting, not because they push feminism into popular culture but because they push feminism and feminists themselves.”
NPR Article: “Feminists Everywhere React To Beyonce’s Latest.”
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (more on TEDxTalks: here.)
I’m still digesting Jay Z’s hella abusive metaphor in Drunk in Love (because that’s what it was: a metaphor, a poorly made metaphor that idealized domestic violence in a sadistic, pleasurable framework) but I gotta say, we need to take Beyoncé’s whole narrative in, and each visual arc creates this whole. It’s why Jealous follows Partition, why the latter is a dream sequence of a woman feeling ‘unseen’ by her husband that she internalizes that complicated pleasure of being a woman (a married woman, no less) taking ‘in’ pleasure for being ‘seen.’ And isn’t that complication difficult as hell? I’ve definitely felt that partition, that division of self—of wanting my husband to see me as a goddess who is down and dirty but also beautiful; I’ve also wanted, needed, demanded that he respect and honor me as his wife. It’s that conflation between the madonna vs. the whore. It’s taking apart a facet of Beyoncé’s self that is very real, that speaks to the experience of being a woman, a modern woman—married or not—and speaks, especially, to women like me.
And as a WOC, I have to agree with Cooper and Mukhopadhyay: Beyoncé made me feel sexy as a brown woman, something I have never felt watching the norm of white images in pop culture.
Do I think Beyoncé is a feminist? Yes, I do, I think it’s BS to claim that she is not: even if she doesn’t fit your definition, even if that conundrum of a horrible line made by her husband complicates her reality as a feminist, even if she dances for pleasure in the male gaze, she is human, a humanist. She has her own intentions and pushed the envelope. She is a humanist at all fronts and has displayed her flaws and complications and darkness with brava and audacity. She explores her sexuality, her ghosts, her jealousy, her motherhood, her relationships, her marriage, her friendships, her childhood in the public eye, her libido, her image, and in her specificity, goes beyond herself.
I finally watched the whole visual album last night and re-watched it till I slept. I woke up thinking about it. And I have to say: it’s amazing each time. ‘Cause it goes beyond the theoretical and into this highly intimate life of a pop goddess, and it ain’t always pretty. She’s dealing with her own demons and turned them into art.
Back to her husband’s abusive metaphor: I can’t say I know what they meant by the line. I know the imagery it produces: Ike shaming his wife Tina Turner (Annie Mae) and slamming her face into a cake. It’s hella abusive and wrong. But it’s reaching for something that is devastating about relationships, especially in marriage. I can’t condone it, I can’t support it—because I do know, in reality, Jay Z isn’t a wife beater (he vehemently spoke against Chris Brown’s abuse of Rihanna). This metaphor is reaching for something that is between husband and wife, in an intimate space that is sexual, devastating, but trying to heal. And I’m not going to condemn the whole art of the album because of this one, f-cked up line: I’m going to question it. But I also know it’s within the realm of Beyoncé’s relationship with her husband, sitting in a framework of their fantasy, fascination, and realm of sexual, distorted pleasures. As Beyoncé says in Jealous:
And I hate you for your lies and your covers / And I hate us for making good love to each other / And I love making you jealous but don’t judge me / And I know I’m being hateful but that ain’t nothing / That ain’t nothing I’m just jealous / I’m just human / Don’t judge me”
And to those who continue to say they don’t agree with those complications, I don’t either. But I do understand it. I understand Beyoncé’s conundrums, because like her, I’m not a feminist theory: I’m a feminist, but I’m also a human first. Don’t judge and condemn us like we’re theories or products of consumption to be deconstructed and digested and taken apart. Question us when it’s important, but leave your expectations of who you want Beyoncé to be or isn’t at the door (because she can and only will herself, human, and as flawed and beautiful and complicated as that will be).
Last but not least, here’s the rub: Does this make it a feminist album? Maybe not, since it explores cis-female sexuality in a personal, restricted framework. But g-d damn, if you gonna say it ain’t art and y’all are demeaning Beyoncé for it, go f-ck yourselves. You just hating. Come back to me when you’ve watched the whole album and have digested all the complications it brings up, the whole entire narrative and the conflicting modes of being a woman. It ain’t PhD, well-elaborated feminism, but it’s human. It’s honest. It’s a woman taking her complications and making it a springboard of discussion on feminism e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.
I mean, really: Have you seen a woman with that much star power regain her own autonomy like that? That is something we ought to take notice of.
With that, I’ll end on my favorite song of the album, Mine:
I’ve been watching for the signs / Took a trip to clear my mind / Now I’m even more lost / And you’re still so fine, oh my oh my / Been having conversations about breakups and separations / I’m not feeling like myself since the baby / Are we gonna even make it? Oh / ‘Cause if we are, we’re taking this a little too far / If we are, we’re taking this a little too far / Baby, if we are, we’re taking this a little too far / Me being wherever I’m at, worried about wherever you are / We’re taking this a little too far”
The video was insane. I highly recommend you watch it. And buy the visual album. Watch it all. And make your own opinions of Beyoncé. Of what it means to be a woman, with all our complications, nuances, and even our partitions.