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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Gold Leash: The Gap Between Role Model Feminism and Our Obsession with the American Gangster Wife

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by Arielle Bernstein
January 8, 2014 1:16 PM
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In her song, “Royals,” Lorde catapults herself into the music scene purring, “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies.” This lyric epitomizes everything that made 2013 tick in pop culture. Lorde, unlike the l’enfant terrible Miley Cyrus, or the warm and inoffensive Taylor Swift, or even the sultry and divisive Lana del Rey, offers stunning commentary on the kind of pop culture backdrop millennials have been raised on, as well as the effects and repercussions of being immersed in this worldview. “Royals” is about the tension between resenting the purveyors of wealth, while still longing for the privileges of royalty.


These same tensions play out uncomfortably throughout Beyoncé’s latest visual album, where Beyoncé is a female fighter and contender, who angrily smashes her collection of pageant and talent trophies, but is still being marketed as the poster girl for having-it-all.

Make no mistake—when we talk about Beyoncé being Queen Bey, we are not just referring to her creative talents; we are talking about her entire real-life identity. As opposed to Janelle Monae, who actively constructs a creative universe in her immersive concept albums, Beyoncé’s creative work is about her own development as a woman and an artist. Throughout Beyoncé you see clips from the artist’s own childhood, coming of age in the public eye. Beyoncé owns these images in a way that Miley Cyrus did not. Part of me wonders about the way we view little white girls as sweet and virginal, in need of rescuing. If Beyoncé never had these trappings, she also never had these privileges. She was never held up as an icon of girlhood, but she has grown into an icon of what it means to be a woman coming into her own strength.

Historically, the queen’s power comes from her ability to shape-shift. Both Beyoncé and Madonna have been heralded as great based on their ability to shift their images: mother, virgin, beauty queen, whore.  Beyoncé’s latest album is a gorgeous montage of transformation, both tender and aggressive, though never at the same time. Yonce is on her knees in a limo with her husband in one scene, and growling with Chimamanda Adichie about giving girls the power to be who they want to be on the next. Bey wants everything and has the ultimate in today’s feminist status symbols- a supportive and committed husband to help her get it all done.

Throughout the history of music and film, images of girls and women have been used as symbols. As female artists reclaim those images, they also have the burden of addressing that history, which is why it is often so unclear what these images mean and what they ultimately represent, especially in regards to female sexuality. When Beyoncé wears the garb of motherhood, she is a symbol of all motherhood. When she shakes her hips on a beach, she is encouraging all women to get more in touch with their sexuality.

Role model feminism, the dominant feminism of the digital age, is all about asking women if they measure up, and has ended up manifesting as bullying, more than thoughtful discourse about what feminism can or should mean in the future. I’m not sure why we would lobby for our pop stars to deliver public service announcements anyway. After all, art, at its best, doesn’t teach us to be perfect. It stretches us. It makes us open up. It gets under our skin. It forces us to grow.

The closest Beyoncé comes to greatness is her song “Flawless,” which is imaginative, inventive, powerful and provocative, but throughout much of her visual album, Beyoncé doesn’t directly deal with the tension between her desire to be seen as a creative agent and the fact that a great deal of her power comes from her status as a self-described “gangster wife” and how her status as Jay-Z’s wife allows her to be an alpha female, rather than just another replaceable video vixen.

Perhaps in response to the antihero alpha male trend, the 2010s have been filled with icons of frail femininity trying to have teeth. Lana del Rey describes herself as a  “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” which plays out as tarnished Hollywood beauty rather than street smarts. TV shows like Breaking Bad were notorious for dividing viewers on whether or not Skyler, who inadvertently became a mob wife, was an ungrateful shrew or a beaten down heroine.  In Sons of Anarchy, Jemma’s status allows her to see the other younger women her husband and the entire gang screw on a regular basis as objects to be used, rather than a true threat to her power.


The true mob wife gains her status at the expense of other, more disposable, women. This is not the kind of marriage that Chimamanda Adiche speaks about in her wonderfully revolutionary call for women and men to aspire to marriage on equal terms. The “powerful” gangsta wife is feminism on a gold leash, where a ring (and a man) is a status symbol, rather than a true partnership.

In order for the type of feminism Adichie calls for, we not only need to see women as powerful, but we need to dismantle the deep-rooted patriarchal ideals that consumer culture continues to dictate. Videos for songs like ‘’Pretty Hurts” pretend to illuminate the harm of beauty standards, even as they sell us back the same image of perfection—how gorgeous Beyoncé revels in her thinner body after quickly losing her baby weight. The reason so many girl power ballads fall flat is that feminism loses when it becomes just another marketing tool, another way to make money. Girls don’t run the world and Beyoncé knows it. The idea that an individual woman can be powerful is not really a new idea at all- we love our Cleopatras, our Madonnas, our Beyoncés bouncing on a beach, completely in control of their money, their sexuality, their public persona. It is the idea that in a sea of video vixens, or in the backdrop of women in a party scene, each woman is individually worthy of respect that is truly radical and revolutionary. “I’m a grown woman. I can do whatever I want,” Beyoncé coos in the last song of her album, smiling knowingly and mischievously at the camera. Never has a woman enjoyed the love and attention of a million adoring fans as much as Beyoncé does. If only we gave every girl who took a selfie that much power.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.

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