By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act December 16, 2013 at 1:58PM
I happened to be on Twitter when the 'Beyonce' album was released. I appreciate the excitement that people felt. The thrill. The surprise. These days, I am acutely aware of the degraded images of Black women in the media. I understand the power of colorful and enchanting visuals. I understand the need for women to feel powerful, attractive and sexy. I even understand the importance of asserting "personal agency" with respect to one's body. However, the conversation about Beyonce and Feminism has me confused. I write this to seek understanding.
As a filmmaker, I am keenly aware of demographics. Who sees what. Who buys what. Why something is successful based on who the audience is. It is clear to me that many Black women appreciate Beyonce. The Feminist side of the women equation, however, provided a bit of backlash to her previous album. The previous album's sales were not at peak numbers. I can imagine, for someone who has made it very clear that she wants to be a legend, a lot of thought went into how to get back "on top". How do you keep your teenage music base (the ones who promote, buy product and social network the bejesus out of people they adore) and, at the same time, stave off the attack from Feminists? An answer, it seems, is to place one quote (that speaks to men), by a Feminist, onto the album.
bell hooks who is, arguably, the most incisive Black Feminist out there, stated that "Feminism is the end of sexual oppression." That quote could not have worked as a sound byte. Especially not in an album that provides visuals that reflect the very thing that Feminists have been struggling against for decades: the sexual objectification of women. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's quote and TED talk, could work. It is accessible. The quote does not unsettle. And, I am not expressing disdain for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As a media analyst, I have to look at the "why" of the choice.
Team Beyonce has a strong fan base in teenage boys and men. I wondered, how do they continue to please the male fans? And, at the same time, stop the flow of anger being unleashed by Feminists? Release all of the album at once. All of the permutations of Beyonce. This way, no one is offended. There is something for everyone. Beyonce made a song about cunnilingus and called it 'Blow'. The video parades scantily clad women around to whet the male appetite (as do most of the videos). But, because there is phraseology by a Feminist on ONE track -"Flawless", Feminists can claim Beyonce as being both in control of her sexuality and "sex positive". Beyonce, on the hood of a car, flexing one butt cheek for the camera, now becomes "sex positive".
The video for "Pretty Hurts" accomplishes the same goal. Beyonce decries the cost of beauty. At the same time, she puts her physicality on display. One can argue that she can't help but be beautiful. Many media analysts receive push back because the audience accepts what they see as fact. It is difficult for people to imagine that there are a vast number of choices an Artist can make. The Artist makes a deliberate choice to deliver who they are. Beyonce confounds me in the same way that Kanye West does. They both espouse just enough "progressive" thought but, much of their work contradicts it.
On Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry, whose show can often be a balm in the wilderness, discussed Beyonce and Feminism. As she did this, she flashed images of a barely clad Beyonce on her knees, snarling at the camera, while they talked of "Beyonce's Feminism". Again, I was confused. I am on board with Melissa Harris-Perry's desire to promote "no shaming" of women. We are simply actors in a patriarchal construct. However, I also believe that women have a choice within this construct. To not consider that we have a choice, infantilizes us. Girls, not so much. And, it is for them that I place a critical eye on the representation of women in the media. Thank goodness my niece was not in the room. Having to explain to any young woman how Beyonce, on her knees, was "pro-feminist", would have been difficult for me.
Melissa Harris-Perry then had a young college student on who received a scholarship for "twerking". Again, I embraced the "no shaming" idea. This young woman is supporting her academic pursuits by working as a stripper. The young woman traveled to African cultures to put "twerking" into a cultural context. To understand that "twerking" has roots. I'm thinking, the research helped this young woman become a better pole dancer. And, no, I'm not shaming her or being critical of her choice. I'm certain it will help her work the pole with cultural aplomb.
Melissa then explained that Beyonce is doing a similar thing in one of her videos. At one point, we see children "twerking" their bare asses at the beach. A visual expression, perhaps, explaining that there is a "cultural context" for this. It signals to women that there is more to what Beyonce is doing. It isn't just about putting her body on display. Hmmm...
Honestly, I am confused by what many Black Feminists are defending. Oft times, it feels like Black Feminists are too concerned with the White Feminist gaze and want to close ranks around Black women's bodies. I understand that, too. But, we have to critique Black women with an honesty and a rigor that may be uncomfortable.
I understand the identification with Beyonce as a courageous, confident, beautiful and fierce Black woman. Let's celebrate that. I get it. What I don't understand is how her actions translate to Feminism. Historically, Black women are known for being two things: angry and libidinous. How does Beyonce present a challenge to the latter? Perhaps the point is, she challenges the construct of Black women as angry and that is enough?
The response to the album has many Black women feeling "sexy". The beauty and sexiness of Black women is rarely celebrated in the media. I can barely think of examples that reflect our ability to stop traffic and present our sexuality as both desirable, intelligent and nuanced. In a culture that worships the physicality of White women, one can argue that Beyonce presents a challenge to that idea. I understand all of this. However, I think Beyonce competes within the construct of woman "created for the male gaze". I can't say that Beyonce is constructed from or aspires to a Feminist paradigm. Melissa Harris-Perry wondered if it's possible for Beyonce to push against "woman as commodity" when Beyonce is, actively, commodifying herself.
Most assuredly, patriarchy is the problem not Beyonce. The male dominated music industry promotes women as sexual objects because that brings cash flow. To be a mega woman super star within the American framework, one has to flash ass, right?
There are women artists who are superstars and sexy. Sade being the classic example. There are female music icons who are successful and fully clad: Janelle Monae, whose interview about being a woman in the music industry and how she controls her image is refreshing. Adele, who simply sings her heart. Meshell N'degeocello has some of the sexiest music on the planet. Erykah Badu, is poignant, sensual, thoughtful and precise in her styling. One can argue that these women are more in control of their image and their sexuality because they do not conform to the industry model.
And, before anyone starts with the "pleasure hater", "jealous" and "pleasure police" push back, I believe an empowered sexuality allows women to make better choices for our lives. I am trying to understand what sexual empowerment looks like for women in the media. I would like to see images of women being the RECIPIENTS of pleasure, versus a woman as object for someone else's pleasure. I am asking for a dialogue. A conversation to bring some degree of clarity.
Beyonce titillates as she entertains. That is apart of her "brand". It's her choice. Her visual is, often, not in sync with her lyrics. American pop culture markets with the visual. For anyone to believe that Beyonce's lyrics run this show, that's very naive. The flexing butt cheek, on the roof of a car, will be the shot heard 'round the world -along with the feminist sound byte. In my mind, these two identities are diametrically opposed. There are many who don't believe so. So, let's continue the conversation. It's critical as we try to empower the next generation of girls. Hell, as we continue to try to empower women within the context of patriarchy. The question that haunts me is - how does flexing one's butt cheek on the hood of a car and feminism go hand in hand, other than to sell albums?