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Beyonce Caps a Banner Year for Pop Feminism

by Inkoo Kang
December 16, 2013 1:57 PM
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Beyonce in "Pretty Hurts"

It's been a great year for female empowerment in pop. Madonna and Lady Gaga became music's top earners, Top 40 hosted ballads and art-dance songs about female strength, former riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna returned with a new album, and the worst excesses of the industry's sexism were satirized and criticized by a younger generation of singers. 

At the end of all that awesomeness came Beyonce, the album whose nonhype created more hype than any record company could ever afford to buy. Last week, Beyonce released her fifth album for sale on iTunes, and the only announcement for it was the word "Surprise!" on her Instagram account. It was a watershed moment for the music industry. As the New York Times notes, "The stealth rollout of the album, Beyonce, upended the music industry's conventional wisdom, and was a smashing success. ... In bypassing the industry's traditional promotional machinery, she demonstrated social media's power to amplify news and to forge a direct connection to her audience." 

But Beyonce isn't just a stroke of marketing genius. Its nontraditional break from the vaults feels like a metaphor for the contents of the album, which serves as a coming-out party for Beyonce the Feminist. Two songs in particular, "Pretty Hurts" and "Flawless," have gotten a great deal of attention from femmepowerment-watchers for their deconstructions of beauty, in particular the sacrifice and effort that go into creating an instance of feminine perfection.

In the preview video for "Pretty Hurts," a pageant worker measures Beyonce's waist and slaps her thighs and stomach, while she sings, "Mama said, 'You're a pretty girl. What's in your head, it doesn't matter/Brush your hair, fix your teeth/What you wear is all that matters.'" Later, when she sings, "Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says, 'Bigger is better.'/South Beach, sugar free/Vogue says, 'Thinner is better.'" 

The song isn't just a critique of the punishing regimen beauty exacts, but also the way white notions of beauty get universalized as the physical ideal all girls and women should aspire to reach. As Slate notes, the beauty-pageant setting detracts from the power of Beyonce's message, as most of us tend to think of those swimsuit contests as a rather extreme example of body policing. 

More accessible is the message she conveys in "***Flawless," a song that's attracting a lot of notice for its sampling of a TED talk by Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The excerpt: 

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 most important 

Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support 

But why do we teach girls 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: a person who believes in the social 

Political, and economic equality of the sexes 

Beyonce still fights back against media airbrushing in this song, sarcastically growling "I woke up like this" in the chorus. But the song has also has a larger point about the way we channel female ambition into the rabbit-hole-like quest for beauty to the extent that we're teaching girls to strive for success in a field very few will ultimately ever win, and the success of which won't last anyway. 

Does it matter that Beyonce is one of those who have won the beauty game, that she's essentially critiquing a culture of which she's an obvious beneficiary? After all, despite the criticisms Beyonce lodges against the undue, even harmful, prioritization of female beauty and the deception that is physical perfection, she still appears flawless in these two videos and in public. And earlier this year, Beyonce made headlines when she tried to rid the Internet of unflattering photos taken of her during her Superbowl half-time show. 

There might be a smidge of hypocrisy in Beyonce's overall media campaign, but to me, it doesn't really matter. Along with her sisters in pop, Beyonce's helping her industry grow up by making a space for serious ideas. And there's no doubt Beyonce has diversified America's notions -- and by extension, the world's -- of what beauty looks like, an achievement for which she's not celebrated enough. With the pioneering launch of her latest album and her declaration in "***Flawless" that she's not "just [Jay-Z's] little wife," Beyonce reminds us that she's been boasting that she's an "independent woman" all along.

Since Beyonce's new singles aren't yet available on YouTube, here's a Monday pick-me up: 

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More: Beyonce, Music, Feminism

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  • Stephanie Rosenfeld | December 17, 2013 1:04 PMReply

    Yeah, that's a common misunderstanding (intentional or not) of feminism (BB) -- to equate it with people being "anti-sex, anti-femininity, "frumpy," man-hating, bra-burning -- whatever, I'm sure you can add to this list." I shouldn't have said "real," because, true, that's only my (informed) opinion. I know there can be different versions of feminism. But what I mean by "real feminism" is the kind that is free (or more free) of the contradictions that misogyny imposes on us all. I mean, yes, Hot is Beyonce's brand -- but if she wanted to stand up there looking "frumpy," as you say -- whatever that is -- and proclaim stuff, would people listen? (I think she has done this as an actress, actually.) Last thing I'll say is that it sounds like you're saying feminism is advocating for our rights as women to be hot, sexy and beautiful. (Or am I misreading that line?) If so, uh, no -- that wasn't what the fights of feminism were or are about. We "enjoy" that right already...

  • Stephanie Rosenfeld | December 16, 2013 3:42 PMReply

    Wow, do I ever not agree. Interesting article and I respect your take on it. My mind is open, but I'm still waiting to see Beyonce do something that convinces me she's a real, unco-opted feminist. I also don't agree that she's diversified notions of what beauty looks like. I mean, in a way, yes -- she's extended the different "brands" of hot, sexy, and beautiful. But the day she does anything without looking hot, sexy, and beautiful doing it -- and thus sending the message: Do what you want and don't always think about how you look, doing it -- is the day I'll start taking her seriously as a feminist. I admire her talent and her power. Just not her feminism.

  • BB | December 19, 2013 1:59 PM

    Reindeer- Did you actually read my comment? And did you understand that it was addressed to Stephanie Rosenfeld? You've actually accused me of things that I never said. And the fact that I disagree w/this person means I'm attacking them? In what way? Did I curse or use inappropriate language? And being closed-minded means that I must agree with everything a commenter posts?

    Sexiness has nothing to do with being barely dressed; I believe it has little to do with what one is actually wearing. Also, you're equating classiness with clothing which is extremely problematic. As someone who's worked in retail for many years, I can tell you that the least classy women are the ones who are fully clothed from head to toe. I can be classy in sweatpants, pajamas, Prada pumps or a mini skirt. It's an attitude and a way of treating people, NOT how one looks.

    That is what Beyonce is fighting for, in my opinion. Women (and men) who claim to be feminist continue to perpetuate the same old sexist and slut-shaming tropes as the mainstream media. I think Beyonce wants the world to know that you can sing about being in love and wanting to make love to your husband or be outfitted in an outrageous, barely-there outfit and still be a feminist. It isn't one or the other.

  • Reindeer | December 17, 2013 5:25 AM

    BB- You can still be sexy and be fully clothed. Why does sexiness have to equal being barely dressed? And why would you assume that someone who doesn't bare it all would look frumpy? Classiness is much sexier and confident than wearing nothing. Tons of women do it. Funnily enough, being closed-minded and attacking someone for having a different opinion than you is definitely not sexy. ;) PS- her using Terry Richardson to direct one of her videos is even more ironic than he the way she dresses.

  • bb | December 17, 2013 3:45 AM

    Soooooo....."real feminism" is being fully clothed while delivering said message??? Hmmm... I think Beyonce is fighting against people like you who believe that way. Real feminism is being able to be hot, sexy, AND beautiful and still advocating for those rights as women. I guess only "real, unco-opted feminism" needs to look frumpy, covered head to toe, with no appeal at all. Got it.

    Keep doing you, Beyonce.

  • Reindeer | December 16, 2013 5:49 PM

    I was just thinking the exact same thing... It's actually quite contradictory yet everyone deems it empowering. It actually makes me feel very uncomfortable. Especially the video where she barely dressed several models, showing extreme close-ups of their derrieres... Everyone is sexy so why is no one doing the total opposite? Showing women that being hot isn't all that matters in life. She sings one thing but what I see goes totally against it. It's kind of the same with all these articles, showing us actresses speaking up about age discrimination, yet they've all had serious work done to their faces.

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