DISCLAIMER #2: I am not trying to change your mind, coerce you to buy into her franchise—nor am I a member of the Church of Beyoncé. I am merely an enthusiast and admirer of her work.
DISCLAIMER #3: This is a blog entry. Not gospel. It is my hope that it sparks conversation not further controversy.
Well, it’s finally happened. I am finally breaking down to write something more serious than a status update about Beyoncé. Here’s what’s not going to happen. I’m not going to go toe-to-toe with anyone about every single lyric or that time she wore fur when she said she was a vegan for a few weeks. This is more of an attempt to clarify some thangs when we talk about her. Because when we talk about Beyoncé we’re not talking about a person, are we? We are talking about a concept, a mirage. When we talk about Beyoncé we’re talking about the idea of Beyoncé. Which means we’re also talking about ourselves, our personal boundaries and worldview. So in a lot of ways, this blog has more to do with you and I than with Beyoncé.
Let’s start off with talking about Bey’s most recent scandalous move, which is to dare call herself a feminist. Out loud. In public. And as of a few days ago, she stood in front of a giant neon sign which everyone who attended the VMA’s is probably still seeing when they close their eyes. I mean, the nerve of this highly successful and influential Black woman who happens to make money off her looks and profession in the entertainment industry daring to call herself a feminist. Because the word “feminist” is sacrosanct. Women’s suffrage! Women’s suffering! Rosie the Riveter! Quotes from Sojourner Truth and Gloria Steinem! Topless protests and boycotting Hobby Lobby! That’s feminism, right? Feminists do not drop it like it is hot. Feminists do not openly express or brag about their insatiable libidos, and if they did, they certainly would not pop that coochie onstage in front of the world in a glittery leotard. Feminists do not enjoy pleasuring their men while in the same breath calling themselves independent. Feminists don’t wear heels. Feminists don’t wear weave. Or booty shorts. They don’t, they don’t, they don’t…
You guys are a tough crowd. Because I thought a feminist is as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie now famously said, “A person who believes in the social, economic, political equality of the sexes.” That must mean the rest of those expectations of what a feminist looks like and acts like are the trappings of just one variety of (and in some cases, kiiiiiiinda outdated) feminism. The face of feminism, like Bey, is a mirage, a shapeshifter, a multifaceted rhetorical narrative that evolves into something new with each regeneration. But if the belief and subsequent practice in social, economic, and political equality is at the heart of what she’s doing, then what’s the problem, right? The problem is hangups about the perception of what these elements look like when they are equalized. The core principles of feminism are fairly straightforward, but how I choose to get there is subjective.
Subject to what?
Worldview, for one. Or rather, the innumerable and nuanced factors that stem from age, race, sex, gender, and personal taste based on lived experience. Everyone is bringing their own set of circumstances to the table and that affects how we view everyone else and how we choose our labels and gauge equality among them. Problems only really start to arise when people who share a worldview group together and say they know how it is. Then other folks group together and say they know how it is. So what do you do when every group says they know how it really is and no one group can agree? Maybe this is my inner Emma Goldman, but I kinda just think if it’s not hurting anyone, like actually hurting anyone, everyone should just live and let live. So Beyoncé calls herself a feminist. Let her call herself a feminist. What’s the harm?
But we have kids to raise, right? More specifically, we have daughters to raise. And God help us if we’re going to let our girls believe that Beyoncé is a feminist. Feminists do not call themselves empowered and then condone lyrics like “Eat the cake Annie Mae” in their songs.
There it is.
I knew I’d hit a nerve eventually.
So, initially, even I have some trouble swallowing that one, pardon the pun. I said I wasn’t going to defend all her lyrics, and while she didn’t write this one, it’s in the song and so she must cosign on it in some way (especially since she’s married to Jay-Z, who is the poster child for an historically misogynistic musical genre), so let’s break the offending line down itself and then I’ll talk some about contextuality with the rest of Jay’s sixteen, the song, and the album as a whole. Oh and head’s up. This is the probably not safe for work bit.
(I'm nice right now)
That D'USSÉ is the shit if I do say so myself
If I do say so myself, if I do say so myself
Stumbled all in the house time to back up all of that mouth
That you had all in the car, talking 'bout you the baddest bitch thus far
Talking 'bout you be repping that third, I wanna see all the shit that I heard
Know I sling Clint Eastwood, hope you can handle this curve
Foreplay in the foyer, fucked up my Warhol
Slip the panties right to the side
Ain't got the time to take draws off, on site
Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike
In '97 I bite, I'm Ike, Turner, turn up
Baby no I don't play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae
Said, "Eat the cake, Anna Mae!"
I'm nice, for y'all to reach these heights you gonna need G3
4, 5, 6 flights, sleep tight
We sex again in the morning, your breastases is my breakfast
We going in, we be all night
Okay, so let’s zoom in on the bit everyone’s pissed about:
Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike
In '97 I bite, I'm Ike, Turner, turn up
Baby no I don't play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae
Said, "Eat the cake, Anna Mae!"
First off, I think overall, Jay goes more for what’s lyrically clever than what’s conceptually appropriate and this isn’t the first time he’s used violence against women in a sixteen (anyone remember that awkward moment in Kanye’s “Monster” where he raps about raping and pillaging a village of women and children?). With regard to the above line, however, he’s bragging about his prowess in the boudoir. To “catch a charge” or being charged with a crime, metaphorically means he’s willing to risk violating social propriety for the sake of pleasuring his lover and also to some extent comparing himself to Mike Tyson who has an extensive arrest record. To beat the box (aka pussy) up is a good thing in the world of slang referring to the ferocity of one’s…erm…thrust? And Jay-Z is using that as a barometer for his own lovemaking skills. Now. To say he might “beat the box up like Mike in ’97, I bite” we could still be talking about intercourse and that during coitus, he’s a biter because he’s so overtaken with passion, and/or we could be talking about his performance of oral sex on his lover.
To continue high-signin’, something that rappers do as an integral part of the African American oral tradition of “signifying” which involves a lot of braggadocio, Jay now has to establish himself as the biggest baddest lover there is. So he calls on two individuals well-know in pop culture for their physical abuse of women because he just used the “beat the box up” line. First there’s Mike Tyson who is the most well-known knockout artist of all time. Then, as a linguistic and metaphorical device, Jay immediately rhymes Mike with Ike (Turner) who also notoriously abused Tina Turner aka Anna Mae. Jay uses “Eat the cake” to, again, channel the aggression with which he pursues the lovemaking act and here, I believe, he is now referring to either her performance of oral sex and/or further expounding on the force of his thrust—cramming it all in, as it were.
Now, you dissenters may be having a teeth-sucking moment right here, but if you think contextually with the rest of the sixteen, it makes sense. I mean, the name of the song is called “Drunk in Love” which explains his initial challenge to his lover to live up to her tipsy bragging about her own sexual prowess on the way home (“If you scared, call that reverend” ring any bells?), the foreplay in the foyer, destroying an expensive piece of art (also signifying because it’s a Warhol) slipping panties to the side and being unable to wait. All that equates to a sexual frenzy brought on by waaaay too much cognac.
And if we think of the rest of the self-titled album, it is admittedly Beyoncé’s most adult and explicit work to date. This is a grown woman singing about grown woman thangs. And this in a way is not just about grown woman-isms, and I’m just thinking out loud here, this duet is in a way a metaphor about the nature of their relationship, which as one half of a Black American married couple myself, lemme tell you is extraordinarily complex, particularly when it comes to the issues that arise surrounding love and lovemaking. Historically Black men have been both revered and reviled for their alleged bestial sexual nature. And Black women’s bodies were used as the literal gateway through which slavery persisted. That’s A LOT of cultural memory to overcome. So sometimes coupling between Black folks to the uninitiated may seem at best conflicted and at worst too violent. Too hard. Too desperate. What are we fighting so hard for? How does fighting equate to love? Not the type of love designated by society: that genteel happily ever after b.s., but the love that comes of surviving centuries of systemic oppression together. That sort of love/lovemaking is not always going to come off as easy and predictable or comfortable. And going into Jay’s own subconscious hangups about masculinity as a Black man which lead to a compulsion for overcompensation is a whole ‘nother blog and not mine to write. Again, just trying to provide some context here. The line rubs me the wrong way too by channeling domestic violence in its comparison to lovemaking, but I also choose to think about the line in context with the rest of the bars and the song, and I appreciate the opportunity to explore my own boundaries and figure out why the line is disturbing.
bell hooks calls Beyoncé a terrorist. I can imagine to someone like hooks, she certainly threatens a mode of feminism that hooks helped to construct and illuminate. hooks pointed out that if Beyoncé had any hand in choosing the cover of Time magazine earlier this year as the world’s most influential person, she is a willing participant in her own depiction as a slave in service of “imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” hooks argues that Beyoncé is anti-feminist and a terrorist “especially in terms of the impact on young girls.”
I have so much respect for Professor hooks, but as an up and coming feminist, she represents the old guard and some of her views now feel somewhat conservative. There is now a changing of the guard happening among feminists and that’s never easy. I feel that we are looking at a brand new type of feminist that nobody from hooks’s graduating class of feminism could have anticipated because you know, time. And Bey may very well appear to the the antithesis of all that hooks and her generation of feminists have worked towards. My entire generation of feminists may look like we’re backpedaling since Bey is apparently our ambassador. Not that we aren’t all still living in an imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, but as a woman, as a Black woman, Beyoncé has much more power over her image and her activities then a lot of the rest of us do and that makes her a glaring target for criticism because she’s up there on her own forging new territory. To many, she probably appears to not be going about feminism in the “right” way. But again, who is prescribing what feminism should look like? And if we start dictating hard and fast rules for feminism, doesn't that kind of come off to y’all as oppressive? So now who’s the oppressor?
A brief aside—for those of you worried about Beyoncé’s impact on young women. Look, I get it. What kind of feminists will our daughters become listening to “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it?” I’m not going to tell you how to raise your kid. But, you’re raising an individual who for at least a portion of her life as she navigates her own identity is more concerned with her friends’ opinions and acceptance than yours. For many young Black girls especially, Beyoncé serves as a surrogate mother, the most visible version of well-rounded womanhood they have available. The culture of silence in the Black community among women is legendary. Beyoncé sings candidly about many of the topics Black mothers may tend to avoid (a nod to the language (or lack thereof in this case) of survival which I'll get into below). Not all of us talk about sex or love or how to display our bodies because of that lingering cultural memory that we’ll become a target. Also, Beyoncé is respected in her industry and wealthy. She’s surrounded in glitter and bright lights—the center of attention. AND she’s wife and babymama to one of the biggest names in hip-hop, which is the apex predator of musical genres at the moment, but still very much appears to be her own woman. Why wouldn’t your daughters take notice?? And ultimately your kids are going to listen to and watch Beyoncé whether you condone it or not, so wouldn’t you much rather take the opportunity to talk to your kids about the context of certain songs and choices she makes as an entertainer and let them make up their minds?
Back to the bell hooks comment, instead of Bey being a terrorist, why can’t we discuss her as a libertarian and in the process of re-claiming space, taking ownership of her own image intentionally whatever imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchs think? What if she’s flipping it? She’s apparently the most influential person in the world. Heck, she almost broke iTunes when her last album came out. So by Beyoncé essentially saying “I own my own mind and body and can do with them what I want—play into your fantasy or not,” she has taken over the captain’s chair. She now controls the fantasy. She now controls the myth and where it ends up. My favorite creation myths are when women are depicted as the first people, the ones with control over sex and reproduction, spirituality, and the natural world. In these cases, the body is the vehicle for the heart, the mind, and the spirit and is to be celebrated. In keeping with these earliest of feminist narratives, I feel like Bey is kind of a throwback feminist before the term “feminist” first appeared.
Much of my own scholarly work has to do with countermyths and how Black women, because they navigate multiple consciousnesses (a la the double consciousness theory from Fred Douglass), being woman AND Black, are shape-shifters out of necessity, out of survival. This concept predates the Civil War and goes back as far as the origins of slavery, obviously, but during a time period known as the nadir, when violence against Blacks in America was at its apex throughout the late 19th-early 20th centuries, Black women writers were writing essays and articles and books about adaptation, about surviving in a nation where the future of the Black family was at stake, sometimes literally. Black women, being in the unique position of having been marginalized for so long in this country while simultaneously serving as targets for misogyny (by Black men AND white men) are now absolutely poised to reorient popular narratives about race, sex & gender, and yes, feminism. At first glance it may look like Bey is playing into the dominant white masculinist narrative, but I believe she’s shrewder than her interviews would have us believe in that she’s got endurance. She’s playing the long game.
So, again, as a shape-shifter, in the legacy of her foremothers, Beyoncé is adapting to her environment and staying relevant in a nation that has an incredibly depressing history with regard to race relations. So let’s talk again about her status as a concept rather than a person. If Beyoncé represents the current flavor of feminism, what kind of feminists are we talking about here? What kind of feminist am I, for that matter? Part of the reason I identify with her work is because of her power to avoid being completely pinned down by labels. In terms of her music, she reinvents herself with each album. With each song. She can literally have a song called “Pretty Hurts” on the same album as “Flawless” which can kind of seem contradictory in a way. But they’re not. “I woke up like this” means I don’t have to give in to your brand of beauty. This is who I am, deal with it. And “Bow down, bitches”….c’mon. If I have to explain to you why “bitch” changes meaning depending on the context of who is using it and how, that’s gonna take another whole ‘nother blog entry. Cliff Notes version: It’s not being used in a pejorative sense here.
So to me, if this is the new feminism, if I’m thinking “meta” about the impact Beyoncé and how history will probably view her (I’d much rather be doing the “Single Ladies” hand thingy instead), I believe she will be seen as highly influential on this and the next generation of feminists because she so obviously has no problem dealing with the spectrum of a woman’s complexity. “How can she sing about being independent, running the world AND being jealous AND grainin’ on that wood?!” Duh. Because no one person is any one thing. How boring would that be?? So, I really love that she demonstrates in real time all of the issues the modern day feminist is up against, straddling, sometimes literally, the definition of womanhood—what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. What power do we relinquish by calling ourselves feminist and what power do we now possess? For instance, women are allowing ourselves to be more sexually expressive than ever and sometimes we choose to not settle with any one person or give into the pressure of an outdated model of love, relationships, and family life—but the trade-off might also mean we are occasionally “scared of lonely.”
Listening to Bey is like listening to a spectrum of emotions and psychological conflicts on “shuffle.” That is today’s feminist. We’re the products of our mothers and grandmothers and how they raised us, but we want to do our own thing too, make our own mark. And, might I add, Beyoncé is channeling that part of us that is saying, Dammit, I just wanna dance. Can I live?? Beyoncé is a feminist because she calls herself one. Personally, I don't think she needs to pore over the various schools of theories if she's living it. Like the rest of us, her entire life is informed by the struggle for equality between the sexes, hers is both magnified and veiled by pop icon-dom. To me, she seems to believe in the core principle of equality between the sexes. And frankly it’s exciting to see the word energized again and that all of us are talking about it. People get so rabid about Bey, or to clarify, the idea of Bey, because she is representing us and our own personal complexities and nuances and the desire to be bold about it, to talk about it, to write and sing about it, to own one’s own complexity and nuance. There seems to be a real need for that right now particularly among women charging right along into the headlights of the 21st century. So, yeah, many of her songs are going to feel empowering because so many of us women in her audience often find ourselves still so disempowered in our daily lives. Sometimes, I listen to her music and I just feel ready to walk into any room and I’ll be cool.
If there’s not room here for us to complicate the word feminism, and if Bey isn’t a feminist, then I guess neither am I. We’re either something new or very, very old. As in creation myth old. As in dawn of time old. As in I brought you into this world and I can take you out old.
But I’m interested in your thoughts. I think this a fruitful conversation to be had because pop culture is often a barometer for deeply embedded systemic issues and challenges in terms of what we’re talking about and what we’re not talking about as a society. And I have already learned so much from my compatriots in the past few days by participating in and initiating this conversation about Queen Bey as we continue to define labels like feminism and what the implications are of said definitions.