What We Can Learn From Beyonce's Feminism
There are moments when Beyonce not only references her past but displays clips from it like awards on her mantel. In "***Flawless," she frames an anthem of exuberant self-love and feminist rage with clips of her appearance on Star Search as a pre-teen with her group Girl's Tyme. The first one is their presentation, a hopeful moment before they performed as Ed McMahon rattles off their names before the song segues into the Beyonce of today performing the track off her latest album. The song ends with another clip of McMahon giving a band full of white dudes that do not include a young Beyonce four stars and Girl's Tyme only three.
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For Beyonce, the moment serves as one of many examples of the hurdles she's overcome, moments of imperfection, and another pixel in the composite of her life that peppers her self-titled surprise album/video behemoth (14 songs, 17 videos) that was released in the wee hours of Friday morning with no warning or promo. But the choice of that particular clip on that particular song, one that features a sample of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk titled "We should all be feminists," is a carefully crafted statement of her womanhood. Like her body and her career, Beyonce owns her feminism. She shapes it to fit her strengths, her weaknesses, and her dreams in order to better herself and express her thoughts on what it means to be a successful woman in 2013 living in the shadows of opinions that believe women are incapable of having it all. On her fifth album, listeners can get a full picture of Beyonce's coming-of-age story that sees her unmask herself from the guise of speaking to us through Sasha Fierce, and find her own terms on which to have the career and family she has worked hard to have.
Since earlier this year, when Beyonce not only "came out" as a feminist but controversially named her tour the "Mrs. Carter Show," mainstream feminism has continuously questioned her motives. Her sexuality has been called demeaning and her devotion to her husband has been deemed too traditional, old-school, and regressive. This year, however, it's become a war between the defenders and the detractors, between "black feminists" and "white feminists," with the former feeling excluded from the overall worldview of the type of feminism we see most argued about and out in the media and literature.
It seems retroactive to segregate the ideology. As Adichie defines it in the portion of her TED talk featured in "***Flawless," a feminist is a "person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes." However, to ignore the lived experiences of a woman of color versus a white woman would be ignorant, and to ignore the experience of a woman of color seeking success as a public figure and pop star would be especially ignorant of the lack of representation in the media that has only gotten more noticeable over the years.
Beyonce is the most powerful woman in music who has become the epitome of idealized beauty and one of our generation's most respected and recognizable cultural icons. But what did it take to get there? As "***Flawless" not so subtly reminds us, at one point in her career, she lost to a white male rock band on national television. She came up in a later incarnation of Girl's Tyme, Destiny's Child, against mostly white competition in the field of pop when people like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and groups like Spice Girls and *NSYNC were dominating charts and saw their faces covering every type of consumable product for kids to purchase.
Today isn't much different. Her album has been mostly viewed in the direct competition of pop luminaries and newbies like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, Miley Cyrus and Lorde. Though it has been a year of cultural appropriation at the hands of many of those competitors, appropriation of a culture and musical genres Beyonce is most closely associated with, Yonce is one of the few to proudly declare her feminism. Still, it has been repeatedly questioned because her expression of it isn't the "correct" kind.