OK, first things first. I love Beyonce. There is no point in me pretending otherwise. I think she is an amazing performer and I totally heart her catchy dance jams. But there is more to Beyonce than a solid hook and a hot ass, and it's time we all took a moment to recognize.
Though her name may not make it onto a plaque in the Feminist Hall of Fame (OMG, wouldn't it be fun if there was a Feminist Hall of Fame?), Beyonce injects a healthy dose of female empowerment into just about everything she touches. She is like a feminist King Midas (right down to the gold accessories). Sure, Beyonce's not perfect, but she explores and challenges gender politics in a way that we rarely see from Top 40 pop stars. To help make my point, I give you the Beyonce power pack. A collection of music videos, audio (including a gabfest-style podcast discussion on the topic), and links that will arm you with all of the information you need to answer the burning question, Is Beyonce a feminist icon in the making?
(Disclaimer: This power pack assumes that you already have somewhat of a working knowledge of Beyonce and her career. To get filled in on her time with Destiny's Child, her acting career, her marriage to Jay-Z, and her solo work, click here.)
Many of Beyonce's videos deal with gender politics in some way, usually as they relate to heterosexual romantic interactions (see Irreplaceable, Check on It, Freakum Dress, et al.) but there are a few that stand out as especially interesting. Luckily, this is the 21st century, and we can all watch them together (although, due to copyrights or what have you, not all of the videos are available for embedding).
We'll start with the 2007 single Upgrade U, from the B'day album. Many of you may recognize this song from a current DirecTV commercial (so far, not all that feminist). Now sure, Upgrade U is blatantly materialistic. And B even sings lyrics here about men taking the lead "while the women keep the tempo." But hey, no one's perfect. And the way Beyonce plays both herself and Jay-Z (her then boyfriend, now husband) is worth a look (or several):
The self-confidence being exuded by Ms. Knowles here is off the charts. Who else (man or woman) could stand up to a hip-hop legend like Jay-Z and tell him, "I want to make you my project" or, "your dynasty ain't complete without a chief like me"? She presents herself as not only an upgrade to Jay-Z's career, but also his life. He tries to flip the script on her and tell her that the upgrade is vice versa, but you can tell she doesn't believe that for a minute. And neither do I.
As a side note, the relationship between Jay-Z and Beyonce is kept so private that I can't help but totally wonder what it must be like. This video makes them seem like the kind of couple whose party you'd want to be invited to, but who you would feel uncomfortable around if forced to make small talk. And what do you think about the way Beyonce plays Jay-Z in the video? It's interesting, because it's his voice but the video plays as if she is talking about upgrading herself. Maybe that's why the first line is, "I'm alone for a reason." More interesting still is how she plays herself in relationship to Jay-Z. On her own she is a powerful woman in a Rolls Royce, but with him she is pantless and kind of flighty. Is this to give her Jay-Z self more of the spotlight? Or does she really feel that way when she is with him? Hmmm...
The next video we'll look at here is a newer release, from B's 2008 I Am…Sasha Fierce. For those of you who don't keep tabs on such things, Beyonce has stated in interviews that she has a stage persona (Sasha Fierce) who is different than her non-performance self. The first half of her newest release contains songs that come from a more personal (read: ballad-y) place, and the second half is Sasha Fierce club hits. For now, we're going to look at a Beyonce Knowles' ballad: If I Were A Boy.
This song has been criticized for simply not being very good. It might not be as catchy as some of B's other ballads, but I don't think it's all that bad. Plus, like fine wine and stinky cheese, the song and the video compliment one another quite nicely:
There is a lot going on here. While Beyonce may not be pushing the envelope in this video when it comes to stereotypes (boy is mean and disrespectful to girl, girl gets sad), what the video does do is draw attention to some of the subtleties of stereotypical gender dynamics by literally reversing the traditional roles. It strikes a chord to see a woman dismiss her boyfriend to hang out with her coworkers, or to see a man stressed out because his girlfriend won't answer his calls. Not because this doesn't happen in reality (of course it does), but because it doesn't happen in music videos.
And though I may be giving B too much credit here (remember my disclaimer from earlier), I have to commend Beyonce for making such a sincere effort to draw attention to what she clearly sees are problems within typical heterosexual relationships. To us savvy feminists it might all seem fairly obvious, but there are a lot of people who will watch this video who haven't taken Women's and Gender Studies and who don't necessarily spend much time thinking about how men are disrespectful toward women in traditional boyfriend-girlfriend setups. I am a feminist who has been studying this stuff for years, and I still feel a pull on the old heartstrings when Beyonce says that, if I were a boy, "I'd listen to her, 'cause I know how it hurts." She doesn't like to see women being taken for granted, and that is pretty feminist if you ask me.
The real problem I see with this video from a feminist perspective is not the ways in which Beyonce points out gender inequalities in typical relationships, but rather how she portrays herself as the typical woman. Beyonce is not the type to get pouty or jealous (if her other work is to be believed), but rather the type to take action. Sure, we all have bad days where we just feel sad, but I can't believe that B would put up with a relationship like the one in the video long term, and I don't think she would want other women to do so either.
Alright, moving on to the final video in our power pack (I was told I could only include three). This video has been a permanent fixture in my daily routine for over a week now, and I have several friends who would say the same. Although it is ostensibly a one-shot video with a very basic concept, I can't take my Beyonce-lovin' eyes off of it. Also, the song is as catchy as they come, so be forewarned. Here is the second single off of I Am…Sasha Fierce, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It):
Whew! Talk about a dance routine! (For more on that, check out the Bob Fosse routine that inspired this one.) This video is Beyonce at her boiled-down best. She is singing about how if men don't respect the women they are with (by putting "a ring on it") then they're going to get dumped, and she is dancing up a storm while wearing a robot hand. And the song is interesting as well, especially seeing how there is little melody to speak of and the entire thing is made up primarily of percussion.
Let's break this song down a little bit. I know that the whole concept of putting "a ring on it" is heteronormative and that it glorifies marriage. Except that I don't think that Beyonce necessarily means a literal ring, so much as a figurative one. She is saying that if a man is not giving a woman what she deserves in a relationship, he shouldn't be surprised if she heads out the door (and to the club to get drunk and dance). And hey, if he doesn't like it, well, he should have thought about that before he started acting like such a jerk.
And what about the robot hand? While I know it sounds like a stretch, it is on Beyonce's left hand, and as they already suggested on the Slate culture gabfest, the robot hand could be symbolic of the confines of traditional marriage. It could also just be an accessory that highlights her superhuman-ness, or just something to make the video a bit more interesting. (I must confess, while researching the robot hand I found this Javno article that says the glove allows her to mentally become Sasha Fierce. But hey, no reason to stop speculating.)
Here is the portion of the power pack wherein I was going to upload a gabfest-inspired discussion I had with my friends Andrew, Anya, Jamie, and Chris about these topics. However, I am having a bit of trouble with the ol' podcasting equipment, so look for that awesome mp3 once I can get some audio help. In the meantime, leave your thoughts about Ms. Knowles in the comments section. And if you like it, you should put a ring on it.