While Beyoncé has always been a fixture of fabulosity, it wasn’t until her latest album that I was sold. Okay, obsessed. More specifically, obsessed with her video “Flawless.” In it, Beyoncé is immaculate. Her blonde wavy locks are effortlessly tousled in a state of post-sex frenzy. Her plaid shirt is buttoned to the top button, a thick gold chain hangs over her collar, and her ripped jean shorts seem to transition solely to black mesh somewhere along the path to her exquisite derriere. Her lips are dark, her eyebrows are perfectly arched and her skin is, well, flawless. She is the embodiment of physical perfection. But the video portrays more than just another pretty face. Beyoncé’s eyes pierce the camera defiantly, her ratchet Houston side seems to surface and she widens her perfectly toned legs to the music video equivalent of a power stance. And don’t get me started on that sassy hand flip. Here, we see Bey as assertive, powerful, even a bit aggressive.
In the lyrics to “Flawless,” Beyoncé demands that we “Bow Down Bitches.” Even more noteworthy, she includes an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of feminism from her groundbreaking 2013 TEDx talk. And even beyond “Flawless,” Beyoncé seems to be proudly exploring her relationship to feminism. She published a (rather dull) article entitled “Gender equality is a myth” on Maria Shriver’s website and publicly declared that she is a capital-F feminist on the cover of Ms. Magazine (see: Rolling Stone article). And, while this is a seemingly great contribution to the cause, she is no riot grrl or pussy riot member.
Instead, Beyoncé’s strand of feminism is safe. Worse than safe, it’s trendy. Over the past 10-15 years, feminism has been considered a “dirty” word, but it is now undergoing a cultural renaissance, with Mrs. Carter jumping on the metaphorical bandwagon. In 2013, we saw the likes of Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Lorde and Claire Danes proudly proclaiming themselves feminists (see: Jezebel article). Highbrow feminist pillar Cosmopolitan magazine finally declared itself to be “deeply feminist.” And the Financial Times declared that “Feminism is back in Fashion.” The danger with this surge in superficial lady-power is not so much that feminism runs the risk of suddenly going back out of vogue, which it does. The real issue with the celebrity endorsement of feminism as sexy is that it drapes a blanket over the complex realities of being female today. Because feminism is more complex than Beyonce writing about the pay gap or singing about the pain of beauty in “Pretty Hurts.” It actually becomes troubling when self-declared feminist Miley Cyrus superficially proclaims power over her sexualized depiction in the media — because the message doesn’t match the act. When she bends over in a desperate attempt to win the attention of the much-older (and married) Robin Thicke, it becomes clear that her sexual aggression is no more empowering than a teenage girl’s discovery of cutoff jean shorts and crop tops.
I can’t blame Beyoncé for a larger cultural trend that seems to cheapen feminism with packaged sexuality and watered down intellectual appeal. And actually, at first glance, Queen Bey seems worlds away from the desperate antics of Miley. Her connection to feminism seems bold, fun, empowering and (somewhat) intellectually grounded on its surface. But this is exactly why Beyoncé’s particular brand of feminism is so problematic. In the end, it hides true feminist growth by folding discussion and dissention into a glossy, perfect package. True feminism seeks to upend patriarchal systems of power, but Beyoncé’s version only serves to reinforce traditional stereotypes about sex and beauty and further heighten the impossible expectations of women.
Throughout her entire visual album, Beyoncé sings about her sexual empowerment and self-discovery. In “Drunk in Love,” Beyonce reclaims her sexuality and drunken messiness as her own. But it’s a rehearsed messiness. When Beyoncé sings about receiving oral sex in “Blow,” it isn’t seen as garish or trashy; it’s empowering and unabashedly feminine. But I’m not sure that our culture would find the same lyrics as celebratory and non-threatening if sung by single Rihanna or exploratory Lady Gaga — or even, say, the gender-bending J.D. Samson of “MEN.” Such empowerment is really only acceptable in the context of marriage. In the end, Beyoncé’s lyrics about turning her cherry out and eating her skittles aren’t threatening, because her sexuality is traditional, even marital. After all, her tour is called the “Mrs. Carter tour” and she previously sang about “putting a ring on it.” (As a side note, it’s worth noting that Beyonce started dating the then 31-year old Jay-Z at the tender age of just 19, meaning her sexuality has been packaged and folded up within the context of a traditional, monogamous relationship pretty much the whole time).
In unpacking the power structure implicit in Beyoncé’s brand of sexuality even more closely, one can’t help but land at the following lyrics from “Drunk in Love:” “I’m Ike, Turner, turn up / Baby no I don’t play / Now eat the cake, Anna Mae / I said eat the cake, Anna Mae.” These lines, rapped by Bey’s husband Jay-Z, are a direct and undeniable reference to Ike Turner’s notorious physical abuse of Tina Turner (born Anna Mae Bollock) in an infamous episode where he smashed cake in her face before beating her. It’s interesting that these lyrics, referencing violence against women and domestic abuse in such a cavalier way, have gone largely unnoticed and unchallenged. Additionally, “eat the cake” is common rap-slang for female head, thus again reducing Beyoncé to sexual object at the hands of Jay-Z, or, in extension, every man.
While these are disturbing aspects of Beyoncé’s crafted “empowered” sexuality and lady-power presence, my greatest issue with the Beyoncé brand of feminism is the myth of perfection — a myth that is damaging to the realization of women as complex, complicated and flawed creatures. On Beyoncé’s new album, there is never a hair out of place, a curve not perfectly accentuated or a face without full makeup. Not only does she claim she’s “flawless,” but she dismisses any work or production in her beauty by saying “I woke up like this.” When she sings about the woes and trouble of beauty in “Beauty Hurts,” she does so while donning Bridget Bardot blonde locks and wearing an “ironic” full face of makeup and body-hugging clothes.
In a recent review of Beyoncé prior to her Ms. Magazine debut, Janell Hobson laments that, “Beyoncé presents a mixed bag for me: promoting a decidedly feminist message (whether in her girl-power songs or in her forming an all-girl band for her tours) while also participating in racialized and sexualized self-fetishizing styles, lyrics, videos and choreography.”
And I agree. Beyoncé is white-washed and sexualized. But for me personally, the issue with Beyoncé’s silent perfection is that is extends beyond her performances to the expectation that women look perfect and balance everything without acknowledging any true effort or complication in the process. When Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women to “lean in,” she received flack for depicting an unrealistic and privileged version of the female experience. But what about Beyoncé? What about acknowledging that Bey’s flawlessness requires tens of thousands of dollars and a team of makeup artists, trainers and dietitians? (Let’s be honest: she didn’t just “[wake] up like this”). Or that, though she never comments on the difficulties and realities of juggling the demands of family life with her career, she also has round-the-clock help? That her strain of perfection — all while claiming to be feminist and empowering — makes it even harder for us mere mortals to measure up?
On the surface, Bey is a fierce diva who proclaims “Who Runs the World? Girls!” But what’s she’s really doing, in her videos, performances and highly curated public persona, is twisting feminism into another sexualized, perfect and packaged accessory. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism seems empowered and bold on the surface, but she only allows herself the power to assert her sexuality within the context of marriage, one with a clear power structure in place. And she presents this shallow package of female empowerment in a way that hides any work behind it. And, in doing so, she has just created another impossible female archetype that women will feel guilty for not measuring up to.