Beyoncé – feminist icon or not?

This month Beyoncé released her fifth studio album simply titled ‘Beyoncé’, much to the surprise of fans and critics. It has already debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts after only three days of sales, and has topped a number of critics’ best albums of 2013. Beyonce describes it as a “visual album” which I presume relates to the fact that each track has an accompanying video or is rather a clever marketing ploy to distinguish her music from that of her contemporaries.

In recent interviews Beyoncé has proclaimed herself to be a feminist and whilst it is not up to me, or anyone else to say whether she is or not, as that would be quintessentially un-feminist to do so. It is rather obvious, especially with her new album, that the message in her music is not necessarily a feminist one or even one of equality.

I can remember as a teenager dancing around my room to my Destiny’s Child CD’s, particularly ‘Bills, Bills, Bills, and ‘Independent Woman’. Not only was the music itself really good, the message of the songs was that of empowerment and equality, it was positive and made me feel good. Beyoncé then went solo and these songs of empowerment continued, with ‘Me, Myself and I’ and ‘If I Was A Boy’, which perfectly summed up the gender double standard that women deal with.

However, as I got older I began to read more on feminism and question anything and everything, I started to see the chinks in the “feminist” message artists like Beyoncé and others were pedalling.

Her last album ‘4’ which led with the “girl power” anthem of ‘Girls (Run The World), was particularly misleading and in my opinion insulting. Firstly it is a supposed victory anthem in which girls run the world, which world I have no idea. As we all know, and as the blogger/YouTube savvy Nineteen Percent said, “girls don’t run the world, they don’t even run their own domiciles”. Beyonce’s message therefore is dangerous and irresponsible especially to your young girls and boys buying her music. Yes it’s great to have something to aim for but unless it is backed up my social and political policy it’s not worth much. The last time I looked there is no country/state/community where girls and women are the dominant group. Secondly feminism is not about that. It’s not about having one group dominant over the other. We should be aiming for a socially egalitarian society rather than one of dominance and power.

Beyoncé’s latest offering continues in this vein of dominance and power as well as the occasionally derogatory comment thrown in for good measure. The track ‘Flawless’ that have been held up by feminists, fans and critics as the feminist anthem of the year, with Beyonce simultaneously being crowned as the saviour of modern day feminism. This seems purely down to the inclusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche TED talk in which she discusses the issues surrounding body image and girls insecurities. The talk is brilliantly nuanced yet powerful. Unfortunately this influential narrative is sandwiched between the lyrics “bow down bitches” which is repeated over and over throughout the song. As a woman this does nothing to my self-esteem or feelings of worth. I don’t appreciate being called a bitch – it does not make me feel empowered especially when I am being told to bow down to a more powerful and dominant woman. Hell, I’d have the same reaction if it had come from a man!

Feminism has now been branded as cool and ergo it is now being used as a successful marketing tool. With singers from Beyoncé to Miley Cyrus declaring themselves feminist we could be forgiven for thinking that the values of feminism are now being taken seriously. However, a quick look at their videos and the lyrics in their songs and you begin to see that it’s the same old formula just wrapped up in a different packaging. Feminism seems to be being confused with subservience and dominance over other women (“bow down bitches”). This particularly evident in Beyoncé’s video for ‘Partition’ where she deliberately drops a napkin on the floor while having breakfast. A maid appears from the background and retrieves the napkin from the floor, all the while Beyoncé sits grinning from ear to ear. Fans have praised this particular clip and have turned it into numerous gifs of social media sites. Comments from fans online suggest that this epitomizes the ultimate power trip, a black woman having power over a white woman.

This is not feminism! This is not equality! This isn’t even about being a good person! This is about making one person or one group of people feel more powerful at the expense of another. Cleverly dressed up in the guise of modern day feminism.

A concept such as feminism has its divides, its offshoots and of course instances of shame, much like conservatism and liberalism do. It would therefore be wrong to say that you can only be a feminist if you do X, Y and Z. But at the same time we should not shy away from criticising those that use the label of feminism in which to dominate others or legitimate messages of dominance and inequality, which is what songs like ‘Flawless’ and ‘Girls (Run the World)’ do.

All this stuff sinks in, the napkin dropping; the name calling; the false sense of empowerment, it all has an impact on the public consciousness, which is why writing it off a meaningless pop culture is irresponsible. As we know all too well, we all consume a ridiculous amount of media each week, most of which is unhealthy and does little to make us feel good or empowered. Therefore, if an artist like Beyoncé, is going to call themselves a feminist or is going to push the concept of empowerment, then she or he has to be responsible with those labels. They have to take it seriously and not use it purely as a way to sell more records.




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