Before you click on to the next one, feeling validated in what you have always known about Sister Bey’s wayward ways, I say she is not a feminist for reasons that may not be the ones you think. Sit back down, church; I may have already given you a benediction of sorts, but this is a different kind of church service and it is only just getting started. Beyoncé is not a feminist because the word feminist as we use it, clutching our pearls, does not / cannot encompass what she does. This is not because of some kind of semantic incapability. Words are nothing but signifiers that pretty much can come to encompass whatever we want them to, because of their arbitrariness and the dynamism of cultural development. Beyoncé is not a feminist because our understanding of the word might not be flexible enough, yet. And by our, I mean both those of us who denounce feminists as shrill brassiere-disavowing man hating harpies who are angry because they can’t find a husband, and those of us who for the sake of wanting to guard against such narrowing perceptions often marshal a version of respectability politics that inflexibly polices the boundaries of what can/should be considered feminist. This dichotomy is not meant to be representative of all the relations and responses to this particular f-word that exists. I cannot even begin to encompass all that and really all I would be doing anyway is mounting of caveat on top of caveat and who really wants to read that kind of quibble? Suffice it to say what Beyoncé is doing today cannot be conceptualized according to the current terms of discourse, for some of the same reasons Roxane Gay calls herself a “bad feminist.” That’s the vein I’m working here.
From “On The Run” on HBO
In calling herself a bad feminist, Gay highlights the distinctions between feminism and “Professional Feminists,” the latter of whom we place on “Feminist Pedestals” (Bad Feminist xi). In some ways, Beyoncé is deliberately asking us to insert her into Pedestal Feminism, and that might be counterproductive to some of the legitimate gains her participation in these discourses can bring – if only because it restricts us to questions of whether or not she is a feminist. As Gay puts it, “people who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up.” I, like Gay, and like Beyoncé “regularly fuck it up. Consider [us] already knocked off” (Bad Feminist xi). For my purpose here, this postlapsarian position is useful for shedding some of the identarian baggage that presents barriers to thinking about particular people (and texts), because we require them to be representatives of some identity-based platform or another. Such representation is of course important and necessary work that we cannot fully afford to leave behind, especially for the world’s various marginalized and underrepresented people. But church, it is also dangerously limited and our inability/refusal to confront such limitations perpetuates some of the problems the good work of identity politics aims to solve.
Let me use the every-present example of Shonda Rhimes to shed some light on what I mean here. (I kinda wish they would just let Sister Shonda be though, f’real.) As the only successful African American female show-runner Rhimes hardly ever gets asked anything, for public consumption, this is not related to the politics of racial and gendered underrepresentation on television and in American life. She is a mouthpiece that we are incredibly lucky to have, but we only ever ask her to talk about one thing – race and black womanhood in America and on TV. How come we don’t ask Vince Gilligan or Aaron Sorkin similar questions? Hey Vince, what strides have you made in mitigating the underrepresentation of white me–. Never mind. I hope you get my point. How come we don’t ask Rhimes more questions about craft and process? Linda Holmes’ piece for NPR this week helped me in a big way to think about this. She had to interview Rhimes after Stanley-gate and wrote a thoughtful piece about “Only Ones.” In the article Rhimes tells Holmes that
She’d learned … that on shows with Only One (only one woman, only one black character, only one Asian person, only one gay character), that’s when the Only One is required to be about nothing except that characteristic. She said her hope was in part that just by having more than Only One on her shows, she gave those characters room to develop and to have other things about them be important. She hopes that — and here’s the rub — by consciously increasing diversity overall she makes the race of each character less limiting, less defining.
In invoking the problem of the Only Ones, I’m intentionally dislocating Beyoncé both from the sphere of feminist disavowals and the Feminist Pedestal. I am hoping that doing so will help me to consider her public persona in less limiting ways, ways that in turn can tell us something about how Bey not only negotiates a complicated world of technology-based image consumption but also exerts a unique and powerful level of control. I am interested in what this shift in how we talk about Beyoncé can then tell us about both the progress women have made and the work we still have to do.
(I hope) it goes without saying that this is not a disavowal of feminism. I am a feminist. <– That is the first time I have said that out loud, acknowledging it for myself and to you. Claiming feminism for myself, like Gay does, but without the caveat/modifier “bad,” involves elasticizing the term to fit the fact that though we can/should all believe in equality (not sameness but equality) for all women. we can/should also understand that “feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves” (Bad Feminist xii). Moreover, we can/should understand that our varying experiences as men, women, and everything in the spaces between does not put us in a “position to tell women [or anyone for that matter] of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like” (Bad Feminist xii). As feminists, supporting access to choice is important.
With this assistance from Gay, then, I begin by declaring that Beyoncé is not feminist—somewhat disingenuously (duh!), because my ultimate goal is to take us closer to what figures like Beyoncé are doing. As we say in Jamaican parlance, we haffi wheel an’ come again fi do dat. My goal here is to think about what Beyoncé is doing in relation to contemporary discourses of femaleness and my hope is to return her (eventually) to feminism, not only because she is deliberately casting her public persona as feminist, but because my gut tells me feminism needs her. Feminism needs her to help us break out of the Pedestal paradigm that creates the unproductive compartmentalization and alienation that has plagued feminism since Seneca Falls. Feminism needs Beyoncé to become a more humanly dynamic movement. Beyoncé wanting in on the f word might be the most productive thing to happen since Lean In made more than a few of us want to jump ship. But we can only begin to see this if we attend to the compelling strides she is making in the interrelated discourses of beauty standards, privacy, and love.
Since your patience with me and this Beyoncé business might be wearing thin by this point, let me preview where I’m going in the next couple thousand (yes thousand) words or so; you know, so you stay with me and don’t decide to duck out right after communion. By (temporarily) dislocating Beyoncé from feminism, I hope to show you how she represents productive shifts and possibilities in three areas that also fall under feminism’s purview: 1. The Carters, that is Beyoncé along with her husband Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) are re-configuring the traditional nuclear family script in ways that are everything but traditional. It is a reinhabiting if you will. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is crucial to my thinking here about all the things that are hopeful and beautiful about this particular reconfiguration. 2. Beyoncé is re-scripting the rules of privacy and access to information in an age where celebrities cannot keep their naked pictures private. What she chooses to show us is what we see. 3. This is related to 2 and will probably be the least palatable portion of this discussion, but if you’re still with me at this point, I know you are down for swishing this around a little bit – you know, giving yourself over to the oaky tannin. Beyoncé’s strategic exposure of the female body – her own and those of the dancers who accompany her on stage – presents an opportunity for thinking about how we continue to use women’s bodies to shame them and offers us an out of sorts.
Ok, ready to join me on a thought experiment that positions the public narrative of Beyoncé and her family next to the narratives of family presented in The Bluest Eye? If you haven’t read it, close the computer, go read it and come back. Not because you necessarily need to have read it to follow me here, I will give you the background you need to follow me, but you should stop reading my lengthy missive and go read this very important novel for thinking about race, gender, and class in America in ways that attend to but also transcend the specificity of historical context. Morrison’s book is devastating not only because of what happens to just about everyone in it, but also because its representation of the way we approach family, female bodies, sexuality and beauty has not come nearly far enough since the novel’s post-Civil Rights movement release in 1970. The destructive impossibilities of unnatural and unattainable standards of beauty for some and the insidious effect of these standards on our capacities to love and appreciate each other in sexual and familial relationships still linger too prominently in our everyday 2014 lives.
The way many read this novel is that it is a story about an eleven year old black girl who is just shat upon by too many people in this novel, for no other reason than they have been shat upon themselves. Ugliness, how ugliness is determined, the way beauty is contingent on rendering others as ugly, and the destructive effects on those imbued with ugliness are at the center of all the novel’s conflicts. It is this girl, Pecola’s story, and it is devastating not only because her father rapes her and she becomes pregnant, but also because she thinks having blue eyes will solve her ugliness problem and save her. Blue eyes, for Pecola, are the ultimate symbol of beauty that, if she possessed them, would mean she would be seen by others as beautiful – worthy of human kindness – rather than as an ugly black child deserving/requiring nothing else beyond being shat upon. The novel is set in the year between 1940 and 1941, when the ultimate compliment that a black girl could receive was being likened to Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers.
The Carters on stage at 2014 MYV VMAs
If in the The Bluest Eye Morrison exposes the pernicious yet idealized pervasiveness of a specific brand of beauty exemplified by white film stars like Rogers, Garbo, and Shirley Temple, as well as actual little white girls in the novel who are described in all the consumptive sugary softness of marshmallow Peeps, she also exposes this brand of idealized beauty’s role in undermining black family life through destructive (and in the case of the novel violent) self-alienation. With this in mind, the novel also allows us to re-examine what we, as readers consider normal, beautiful and desirable. What if in the day of the novel, Pecola’s mother Pauline could see Beyoncé on screen with her black husband holding their child? If The Bluest Eye’s troubling of beauty and familial scripts convicted us, as readers, in our desire for clearly alienating and problematic ideals, the Carters are recouping and retranslating these ideals. Again, what if Pauline had On The Run to watch instead of Imitation of Life?
This is in no way an unproblematized reading of the nuclear family ideal 2.0 that the Carters offer us. It is a heteronormative union, which is problematic in more ways that we can take on in this medium at this point. Moreover, Beyoncé is still strutting it in the light skin that conveys problems of colorism and the truly legit weaves that tell us Eurocentric standards of beauty still have glamour on lock. And yes, it is problematic that it is the light skinned chick that gets to (publicly) live a thoroughly glamorized version of the storybook, happily-ever-after, dolce vita.
While the performative genealogy that Beyoncé draws on in On The Run doesn’t necessarily dissolve these issues (a problem with Pedestal Feminism because the infallibility of humans means one is not a conduit for the complete dissolution of anything), it does give us a more expanded way to think about how, as a stage persona, she gives us more than the problems. It isn’t coincidental that the tour, among the projected images, lights, and pyro, includes images of Josephine Baker herself and of ZouZou as played by Josephine Baker. What does this have to do with Beyoncé and her weaves? Well, nobody today talks about Baker’s performances as anything but groundbreaking, for their time, both in terms of gender and race, even if—as always – American audiences were slow to catch on. One should also not miss the play on persona here in the invocation of Baker portrayal of ZouZou – who remains iconic for us today mostly through the performance where she sings in a gilded cage draped in risqué places by nothing but feathers or the famous banana costume, which was pearls and a skirt made from, you guessed it, bedazzled bananas. Here Beyoncé identifies herself with a performer who simultaneously played along with the rules of performance for black women, trading on her sexuality, but also exerted both a positive vision of black beauty and a powerful sense of artistic agency
Blue Ivy Carter, her father Shawn Jay-Z Carter, and Kelly Rowland at the 2014 MTV VMAs
But I’m getting ahead of myself – what I want to pull into this conversation about beauty and black femininity is Blue Ivy, the Carters’ two-year-old daughter. I know, I know, we should really leave Blue out of it; she’s a toddler for God’s sake. But we haven’t left her out of it and this is perhaps the paradoxical gift that is the careful access that the couple grants the public to their daughter. There are those among us who have thought it would be funny to start a petition, admonishing Beyoncé for her neglect of Blue’s grooming. Yep. You read right, a petition, later defended as a joke, for admonishing a black mother for not combing her black daughter’s hair. Now, I grew up in a context where before I left the house, my hair had to be combed, and it also had to be combed before bed so the combing before leaving the house the next day would not be an ordeal for me, my mother, my father or whoever else had hair wrangling responsibilities on any given day. This is absolutely not to say my mother was anything like Pauline or Geraldine from The Bluest Eye, but somewhere along the way the idea that being groomed meant taming my wild hair was seeded in my consciousness. I was twenty-seven years old before I encountered a stylist who treated my hair on its own terms and showed me how to wear it for itself. For too long styling black hair has been about problem solving rather than just letting it be. Not even two-year-old babies are immune, church. When Beyoncé lets us see her daughter, we see Blue Ivy wearing her hair as it grows out of her head, naturally. Forgive the corniness, but as a woman who needs to travel from where she lives in the Midwest to Miami for her hair to be treated on its own terms, as hair and not a beast to be tamed, Beyoncé and Blue strike a beautiful contrast. As a woman who continues to sit in a stylist’s chair feeling apologetic for the problem that is her hair, Blue at the VMAs with her hair adorned by nothing but a headband is a beautiful thing. I could also talk about the beauty of the Carter’s portrayal of partnership and marriage, but that is for another day. I still have two points to go.
On to privacy. Sure, laugh if you will and criticize the arrogance that seems to belie Beyoncé’s room that contains “virtually every existing photograph of Beyoncé, starting with the very first frames taken of Destiny’s Child, the ’90s girl group she once fronted; every interview she’s ever done; every video of every show she’s ever performed; every diary entry she’s ever recorded while looking into the unblinking eye of her laptop.” But when you are done laughing and/or dogging her as self-centered and just too damn much, think about what such careful curating suggests about image control and the unprecedented power Beyoncé is able to wield over her own public image. I keep using words like image, persona, and portray, because what we see in pictures, on stage, and moving on screens are not these people. Beyoncé is in considerable control of what we see her persona as. We know that for Beyoncé in particular, the control of image production and dissemination is very important.
She, Kerry Washington, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are very similar in this regard. I saw Adichie read last year and she refused to answer a question from the audience about her marital status. More precisely, when asked why she didn’t take her husband’s name – an un-African thing to do, according to the questioner—Adichie responded, “Next question please.” She later returned to that question and tackled the business of un-Africanness, contending that people are the dynamic forces that determine cultural practices and not the other way around. She also noted that had she been a male writer, no one would be asking her in that venue about her marital status. She never did confirm her marital status and never has, anywhere. For those so inclined (as I am) a Google search with the terms “Adichie husband” should satisfy your curiosity. That being said, when women like Adichie manage to eschew this kind of gendered scrutiny via access to her personal life, I am actually a little disturbed by the absence of any acknowledgement that this control exists, that they possess it. Where are the conversations about what it means for women to have this much image control, today, when other celebrities have so very little? With all the talk about white people Columbusing butts and braids, we are clearly thinking about the contingencies of who gets credit when a particular thing enters various locations in the mainstream public sphere, and under what conditions; why not see this in relation to the strategies of control that figures like Beyoncé and Adichie exercise?
What does it mean, when all things celebrity wedding are plastered everywhere (I mean enough of Lauren Conrad already!), for everyone, even those who don’t care to see, for Beyoncé and her husband to keep the images from their own wedding private? Slate describes that last seven minutes of the On the Run concert, where in a mash up of “Forever Young” and “Halo” the couple reveal never-before-seen footage of their engagement, their wedding, their pregnancy, the birth of their daughter, family vacations, as the best part of the show. The images are this striking because we had never seen any of it before. The concept of never-before-seen footage of the life of any celebrity, much less a pair of celebrities as famous as Jay and Bey, is becoming more and more rarer. How come we haven’t noticed that this couple not only keeps shit on tight lock, but that they are able to also capitalize on that privacy, and thus profit immensely from manipulating the demand and supply chain of our voyeuristic appetites? We had epic conniptions when Brangelina sold the rights for the first authorized image of their first-born, but somehow remain unable to think about what the Carters are doing with their control of their own image in the same conversation.
But now we must roll on to the third thing about Sister Bey that I would like to help us think about in more flexible ways. The fear and anxiety attendant upon the horrendous breaches of privacy that is the public exposure of naked pictures is contingent on women feeling shame about their bodies. Indeed, it was this image in particular, bottoms up vulvas out, that gave me the most difficulty in joining Beyoncé and feminism together in my mind. I know too much about the dangerous objectification of women through their bodies to not be disturbed by what looks like a tremendously privileged woman objectifying other women and then having the nerve to call it feminism. Church, I know 3 PM is drawing nigh and we been here since 9, but again, this is why I needed to set feminism in the corner for a bit, so I could think about why the exposure of my naked body continues to be something I consider a weapon that can be used against me, a weapon whose destructiveness is triggered by shame.
Bottoms up, vulvas out 2014 MTV VMAs
Bottoms up and vulvas out, I argue, can be thought about as a way of demystifying, publicly, the shame associated with codifying respectability through the privatizing/hiding of bodies and the way that public revelation of private things (willingly and unwillingly) in turn equates to all things lewd, lascivious, and shameful. Should we dislodge this completely from the very real problems of the objectification of female bodies? Hell no. But are we not sophisticated enough to hold multiple things together at the same time? Are we comfortable with letting go of the insight to be gained in body shaming so that we can continue to decry objectification? As Elizabeth Plank said this past week, “Nude photos won’t go away. But we may be able to limit their power over use once women stop believing that their bodies can be used to punish them. Behind every successful women, there’s a naked body, and that shouldn’t be something that women should have to fear.” Butts up, vulvas out made me (sometimes still makes me) uncomfortable, but this is a discomfort that I need to be reflexive about. Without it, I might not think as hard as I am about the shame I sometimes experience about my own body. We need to examine the responses we have when we see things like the word vulva being used multiple times in one really long essay, when we see things like actual vulvas protruding in a concert performance for the VMAs. If we set aside a few things – like our sense of proper feminist posturing – and engage our own revulsion and anxieties about our bodies, Beyoncé might not have to disrupt business as usual with vulvas and pixilated screens that declare FEMINIST after the pole-dancing portion of the set-list.
The thing is, church (and I’m wrapping it up now), when we think about things together and as our minds allow, with a sense of simultaneity, we see that Emma Watson said the same things at the UN’s inaugural “He For She” campaign event last week that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her “We Should All Be Feminists” talk at a TEDxEuston event last year, a clip of which appeared this past spring in Beyoncé’s track “Flawless.” During the On The Run Tour, the track was always introduced by a backdrop that declared FEMINIST in bright white. The portion of the speech that Beyoncé samples includes observations like “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.” On stage with her husband during the tour, Queen Bey dramatizes for us how as a woman she can be dizzyingly successful, and dominate a stage, while sharing the spotlight with her similarly successful husband. Anyone who has read Morrison’s rendering of Pauline and Cholly falling out of love in The Bluest Eye can also understand why this equality is a powerful thing. Individually Bey and Jay make bank. Together? Shoot. I don’t have a word for what they make together. A public command of female sexuality is everything here, as is evident by this additional portion of the Adichie sample: “we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are.” A part of this that is missing but is also in the talk and now available in print is the following “we police girls. We praise girls for virginity but we don’t praise boys for virginity (and it makes me wonder how exactly this is supposed to work out, since the loss of virginity is a process that usually involves two people of opposite genders.)”
So many of us learned that successful feminism relied on shifting how we socialize girls and boys and on being attentive to the healthy emotional development of boys before Watson delivered her message at the UN, because Beyoncé used Adichie’s words to declare her feminism. My point here is this: instead of thinking about whether or not we should let Beyoncé sit at the table, I find it much more productive to think about how she enables a more dynamic spread.