In the TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, now widely famous because excerpts of it have been featured in a song off the all-new Beyoncé album (titled BEYONCÉ), she says the best feminist she knows is her brother, who is, she assures you, very masculine. Adichie is very much a spokesperson for the young, articulate, optimistic post-feminist world she inhabits: the one in which educated, empowered young women are starting to reclaim the term ‘feminist’ by attributing to it different meanings than our mothers did. This is the part where we say, ‘We are feminists, but we don’t hate men; we are feminists, and we recognize that patriarchy is bad for all of us, not just women; we are feminists, and things like violence against women are not just female issues, they are social issues – it is not just my problem, it is our problem; we are feminists that want the involvement of men in feminism; we no longer need to subscribe to masculine ideas and manifestations of power to assert our power – we don’t need to suit up, we don’t need to act like men; we are feminists and we can embrace our femininity, our femaleness, our sexuality and not be labelled sluts, and not label each other sluts, because we are no longer scared or insecure.’
Adichie says in this talk that she is a feminist who ‘likes lip-gloss and wears high-heels, for herself but not for men’ – she says this in an almost tongue-in-cheek manner; this idea is too loaded to carry off in a single sentence. The idea of dressing up, asserting ourselves through our clothes, our make-up and our behaviour as sexual beings, is so loaded. The post-feminist generation are happy to proclaim ‘we do not do it for men’ – but it is, now, so hard to tell. Our minds have been conditioned too long, it is now almost impossible to view female sexuality separately from its relationship to male sexuality, whereas it’s not necessarily true the other way around. Beyoncé herself said in an interview with GQ earlier this year that men define what’s sexy. She also said, ‘They define what’s feminine’, which perfectly articulates the post-feminism feminist’s dilemma.
If the politics of female sexuality is loaded, then the politics of black female sexuality is even more loaded, particularly within the framework of black popular culture. Of course, it is a fact that the use of the black female body as the object of white male desire goes back to colonization – but for now, let’s not go there. The image of female sexuality has been manufactured and used in a very specific way in much of modern black pop culture. The rap and hip-hop industries have used the female body as an object of male desire and the idea of female sexuality as nothing more than a conquest for male power and dominance. The image of the (fully clothed) black male rap/hip-hop artist surrounded by scantily-clad gyrating women, as he raps or sings about his masculinity, sexual skill, and most often, how he plans to sexually dominate one or more of the women, is not one new to us – in fact it is this image that has endured in music videos consistently, over years. What happens when black female artists choose to present themselves this way? What happens when she begins to sing about her own sexual prowess and how she plans to dominate the man? What if she sings that she enjoys being dominated?
The question everyone is asking is this: can Beyoncé be sexy – put it out there, wear those clothes. gyrate like that, want to please men – and still be a feminist? Underneath this lurks the question for us all: can we be sexy in the way that we want, even in the ways that men want, and still be feminists? This is the part of the post-feminism feminist’s dilemma that BEYONCÉ addresses head-on.
BEYONCÉ is full of sex, and that’s really the only way to say it – but it is empowered sex. More than a few songs on the album directly refer to her own sexual prowess and skill and the videos use explicit erotic imagery to portray her in an unapologetic, no-holds-barred manner. This is no longer the artist of ‘Halo’ fame. The music is bold and the imagery is bolder. The sex is not just sexy – it’s dirty and bizarre. Beyoncé in this album is fierce, aggressive, a gangster, a thug. The feminism in BEYONCÉ is sometimes subtle and sometimes direct – she fights body image, she challenges stereotypes, she questions the double standards applied to the genders, she talks about sex and pleasure. But in some way, the biggest feminist statement it makes is that it is entirely personal – it is about her.
BEYONCÉ embraces the complexity of womanhood through mapping, in a rather detailed and utterly personal way, the trajectory of her own life. Several songs are prefaced with clips and sound-bytes from her childhood; we are treated to glimpses of the child-Beyoncé with her girl-group; we see her life as a series of competitions and pageants. The album therefore seems somehow haunted by the ghost of Michael Jackson – its deeply confessional nature allows us insight into an intense childhood under immense pressure. Constantly, we are being reminded of how hard she has worked and how much she has sacrificed to get where she is today. And where is she, and who is she today? Wife, mother, lover, high-powered business-woman, queen of the industry. She talks of love, marriage, fights, fear of separation, childbirth, motherhood – the interminable way in which things change and how she has no control over it. She confesses she has fears, insecurities, she can be ‘Jealous’ – but don’t judge her, she’s just human. She confesses her confusions, emotional conflicts and her disillusionment with the world and industry she is a part of and even with her own work (Ghost/Haunted) – ‘All this shit I hear is boring, all this shit I do is boring, all these record labels boring’. Jay-Z collaborates on the music and appears in videos, she is seen in starkly intimate moments with her daughter in a song/video about her, the bonus video ‘Grown Woman’ features more footage from her childhood and adolescence, Michelle and Kelly from Destiny’s Child feature in the video for ‘Superpower’. In true post-feminist style, it also celebrates a good, healthy relationship between two equals, both imperfect, and rejoices for the man who does not suffer from ‘the fragile ego’, another phenomenon Adichie refers to in her speech. Musically, Beyonce goes where she has never gone before, drawing from soul, trip-hop, dancehall, drum and bass and heavily from the electronic. The result is sophisticated; the beats are sometimes moody, at other times sexy. The videos are stylish and well-crafted; while some seem to share themes, they also vary drastically in content and style: ‘No Angel’ pays tribute to community, ‘Haunted’ shows a Madonna-like dance sequence in an eerie mansion full of bizarre tricks. In an unforgettable, powerful way, Beyoncé emerges through the many layers and when she does, is happy to be exposed and vulnerable in front of us all. In this incarnation, she is more confident, more wholesome, more commanding, more certain than she has ever been. She is no longer singing gratefully about someone loving her ‘Flaws and All’; now she is simply singing about being ‘Flawless’.
If the album is not overtly feminist, then it is at least an overt, arrogant, proud, assertive celebration of Beyoncé and what she’s achieved, which maybe a feminist statement in its own right. The track ‘Flawless’ (which is where Adichie’s speech is featured), though its being widely used as the reference point in discussions on feminism in this album, is more her way of reminding us she is boss; ‘Don’t think I’m just his little wife, don’t get it twisted, this is my shit’ she reminds us. The video of ‘Flawless’ gives us the message a little more clearly; the video is prefaced by a clip of Beyoncé’s childhood all-girl pop group being introduced in a competition. At the end of the video, a second clip is shown – a group made up of five white men wins the competition over the six young black girls, who become runners up.
And so, ‘Bow down, bitches’ becomes the statement of the album. Beyoncé is no longer second to anyone. On the flip-side, in ‘Grown Woman’ she recounts her past, joyfully and with no resentment. It is light and happy and optimistic, and in it, she makes the only statement worthy of going hand-in-hand with ‘Bow down, bitches’: she sings, ‘I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want’.