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Wednesday, 12 August 2015

This is your brain on Beyonce

Note: Lemonade has made this article obsolete. Perhaps it should be renamed, This Was Your Brain on Beyonce...until Formation.

Bey's surprise album was big news last year, and my main point of familiarity with the album was the ubiquitous, "I woke up like this" hashtags and tee shirts that followed in its wake, which I actually thought was a brilliant slice of irony, since no one in history has ever woke up looking like this:

Not even her.

So imagine my surprise when I found that the song it came from was actually a badly misjudged attempt at female empowerment, and my bewilderment that the world at large fell for it.

I'm gonna break the Beygency's gag order and lay this on the line: Beyonce is a mediocre feminist. Let's break down the song in question point by point:

I know when you were little girls
You dreamt of being in my world
Don't forget it, don't forget it
Respect that, bow down bitches (Crown!)
I took some time to live my life
But don't think I'm just his little wife
Don't get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches

An excellent point, Bey.  When we were little girls, we aspired to be as beautiful as the woman who sang Crazy in Love, Baby Boy and Deja Vu, videos that were always in heavy rotation on Much Music. She was as pretty as Britney or JLo, but with an actual voice. Apart from Gwen Stefani, the only pop singer who seemed like an actual talent and not a marketing gimmick. Bow down, indeed.

Flawless quotes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

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."
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don't teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes

I agree with all of that, and good for Bey for putting it out there. Then she sings:

You wake up, flawless
Post up, flawless
Ridin' round in it, flawless
Flossin' on that, flawless
This diamond, flawless
My diamond, flawless
This rock, flawless
My rock, flawless
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
Say I look so good tonight
God damn, God damn
Say I look so good tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn

How did a song about female empowerment become a song about beauty? And why is this woman considered any kind of beacon for critical thinking? The biggest barrier to gender equality is the still persistent belief that a woman's worth is equated with her physical appearance - moreover, that a woman will never have an opportunity to prove her worth unless she is physically attractive.

And all that talk about how we make women compete against each other for men? How we should raise girls to compete for jobs and accomplishments? Could we have got another verse about that, Beyoncé?

Momma taught me good home training
My Daddy taught me how to love my haters
My sister told me I should speak my mind
My man made me feel so God damn fine, I'm flawless!

Physical beauty is the most important thing, repeated like an incantation against evil: Flawless, damn I look good tonight.

It's a bit out of balance, is what I'm saying, especially for a song that's meant to be at the vanguard of a social movement. To which you will respond: You're reading too much into it! It's just one song! To which I say:

(1) If you have a spoken passage by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you're asking people to read into it. You can't claim to have something important to say, and then ask that no one listen to closely to it.

(2) It's not just one song.

You will never see Beyonce looking less than a 10, even in the video for "Pretty Hurts," the ugly, "no makeup" Beyonce is a knockout in a way that deflates the song somewhat. I'm not saying its a bad song, and can't hold it against her that she's beautiful. Though if this was the video, she would at least be putting her money where her mouth is, and that is something which Bey has for a decade, been categorically unwilling to do.

Recall one of Adichie's (and feminism)'s biggest grievances with patriarchy:

"We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are." This culture encourages women to fantasize about being what men want, rather than having an inner world of their own. It is acceptable to express your sexuality as long as it falls into the narrowly defined category of "attractive" and "not threatening".

And my oh my, how Beyonce's sexuality looks like a male record exec's wet dream.

Remember the video for Baby Boy, where Bey is greased up and dancing on a beach, while Sean Paul (business casual) sings on a bed of naked women?

Remember how that song was supposed to be about a sexy man?

Baby boy you stay on my mind
Fulfill my fantasies
I think about you all the time
I see you in my dreams

This woman's fantasy looks suspiciously like something a straight male record exec would dream up,

Like Where's Waldo for dirty old men
Deja Vu, same thing: She sings "Your sexiness is so appealing I can't let it go," but Beyonce is the only one working her ass off while Jay Z just hangs out like, "Yeah, I tapped that." (Full credit where credit is due, though, she was a way better dancer than Britney or Justin and I don't know why this didn't get more attention at the time)
All their collaborations in a nutshell.

More than ten years later, the videos for Partition and Drunk in Love - both meant to be about desire with the former explicitly setting itself up as a woman's fantasy - is the same old thing. Beyonce looks fabulous, works her ass off, and Jay sits around like Jabba the Hutt (at least in Drunk In Love she kind of looks likes she's having a good time). That's not equality. And it says something about the insidious power of patriarchy when women are taught to fantasize from a man's POV.

If Beyoncé's videos do represent a straight woman's desire, that desire is: "I want to be so beautiful that a famous man wants to fuck me." This is the exact opposite of empowering. It's downright regressive, a slap in the face to all those once-little girls that Beyonce compels to bow down before her, for the supposed gifts she gave to their self esteem.

When "Anacanda" came out, Nicki Minaj made this argument, to V magazine:
If a man did the same video with sexy women in it, no one would care. You’re talking about newspeople who don’t even know anything about hip-hop culture. It’s so disrespectful for them to even comment on something they have no idea about. They don’t say anything when they’re watching the Victoria’s Secret show and seeing boobs and thongs all day. Why? Shame on them. Shame on them for commenting on “Anaconda” and not commenting on the rest of the oversexualized business we’re a part of. 

 A male music video for Anaconda would feature Drake in a thong dancing with a bunch of nearly nude men, and, sorry Nicki, but people would lose their shit. Which is why we'll never see Jay Z dancing scantily clad on a beach while his wife sings about his sex appeal.

Because that would be threatening. That would actually spit in the face of gender inequality, and Beyoncé is not prepared to do that. If she did, the video for Run the World Girls would look like this*:
Yes, that's Madonna. And yes, Beyoncé's gender politics are musty and out of date compared to an act from twenty years ago.
You can't be universally beloved and a revolutionary. Really taking a stand means kissing half your fans goodbye in the hopes that twenty years from now you'll be remembered as a visionary (or, in the case of the lady above, be labelled a slut until you hit fifty and are rechristened "Slutty Granny" - because that's how much people hate women who actually challenge gender roles), and Beyoncé clearly is not ready to make that sacrifice.

Which brings me back to the first lines of "Flawless":

I know when you were little girls
You dreamt of being in my world
Don't forget it, don't forget it
Respect that, bow down bitches

When I was 13 I didn't realize how lopsided the depictions of women in the media were. It never struck me as strange that Naughty Girl and Baby Boy both starred an objectified woman and a fully clothed man. But I did feel small, and ugly, like I didn't deserve to have a voice until I was clear skinned and sexy as the women on TV, because in this culture beauty is still the qualifying step to personhood. Those without it need not apply. So imagine my disgust that a childhood has actually been playing for the other side all along, propagating and profit from the same inequality that causes young girls self esteem to plummet at adolescence, then asks me to bow down and be grateful for it. 

She's part of the problem. And the fans that see in her a beacon of hope: a shining example of how they too can have it all if they Just. Try. Harder, are kidding themselves.

On the upside, though, it's never too late to see why Madonna got excommunicated: 

*And the song would be called "Run the World (Women)" and would not have been written by a group of men.

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