Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

Beyoncé: A feminist in her own terms

Beyoncé is undoubtedly one of my generations’ most iconic and influential global figures and sheroes. Titans such as Oprah Winfrey, Barack and Michelle Obama, and our very own Nelson Mandela have hailed and expressed awe at her extraordinary talent, groundedness and the humble personality she oozes. At just 32 years she has a net worth estimated at just under $400-million (about three billion in rands), 17 Grammy Awards, is on the top of countless “power” lists among other notable achievements. Yet, as loved as she is, the impact of the self-proclaimed “modern-day feminist” messages through her songs have for a long time been the subject of much contestation especially in relation to whether they negatively or positively push forward the feminist agenda of ending patriarchal domination (and creating equality across genders).

In the early hours of Friday the 13th, she released her fifth album and I rushed to iTunes to get the album simply self-titled: Beyoncé. As many have noted, from the first song on the album, there is something beautifully different about this new album. She launches the album with the vulnerable and powerful “Pretty Hurts”, a journey into societal expectations for perfection. She shows us how “perfection is a disease of a nation” that keeps us from examining our souls (which we can’t “see”) and yet we focus so much on the external “surgery” in our desire to construct the perfect self. She asks us to look at the ways in which we hurt ourselves in our hunger for external validation while our souls suffer: “When you’re alone all by yourself / and you’re lying in your bed / [and your] illusion has been shed / are you happy with yourself?” she asks.

What is interesting about this song, beyond a critical look at quest for beauty and perfection and the harm it does it our souls, is that it is also a critique of the ultra-consumerism that accompanies the quest for perfection: the “what you wear is all that matters” mentality, the “TV says bigger is better” lifestyle, and the “Vogue says thinner is better” plastic-surgery obsession. In “Haunted” she shares her distrust of record labels (which are known to exploit singers). The conflict in this song is between the struggles of the working class ie the “people on the planet / working 9 to 5 just to stay alive” and a yearning for bigger dreams beyond the “boring” 9 to 5 – but how much of herself is she willing to give and sell for this life? How will it haunt her?

“Flawless” features commentary from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk “We should all be feminists”. She starts the song by telling (presumably) young women that she knows that when they were little girls they dreamt of being in her world, and that they should never forget that and hence they (“bitches”) should “bow down”. She further affirms that no one should ever think she is (presumably) Jay-Z’s “little wife / don’t get it twisted / [this is] my shit”. While this might be interpreted as aggressive, misogynistic and shallow, Adichie comes in to remind us:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls you can have ambition, but not too much. [Girls] should aim to be successful, but not too successful or otherwise you will threaten the man … but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?” she asks.

There is a lot to say about Beyoncé, because the album, like Beyoncé herself, is inspiring, complex and problematic (She calls other women “bitches”). She is vulnerable, dominating and ultra-sexual all at once. She is didactic, shallow and profound.

In the Gradient Lair essay, “Beyoncé’s new self-titled album is a manifesto of black womanhood and freedom”, it’s noted the album “celebrates the multiple facets of black womanhood and while it won’t be a portrait that speaks to ‘every’ black woman’s notion of womanhood, it is quite a full portrait and one that [is] a creative and emotional revolution from her admittedly great previous work.”

I would take it further: Beyoncé is launching a challenge to us all, not only black women, but everyone, especially men to examine our gender biases and the ways we sexually shame women for using their sexuality, money and bodies (and the ways these do not equally apply to men). She sings unapologetically about owning her sexuality and sexual pleasure (drunk in love), dealing with grief (heaven), love (XO), and parenting (blue) among others. As a black woman artist operating under the confines of a white supremacist industry overbearing with the sexualised (heterosexual) male gaze and desire, “Beyoncé” seems to be Beyoncé’s attempt at redefining for herself what her feminism and womanism will look like, and that’s great.

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  • 15 Responses to “Beyoncé: A feminist in her own terms”

    1. Great read and interesting points, although I have a bone to pick with this “in her own terms’ thing. If feminism gains its meaning depending on the people who define it, then some of the most oppressive people can claim they are feminist and therefore their practices are fine . And I certainly don’t think ordering “bitches” to ‘bow down’ for you constitutes the struggles of women and gender equity. It just means ‘exalt me, ‘bitches’.

      You mention that she has a song where she critiques ultra consumerism and yet you yourself proceed to mention her net worth, thereby not only contradicting yourself but also operating from the view that consumption is power. She truly is “an established” female because she has so much money, suggesting that money forms part of the requirement for being considered an ‘inspiring’ woman, and that the accumulation of material reflects empowerment. This cannot be brought here in Africa, where gender equity and empowerment ought to manifest in more urgent ways than how much you have.

      She may be interpreted as inspiring to black women through her strong work ethic (although a domestic worker works harder in my view), but I am not completely sold on this idea either. She has a compulsory blonde weave in her new videos and lighting, make up that blatantly imitates the looks of a white woman. The only way she could be inspiring to them is by suggesting that being as close in appearance as one can get to a Caucasian woman is…

      December 16, 2013 at 10:11 am
    2. Lisa #

      I cannot see how Beyonce is any more a feminist than any well know singer.

      I think it comes down to having the hots for her :-)

      December 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm
    3. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Lisa, this lady is filthy rich and independent so, she can be a feminists.

      December 17, 2013 at 3:53 pm
    4. Lisa #

      Wealth doesn’t define feminism. Like Sipho says, feminism is not defined by those who call themselves feminists.

      December 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm
    5. J.J. #

      Any female can be a feminist if she so pleases… as the definition has become so vague that nobody knows anymore what or who exactly a feminist is, or is meant to be, or what feminism really stands for.

      Everything and anything can go and goes under the banner of female empowerment. So, anything that seems subjectively empowering to a woman, or to women in general, can be seen as feminism, even those things which are in fact dis-empowering.

      It matter’s not. If it provides advantage, privelage, comfort or wealth or indeed equality, it “is” feminism, because “feminism empowers”, for better or worse.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm
    6. Gcobani Qambela

      Thank you everyone for the comments.

      @Sipho: Thanks for the careful readings and your critique(s). There’s a lot to say from your comment which I am not sure I can address fully in one comment but I will try. The first thing re “in her own terms”, I specifically chose that because there is, and has never been *one* united definition of what feminism is. In the American context from which Beyoncé operates for instance, there is often what some refer to as “black feminism” and “white feminism”, “African feminism” and “western feminism” and so on. But despite the contested nature of what feminism means, the uniting factor is a commitment to end patriarchal domination, so no, not anyone can just claim feminism “in their own terms”, while they perpetuate patriarchal dominance (which is not what Beyoncé is doing).

      I use “in her own terms” here to show that despite the industry she works in which would encourage her being subservient to males, she is working to carve her own feminism in her work. This includes full control and choice over with whom and when she will use her sexuality. See this article on 5 lessons in modern feminism from Beyoncé’s album: http://ideas.time.com/2013/12/17/flawless-5-lessons-in-modern-feminism-from-beyonce/

      continued below…

      December 18, 2013 at 5:41 pm
    7. Gcobani Qambela


      Secondly, I am not contradicting myself by mentioning her net worth. I mention her net worth in reference to what it means to be a 32 year old (black) woman in our current climate globally and to emphasise how much she has transgressed in order to attain that at such a young age. The glorification is not that she has so much money or that consumption is power, but that for many women (not always) money does allow more choice with what they do with their bodies and sexuality. Beyoncé herself has said she worked so hard so that by the time she is 30 she could manage and control herself, which she has done and that is something worth admiring. So money is empowering, especially for many black women, as it allows freedom and choice, although I would argue not always on its *own* in our current global capitalistic world.

      Thirdly, I also don’t understand how you can argue this cannot be brought to Africa, when for instance, a Nigerian feminist is getting not only paid, but her ideas around feminism are being pushed to millions of young men and women across all genders who will be buying the album, not only in Africa but the world over (not to mention what this exposure is going to do for her book sales). That is global sistership too that Beyonce is promoting there.

      continued below…

      December 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm
    8. Gcobani Qambela

      This is not a competition between whether domestic workers work harder or lesser than Beyoncé, but I tried to show in the piece that it’s about freedom and black womanhood – a young woman coming fully into herself. The larger question is how we then ensure that other young (black) women are able to own themselves so they can make their own choices about what to do with their lives. I do not think it is unfeminist for a black woman to choose to wear a blonde wig, or look like a “white woman” in her video, if anything the attempt to control black women’s bodies is the most unfeminist thing to do.

      I hope I have answered you adequately. Thank you for reading.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:44 pm
    9. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Lisa, wealth gives a woman a lot of freedom because she no longer needs a man to provide for her. This is why women in affluent countries have a lot of freedom because of their ability to provide for themselves.

      December 19, 2013 at 5:49 am
    10. J.J. #

      Gcobani Qambela #

      …”use her sexuality”…

      Using sexuality for material profits (and other benefits) in itself is a controversial (modern day) add-on to what feminism (used to) mean/s or is meant to stand for…

      December 19, 2013 at 10:40 am
    11. J.J. #

      So basically feminism now stands for a woman to have the right to exploit her own sexuality (self-objectification) for material gain “on her terms”, while fighting the misogynists (!) and patriarchs (!) in the music and fashion industries who do that.

      There’s only one problem – for women to be exploited in those industries they have to submit themselves to those industries (TO exploitation – nobody can claim ignorance, except maybe the uttermost naive young women, lacking both consciousness and education) – the drawing card being income and wealth. These are conscious choices made by them.

      In order to “free themselves” from the exploitation – if I understand the Beyonce argument properly (which they submitted themselves to) they exploit their own sexuality to reach the same objectives.

      So how exactly did the right(fight for) to equality move to the right to self-objectification and self exploitation of one’s sexuality for material gain?

      December 19, 2013 at 10:57 am
    12. J.J. #

      “I say that it’s men being exploited through their weakness for the female form.”

      And this is exactly where the “empowerment” element comes in for feminists.

      December 19, 2013 at 11:05 am
    13. Merrian #

      The best things I’ve seen on this topic is here: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/12/defending-beyonce-black-feminists-white-feminists-line-sand/

      It really does a good job of not sweeping key issues under the rug. I HIGHLY recommend it.

      I do want to add one thing. I listened to the whole album, and I watched all the videos. I’m going to share how I PRESONALLY felt with the experience. Overall, I felt assulted. First I was highly disappointed by flawless.I DID wanted to be her when I was a little girl, so I should bow down? And the Adichie quote is supposed to make me feel better after pointing out my insecurities? The quote says Beyonce is allowed to be who is is, but how does that equate with me “bowing down”. It doesn’t, and connecting the two very unrelated verses doesn’t make up for the fact that she’s buying into the partiarchial notion of a hierarchy (aka some women are better at being women than others) within womanhood, the VERY HIERARCHY that keeps us DISCONNECTED FROM EACH OTHER as women. It is OPPRESSIVE to say I am BETTER THAN YOU. ITS THE DEFINITION OF OPPRESSION. AND IT ANGERS ME, THAT THIS SONG IS BEING USED AS A WAY TO POPULARIZE A NOTION (FEMINISM) THAT IS FUNDAMENTALLY AGAINST OPPRESSION. sorry I know I’m not being very scholarly in my emotional response. I watched all 16 videos and by the end found myself wanting to have a bigger but, tighter thighs, wear more makeup, find better ways to please a man and I didn’t even realized that…

      January 1, 2014 at 6:00 pm
    14. Merrian #

      was the case, until I was thought that my new years resolution should suddenly be to do more leg and butt excercises, and look better in the new year. I wonder how many other women, especially young women who adore her, are being influenced by the both subtle and not so subtle messaging. She says pretty hurts then bombards you with images of every inch of her perfect beauty. I’m cool with Beyonce, but to pretend like she isn’t adding to oppression because she is “doing it on her own terms” is not looking at the bigger picture. so what shes a millionaire, she was groomed to be an entertainer a beauty queen (as we are reminded of over and over in her videos… pretty hurts is the ONLY one where she acts like her trophy’s are anything less than symbols of accomplishment.) Strippers and sex workers make good money, should I do that to liberate myself from a man? Sure do it if you want to, but to say those industries are anything less that oppressive because the woman is the pimp would be absurd. She made her millions doing exactly what the entertainment industry wants black women to do. Beyonce does a lot of things for women in general, and I would argue that songs like Irreplaceable or Best thing I never had, are more anthems of popular feminist revolution than any song on this album, as they empower women to think like a woman who if flawless and not settle for being treated any kind of way. That was way longer than I anticipated sorry and thanks for reading if you go…

      January 1, 2014 at 6:27 pm

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