Immediately after my last fall-quarter final, as I came back to my room and sat down envisioning the three weeks of utter relaxation that awaited me, I heard the news about Beyoncé’s new surprise midnight album release on iTunes. So long to my plans of doing absolutely nothing during the break: I was morally compelled to watch all the videos on repeat.
After the initial freakout, an apparently natural reaction (the album became the second best-selling digital album of 2013, having been released three weeks before the end of the year), fans were filled with doubts. With a feminist speech by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the track “Flawless,” but also many apparent displays of servitude to her husband (her latest tour was called “Mrs. Carter” for God’s sake!), is Beyoncé’s music feminist or the complete opposite?
To give a little background to anyone who hasn’t examined her album in depth (seriously?), the videos are full of oversexualized women (herself included, of course) and lines such as “I cooked this meal for you naked” (“Jealous”) and “I just wanna be the girl you like” (“Partition”).
None of this is exactly new to Beyoncé (remember “Naughty Girl”?). She has certainly gotten a fair amount of criticism for being “anti-feminist” before. I’m not going to claim that Beyoncé is the deepest artist of the 21st century, but I don’t think it is overreading to say that she is not so shallow as to release an album that claims to champion feminism yet oversexualizes women at the same time without thinking about the potential contradiction. For exactly that reason, I think her new album is a response to feminist criticism.
The idea is that she embraces the perfect wife stereotype because she wants to (and also only when she wants to, as shown in the lyrics of “Flawless”). She is not telling anyone else they have to do the same. What allows Beyoncé to be a feminist is the difference between rights and duties, obligation and free will. She sings about her right to be “the girl he likes,” a right she has found herself forced to defend due to what feminism has largely become, but never does she phrase that as a duty of all women. The album is about Beyoncé (isn’t that the title?), not about all women.
The analogous is true for any stereotype. It is wrong and often offensive to claim that everyone from a certain group adheres or should adhere to a given stereotype. But it is not wrong for an individual of that group to comply to the stereotype because he or she happens to be that way and enjoys it.
While her album can on one side be seen as a response to feminist critique, it also has parts that are themselves feminist. Some will think that the overt sexuality objectifies women, which I think is the case with some artists, but in this case it means she can be sexual and still defend gender equality (look out for the French passage in “Partition”).
I’ve witnessed many discussions in which girls were annoyed with what they perceived to be feminism today. They felt attacked by it because they enjoyed their occasional nail-painting or shopping sessions. Feminism is important in order to allow girls to deviate from that (and boys to jump in), but it is equally important that it does not force anyone to.
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