I am 100% certain that absolutely everyone is fed up of hearing me talk about Beyoncé. I’ve written about her quite a bit in the last few months. It isn’t because I’m her biggest fan, but more because I recognize what an amazing economic and political statement her latest album was, and it irks me to see the way so many people have been absolutely determined to downplay her accomplishments.
Beyoncé, a powerful, visible, and extremely famous black woman, managed to drop an album with no advance notice (and zero leaks!) sell over 800 thousand copies in just three days, and go platinum in just under a week. That’s a huge deal! And on top of that, she managed to do it with an album that saw her unabashedly embrace feminism; a concept she’s been pretty publicly inching towards for some time now.
Now this isn’t to suggest that these accomplishments mean either Beyoncé or her feminism is above reproach. Her continued association with Terry Richardson alone is enough to make me judge her, (just a little) but when the majority of criticism lobbied against her effectively scapegoats her for all the perceived problems within the feminist movement (Oversexualized! Too much focus on her marriage!) while refusing to view her music and public image through an intersectional lens, I get annoyed. Can we please let a black woman prosper?
What people keep forgetting is that Beyoncé is not required to be a perfect feminist. No one is. Such a magical unicorn simply does not exist. Contrary to popular belief, feminists are in fact human beings, (even Beyoncé!) and sometimes human beings mess up and get it wrong. To try to “revoke her feminist credentials” over her past mistakes reinforces the idea that feminism is an elitist club that does not welcome new members. And I haven’t even gotten to the pretty blatant racial double standard yet.
Personally, I love that Beyoncé has been fairly public about her slow transition from apprehension about feminism to fully embracing it. I think that it’s an honest reflection of the way most women come into feminism; bit by bit and piece by piece, slowly building on their understanding of the term, what it means, and how it applies to their life. I love that Beyoncé has admitted to watching videos about feminism on Youtube. For so many women, and especially women who look like her (myself included) the internet and popular culture is exactly how they came into feminism. It’s entertaining and refreshing to find that even Beyoncé, Ruler of The Universe, accesses feminism in this way, and in turn, contributes to this practice by inserting feminist ideals into her music. It also reinforces for me, that Beyoncé is figuring this thing out in exactly the same way the rest of us did, and she deserves the room to slowly and carefully expand her feminist understanding.
I’ve always loved Beyoncé’s music, but I didn’t really consider myself a full-fledged fan until after the release of her latest album. Looking back however, it’s clear to me that although Beyoncé has only just started cozying up to Feminism: The Ideology, she’s be flirting with it for almost the entirety of her career. From Bills, Bills, Bills to ***Flawless, feminist themes have always been a subtle presence in her music. So here, in approximate chronological order, is part one of “An Incomplete (Play)List And Critical Analysis of Beyoncé’s Feminist Evolution And Praxis Through Music.”
Part One: Skimming The Surface
In part one, I tackle Beyoncé’s music through the Destiny’s Child era, as well as Beyoncé’s first two albums. For the sake of brevity and accessibility, I will only be examining songs that were officially released as singles, and feature themes that can immediately be identified as “feminist adjacent.”
Within this time frame, it’s clear than Beyoncé’s songs are feminist in a fairly surface level, Spice Girls/Girl Power, way. The right messages are there, but with a few notable exceptions, the songs tend to focus on an abstract form of “female empowerment.” Conversely, the theme of financial independence is heavily and directly featured throughout. The songs are not particularly political, but they’re clearly on the “right side” of the conversation.
Bills, Bills, Bills: “You’re slowing asking me for things your money should be handling.” DC’s answer to No Scrubs, this song describes breaking up with a trifling boyfriend who doesn’t contribute to the couple’s expenses, but instead takes advantage of his girlfriends finances. Basically, the song says “If can’t pay all these bills you’ve racked up in my name, we’re through.” Getting out from under financial dependency and abuse? Definitely feminist.
Independent Women Part I:“Try to control me boy you get dismissed. Pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills. Always 50/50 in relationships.” Well with a name like Independent Women, it’s a pretty much given that this song is pretty feminist. The lyrics detail the fact that these women depend on themselves and don’t rely on men to provide for them. It also throws a few words for men who superficially try to pretend they have money to burn while relying on someone else’s labour, while aslo scoffing at men who think that having money gives them a license to try to control their girlfriend’s life or choices. It’s essentially a song that promotes female financial independence and security. I’m gonna go ahead and say definitely feminist.
Girl: “You don’t have to be hiding, don’t you be afraid to say he hurt you. I’m your girl, you’re my girl, we’re your girls. Don’t you know that we love you?” Using a Sex and The City parody as a framing device, the video for this song depicts Beyoncé and Michelle trying to get Kelly to open up about her problematic relationship as they can see the toll it is taking on her, and their attempts to help her escape from said bad (and later revealed to be abusive) relationship, by reaffirming their love for her and promising to support her and keep her safe. Complete with Kelly blaming herself for her boyfriend’s bad behaviour, and the other women assuring her that the boyfriend is the one with the problem, the song is a pretty intense show of feminine solidarity, made even more meaningful by the truth behind the verses. Definitely feminist.
Cater 2 You: “Baby I see you working hard, wanna let you know I’m proud, let you that I admire what you do.” This is the song I most often see cited as “the one we’ll just pretend didn’t happen” and I can understand why. Most of the lyrics promote a pretty traditional view of a woman’s “duty” to her husband, complete with bodily upkeep and rolling over when he crawls into bed. However, the reason I included this song is because if you pay attention, at no point does DC’s mystical boyfriend demand anything from her. The entire song details the things the women want to do for their men because of their love and respect for them, and their desire to pamper them as a reward for their hard work. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and I’d even argue that the fact that they’ve decided to do these things of their own free will makes it a pretty feminist sentiment. Feminism frowns on women being subservient to men without choice, but it
doesn’t shouldn’t frown on women who do so of their own volition. There’s nothing anti-feminist about wanting to cater to the person you love. Possibly feminist.
DANGEROUSLY IN LOVE
Me, Myself And I: “Took me some time but now I am strong, because I realize I got Me, Myself and I.” This is one of her less overtly feminist songs, but it definitely deserves inclusion. The lyrics describe Beyoncé resolving to depend on herself, and acknowledging the mistakes she has made by indulging in a relationship with an unreliable and unfaithful man. She accepts that these are lessons she had to learn the hard way, and promises herself she won’t make them again. Most importantly, she’s left her asshole boyfriend. Self-reliance, self-confidence and emotional maturity? Pretty feminist.
Irreplaceable: “You must not know bout me, you must know bout me. I will have another you by tomorrow, so don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.” The narrative of this song is Beyoncé kicking out yet an(other) unfaithful boyfriend she’s apparently been minding. She tells him in no uncertain terms that she won’t put up with a philandering partner because she knows she’s a catch and can easily find someone new who’s worthy and deserving of her black girl magic. She gleefully points him to the packing boxes she’s filled with his things and demands he return the keys to the car she bought him. Pretty much everything about it is amazing. So self-confidence, refusal to be disrespected by unfaithfulness, and dismissal of an exploitative boyfriend? Definitely feminist. (And if I remember correctly, the video for the song also marks one of the first non-concert appearances of The Suga Mamas, Beyoncé’s all female band.)
Upgrade U: “It’s very seldom that you’re blessed to find your equal. Still play my part and let you take the lead role believe me.” This song in particular highlights the apparent dynamic between Beyoncé and Jay Z that she tends to mention in interviews. She’s been criticized before for emphasizing Jay Z’s importance in her life, but there’s nothing wrong with having a fulfilling relationship that is mutually beneficial. Upgrade U is all about Beyoncé’s power to upgrade her man by introducing him to new things and helping him ascend to mogul status. She’s clearly okay with taking a step backwards occasionally to help her man succeed, and is unashamed of using that as a selling point with her spouse. She knows that she has the skill to be a vital piece of her husband’s success, and she want him to be open to allowing her to help him. Pretty Feminist.
There you have it. The most significant thing I noticed about Beyoncé’s apparent feminist philosophy in these albums is the way it vaults back and forth between declaring her independence and voicing her desire to stand beside her (then) boyfriend. I think this makes sense, assuming that at the time, she intellectually believed in female equality but hadn’t yet formally found feminism. Many other songs on the album B’Day such as Suga Mama, Freakum Dress and Flaws And All also qualify as feminist for their themes of sexual empowerment and vulnerability respectively, but as these both become much larger themes in the album BEYONCÉ, they will be discussed in Part Three.
Don’t forget to come back next weekend for Part Two, where I will be discussing Beyonce’s feminist praxis in her albums I Am… Sasha Fierce, and 4.