Beyonce released a new track this week that got the internet chattering. "I know when you were little girls, you dreamed of being in my world. Don't forget it, don't forget it, respect that" she commands in Bow Down, prompting some to ask if the mega-star is getting too big for her boots.
First of all: that the 17-time Grammy winner has a strong sense of her own self-worth, to put it mildly, is by now established fact. "I'm more powerful than my mind can even digest and understand," she told men's magazine GQ in a much-hyped interview last January.
So, she has a healthy appreciation of her influence. But that shouldn't surprise or concern anyone; the vast majority of public personas have at least some narcissistic tendencies - what else is propelling their hunger for the spotlight? Without the kind of self-belief that translates into everyday life as slightly repugnant, such personalities could never 'arrive' in the first place.
Also: yes, her lyrics are aggressive. But so what? Male hip-hop artists have been bolstering their music with combative self-affirmation since the beginning of rap as a genre. More power to her - it's an artistic code, not genuine indignation based on a perceived lack of respect.
No, the newsworthy aspect of Bow Down is its lyric, "I'm not just his little wifey", through which she affirms her status as independent of her marriage to Jay-Z. It's hard to take the lyric seriously. Not because it's not true (of course she's more than a wife, that goes without saying) but because it feels likes a Band-Aid for the criticism she received for titling her world tour The Mrs. Carter Show after her husband.
And that's the crux of it: the mega-star's PR seams are beginning to show. Beyonce is trying to straddle two worlds and appease two different marketing models: female artists as icons of empowerment and independence, and female artists as safe eye-candy/perfect wife/sexually available.
Her GQ interview offers another perfect example. "... let's face it," she says, "money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what's sexy. And men define what's feminine. It's ridiculous." Except, then she posed for a photo spread in her knickers, and if that's not giving men "the power to define value" then I'm not sure what is.
To be clear: discussing your professional success in your underwear is your choice. Feminism is about emphasising women's worth beyond their sexual appeal, but it's also about women's freedom to define themselves in any way they please - including their sexual appeal. (Whether people like me feel that doesn't really help things along is just a by-product.)
But the question still nags: why would Beyonce feel the need to conduct an interview based purely on her professional success, near naked? As the Guardian's Hadley Freeman writes: "I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men's magazines, such as Esquire and GQ."
Case study 3: Girls Run the World: In a perfect parallel to her GQ interview, Beyonce goes about demonstrating just how girls rule the world: with their sex appeal. In the desert. Gyrating in garters. Little else needs to be said about that well-meaning yet ultimately hollow song - not since YouTube video blogger NineteenPercent dissected it beautifully in her popular 841,947-view rant:
"Make your cheque come at they neck," she counters. "Indeed, go to work and make your cheque, but be aware that your check is going to be significantly smaller than your male counterpart's."
I'm with NineteenPercent. There's a pseudo feminism here that's more than a little bit flaky, and also incredibly boring.
Take the ridiculously popular anthem Single Ladies. ("If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it". Every woman under 35 must have this lyric etched in her brain?) As Amanda Heiss writes in her article Top 5 Psuedo-Feminist Anthems, the song might seem empowering initially, but it's actually little more than a rally for women to put themselves in the position where 'his' desire to commit is the endgame:
"What's not to like? Well - a few things. Beyonce referring to herself as "it"? Equating herself to bling? Handing herself over to a man who will determine her self-worth through a demeaning, years-long game which can only end with Beyonce emerging triumphant as his symbolic property, or crawling away as a meaningless ex?"
In her Destiny's Child days, Beyonce was a little bit cutting-edge. The group's 1999 album The Writing's On The Wall proffered songs like Independent Woman and Bills Bills Bills, which asserted the end of co-dependence. It was refreshing; some silly journalists even positioned the group as "anti-male", because their lyrics were "getting very pointed".
But that was then, and this is 13 years later. There's room to go further and to push harder now, because there's a general consensus out there that it's warranted. How else will the misogyny in rap be diluted, or the waves of prototypical pop-stars be tempered?
Urban female artists here are doing it. Internationally there's Angel Haze, Azealia Banks, Peaches, Jean Grae, Ke$ha (truly) - even, to a certain extent, Beyonce's ex-bandmate Kelly Rowland. They take the reign from the likes of Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, TLC and Salt'n'Pepa, turning the tables on male rappers with their straight-talking sex-chat and total lack of apology.
Which is why watching Beyonce hover in the unconvincing space between authentic empowerment and the well-worn groove carved out for female pop-stars is frustrating. "I think I am a feminist in a way," she said some time ago, clearly fearful of taking a stance and pushing her public image in any which way. But lip service is boring. And pop culture has a proven effect on societal attitudes, which is exciting. I for one would happily bow down if she made proper use of that.
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