Notebook: Beyoncé as a femme fatale or a feminist?


By Hannah Weiner, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 30, 2013

She’s a brand, a household name — she’s even on the big screen at the Big House. And she’s married to arguably the biggest and most commercially successful rapper of this era. She’s the halftime show of the Superbowl, she’s sexy, she’s rich. To put it simply: Beyoncé is powerful.

And, so what?

The answer to this question lies in the minds of academics far more learned on American culture and feminism than myself, but it’s worth asking. Because it matters that Beyoncé presents herself in an overtly sexualized outfit and performance during the Superbowl halftime show. It matters that she took Jay-Z’s last name — and that he took her last name, too. It matters that she sings “Bow Down, Bitches.”

It matters that, in the beginning of her film, she says, “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it: 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.”

It matters that she’s a self-proclaimed feminist.

It matters that Beyoncé straddles the line between objectified and empowered, sexual hedonism and militant feminism. Remember when she sang the lines: “The shoes on my feet, I’ve bought it / The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it / The rock I’m rockin’, I’ve bought it / ’Cause I depend on me”? Beyoncé has undoubtedly bought all these things and more. She’s financially independent, which gives her power to “run the show” and define value. With this power and position, she can sway the minds of young America to redefine what’s sexy and valuable.

But, Beyoncé knows that the game is the game. She knows that her audience includes men who love nothing more than submitting her to the “male gaze.” So, while those sexy, dominatrix outfits (á la Superbowl halftime show and “Single Ladies” music video) show “control” of her sexuality, they also cater directly to a male audience — you know, the one that supports the shoes on her feet, the clothes she’s wearing and the rock she’s rockin’. Beyoncé only kind of depends on herself — she also relies on these dudes buying her albums and thinking she’s hot.

So she plays the role of a dominatrix, but then she takes it a step further. If you’ve heard her song “Bow Down, Bitches,” you’ve most likely felt astounded at her hyper-aggressive message and her use of “bitch.”

What happened to “Single Ladies,” Bey? Or “Girls Run the World?”

With “Bow Down, Bitches” and her self-appointment of “Queen Bey,” fangirls (like myself) all over college campuses are left perplexed. Hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan put it best when she tweeted: “Beyoncé’s value to feminists isn’t that she’s a feminist. It’s that she gets feminists to talk about really nuanced, complicated shit.”

Beyoncé knows whatever she says or does, we (at least the college girl fanbase) will drool over, tweet and probably recall in some cultural studies class, just because we can and just because Bey did it. With this in mind, Beyoncé holds a bizarrely novel power card in empowering women. She encourages us to celebrate our bodies. She encourages us to be financially independent. She encourages us to love our ancestry: Beyoncé helps keep her female rhythm and soul and blues ancestry line alive (Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Diana Ross, Josephine Baker, etc.) and progresses this African-American musical inheritance in a rebelliously spirited way other singers cannot.

She encourages us to shake our hips, to sing and dance in a way only third-wave feminists understand: with all our bitches.