THE EMPRESS HAS NO CLOTHES: Beyoncé and The Quixotic Search for a Black Feminist Icon

On December 13, 2013, the Black “IT” girl of the millennium Beyoncé released a surprise visual album entitled Beyoncé, consisting of 14 new songs and 17 videos exclusively on iTunes causing an instantaneous digital frenzy and creating a record for digital album sales. Tulane University professor and MSNBC talk-show host Melissa Harris-Perry, declared that the album was Beyoncé’s “feminist manifesto.”


What parades as progress in the culture industry, as the incessantly new which it offers up, remains the disguise for an eternal sameness; everywhere the changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the profit motive itself since the time it first gained its predominance over culture. –Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry

The album to Harris-Perry and others is not merely a feminist manifesto, but first and foremost, a black feminist manifesto. The Beyoncé album includes an excerpt from a TedxEuston lecture entitled “We should all be feminists,” given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the song “Flawless.” The other 13 songs on the album are pretty much about sex. As the Rolling Stone review describes it.

She hits nasty highs all through the album, from the squishy slow jam “Rocket” (“Let me sit this ass on you” – now there’s an opening line) to the Frank Ocean duet “Superpower.” In the fractured Timbaland production “Partition,” she and Jay get kind of rough in the back of the limousine. She has to warn the chauffeur, “Driver roll up the partition please/I don’t need you seeing ‘Yonce on her knees.” But the car doesn’t even get to the club before, as Beyoncé puts it, “He Monica Lewinsky’d all over my gown.”

This album is hardly any kind of manifesto. It is a seductive, slick package of the pop culture industry, it purports to be groundbreaking, imaginative, and daring while merely regurgitating the false idea of sexuality as a legitimate avenue to female empowerment. Rapper Lil’ Kim was making lyrical nods to fellatio in 1996 on her debut album Hard Core (“I used to be scared of the dick, Now I throw lips to the shit, Handle it like a real bitch”), but no one thought to anoint her album a feminist manifesto. The inclusion of Adichie’s words on a single song is insufficient to render Beyoncé’s hypersexualized album a feminist project.

Beyoncé along with 25 others is given writing and producing credits on the album. Sia Furler and Caroline Polacheck, two non-black women, are the only female contributors. Furler and Polacheck each contribute one song. Among the cadre of songwriters/producers, are a bevy of well-known male Hip-Hop and R&B producers, Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Aubrey “Drake” Graham, Frank Ocean, and Pharrell Williams. Janet Jackson’s former Super Bowl duet partner, pop artist Justin Timberlake is also a creative contributor. Anyone who has any familiarity with the public profiles and work of these men would never accuse of them of creating a feminist manifesto. Beyoncé is offering a particular brand of feminism, one which instead of contesting the stereotypes of women as sex and beauty objects, accepts, exaggerates, and plays to the stereotype. It is hard to see how this album whose primary subject matter sex is, which is mainly constructed by 23 non-feminist males can be a feminist manifesto as Harris-Perry as claims.

One wonders how much Harris-Perry and others are projecting their own feminists’ ambitions unto Beyoncé without having engaged in critical analysis of Beyoncé’s own words on the subject of feminism. Does Beyoncé identify herself as a feminist? This is what she told British Vogue in April 2013. That word can be very extreme … But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman. … I do believe in equality and that we have a way to go and it’s something that’s pushed aside and something that we have been conditioned to accept. … But I’m happily married. I love my husband.”

Beyoncé’s hesitant labeling of herself as a “modern-day feminist,” is qualified by declaring that she is both happily married and loves her husband. Susan J. Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done writes, “…[o]ne of the reasons so many women say “I’m not a feminist but…” (and then put forward a feminist position), is that in addition to being stereotyped as man-hating Amazons, feminists have also been cast as anti-family and anti-motherhood.” Beyoncé seems to believe that being married and loving one’s husband is incompatible with being a feminist. Perhaps, Beyoncé should listen more carefully to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s full lecture, where she derides the notion that “feminists are women who cannot find husbands.”

Beyoncé’s feminist supporters feel that those who critique the legitimacy of Beyoncé’s brand of feminism do so because they have outdated and conservative notions about how a feminist should behave. Nicole Froio writing in a Ms. magazine blog is of the opinion that “Beyoncé’s path to self-knowledge has been met with a puzzling amount of hatred: In the eyes of some, she’s the “wrong kind of feminist” because she wears thongs on magazine covers, dances suggestively and claims her sexuality on stage, pampers her husband, wears high heels and tells men to “put a ring on it.” But, as Adichie says and Beyoncé obviously agrees, feminism is personal.” Froio is wrong feminism is not simply a matter of the personal and she has mischaracterize Adichie’s position. Adichie’s entire talk is about how micro, personal action alone cannot fix the problem of sexism and gender equality, stating  “[i]t’s easy for us to say, “Oh, but women can just say ‘no’ to all of this.” But the reality is more difficult and more complex. We are all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization.” One woman’s choice of fashion attire or how she chooses to express her sexuality will not alter how children are socialized to accept sexist and outdated notions of what it means to be a woman or man in contemporary society.

Froio and others fail to notice that the increase sexualization in Beyoncé’s music and image coincided with her marriage to rapper Jay-Z, her duet partner on the new album and previous records; as naughty as the on the record/off the record sex Beyoncé is having is, it is state and church certified sex. She is not challenging any Judeo-Christian, heterosexual concepts of female sexuality. Beyoncé is managing to perform a neat trick of projecting herself as a lady in the streets, who may be a freak behind closed doors. A new twist on the Madonna/Whore complex. Celebrity journalist Amethyst Tate writing in The International Business Journal embraces the notion of Beyoncé as a modern-day feminist, writing:

Beyoncé is truly a feminist, who has simply expanded the idea of who a feminist can be. Beyoncé is every woman. She is bold, she is confident, and she is openly proud of simultaneously being a career woman and a wife. And to boot, she is projecting the idea that, as women, we don’t have to hide our sexuality, that we can flaunt it in a tasteful manner. She is also promoting the ideal that women don’t have to choose a career or family. What she’s saying, in short, is that we, too, can have it all.

The problem is not that Beyoncé is being rejected for being the wrong kind of feminist, but that she is being embraced for being a marketable feminism image, rather than for any substantive action or ideas that she is contributing to the feminist movement.

Beyoncé is absolutely not every woman, and it is ridiculous to suggest that she represents every woman. She is an elite, privileged woman, her economic reality is the fantasy of the majority of women in the world today. The truth of the matter is that women cannot have it all as Tate suggests. I am not certain that we have a universal definition of what having it all means, nor whether the pursuit of “all,” whatever it may be is a desirable or attainable goal. Beyoncé perhaps can have it all because she is enormously wealthy, she is married to an enormously wealthy man and she resides in a Western industrialist country, instead of a non-Western developing or under-developing country where many women are laboring in factories to provide the consumer products and luxury goods that the citizenry of the Western industrialized world demand. The majority of the women in the world cannot even dream of “rockin’ chinchilla coats,” “getting the house off the coast,” and “rockin them VVS stones,” that Beyoncé sings about in “Ring the Alarm,” on her 2006 B-Day album.

Why has Beyoncé been drafted as some kind of pop culture black feminist icon and not some other black female musical artists? Grammy-award winning singer Tracy Chapman is an accomplished songwriter with socially conscious lyrics, but she is a lesbian, with an androgynous appearance, who never bothers to wear lipstick. Erykah Badu is also an excellent songwriter whose songs possess far more gravitas than Beyoncé’s pop offerings; however, she is a never married woman with three children fathered by three different men. Therefore, Badu fails the ‘respectability test.’ Janalle Monáe is an attractive woman, an exciting live entertainer and a serious singer/songwriter, who is also a spokesperson for Cover Girl cosmetics. Monáe insists on wearing what she calls her “uniform” a black and white tuxedo outfit. She deliberately refuses to use her sexuality as a marketing tool.

Janaelle Monáe in a May, 2013 Essence magazine cover story, told the publication “People don’t ask Jay-Z to take his shirt off when he rhymes,” “Showing my skin is not what makes me sexy.” “I like skirts and dresses just like everyone else, but I had a message I needed to put out there. It was up to me to show people and young girls there was another way.” Chapman, Badu and Monáe have not had the tremendous mainstream commercial success that Beyoncé has had, and they likely never will. These three women in their music ponder problems like poverty, inequality, and racism. To Beyoncé’s question, Who run the world? these ladies might presumably respond, ‘white men, didn’t cha know.’

Beyoncé is not a singer-songwriter in the tradition of a Nina Simone or a Carole King. She cannot read or write music, nor can she play an instrument. Just about all the music in her catalog uses samples, with the exception of songs penned by the likes of famed songwriter Diane Warren. Sampling borrows music from previous records and adds new lyrics. While there have been many questions raised about Beyoncé as a songwriter, with many whispers that she is attaching her name to songs written by others. Chapman, Badu and Monáe’s legitimacy as songwriters has never been questioned. The evidence does not seem to suggest that Beyoncé is making significant lyrical contribution to her albums, despite her having won an ASCAP songwriter of the year award.  Daniel D’Addario writes in Salon:

When Beyoncé “was writing” Destiny’s Child songs, she did so with help: There is not a single song on any of the group’s four albums that Beyoncé wrote herself. She, more and more as the group’s run went on, was involved in writing, but a more typical Destiny’s Child song was their single “Lose My Breath,” with seven credited writers. On the group’s final album, several songs were credited to all three singers in the group. And songwriting credits are often arbitrary — Beyoncé was disqualified before three much less notable writers from an Academy Award nomination for the “Dreamgirls” song “Listen,” which she co-wrote.” 

The Los Angeles Times remarked on Beyoncé ‘s disqualification for a songwriting Oscar; “Is this just one of those cases of where the singer insisted upon having her name added to credits as part of her performance deal?”

A 2009 New York Daily News article hinted, “…Beyoncé’s songwriting credits have been publicly questioned several times. In 2006, for example, she declared she wrote the breakup anthem “Irreplaceable” “for [her] girls” – causing singer/songwriter Ne-Yo to angrily announce that he penned all the lyrics for the song, then got minimal help from Beyoncé on the melody. But even that may have been generous: Rumors swirled that B’s composer credit was added only as a courtesy.”  It is hard to believe that a woman  who probably is not writing her own songs could have penned a musical feminist manifesto.

Monáe and Badu performed together on the song Q.U.E.E.N. written by Monáe, in it Monáe raps:

I asked a question like this

Are we a lost generation of our people?

Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.

She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.

So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?

They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,

But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.

My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti

Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City.

In an interview with Elle magazine Monáe explains what inspires her to write these kinds of lyrics;

“I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in the language of the oppressed and the oppressor. I just felt that it was time to talk about that. It made me want to continue to unite people with music and bring awareness to the working class, the have-nots, and those who are discriminated against. “… I consider myself to be part of the other just by being a woman and being black. There’s still certain stereotypes that I have to fight off, and there’s still a certain struggle that we all individually have to go through.”

Beyoncé is an entertainer, while there is a long tradition of black entertainers who have also chosen to be political and social activists, not every celebrity has the necessary political knowledge, intellectual maturity, and skills to function in such a role. There is often a political and economic price to pay for such a sacrifice. This is an issue that is not just about race, the country music group the Dixie Chicks, made up of white southern women paid a heavy price for publicly criticizing former President George W. Bush about the Iraq War. Radio stations stopped playing their music and they received death threats. It is understandable if someone is not willing to pay the high price of being an entertainer who expresses political opinions and engages in political activity.

We should note that there is a difference between philanthropic and charitable activities and actual political activism. People often conflate the two, but they are not the same. Being part of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to get children and youth to eat healthy and exercise is charity work. Although, doing that while promoting the sugary soft drink Pepsi seems hypocritical. However, challenging city and state governments to reinstate physical education programs in public schools (particularly in urban public schools) and build athletic facilities would be political activism. Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z’s suggestion that his mere “presence is charity,” is incorrect. Neither his presence nor his wife’s presence is charity or activism. Their hosting of an Obama fundraiser or standing silently at a Trayvon Martin rally will ultimately have no impact on city, state, or federal policy. Neither will the release of the Beyoncé album have any significant impact on gender equality or the status of black women in America.

Beyoncé is not known for giving cerebral interviews and she hardly engages in discussing social problems. She has, however, offered opinions on gender inequality, something that fits in with her ‘girl power’ image. You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? 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.”

I agree with Beyoncé that “equality is a myth,” but not with what she imagines is the source of gender inequality nor the simple solution to resolving it. In the case of black women who have always been in the labor force, functioning as breadwinners for their families by working as domestics, cooks and washerwomen; their monetary earnings led to accusations of emasculating black men not equality( see Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on black Matriarchy). Perhaps that is why the super successful Beyoncé, who earns tens of millions of dollars annually is careful to characterize herself as “Mrs. Carter,” lest she be accused of emasculating Jay-Z. The inequality of women to men in our society is rooted in the fundamental belief that women and their labor are of lesser value; that women are less capable and that the domestic sphere is women’s natural habitat. While income equality plays a role in female oppression, it is simplistic to believe that the realization of gender equality is a matter of financial parity.

Beyoncé’s statement suggests that gender oppression is something that takes place only within the confines of a woman’s intimate relationship, and that is where the matter of inequality should be legislated and resolved. However, gender inequality is ingrained into all our institutions, the body politic, our houses of worship, educational institutions and more. Take the case of the black church in America where the majority of the congregation are black women and they are the ones who provide the tithes that keep the church operational, but it is black men who are at the helm of the pulpit. In October, 2013 Pastor Marvin Winans reportedly refused to offer a public blessing to the son of a single mother congregant in his The Perfecting Church in Detroit, the reason given that Pastor Winans has a policy of not publicly blessing the children of unwed mothers.

There seems to always be a black “It girl,” of the moment, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill or Halle Berry, whose appearance on mainstream magazine covers, in mainstream films and red carpets convinces many; that finally black women have arrived and are being appreciated and celebrated. However, every “It” black girl’s moment passes, some sadly like Whitney and some in unexpected ways like Janet Jackson’s whose 2004 Super Bowl ‘wardrobe malfunction,’ seems to have permanently derailed her career. None of these women have opened the floodgates for other black women in show business. Beyoncé’s former Destiny’s Child group members post-Destiny’s Child careers are non-existent in comparison to Beyoncé.  There seems to always be room for a few “exceptional” black women at the top, but the gates never open to allow a large pool of other talented and qualified black women to enter. You have your highly visible tokens, while institutional and structural velvet ropes remain firmly in place.

Black feminists cannot engage in wholesale acceptance of Beyoncé’s success without recognizing and being willing to critique how that success is a product of and authorized by a white patriarchal power system. Harris-Perry among others praise Beyoncé ‘s genius in ‘independently’ releasing an album outside of the corporate recording industry. The album was first released on iTunes, which is owned by Apple, a multinational corporation that has its products being assembled in China (not a utopia of human and labor rights) by Chinese men and women in factories. The album has now been released in disc format, and is being distributed by Columbia Records (a subsidiary of conglomerate Sony Group Corporation), while Target declined to stock it, it is being sold at Wal-Mart, the giant corporation which is able to sell goods at low prices due to the low-wage labor of men and many women in the developing world.

The midnight digital release of the album was not a creative strategy, or an anti-music establishment strategy, but a marketing strategy. Beyoncé’s last album “4” was not as successful as her previous album. The primary purpose of Beyoncé’s music is to maintain the value of what has been described as her  “carefully curated brand” which allows her to sell her fragrances, her clothing line and the products she endorses like Pepsi and L’Oréal cosmetics. Beyoncé proclaims herself to be an “independent woman.” I would suggest that we do not actually know who is the Wizard behind the Beyoncé pop culture illusion that is hypnotizing the world. The public support of highly visible women will always be beneficial to the feminism movement. Feminism, however, is not a product or a brand it does not need celebrity endorsers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: