Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

Beyoncé: A feminist in her own terms

Beyoncé is undoubtedly one of my generations’ most iconic and influential global figures and sheroes. Titans such as Oprah Winfrey, Barack and Michelle Obama, and our very own Nelson Mandela have hailed and expressed awe at her extraordinary talent, groundedness and the humble personality she oozes. At just 32 years she has a net worth estimated at just under $400-million (about three billion in rands), 17 Grammy Awards, is on the top of countless “power” lists among other notable achievements. Yet, as loved as she is, the impact of the self-proclaimed “modern-day feminist” messages through her songs have for a long time been the subject of much contestation especially in relation to whether they negatively or positively push forward the feminist agenda of ending patriarchal domination (and creating equality across genders).

In the early hours of Friday the 13th, she released her fifth album and I rushed to iTunes to get the album simply self-titled: Beyoncé. As many have noted, from the first song on the album, there is something beautifully different about this new album. She launches the album with the vulnerable and powerful “Pretty Hurts”, a journey into societal expectations for perfection. She shows us how “perfection is a disease of a nation” that keeps us from examining our souls (which we can’t “see”) and yet we focus so much on the external “surgery” in our desire to construct the perfect self. She asks us to look at the ways in which we hurt ourselves in our hunger for external validation while our souls suffer: “When you’re alone all by yourself / and you’re lying in your bed / [and your] illusion has been shed / are you happy with yourself?” she asks.

What is interesting about this song, beyond a critical look at quest for beauty and perfection and the harm it does it our souls, is that it is also a critique of the ultra-consumerism that accompanies the quest for perfection: the “what you wear is all that matters” mentality, the “TV says bigger is better” lifestyle, and the “Vogue says thinner is better” plastic-surgery obsession. In “Haunted” she shares her distrust of record labels (which are known to exploit singers). The conflict in this song is between the struggles of the working class ie the “people on the planet / working 9 to 5 just to stay alive” and a yearning for bigger dreams beyond the “boring” 9 to 5 – but how much of herself is she willing to give and sell for this life? How will it haunt her?

“Flawless” features commentary from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk “We should all be feminists”. She starts the song by telling (presumably) young women that she knows that when they were little girls they dreamt of being in her world, and that they should never forget that and hence they (“bitches”) should “bow down”. She further affirms that no one should ever think she is (presumably) Jay-Z’s “little wife / don’t get it twisted / [this is] my shit”. While this might be interpreted as aggressive, misogynistic and shallow, Adichie comes in to remind us:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls you can have ambition, but not too much. [Girls] should aim to be successful, but not too successful or otherwise you will threaten the man … but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?” she asks.

There is a lot to say about Beyoncé, because the album, like Beyoncé herself, is inspiring, complex and problematic (She calls other women “bitches”). She is vulnerable, dominating and ultra-sexual all at once. She is didactic, shallow and profound.

In the Gradient Lair essay, “Beyoncé’s new self-titled album is a manifesto of black womanhood and freedom”, it’s noted the album “celebrates the multiple facets of black womanhood and while it won’t be a portrait that speaks to ‘every’ black woman’s notion of womanhood, it is quite a full portrait and one that [is] a creative and emotional revolution from her admittedly great previous work.”

I would take it further: Beyoncé is launching a challenge to us all, not only black women, but everyone, especially men to examine our gender biases and the ways we sexually shame women for using their sexuality, money and bodies (and the ways these do not equally apply to men). She sings unapologetically about owning her sexuality and sexual pleasure (drunk in love), dealing with grief (heaven), love (XO), and parenting (blue) among others. As a black woman artist operating under the confines of a white supremacist industry overbearing with the sexualised (heterosexual) male gaze and desire, “Beyoncé” seems to be Beyoncé’s attempt at redefining for herself what her feminism and womanism will look like, and that’s great.

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