The last few years, in women’s gym locker rooms across the world, you haven’t been able to move for Beyoncé lovers. Not only does Beyoncé make music listened to by hundreds of millions of people, she has announced on multiple platforms that she does so as an unashamed black feminist. She described herself as a feminist in shining lights and made nods to the black panthers in her SuperBowl performance.
None of this is new: she’s been making political music for a long time. The first time I remember noticing, it was in 2011 when she released ‘Run the World (Girls)’, clearly an attempt at a feminist anthem. I love ‘Run the World’, but the lyrics never sat well with me, even as a teen. The whole song makes it sound like equality for women is a done deal, and all her examples of success are drawn from individualist, corporate feminism. Her vision of success is the same as Cosmopolitan magazine’s – a woman should be sexy and passionate, but also “strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business”. I’m done with this kind of feminism, which does nothing to help me escape the daily oppression of my life – as sex object in the streets and my relationships, as a future mother whether or not I want to be – and then heaps a load more demands on me too.
On the other hand, to say only that Beyoncé’s feminism doesn’t represent mine doesn’t capture what Beyoncé does for women, especially women of colour, in the experience of listening to her music. As a socialist feminist, Beyoncé’s feminism does very little for me – as political discourse, it fails women everywhere, especially working class women who will never benefit from Beyoncé’s success (unless she employs them as a seamstress in one of her factories, I guess). However, as a woman – which is the subject position I have been socialised into, like it or not – I do experience listening to Beyoncé as empowering. And this is why it frustrates me to argue about Beyoncé with my male friends and peers. Because talking about her feminism in the abstract doesn’t actually tell you why women so often love to listen to Beyoncé’s music.
I conceive of this primarily as an affective thing – something to do with the way Bey’s music sounds which helps women to feel a bit more powerful, even when they’re not. Women spend a lot of time in their lives being made to feel weak. To give 3 examples:
- In the streets and in public space, women spend a lot of time being looked at judgmentally by men and other women, cat-called, harassed and sexually threatened (if not assaulted and raped) by men. Even if you only experience this a few times a year (and believe me, it’s a lot more often than that, no matter where you are in the world), it changes your experience of public space into one where you’re constantly nervous and on your guard.
- In relationships with men, heterosexual women often play the role of passively waiting for men’s attention and affection, or trying to find ways to get it which don’t make them seem sexually aggressive or needy. It’s a difficult line to tread, and leaves us with whole periods of time watching the clock or our phones, feeling powerless to change situations which affect us intimately. If we are treated badly and hurt by those men, it leaves us in a position where trying to challenge them on the way they’ve treated us can be perceived as ‘crazy’ or pathetic.
- At work, women are often placed in positions inferior to the men in their workplaces (e.g. as receptionists or admin workers in offices, on lower pay and directly subject to the demands of male managers), and a complex mixture of socialisation, stereotyping and simple prejudice hold them in these roles, both willingly and due to the sexism of others. In these spaces, daily life is characterised by our powerlessness to make decisions about our working hours and what we’re doing with our time, and directly subject to orders and discipline by men.
All of these scenarios are things I’ve experienced in the very recent past – one and two repeatedly in the last week, and they’re just three of the myriad ways that women are made to feel weak. None of these are things that can’t happen to men, but their prevalence and the particular way they happen to women make them defining features of many women’s lives. Moreover, women of colour can experience the compounding factor of racism – sexual fetishisation or rejection based on their race, straight-up racism and exclusion, fear of racist violence. We need to keep these framing facts in mind when we think about what culture people seek out to give them solace (or as Simon Frith calls it, ‘culture-as-reconcilation’) and when we try to understand things like the cult of Beyoncé as a social phenomenon.
In steps Beyoncé. She’s gorgeous in all the ways many women want to be and unashamed of it. She’s confident like we want to be, and strong like we’re desperate to feel. We’re used to being jealous of women like her, but she’s not a rival, she’s a gang-leader. Instead of cutting women out of the experience, she enlists us to her ‘girls’ – proxy backing dancers in her stage show. She’s confessional with us in her songs, reserving her anger for the lovers who fuck her about. “All the single ladies, put your hands up!” she tells those of us without partners, acknowledging the ways which this system makes us feel weak – for being alone, for not attracting a man yet – and then turning it on its head. She makes us celebrate that which we usually think about with pain.
Speaking as a socialist feminist again, I spend so much time critiquing the way I feel about relationships, work and my life, finding the ways that patriarchal capitalism has shaped both my life and my psychology. But highlighting these problems doesn’t change them, and you can’t just stop thinking and feeling habitual thoughts and emotions just because you know that injustice has put them there. Beyoncé, unlike some feminist musicians, exists comfortably within patriarchal capitalism, and to some extent has made her peace with it. But this has the side effect of meaning that she refuses rage against the dying of the light. She accepts the things that women are often thinking and feeling, and like the supreme inspirational meme, manages to say the right thing to neutralise – even invert – our doubts. So when she sings “Girls! We run this mother!” with such passion and certainty, I don’t feel good because I really believe that girls run the world. In fact I’m mildly offended by her infantilising use of the term ‘girls’. But I still feel good, because for a few minutes, I can have this fantasy of empowerment, so desperately needed in a life which makes me feel powerless so much of the time. I can imagine (and have been told!) that this is even stronger for many women of colour.
When you listen to music, you don’t just judge it from afar – you dance and sing along; you embody it. Beyoncé’s songs give you a voice in which to express a superhuman self-confidence without shame or self-chastisement. Her breakup songs are relentlessly affirmative – think ‘Single Ladies’ or ‘Irreplaceable’, on which she regains power from a former lover by reminding him that she could “have another you in a minute”. She consistently pronounces on her relationship problems like they’re just another way for her to declare her power – think of the fierceness of her warnings to Jay-Z on Lemonade. What about when we’re feeling down about being alone? Well, Bey won’t let us wallow, and on ‘Why Don’t You Love Me?’, she gives us this to sing instead: “Why don’t you love me when I make me so damn easy to love?… There’s nothing not to love about me!” And so what if so many of the songs are about love and relationships? So are many of my most intimate thoughts, whether I want them to be or not. As I said, Beyoncé accepts the way things are – for better or for worse – and manages to transform our experience of the present without making us feel ashamed of the fact we’re thinking in a ‘feminine’ way.
This is why I feel similarly about Beyoncé to the way I feel about Courtney Love and Hole, even though they are incredibly different genres. It’s not that Bey and Courtney really have much in common, or that their music sounds alike – it doesn’t, really. However, it does embody the same mood. I say embody because the experience is primarily affective. Singing along to either of them requires you to shake off your doubts about yourself, your embarrassment about physically projecting your voice, because to sing along with them you have to sing loud and proud. Their lyrics never say “I’m weak and there’s nothing I can do”; they say either “I’m strong”, or “I’m weak right now, but fuck you, I won’t be for long”.
What I’m trying to say is this: we shouldn’t simply dismiss Beyoncé as I’ve heard some socialist men do because of the theoretical weakness of her feminism, or because she seems to accept the terms of patriarchal capitalism in the way she dresses onstage and the subjects she chooses to write about. Before weighing in on the culture war, it’s important to recognise the affective experience of listening to Beyoncé is experienced as empowering by millions of women. Whether it actually lays any foundations for transformation of the conditions in which women experience oppression and disempowerment is another question – and far more interesting once you’ve acknowledged her music’s power to make people feel great.