Rethinking Beyoncé: Video Gender Studies

by Latoya Peterson

Recently, Beyonce released the video for her single “Video Phone.”

M. Dot took the opportunity to look at Beyoncé’s lyrics in the context of the societal position of African American men and women. In the comments to her post, commenter Luna put up a link to theory friction practice, a blog that is definitely being added to my must read list. With the tagline “queering everything” the unnamed blogger (who I will refer to as TFP) throws a wrench into existing feminist narratives surrounding Beyoncé by pointing out subversive elements in “Video Phone.” As a refresher, here’s the video:

In a post titled “(m) Beyonce’s postmodern politic: feminism and videophone,” TFP writes:

There are two reasons why I live for this video. 1) it’s totally self-aware and 2) it has this weird feminist politic which bothers me because it’s also really conservative.

For anybody aware of the film reservoir dogs (trailer here, at 0:30) the video references it in that Beyonce leads this group of suited people past a wall, which on its face isn’t very interesting, but that the video calls to itself as a video is important. It also says that “I am aware of my place in film history” which lets us know, that we are part of a historically situated audience who has prior visual experience. In the context of her last few videos, this is an aesthetic break in that she’s not dancing with two female people: she walks and leads a group of males who aren’t gawking at her sexually, but following her lead. This is where I first noticing this weird queer/feminist politic: Beyonce is costumed in a way that presents her as a sort of sex object, but the male people here have zero interest in her sexually and are walking all sterile and dignified. When this is added to the Reservoir Dogs reference, the crime plotting gets foregrounded and the sexuality gets somehow deadened. In this way—and throughout the whole video—the camera handles its gender politic conservatively, but the content works to subvert that conservatism. [...]

Beyonce goes “shawty what yo name is?” Which is something said generally by male people as a catcall to females they find sexually interesting. Then we see a male-bodied person(?) fixing their tie. So after Beyonce makes a catcall, the male-bodied thing tries to improve their appearance. She wields the power in this relationship. The human status of this male-bodied thing is even in question. That the male-bodied thing/person has no face and is ONLY a camera reads as a reference to the “male gaze” a concept in many feminist film discourses that talks about how films handle female bodies in order to arouse male people with heterosexual desires (formerly known as straight men) (see here.) But that this male person has no face and is partially a camera, suggests that they isn’t a “real” person at all. It makes them into an object. So the content again makes a female person the one who interacts and commands while the male bodies are reduced to “things that gaze” and nothing more. But the camera and costuming don’t allow this analysis to go forward without hitch. She’s in a bra and panties. No mysteries there. Her body’s on display and she’s dancing sexily. I don’t need to go into how conservative of a representation this is.

The sheer number of pop culture, art, and political references TPF catches is astounding: later in the piece, he refers to both Bettie Page and Abu Ghraib and how those types of images/iconography play out in the visual landscape of the song. However, one point in particular jumps out about TPF’s analysis:

But here the video does one of its awesome things. It’s all trippy and wild. Beyonce isn’t just one Beyonce, she’s five Beyonces. Walter Benjamin (famous art/media/cultural studies person) wrote a piece called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (reproduced here: http://design.wishiewashie.com/HT5/WalterBenjaminTheWorkofArt.pdf) which gets into what it means to be a piece of art in a time where shit can be remade over and over again. So back in time, you had to get that ass up and GO to the museum to see art. And at the time this was written, shit could be reproduced and the process of spending mad time and energy to see shit was no longer so necessary. You can develop mad photos with a single photograph whereas before you had one masterpiece and you had to protect the shit out of that masterpiece lest it deteriorate or otherwise get altered. Anyway, in 2009 we’re in like an age of digital reproduction where even human beings are reproduced (via video) and can even be reproduced in the same instance. And Beyonce’s not looking demurely away from the camera—a method that would increase the viewer’s power/pleasure because they can feel as thought they’s a fly on a wall—but actively engaging, so much so that she’s wearing shades and you can’t tell what she’s thinking. There are like five Beyonces who are like “look at me, I know I’m sexy and I know you want this, but by no means does that suggest I have no self-respect or self-control.” And questions of authenticity in our age—“which is the real Beyonce?” “is there a real Beyonce?”—arise as a result of this reproduction. Also the bodies have translucent trails, which again is part of it’s self-reference of videohood. And at 1:12 the center Beyonce’s chewing gum with her mouth all open, which may or not be significant, but is kinda funny.

Beyoncé is actively engaged with the gaze of the camera in “Video Phone,” and as TPF states it is both subversive and conservative. The act can be seen as conservative because the poses and costuming in the videos reinforces the dynamics of the dominant media narrative about women, sex, and agency. In Dreamworlds 3, Sut Jhally explains how the language of the dreamworld in music videos is clear – women are to be viewed as consumables, available for the enjoyment of the male gaze.

As Jhally explains:

Even artists such as Madonna, who want to present themselves as assertive, independent, and powerful, have to do it within the conventions of the dreamworld when it comes to highlighting their sexuality. And as the codes of female sexuality define it as passive and submissive, they find themselves in a strange paradox.

This paradox is where Beyoncé has carved out her career.

I enjoy Beyoncé as a performer, and as someone who consistently churns out club hits. However, the race/gender analyst in me tends to work overtime when consuming the media she releases, as much of her body of work plays – deliberately? – on that complicated border. While the images in “Video Phone’ may be subversive, Beyoncé’s videography paints a detailed picture of gender relations in a heterosexual context – one which is applauded by mainstream culture. Generally, her singles are about attracting male attention (for the first time, in a relationship, or post break up), deeming that she does not need male attention because she has money (which, by extension, represents freedom), or props up the idea of a woman’s role in the relationship as being subordinate to a man’s. For every ‘Survivor,” (which has lyrics that are not gendered) there are faux empowerment anthems like “Independent Women,” “Single Ladies,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” which focus on cash flow being central to a relationship or to a woman’s independence.

Many of her collaborations follow the same script, like her vocals on “I Got That” with rapper Amil, which has a chorus of “don’t need you ’cause the rent is due/ you can be outta here baby/ because I got it.” Beyoncé’s presentation makes this sound like empowerment – telling someone else where to get off is always fun and she laces her honeyed vocals with a heavy dose of swagger. But underneath the lyrics, the fact remains that the woman Beyoncé portrays always defines herself against a man, and any empowerment she receives is from severing herself from one man into the arms of another (See: “Irreplaceable”) or attracting more male attention.

With that being said, it is hard to separate Beyoncé as a performer from those around her, such as video producers, directors, and choreographers who may find a way through her presentation to articulate a different type of gender politic.