By The Racialicious Editorial Board
Beyonce might not completely run the world, but she’s certainly dominated the blogosphere news cycle since the release of the video for “Run The World (Girls).” Rather than each of us having a go at analyzing the song and the video, we decided it best to get together online and talk about not just the message Beyonce’s song is promoting, but how it fits in with other representations of Girl Power, as well as the song’s problematic backstory.
Latoya: Here’s something I’m pondering: Beyonce bought this beat from Diplo’s Major Lazer outfit. I was already a bit skeeved because it’s Diplo and we’ve had some issues with his work in the past. But I could almost overlook that part – the beat is sick and everyone doesn’t necessarily pick up a track looking for past appropriation. Then I made the mistake of watching the song video for Pon de Floor:
I had no words y’all. But to put my shock into written terms, it’s an outfit designed to amuse hipsters at clubs, peddling in images of black depravity. This isn’t about dancing or dancehall – it’s just straight up black women as fetishized sexual object/black men as crazed beasts stereotype feed.
Just check the audience for these shows:
Most folks felt the same way. Couch Sessions couldn’t even comment, except to say “The video is … um, yeah. If there is nothing else you can take from this, at least maybe you can find some new positions in bed.”
And in case you were curious about who made the video, Stereogum explains:
Tim & Eric’s Eric Wareheim continues stockpiling hipster cred by taking a directorial credit on this new Major Lazer video. He brought a bit of an Awesome Show Great Job! sensibility to that clip for MGMT’s “The Youth,” but this one is more akin to his work on that hardcore-sex-masked-by-cute-animations piece for Flying Lotus. Maybe Eric misread the title as “Porn On De Floor.” Or maybe Eric just really loves putting banger beats to people banging. Anyway, great job!
Arturo: I am not at all surprised that T&E were responsible for that bit of T&A. I suppose that vid is what passes as a Couples Skate for their audience.
Andrea: “Great job?” Ummm…ok. I can get to why some folks may be down with this vid: beyond the amazing beat, you do get to see plus-sized women moving their bodies and being what some may see as playfully sexual. (That whole seeing empowerment in imperfect spaces.) Beyond that, I completely agree with your assessment, Latoya.
Much in the same way I can see why Arielle Loren and some other folks can interpret Beyonce as a feminist icon, especially after “Run The World (Girls)”:
It’s one thing to complain that there are too many Beyonces in the media. I’d agree, but suggesting that she isn’t about the empowerment of women is blasphemy. Too many Destiny’s Child songs and black female karaoke sessions have proved otherwise. And there’s a reason why our First Lady can publicly state that she loves Beyonce.
Beyonce plays her role in feminism and admittedly, she’s not the spokesperson for “the pay gap between men and women or the degrading lyrics of hip-hop,” as my writer-friend Bene Viera argued. Her brand of empowerment definitely focuses on women stepping outside of the realm of shame for being sexually confident, independent, and driven in their careers.
I am disappointed in feminists that simply label Beyonce, tits and ass. Her multi-platform success has proven otherwise, she’s not just “another video vixen.” Until feminism stops becoming a clique and something primarily exclusive of the Academy, it will continue to lose power and fail to connect with a new generation of women.
Latoya: I can feel that. Like Marisol LeBron likes to say, we take what we need from what we are given. The subversive is everywhere. It’s why I feel two kinda-ways (excuse my appropriated Southernisms) about Bey’s video. It does nothing for me now. I’m grown. But it’s hard to figure out how it will impact younger folks. For example, I was the quintessential Spice Girls feminist. Really into the girl power pop days, saw the movie, thought Scary Spice was the most fabulous chick on the block, and rocked a tee shirt purchased for about $5 at a fast fashion spot that said in big silver letters “Girl Power.”
Arturo: I had a major crush on Sporty. She liked football – the real kind – rocked Adidas and drank pints. (Sorry, had to include that.)
Andrea: What? Bro… (gives Arturo side-eye)
Arturo: I was in college! I was in Kansas! I was barely old enough to drink! Different mindset, is all I’m saying. (No, but really, her solo album wasn’t horrible. Uh, I heard.)
Thinking about it a little more, though, that shows how the Spice message worked on somebody who hadn’t really thought about issues like privilege and empowerment: Sporty and the rest of the group were positioned as having taken different avenues toward independence, but the presentation was just cheeky enough so guys like me – or, perhaps more pointedly, any fathers who went to shows with their daughters – didn’t feel threatened.
Latoya: LOL – wait a sec, Art – are you copping to being a Spice Boy? Aww snap, I know what we’re doing in the karaoke bar. Anyway, back on topic. For me, that hyper commercialized super-femme performance art meets pop culture madness actually prompted a feminist awakening – because I wore the shirt and a guy friend laughed. “Girl Power?” He smirked at that, which pissed me off – and did start me critically thinking about “girl power” and what it actually meant and why people responded with rage, mockery, and indifference.
So, awakenings happen for all kinds of reasons. If hearing “Girls run the world” works for some, it works.
But still – saying it in it self a feminist statement is a stretch. I can see the critique about losing an understanding of (cis)women’s (heteronormative expressions of) sexuality – but it’s not the root of all power. Neither is financial security, though that is a major part of women and security and freedom and power. It’s a lot of things, but it bothers me when only the bits of that are currently pop-culture acceptable are framed.
Also, just because something is fun doesn’t mean it’s feminist. That’s why we have the fuck it, I like it rule. Everything doesn’t have to be feminist to draw value from it. But I think the idea of feminism has gotten super muddled. I was watching Love and Hip Hop (more stuff to write about) and Mashonda, Swiss Beats’ ex-wife, was talking about being dropped for Alicia Keys. And she was like “You know, you listen to these songs [like “Karma”] and think, ‘Girl Power!’ And then this happens.”
And I was sitting there on couch like “How the f-ck did you get a girl power message from ‘Karma’?” What goes around comes around, yeah I can see that. Being jilted by a lover, can see that too. But that song wasn’t feminist! Just like most of Bey’s songs aren’t feminist – she’s generally singing to a lover, either about loving him or leaving him. Same thing when people were telling me “Pretty Girl Rock” was feminist – about being the cutest chick and letting boys look but not touch? Okay then…*Johnny Bravo whatever*
Again, you don’t have to say something is feminist to derive value from it. I don’t remember people hollering that Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” was feminist, but it’s the same basic formula with a couple words swapped out. It’s a great step song, a great cheer song … but I’m not seeing feminist intent in the Bey machine.
Andrea: I applaud Southernisms, wherever we can get ‘em in.
I know the Bey stans may want to jump on me for saying this, but here it goes: Bey tends to be behind the curve on what some may think of as subversive or transgressive visual ideas of gender and feminism, compared to artists like Ciara. When Ciara released the (still) brilliant drag-king video, “Like a Boy,” quite a few people of color were like, “Well, all right, gurl!” (We’ll skip over the overall white-feminist silence around that vid. And the bullshit misgendering from the colored quarters.)
Then, Bey followed her with “If I Were a Boy.”
And at that point, everyone just looked at it and said, “Oh.” She’s doing a “man’s” job that folks are more used to seeing women doing instead of doing a full-on take on masculinity, which really was rarely done in a mass medium like TV until Ciara.
Same thing with Willow Smith and her song, “21st Century Girl”:
Parts of the WoCasphere were in awe with her (literal) girl-power message. Beyonce rolls out this:
And there’s contention about if she’s even feminist. Take @NineteenPercent’s excellent breakdown on what’s so jainky about the video’s message. I would disagree with her on Full Frontal Feminism being the be-all-end-all of feminist texts/ideas/whatnot. That’s a book that helped her and other people formulate their thoughts around Bey and feminism–like empowerment, people find feminism in what seems like imperfect spaces. And quite a few Indigenous people would even tell her to check her facts about her claim of matriarchal societies never existing – it’s from First Nations peoples that quite a bit of what we think of as “feminism” in the West is rooted. (To be fair, Amber agreed with this point when I brought it to her in a separate discussion.)
On the other hand, some of folks who see Bey as “girl power” may have never heard of Valenti or may even want to be bothered with her writings or what they perceive to be “white feminism” that she embodies. Bey is their feminist text and their idea–and ideal. And whatnot.
I posed this question to folks on my Twitter timeline: What’s the difference between Beyonce’s Girl Power message and Willow Smith’s Girl Power message. Of course, folks came back with some variation of “Willow’s ten. Beyonce’s a grown-ass woman.” More than that:
@ChrisMacDen: [Willow’s] not saying girls run the world; she is saying love your girl-self…is more “we can do it together” than “we made it.”
@ShelbyKnox: Willlow’s video is saying, “I believe girls can be powerful if we do it together.” Lots of sisrteerhood, self-love imagery.
Racializen @KJenNu tweeted this insight:
“Beyonce, this time, is more direct about her support for girls…[it] seems B needs to refute the idea girls are inferior, but Willow assumes that girls are equal, so she can talk about other things.”
Fair enough. On the real though, Bey is not my sort of feminism — and that’s not blasphemous to say. Then again, neither were the Spice Girls … or the Riot Grrls, for that matter. And I remember folks tripped on each of those pop-cultural “generations” of feminist representations, too, trying to figure out their effects on younger people. And, in the midst of those worries, we got “Like a Boy” and “21st Century Girl.” And, yeah, we got Valenti — and we got To Be Real, The Color of Violence, The Hip-hop Wars, and Feminism for Real. Feminism is rather malleable as each generation figures out what it means to them, even when we’re fighting the same old battles. Or because of them.
Arturo: Isaac Miller and I seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the “Rule The World (Girls)” video: it struck me as an unintentional counterpoint to Sijal Hachem’s “Khalas,” video:
That song also traded in “wartime” imagery (though, as Ethar El-Katatney noted, “Khalas” takes on another context when viewed in the wake of the Arab Spring.) As a song, though, Beyonce’s track didn’t seem to have anything to it. It’s a beat pretending it’s looking for a meaning, interrupted by the hook every so often. For the sake of comparison, “Pretty Girl Rock” came across a lot clearer, even if it’s not as heavy, thematically.
I also have to agree with @NineteenPercent on the “bill of goods” argument here: what’s Beyonce is presenting (again) is a rather vague bill of goods. It’s sort of empowering, but without any examination of what’s going on in the world around the subject. And, not to get too tin-hat here, but it does what “good” pop-culture product – like my gal Sporty – is supposed to do: keep the consumer coming back to the artist for more of the same, without asking more critical questions for him or herself.
Latoya: I think that’s an excellent point, Art – this whole idea of consumption without critical thinking leading to co-option. I think, at the core, that’s what much of the feminist protest is about. Movements, after they make some progress, tend to be co-opted in mass culture, even as people are acting against the core values of that movement. We see this in race, where suddenly talking about race openly is by default “racist” and people hide behind words like diversity while still excluding nonwhites from full participation in society. And we see counterculture icons like Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious being used to sell shoes (Doc Martens, specifically, before Courtney Love raised hell.) So it’s frighteningly easy for today’s rebel cause to become tomorrow’s marketing shtick.
But the other hand is that because the personal is so political, it’s hard exactly to state what women, as a whole, should be doing, because we all come from such different spaces and have vastly different relationships with feminism. Samhita sent me a link from a rant by Natasha Theory defending Beyonce’s vid:
I like stiletto heels and make up. I like men. I like attractive men. When I was a single woman, I liked to look at attractive men and I liked them to look at me. Does being a feminist mean that I cannot love and embrace these parts of myself?
I used to feel a deep internal conflict between who I was and what I thought my feminism should look like. But like Joan Morgan said in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, I’ve learned to embrace a feminism that’s not afraid to “f*&k with the gray areas.” A feminism that lets me find peace in the understanding that my job as a feminist human being is to constantly work on checking the “isms” within myself, while also loving the parts of me that are healthy and conducive to my growth—even if they don’t fit into someone’s pre-conceived notion of who I should be.
And, it’s worth noting that the fabulous Ms. Morgan also wrestled with this issue herself, writing this:.
Can you be a good feminist and admit out loud that there are things you kinda dig about patriarchy?
Would I be forced to turn in my “feminist membership card” if I confessed that suddenly aking up in a world free of gender inequities or expectations might bug me out a little.
Suppose you don’t want to pay for your own dinner, hold the door open, fix things, move furniture, or get intimate with whatever’s under the hood of a car?
Is it foul to say that imagining a world where you could paint your big brown lips in the most decadents of shades, pile your phat ass into your fave micromini, slip your freshly manicured toes into four inch fuck-me sandals and not have one single solitary man objectify – I mean roam his eyes longingly over all the intended places – is, like a total drag for you?
Am I no longer down for the cause if I admit that while total gender equality is an interesting intellectual concept, it doesn’t do a damn thing for me erotically? That, truth be told, men with too many “feminist” sensibilities have never made my panties wet, at least not like that reformed thug nigga who can make even the most chauvinistic of “wassup baby” feel like a sweet wet tongue darting in and out of your ear.
I understood these things in one way, when I first read her book back in 2003. My politics have changed since then. I see these things very differently. But I bet Joan Morgan does too. It’s part of the complications of having ideals and living in society – navigating these ideas and structures and trying to parse out who we are from who we are allowed to be.
Joan Morgan asked above, so what if you don’t want to pay for your own dinner? But later, she talks about the power of fiesty money – enough cash for a cab ride home if you and your date aren’t getting along. I learned about the power of fuck you money – first in the context of dating (always have enough to cover your half…no, I don’t owe you $46.97 worth of pussy, I paid, thanks…and enough to get home after), then in the workplace, as a way out of really abusive and damaging work environments. And my understanding has grown. From money and finances as a personal point, to a political point, to a global economics point. So our understandings of things do change.
My understanding of empowerment has also changed, which is something I picked up in Natasha’s post:
I think any form of empowerment starts with an internal decision to be empowered. Beyonce’s song is just that…a creative, aesthetic, call to empowerment. NineteenPercent thinks Beyonce is a liar because she failed to speak about all of the challenges faced by women. I think Beyonce is an artist doing what artists do…creating her vision of what reality should be.
I think this is the issue with making everything in feminism about individual women’s choices.
Arturo: I would suggest, however, that Beyonce – much like, say, Lady Gaga now and Madonna back in the day – is an artist who’s positioning herself as a leading figure. Like it or not, that gives her both more attention and more scrutiny. I would agree that the lack of a bigger context behind works like “Run The World (Girls)” and “Born This way” isn’t the artist’s fault, but it’s a part of the discussion that the market doesn’t want us as consumers to address, so it ends up surrounding the artist – and attempts to engage the issue more critically comes off as “hating.”
Latoya: Or, we can just quote Renina:
We need to be honest about who we are tying to be equal to.
Women do not run the world. The world shits on women. Ask Ester Baxter. Ask SusanGiffords. Ask the woman who claims that she was assaulted and raped by the former President of the IMF. Ask Shaniya Davis’s family. Ask Ayianna Jones’s family. AskSakia Gunn’s family. Ask. Ask. Ask.
Now if we want to celebrate the catchiness of a Beyonce song, or honor her athletic ability, her fierceness as a dancer, that is perfectly legititmate. But to call her the face of modern day feminism is ahistorical and a slap in the face to Black, White, Latino, Asian, Muslim, Native American women and men who have been working to change our world so that being born with a vagina does not automatically mean being raised to be someones wife, street harassment material, nanny, slave or prostitute, but a fully developed human being.
Latoya: I also really liked Samhita’s point here:
Beyonce herself is in many ways acting within the system she was brought up in, being a performer from a very young age, her parents and record companies handling her entire career and most likely influencing, if not limiting, her choices in terms of creative direction and depth of politics. She is a product of a system that exploits women for capital gain and frankly in the face of that has done amazing, brilliant things, but that doesn’t change the system.
System dynamics are also important – again, it comes down to people being able to understand what goes into what they consume.
Andrea: I also think what we’re dealing with in talking about in this convo is the “suicide gene” of “the personal is political” ethos, which started in feminism: in saying that people make choices in their daily lives has these macro effects not only leads to this individualistic feminism but also to discussions about who is and isn’t a feminist, who fighting the system correctly and who’s not. It’s as if we’re not sure about what’s feminism but we’re going to say who’s *the* face of feminism? That, to me, gets into that slippery slope of “more-feminist-than-thou” policing. While we’re carrying on over here, marketeers are grabbing the muddled message, reshaping it, and lining their pockets with it.
Latoya: Right! It all comes back to a key issue – feminism is about equality, and everyone’s equality doesn’t look the same. So while we’re over here debating, someone is trying to figure out what kind of price tag to put on the next single. There’s gotta be a way to acknowledge two truthful and contradictory ideas, such as: (1) different people need different things out of feminism and (2) we have to have some common ground, as a movement, in order to take action. Because I am so not trying to have this conversation 20 years from now.
Andrea: There has to be a synthesis of, – or, at least a detente on – this, on how to talking about Bey’s message and Willow’s message and Arielle’s message and Joan’s message and Amber’s message and Samhita’s message and Renina’s mesage.
Can’t it be something like, “Y’all work it like Beyonce and grab your gurls and whip it like Willow. And Bey and Willow got some things right and some stuff a little off-key. Come on over here and check the women of color who allowed Bey and Willow to say what they’re saying – and even at that, they don’t have all the feminist answers. And then boogie on over and check out some of the women nowadays who are talking about Bey’s and Willow’s messages on a grander scale, on issues that do and will affect our lives, like having access to reproductive options, getting paid at the job where you work or want to work, getting your representatives to hear you, getting your own voices heard in media, and so on–and these women are still struggling with feminist responses to making the world better. So let’s take Bey’s and Willow’s songs, remix them, and do our part by, say, throwing a block party in honor of Octavia Butler and Duanna Johnson, and have the proceeds go to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project? Shall we all pitch in to fund the party? And who’s got the turntable?”