By Andrea Plaid
I find myself increasingly defending someone whom I otherwise wouldn’t look around at or wouldn’t listen to: Beyoncé.
I haven’t converted to listening to her discography: To me, she sounds like every other Black female soloist in a Black church choir, so her voice–her timbre and melisma–isn’t unicorn-unique to my ears. In fact, I find it gratingly common because I heard so many women with her voice every Sunday from the age of five to my late twenties; Beyoncé just has a better production team.
And, as I’ve said on the R, her female-empowerment messages aren’t my feminism:
[S]ome 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…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.
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.
And let’s not forget Beyoncé now-notorious photo layout in French Vogue, which she said was an homage to “African queens in the past” and “African rituals”:
And I was quite happy to leave Beyoncé to her ideas about race pride and “girl power” with a genuinely heartfelt “bless her heart”…until Harry Belafonte came along.
As some Racializens may remember, Belafonte accused the younger generations of celebrities like Beyoncé and her spouse Jay-Z of not doing their fair share of activism, meaning feet in the streets and speaking out on the pressing issues of the day. I defended her philanthropy, like her giving her paycheck from Cadillac Records to a drug rehab center and her working with FLOTUS Obama on the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign, as her form of activism. As I said to the Huffington Post Live producers when they e-interviewed me about my take on the kerfuffle:
“Harry Belafonte is defining activism in a rather narrow way…for Belafonte to say Beyoncé is doing activism wrong because that’s not the way he does it is a bit off-putting. For people like Beyoncé, what they’re doing is activism; they are bringing awareness to an issue in their own way.”
And, as I had to remind a Black Baby Boomer who wanted to put forth the same argument as Belafonte’s on a Facebook thread regarding the Huffington Post Live debate, quite a few people many not have participated in the sit-in and other protests during the Civil Right Movement due the real material fear of losing their jobs, but they did their own activism by putting some extra money in the offering trays to serve as the protesters’ bail money. He promptly hushed.
Oh yeah…there was Beyoncé’s “faked” pregnancy. Some Black female performers I knew slagged that Beyoncé’s couldn’t possibly have been pregnant because she would’ve “gotten fat like her mother,” Tina Knowles. No, these women and other Beyoncé baby-bump conspiracy theorists opined, a surrogate mother carried Blue Ivy Knowles-Carter, and Beyoncé carried some contraption that made her look pregnant, which gave her an excuse to gain whatever weight she wanted. Not that a more likely possibility could have been that she was actually, factually pregnant and that, due to her probably being in top physical condition because she’s exercising via her dancing, could have had the theoretical “training effect” going on, which kept her baby weight to a certain poundage…or something like that. Nope, deflating pregnancy suits and surrogate moms. Well, the only remotely conspiratorial thing that happened with Blue Ivy’s birth was that the hospital that handled it received complaints from non-famous parents that organization placed the Knowles-Carters’ privacy above and beyond the other parents’ right to have access to their own newborns, some of whom were born premature. (Lenox Hospital dismissed the other parents’ claims.) The most unfortunate thing about this slaggy theory is that Beyoncé had her gestating and birthing experience marred by having to negate the rumors–which hews a little too closely to Black cis women’s reproductive decisions and life constantly and, more insidiously, publicly questioned, from the Moynihan Report to the questions-wrapped-up-in-a-stereotype of the Welfare Queen to the anti-abortion billboards accusing Black cis women of literally having unsafe wombs or killing a future president.
Of course, there was the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy of her faking her own performance at POTUS Obama’s second inaugural celebration. While Marine Corp Band officials waffled on confirming and denying what happened, music experts dissected the mechanics on the Beyoncé’s allegedly inauthentic singing, and some Republicans wanted to end the President’s new tenure over it, singing legend Aretha Franklin had to stack some facts: “But, when I heard the news this evening that she was pre-recorded I really laughed…I thought it was funny because the weather down there was about 46 or 44 degrees and for most singers that is just not good singing weather.” As my mom said about the whole thing: “It would be different if Beyoncé did something like Milli Vanilli. But she lip-synced. To. Her. Own. Voice. I don’t see the problem here.” Not only does the controversy play too neatly in the Black-folks-are-forever-lazy stereotype, but it’s also the twin okey-doke myths of a Black women simply won’t ever give her utmost for Black men and that a Black woman’s decision always brings down a Black man, in this case, one of the most powerful Black men in the world–and the US’ first Black president, at that. Glad folks moved on from this foolishness–and enough of them gave it some direct side-eye along the way.
What finally moved me to the edge of actually liking Beyoncé is that she made her married name a pop-cultural event–more accurately, the bullshit pushback about it moved me to that edge.
I asked Racialicious’ Senior Editor (and feminist co-conspirator) Tami Winfrey Harris about the tour’s name. She replied:
Normally, I find the whole “Mrs. X” cuteness annoying. Don’t get me wrong, I support a woman’s right to call herself whatever the hell ever, but, let’s face it, married women giving up their names is a vestige of patriarchy. We choose our choices, but not in a vacuum.
I got no beef with Bey and The Mrs. Carter Tour. Again, most of the people all het up about it are not taking into account sexism as it relates to black women and images of family as they relate to the black community.
Bey ain’t giving in to any patriarchal view on marriage; the patriarchy is pretty insistent that black women are unmarriageable, unloving and unloved. And no way you can argue that Beyonce has given up her identity for Jay-Z’s. She’s Bey-fucking-once. No one forgets that. And it’s interesting that, at the same time folks are complaining about the endangered black family and off-the-chain single, black women, they also want to come for a black woman who “did it right” by Judeo-Christian, middle-class, heteronormative, white standards, and is celebrating her love for her husband and child.
Example eleventybillion that as black women we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
And feminist homegurl Morgane Richardson had this to say:
The debate about the tour is ridiculous. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have understood a year ago, but having a loving partner whom I am married to and wanting to honor that family unit doesn’t mean that you dont have your own power, strength, determination, personality, etc. If she wants to identify as Mrs. Carter, then who are we to judge?
If some other feminists and other folks could be as cool as Tami and Morgane. Suffice to say, Beyoncé naming her upcoming tour “The Mrs. Carter Tour” apparently cause quite a few women in the opining class to clutch their pearls over such a–I’ll say it–traditional moniker. The women state, in various ways, that such a “feminist icon” like Beyoncé sets “The Feminist Movement” back to the days before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique by now claiming her husband’s name, which piles on the slut-shaming criticisms about her on-stage wardrobe, her sexy magazine covers, and her steamy videos. The Frisky’s Andrea Grimes did posit something of a racial analysis as to why Beyoncé would name her tour as such:
Beyoncé’s performance of “Mrs. Carter” is, of course, complicated by the politics of race and class, in addition to gender. One thing white feminists haven’t generally understood is how remarkable it is for a black woman, be it Michelle Obama or Beyonce Knowles-Carter, to live publicly as a feminine, motherly, wifely person. So I want to put the individual (and my kneejerk) criticism of Beyoncé aside, because I don’t think it’s as easy as saying, “There’s nothing feminist about Beyoncé going on tour as Mrs. Carter.”
And that’s where Grimes should have wrapped up her analysis…but she didn’t. She went on about how Beyoncé shouldn’t bless her tour with her married name because guys like her husband Jay-Z wouldn’t think to do such a public-y thing with his married name–the Google-able fact of Jay-Z legally changing his name to “Knowles-Carter” notwithstanding. So, to play with the cliche, if the goose ain’t doing it, the gander shouldn’t, either. And Grimes goes so far as to question the name change itself, stating that ” I don’t precisely see why Jay-Z had to take the name “Knowles” for the kids to get the name — apart from the fact that we continue to think that a kid without his dad’s name is somehow less legitimate than one with his mother’s name.” Such doubting of the Knowles-Carters’ decision in configuring their family as they see fit from a white woman reminds me of white feminist Jaclyn Friedman’s now-notorious (and since apologized-for) unsolicited advice to them: it’s the racialized position of white people outside of the Black familial unit perceiving themselves to know “better” than the Black parents who are handling the child-rearing decisions. I call it The White Social Worker Syndrome.
And that syndrome dovetails into respectability politics–and the latter definitely showed itself when some people of color I know on Facebook started mom-shaming Beyoncé for wearing her Super Bowl costume, stating that “she’s a mother now!” and–like taking on her married name–she shouldn’t sport such an thing. On my own FB page I said:
And let’s not forget that the woman Beyonce admires, Tina Turner, wore some skimpy gear as a performer and she was a [working] mom. IIRC, she’s famous not only her brilliant voice but also her short skirts, tight pants, and high heels which show off her famous legs. And, hold up: didn’t Mama Turner–now a grandmother–wear said outfit in a duet with the younger singer?
So, yeah, I’m on Team Beyoncé now. See what a lot of bullshit drives you to?