I know, I know there are probably more important things to talk about on a Tuesday evening than Beyoncé but I would be lying if I didn’t say that her documentary ‘Year of Four’ hadn’t made me emotional this weekend. My intellectual-come-practice black feminist approach to life has allowed me to develop an appreciation of people in their complexity, as entire beings. This has come to mean I have sourced my inspiration from all types of people: people who have a purpose in general do a lot for me and Beyoncé is no exception.
When Beyoncé released the first single from ‘4’ a little over 6 weeks ago, ‘Who runs the world (girls)’, the feminist blogosphere set ablaze with a melting pot of varied, but passionate responses to both the song and video. My own feelings about her, however, have altered, changed and flipped 360 over the years and after viewing something that reified what I have come to think about her recently, I couldn’t help but feel it was time to drop my two pennies.
Growing up as a British South Asian woman, it wasn’t easy to identify women who looked like me in the media let alone find positive, self-reflective images. South Asian women even today are confined, like many other women of colour, to single narratives; story lines saturated with submission, obligation, duty and forced marriages. Women like my mother: successful, dynamic, and strong were absent, women I wanted the world to see and admire. As a result, I had a natural tendency to be drawn towards any women of colour that challenged or depicted alternative narratives about our being in some shape or form. After all, we come from a long history of dehumanization and even in my teens I recognized the necessity of having these women present in the public eye to inspire and aspire a marginalized and underrepresented collectivity. Beyoncé, after much deliberation and a love/hate relationship, has come to be one of these women I admire (and not just because i’m biased to diva personas).
The recent ‘feminist’ policing of Beyoncé came as no shock to me. When it comes to women of colour there is a natural disposition to offload social responsibility to an individual without context, understanding or consideration of them as whole and flawed beings, let alone as part of a broader hierarchy and system. She exists within an industry that magnifies the workings of White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy and perpetuates these systems of domination by selling them to people of all ages all over the world. Many called out the false sense of empowerment she bestows young girls with as ‘independent’ women, seducing them into believing they run the world, when as a global majority they represent the most economically and politically deprived group. Others see her as sending precarious sexualized messages, marketing her self in ways that reiterate the sexual commodification of not only African-American women’s bodies, but also women’s bodies as a whole.
Whilst I am firm believer that those in the public eye have a social responsibility to uphold as celebrities and ‘icons’, and as an audience we have the duty to call out poor behavior when they fail to do so, this policing isn’t always applied to everyone equally. White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy has meant that sexualization has become part and parcel of pop culture, selling lifestyles, ideas, and constructions of gender, sexuality, race, class and ableism in easily consumable packages. Beyoncé is no different and is undoubtedly both victim and complicit: she has profited from her sexuality and a commodified beauty, forcing many women of colour to confront questions surrounding complexionism and white constructs of beauty.
Even so, some of her contemporary peers push these boundaries much further. Few questioned Rihanna’s ‘S & M’ song and video (but ironically did so with the pertinent ‘Man Down’) or the outfits that reveal the pornographic nature of success in the music industry. When Lady Gaga produces sadistic lyrics and parades herself in videos where she wears nothing but yellow tape, she is praised for creating art that is naturally accompanied by controversy. White women like Madonna (who single handedly changed the industry in the 80s by utilizing ideas about sexual liberation that were definitive of the feminist movement at the time) are merely business savvy, admired for profiting off what they know sells and are living/breathing a type of agency that demonstrates clear racial privilege. We feel sorry for a Britney Spears who was eaten alive by parasitic paparazzi; that having entered the media world so young was exploited into self-destruction. You don’t even need to get me started on men in this same space who are rewarded, entertained and glorified for their misogyny cough Lil Wayne, Kanye, Snoop Dogg cough!
Beyoncé is not perfect. Whilst she is demonstrative of many dangerous –isms that continue to plague the media, she has never presented herself as a woman willing to challenge any system of domination, and as my sister Nichole Black discussed in her response to Beyonce as the new face of feminism, we really can’t expect her to. It is our duty as spectators, academics, cultural critics, and educators to call out the whole industry and encourage young people to critically think/engage with how these systems play out in pop culture, shape our lives and ultimately aim to undo them. In an attempt to move away from binaries and reduction of what, who or how a ‘real’ woman conducts herself, Beyoncé becomes a popular lesson for all in appreciating women in their entirety and human complexity.
‘Year of Four’ reveals a woman who has managed to survive some of the most volatile years definitive in shaping any young woman, and in particular those working in a cutthroat industry. Her journey into adulthood becomes evident as she expresses the risks she took in self-financing ‘Four’, parting with her life-long manager and father Matthew Knowles, and rebranding herself as an entrepreneur. She readily admits that she isn’t always in familiar territory, that she does and has made mistakes, and ultimately will be tested. Such strength and vulnerability uncovers a maturity as she eases into her own skin, a Beyoncé that has a sense of self that is no longer dependent upon her alter ego Sasha Fierce. The subtle hints at the mutuality of her relationship with hubby Jay-Z who watches her, supports her and loves her in admiration it seems, are heart warming. She appears on our screens bare faced with an increasingly naked (but private) soul, teetering in corridors post-show in painful heels (comforting for me as i battle with wearing heels). Like any documentary, it may be manufactured but it still manages to resonate a sincerity.
My little brother came home that same night and sat all eyes on screen watching ‘Year of Four’. He is a 12 year old boy and yes, no doubt, was astounded by her beauty (as hormones lead you to be). As it drew to an end he admitted to being inspired by someone who not only carries a phenomenal God-given gift, but one who has spent their whole life dedicated to training their craft. Her success is well earned and her work ethic proves that the joy she now experiences is little to do with money and more to do with the artistry she creates through her passion, vision and desire to grow creatively. Beyoncé may be no feminist, she may fail on multiple levels to challenge systems of domination ever present in her image, work and political perspective, but as a pop artist and entertainer she is one to take notes from. After an emotionally exhausting week I felt renewed in my purpose, as were those around me. Queen Bey I salute you: may we all be dedicated to that which we do best and continue in growth! The haters really need to fall back…