Friday, September 24, 2021

Beyonce Liberated: “Empowering” Women or Setting Higher Double Standards? Let’s Discuss.

Full disclosure – I love Beyonce. I love her songs, her voice, her live shows, her fierceness, her all female band… I could go on. But these days, what’s got me is her self-described “liberation” which the star has said she hopes will be empowering women to take control of their sexuality – something she’s called a “power.”

Yes, with the launch of her new album Beyonce, which is full of brave sexually explicit lyrics, it seems as well as diving into her role as a mother, the star’s revealing a newfound alignment with feminist politics and has spoken out on the topic of women’s sexual liberation, while also adopting a more sexy appearance.

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This rebrand went into overdrive when the singer’s controversial comments were published in lesbian, gay and bisexual magazine, OUT, for which Bey was the cover star. In the interview, the usually shy singer said; 

“There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy.” 

She continued, “there is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality” – something which Beyonce is increasingly seen to be doing of late, with her hotly-styled outfits (the one for her Grammys performance with her husband Jay Z, and her recent look for TIME Magazine’s ‘Most Influential People’ issue causing uproar) and with her music videos for “Partition” and “Yonce” for example, wherein she is seen pole dancing and in skimpier outfits still.

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“The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims. Women are so much more than that.”

Her dividing sexual revelation (not that Beyonce was ever much of a wall flower) seems to have occurred in time for Queen B’s return to music after having her first child, Blue Ivy. Also timely, is the revealing 5-part behind-the-scenes documentary Self-Titled, in which Bey proudly shows off the work that went into her ‘visual album,’ explaining that she’d been inspired by a speech by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, who said “We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs of accomplishments … for the attention of men.” Of the speech, Beyonce said, “everything she said is exactly how I feel.”

Bey also reveals her persona as a mother in the docu, saying “I have a lot of awards… but nothing feels like my child singing ‘Mommy,’” opening part 4 of Self-Titled, (a segment called “Liberation”) by emphasising that “just because you become a mother, it doesn’t mean you lose who you are.” The star describes working on the album at her home in the Hamptons and appears in full ‘mummy mode’: cornrows in her hair, breastfeeding baby Blue and a little sleep deprived too, which was lovely to see on film. I also share the singer’s idea that once you have a child, you don’t need to lose your identity; you can jump right back into the mode you were in before.

But, while Beyonce’s much debated sex talk shows that perhaps she’s found new confidence in being who she really is – strong sense of sexuality and all – it also seems as though her message to empower women and equal their sexual rights alongside men might be confused by a few contradicting elements…

For example, there was one particular part of the footage that really struck me. Beyonce disclosed that following her engagement to Jay Z, the couple went to see the cabaret show Crazy Horse and describes being enamoured by the dancers, thinking that the girls were “so fly” that she wanted to perform just like them for her man, which she went on to do in the video for “Partition.”

Whilst, like Bey is, I’m all for women feeling comfortable with their bodies and doing what they feel like in the bedroom (and/or music videos) it begs the question: to promote sexual equality (where, as the star idealised in OUT Magazine, women would be as “free” as men), wouldn’t it be worth not playing up to those unsaid expectations, that have women performing like sexual objects, for men?

My mum – my sounding board for feminist ideas – raised the point that it is currently socially inacceptable for men to ‘perform’ in this way for women (the “double standard” Beyonce spoke to OUT about) and while there are some guys out there (Channing Tatum, I’m looking at you) that might think to take their lady to a male strip show and then choreograph something sensual for her, I can’t see Jay Z accompanying Beyonce to a Chippendale’s show and recreating it in his next video. This got me wondering whether, as someone using their platform to promote some sort of sexual revolution, Beyonce would be better off not becoming the poster girl for womens’ hyper-sexuality and instead be out making videos where men got off their backsides for their women’s pleasure.

While some might consider Bey’s admissions of her bedroom activity and music video performances a form of sexual liberation and appreciate her attempt to encourage other women to feel confident enough to do the same – to take ownership of their sexuality around men – others might take her well-intended suggestions as a encouragement of the invisible ‘rule’ that women should adopt such roles for the enjoyment of men, while men are left void of the pressure to return the favour. Not that Jay Z stripping should be the aim, but the fact that the idea of him doing it seems so ludicrous, remains interesting to me.

“My message behind this album was finding the beauty in imperfection.”

Also interesting is how, at another point in Self-titled, Beyonce reveals how proud she is of all the baby weight she has lost (kudos to her and her nutritionist) and explains that she wanted to show off her new lean body, saying;

 “I wanted to show that you can have a child and work hard and get your body back… You can have your child and you can still have fun and be sexy and still have dreams.”

Though it probably wasn’t intended to, it does sound like the star is saying that to do the opposite (not have the body you had pre-childbirth) is to not have fun and be sexy, where it might actually have been more liberating to women to hear someone express the same level of encouragement for those who do not want to put their body on show, or who do not care about being the same shape or size post-birthing.

Sure, it’s refreshing to hear a star of Beyonce’s magnitude putting good intentions toward such a difficult topic, and the idea that liberation is found in being really open with your body should of course be respected, but would it not be more helpful to also acknowledge the other end of the spectrum – to acknowledge that those who don’t want to dress in a sexualised manner may also be comfortable with their sexuality? In fact, if anything, wouldn’t this do more to “free” women and rid the world of that afore mentioned “double standard”?

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Part 5 of Self-Titled (“Honesty”) was also really worth listening to whilst considering Beyonce’s feminist take on sexuality. The star disclosed that several successful male creatives were involved in the process of putting her visual album together, including Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Miguel, who all worked on the track “Rocket.” It got me thinking: if there are men behind the scenes, co-writing, editing and shaping an album that speaks of a woman’s sexuality, creating a body of work that encourages a certain strain of ‘motherhood liberation,’ then how organic or woman-centred can its ideas really be?

I’m not suggesting that Beyonce has been a puppet of these men behind the scenes, or that feminist ideas can’t come about in the presence of males, but it’d be great to know what sort of guidance and feedback amounted to what we actually hear on each track – “adjust that lyric,” “sing that like this” or even “sing this” – because even a minor influence is still an influence on the sexuality Bey is claiming to own and take control of on her album.

Also, since Beyonce talked at length about making her album a visual one – creating a music video for every track as an important facet of its impact and understanding – what are the implications of having personalities like Terry Richardson, who has been accused of exploiting his female clients, involved (he was enlisted to shoot the video for “XO”); or having a male (Frank Gatson) choreograph her routine for the highly-sexed “Partition”?

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It’s within this same part of the documentary that Pharrell emphatically tells Beyonce (after she’d laid down the vocals for her song “Rocket”):

“Only a mama can talk like that… only a wife can talk like that… that’s your strength… You just ran through jail and let all the women out, you just set women free!”

I’ll admit that actually, those comments made me feel a little uncomfortable. Sure, it’s great for a man to be encouraging and celebratory of women in whatever they do, but there’s something about Pharrell telling Bey that what she is doing is for women, wives and mothers everywhere that doesn’t sit well with me – perhaps because it could be considered to sit well or adhere to his male interests, leading back to that sore topic of what men think women should be like in their role.

‘Once a woman has a baby she can return to having a good body, be sexy and therefore have fun,’ according to Beyonce, and however she suggested it here with her lyrics and voice, Pharrell seems to agree with her. But again, where is the space or celebration of new mothers who don’t want to immediately get their sexy on? Would Pharrell be so enthusiastic about an album that was singing their story?

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“I don’t have any shame about being sexual and I’m not embarrassed about it because I do believe that sexuality is a power that we all have.”

There is so much to consider around this new side to Beyonce and the statements that she has made, but since she is notoriously known for being private, shy in real life as well as very protective of her brand and rarely discusses contentious issues in the public domain, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to put any of the above to her, which is unfortunate, as I’m sure she’d have an interesting perspective to give.

For now though, while she claims to be encouraging sexual empowerment within women, the world remains debating over whether her rebirth as a sexually-charged new mother and her controversial, revealing statements are – though well-intended – really doing anything to empower women and set them free from the already mounted pressures, or whether she’s actually just setting new higher standards for what women are expected to be doing for their men or in general, in their role as women.

Alas, we can still thank Bey for putting these issues forward on such a huge, worldwide platform, and hopefully we will all be thinking about these things and discussing them amongst ourselves – which you can feel free to do in the comments box below or on Twitter via @SPICETVAFRICA and the hashtag #LetsDiscuss.

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Written by Sekai Makoni & Cindy Hudson

Image source: Limelightzworld.com, Media.npr.org, Wifflegif.com, Theurbandaily.com

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