Behind every strong man, there is an even stronger Beyonce.

Beyonce’s new faux-feminist empowerment track and video, “Run the World (Girls)” has got a lot of people talking and I am here to join the cavalcade of analysis. I should probably state up front that I’m a pretty big fan of Beyonce’s music; it is some of the best stuff to shake your booty to, at the gym or the club, in a world where Madonna and Janet Jackson aren’t on the radio anymore (hey, I’m 33). But, I don’t really like this song. Maybe it is the way overplayed Major Lazer sample, the track of 2010 that is most associated with daggering (you can google, but you have been warned), or because I just don’t think it is one of her best songs, but I wasn’t floored by this track.

But, given the “go girl” tenor of her track, Bey’s new hit brings up a series of contradictory questions: Is this is a feminist anthem and great for young women? (Yay, grrrrl power!!). Is it possible for this to be feminist if Beyonce is being so sexy in the video? (Feminists can’t be sexy!!). Or does it even matter if this is political since it is art? (Leave Bey alone, she was just trying to make some music!) Or more mind-numbingly theoretical wankery: is this a subversive act wherein Beyonce is reinstating the silenced “other” woman of color as a historical actor and making a stance that women have always ruled the world (like when we were all kings and queens) and any subversive reading would tell you this is actually a transnational feminist orgy where the revolution will be on MTV?

Because the world is complicated all of these questions are true and untrue at the same time. It’s complicated; like feminism, like you and like me.

It is good for young girls to sing and dance about how they (could possibly) “run the world.” If that makes them be cool and stay in school, what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, girl’s empowerment is more than just if they do their homework and “grrl power” has become increasingly commodified in the mainstream media. Grrl power is often a pop culture tool used to encourage female buy in to mainstream product. It suggests that the the gender wars are over and women (girls) have won (remember this is in the face of mountains of “crisis in boys” flavored media). And that ultimately, feminism isn’t about structural inequity as much as it is about choice–so if you chose it, it is feminism. Pop culture perceptions of grrl power have become the stand-in for what feminism actually is, obscuring the reality that women are far from running the world, instead we are often forced to make choices that are not really choices but conditions we are managing. This is what vlogger 19percent was elaborately articulating for us in her video we posted yesterday.

Which brings me to question number 2, how can anything this sexy be feminist? One blogger went as far as to suggest that most feminists don’t like sexy (stilettos–what ARE those patriarchy torture devices anyway?) and Beyonce is so obviously being feminist here because she is telling us to be empowered, heels and all, which is what feminism is about, right?

Natasha writes at her blog in response to 19 percents video,

Unlike NineteenPercent, I believe Beyonce’s lyrics were not oppositional, but complementary to the points outlined in the video. 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 have a a few problems with this post (mainly the ‘feminists don’t understand teh sexy’ bit, since feminists have long embraced a femme stance as empowerment, or the rather outdated caricatures of feminists/lesbians), but in the spirit of loving critique I will only focus on this question of empowerment because I think it needs to be teased out a bit more.

Empowerment, choice and girls ‘ruling the world’ are all awesome, but they are impossible to really grasp without recognizing how larger power structures create choices for us. I am a super, duper femme that spends more on lipstick than one should ever feel OK about, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit it has been confusing for me. I quickly recognized the very fine line between empowerment because it was an intentional choice and empowerment because I was getting a lot of attention for looking traditionally female–without realizing I was inadvertently supporting the very system I thought I was empowered against. This contradiction is a very real one for young women managing mixed messages between traditional feminism being cast as unsexy and new grrrl power as all things sexy and thong-like.

While Bey is an artist, at the end of the day, she is not just creating art, she is a product of a historical and cultural moment and as a result, a full fledged member of the faux-empowerment movement. Yes, her focus is art and she probably doesn’t have some well thought out plan for gender parity (even though she is doing pretty awesome at the world domination thing), but she does represent some of the shortcomings of grrl power in the mainstream.

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.

The most legible moment of feminist resistance in this track, which may have been unintentional, is she seems to be pointing out how historically women have always “run the world.” And there is some truth to this, feminist archivists have found many cultures where women held differing positions of power. But this isn’t then–this is now and Bey is drawing from another frame; one where female achievement is second to male, because that is the natural order of things, and in that natural order women are still “powerful.” It is this kind of quiet assumption about women’s role in society that feeds into the most tired of tropes that ‘behind every strong man, there is an even stronger woman,’ which as a form of female empowerment leaves us something to be desired.

Even at her most seemingly feminist moments, Beyonce falls back upon traditional ideas of femininity, of love and of romance. Beyonce as an artist is great and she is pushing us in new directions creatively, but she is not quite a feminist role model, at least not yet. And maybe for now that’s OK.

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