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.

Join the Conversation

  • Emily

    What concerns me about the song and video is the message that women’s empowerment derives from sexuality. Grinding on the ground under a man’s spread legs and wearing lingerie-like costumes while singing lines like “my persuasion can build a nation” and “they can’t freak like we do” just seems to support the tired old narrative that women are really on top, can really run the world, by distracting those stupid, crotch-driven men with our sexual wiles. That’s not a tenable feminist position

    And while there’s definitely empowerment to be found in working “nine to fives,” being a “college grad,” and being “strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business,” I’m not sure that this isn’t the same narrow conception of womanhood that so plagued ‘mainstream’ feminism of the 70s and 80s. Where are the shout outs for working class, poor, trans, nonreproductive, queer, and other women who defy middle- and upper-class heteronorms? Where do they figure in this fantasy of girl power?

  • Deborah Hauser

    I wouldn’t look to the woman who brought us “Put A Ring On It” for feminist empowerment.

    • Erica Allison

      True! But it’s very disappointing that a women in her power doesn’t see a better message to send than… this.

    • Rita

      You wanna keep your man? Better get married! Because marriage is always the right answer.

      Sarcasm aside, this song is already hard to listen to and Beyonce’s voice is just horrible. Besides, there really is nothing wrong with being sexy and taking control of our sexuality, but this video just reeks of so many contradictions. Beyonce herself, as Larkin pointed out.

  • Larkin Callaghan

    I agree wholeheartedly. I wrote a post about this yesterday on my blog as well, and I was – and always have been – a bit disturbed by the idea of her being someone considered an empowering role model while married to a guy who refers to women as “problematic bitches” to be dealt with:

  • Margaret

    All good points, and I would like to add: Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this video, in my opinion, is the contradiction between the claim that women run the world and the imagery of a West Side Story dueling gangs type set-up where women are on one side – young, thin, cleavage, heals, hip gyrations, etc. – and men are on the other other, equipped with body armor, shields, and an array of weaponry. Should these women really assert their power and mob up on this gaggle of men, staking their territory and demanding their voices to be heard, they could (or would) surely be annihilated. Most striking to me is the final shot, where Beyonce saunters up to a “man” (who is in fact a military or militia member) and invites him to a fight by pulling something off his jacket or pushing him (I’m not sure which). And in response, this man assumes a posture and gives her a look that would strike certain terror into the heart of any woman who has ever been struck by a man (in the movement to end domestic violence, us advocates know and name this as “the look”). And then, in a very deliberate gesture to remind us grrrls who really holds the power, the entire mob of “empowered” women stand in salute to the men. Now I appreciate art as much as the next feminist, but in my opinion, the directors, producers, promoters, etc. who are involved in producing the pop-culture image that is this video have created this art through the lens of patriarchy. Either Beyonce wrote this song to be empowering and her creative directors, producers, etc. subverted it’s purpose by packaging it in a way that ultimately maintains male dominance, or the “empowerment” aspect of the song is a loose and sloppy packaging manipulated to sell and original message of male dominance. Either way, it doesn’t look good to me. However, I will say that when my feminist consciousness first began to awaken and I went through a reactionary phase of rejecting femmininity altogether, Beyonce was one of a handful of femmes who brought me back around, and I will always admire her ability to perform a gender so femme, I see it as (at least a little) queer, even if it is exploited by corporate interests and male chauvinists.

  • Ashley

    Wow! Thanks so much for writing this.

    I’ve been sort of ruminating over this video for the last week. I think you really hit the nail on the head — there’s something that makes me so uncomfortable about the overt “girl power” message paired with the sexified imagery. I feel this tension on such a personal level (sometimes heels just feel wrong) and a structural level. I really think that this is THE issue for feminists — I’m continually confused on how to both advocate for women’s empowerment and truly embody this idea — inside and out.

  • Maisha

    Thank you so much for this. Definitely one of the best critiques I’ve seen so far. I agree with you that pop culture-brand “feminism” is meant to sell products more than to empower women. It’s hard to believe that someone as mainstream and popular as Beyonce would truly challenge our patriarchal systems while holding on to her place in the industry – not that that’s an excuse for her not to try. But to me it feels wrong for her to pretend, to try to sell this as female empowerment when it’s nothing more than marketing.

    I shared my thoughts here:

  • Mia

    I’m finding it difficult to believe people are placing Beyonce and feminism in the same sentence. Whoever wrote the song for Beyonce, I believe, did not intend for it be a song of empowerment for girls and women. Why? Because Beyonce is a moneyist, not a feminist. She releases these “female anthems” that are catchy, and make girls and women feel connected with her. If they can form a connection with her music by marketing non-existent strength through materialism, etc., then they will also want to purchase her albums. Thus, making her wealthier. The female empowerment message is never consistent in her songs, but the idea of materialism is. As far as I’m concerned, feminism and female empowerment is not about materialism. Listen past the not-so-catchy chorus, and pay attention to the lyrics. Then, listen to her other songs. It’s all about materialism!

  • Natasha

    Hello Sisters…in the spirit of true dialogue and understanding, I’m wondering how long I have to wait until my response is posted. I respect your usage of my blog and the critique that you made of it and but I think a healthy dialogue process would allow me to respond. I would appreciate any insight you could provide me on this process. Thank you.

    • Samhita

      Hey Natasha,

      Good to see you here! Sooo I actually looked for your comment in the back-end and don’t see it in here. Are sure you posted it? Can you repost it? Totally interested in your feedback!

  • Sarah

    Agree with a lot of statements previously made. To agree with Beyonce, sure, women can run the world … it just depends on how much of their dignity and self-respect they are willing to give up in the process.

  • Natasha

    First let me say thank you for this piece. Again, I think all voices are valid (including Beyonce’s) and I greatly appreciate all of the dialogue around this issue. I agree with much of what you said in this post. However, it seems as if you cherry-picked certain portions of my blog and then added your own layer of meaning to them. Take this for example:

    “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?”

    What I shared at the beginning of my post was a personal account of the derisive tone and judgmental assumptions that I experienced at a feminist conference that I attended. As much as we’d like to believe that these types of oppressive thoughts and behaviors don’t taint the hallowed, sacred, hall of feminism…we are just as prone to the very narrow-minded approaches that we say we are against. By pointing out this element, I am not saying that “most feminists don’t like sexy.” What I am saying is that women who might choose to dress in what others label as “sexy” may experience some of this abuse from feminist sisters who proclaim to be for “all women.” I entered the space accepting of others and expecting to be met with that same embrace. That was not the case for me. Before I had even opened my mouth, certain assumptions were made. By recounting this experience, I was setting the premise for the blog’s assertion: We need to be mindful of the very privileged and elitist tone that comes with deciding who is “feminist” and who is not.

    Secondly, I never said that Beyonce was being “so feminist.” =/

    What I DID say was that I saw this as an attempt (a flawed one, according to some) to send a certain message and I appreciated her for doing that. Without actually having a conversation with Beyonce, we can only assume what her intentions were. Money may have been a motive. But this could have also been a genuine attempt to contribute to female empowerment. How counter-productive is it for us to not recognize this step…even if it is a baby step? When I think back on Beyonce’s discography, this song is the most “feminist” I’ve ever heard her. Doesn’t that mean anything? Not to say that the song is perfect, but when someone is making an effort, that should be acknowledged. Now, this is not to say that we should not critique. In fact, critique is absolutely necessary. However, what tone are we using when we do it? By rejecting her efforts wholesale and allowing valid criticisms to morph into name-calling and character assassination, we certainly don’t speak to what I think feminism is truly about. And we certainly don’t encourage her to continue to explore the themes in her music/art.

    I personally like the song and video. I also made it clear that I have some of my own criticism of Beyonce’s work and brand. I stated that if given the chance to have a conversation with Beyonce, many of these issues would be put on the table. This wasn’t a post extolling the feminist virtues of Beyonce. It was more about how we engage each other as sisters in the struggle. How we mesh the many different voices and experiences of womanhood. And when we do take issue with each other…how we go about respectfully addressing those issues with the love that we so loudly proclaim to have for each other.

    Beyonce is no different from the rest of us. I am sure that if any our lives were placed under the microscope of public scrutiny, someone would find something that would prove that we weren’t “feminist” enough. Rather it’s the large amounts of money that we may spend on lipstick, the closet full of pumps, the logo on our website that some would argue is “too sexualized” or the way that we bash our sisters every opportunity we get. We are all struggling with personal contradictions, cultural conditioning, and yes…internalized sexism. And knowing this, we should handle each other compassionately. Women who make different choices than the ones we make should not become symbols of everything that we hate…they are human beings.

    Lastly, I do believe that some of the very valid and authentic criticism of Beyonce is also mixed up with insecurity, jealousy, internalized sexism and celebrity worship. As feminists, the evolution of this movement calls for us to take a really, hard look at that, recognize that fact, and then make the distinction.

  • nisha

    very good review indeed and i love the discussions on feministing addressing the complexity of being feminist and asserting it. Samhita, i really liked the term you used “faux-empowerment movement”. we have seen advertisers and corporate world use empowerment images to sell every product and ideas possible. i wanted to put your attention also to the rhetoric and use of so called faux-empowerment in various donor led development programs all over the world.

    recently we were discussing about how discussing GENDER has become an apolitical thing in most of the development issues. there are cases where it was easier to discuss gender issues in local communities than other political and issues of conflict. the de-politicizing of empowerment has huge affect in the development programs and actual empowerment of communities.

    i feel like the discussion on beyonce’s faux-empowerment video resonates with what womens issue has become in the developing field as well.