Beyonce enters the women’s studies classroom

Women’s studies has for many decades centered itself around the study of popular culture and this trend continues as it was announced last week that there will be a class called “Politicizing Beyonce” offered by the Women’s Studies Departement at Rutgers.

Most people groan in dismay when I rigorously analyze pop culture through a gender studies lens (especially at dinner parties, my apparent super power)–but I think that shit is hot. I have two degrees in women’s studies and for both my MA and BA work, I was deeply fascinated by what popular culture tells us about the representation of women, race, class and sexuality. And the conclusions from feminists weren’t as negative, critical and narrow-minded as one might assume.

It was the women’s studies academics of the 80’s that tagged Madonna with the language of empowerment (even if that empowerment was within a system of power–as any materialist feminist would tell you) and it was gender studies that helped place women from Aretha to Gaga within the lexicon of feminism, finding moments of feminist resistance in their work.

As a strong proponent of women’s studies education, I think it is a no brainer to have a class about Beyonce. She is both an amazing icon of strength and independence and leaves us plenty to critique with regard to normative visual representations of women’s bodies. I have been critical of casting Beyonce as a feminist in the past. But I have wondered this many times–is Beyonce the Madonna of this generation? And if that is so, does Beyonce show us that we have made progress in women’s studies curriculum and thereby feminism to more effectively recognize the complexity of women of colors lives?

Join the Conversation

  • toongrrl

    Wow. I can’t wait for Nickelodeon cartoons to enter the curriculum. Cross your fingers for “As Told by Ginger”!

  • Nicki Meier

    I, personally, don’t find Beyonce to be anything of a feminist. Of course, I must explain that I don’t think this third wave notion of feminism is really feminism at all. I mean, surely you can be a feminist and still like to wear mini skirts, but lets be honest, that act of wearing the mini skirt is not feminist, nor are you probably feeling empowered by wearing that mini skirt outside of the way people make you feel while you’re wearing it.

    I think that Madonna was ahead of the feminist times. She was third wave before it existed. With that being said, I like much about Madonna from the 80’s, in particular, her music, but that doesn’t mean I think she was the ultra feminist icon either. Likewise, I think Beyonce is even further from a feminist icon. And I think people referring to her as one hurts the feminist cause. It’s showing young girls that prancing around stage nearly naked is empowering and something to be glorified as respectable, and I COMPLETELY disagree. I find it very disheartening that so many young girls look up to her and that older women go around reaffirming that action.

    • Elle

      She has so much more to offer than just her looks, and many more reasons why people look up to her: her talent/skill, work ethic, and I doubt you’ll find her speaking negatively about anyone else or indulging in the kinds of petty “catfights” other pop stars do. We’ll know we’ve made a significant amount of progress when the way she dresses herself onstage is no longer a major issue.

      And prancing? She’s an amazing dancer. Should “feminists” (I use quotes because I think it’s actually kind of a silly title that’s actually hindering the women’s movement, but that’s another story) hold themselves back from certain fields that aren’t considered dignified/asexual?

      • tors

        I could not agree more. No matter how you want to spin it, B does her job and does it well. Her voice is so powerful, her onstage/onscreen presence is a no-brainer, and she has clearly worked with the right people. Her smoking body and stunning face have, of course, helped. Not only that, as Elle pointed out B has carried herself gracefully in this industry. In a way, this is her most compelling and impressive trait. Personally, Beyonce’s lyrics and music videos have certainly empowered me, at least in moments, perhaps insignificant ones. is beyonce going to fix major gender tensions? of course not! Is she the single symbol of all of “feminism”? … is that a joke? She is just doing her job, and she is doing it well. You can’t deny that relatively speaking B’s music at least sense the message that women should feel strong because we deserve to.

    • Evelyn

      As someone who missed the peak of Madonna’s career but witnessed Beyonce’s rise to fame, I cannot do a comparative analysis, but I can comment on Beyonce’s influence as a pop icon. Is Beyonce a feminist? I think that the answer to that question is closer to no than yes, as many of the commenters have pointed out already. However, I am saddened that you “find it very disheartening that so many young girls look up to her.”

      Beyonce is extremely important–not as a feminist, but as a gateway to feminism itself. I urge you not to cringe at this statement. Not everyone can discover feminism in a “feminist-friendly” manner. I do not know how you discovered feminism, but many of the feminists in my life started exactly where I started: by screaming the co-opted Spice Girls mantra “GIRL POWER!” at the age of 10 (and dressing up in skimpy dresses and platform shoes for Halloween). If Beyonce isn’t a feminists, then the Spice Girls were DEFINITELY not feminists. But their sloppy representation of true feminist causes is secondary to the effect they have on potential feminists, and that is the real distinction I am trying to make.

      Growing up, I had so many doubts about myself. I felt inferior to many people—boys in particular. I did not feel like I had the right to speak my mind or demand respect in the presence of my male peers. If Beyonce (and Michelle and Kelly) have taught me anything, it is that I deserve respect. That “I’m a survivor; I’m not gon give up; I’m not gon stop; I’m gon work harder.” In other words: my womanhood should not hinder my right to control my body and my happiness. This is a real consequence of Beyonce’s rise to fame, and I hope you can appreciate that.

  • Julia

    Feministing is psychic! I was just thinking about this question last night because: I am obsessed with her single COUNTDOWN. I can watch that video all day long. I wonder if it sends the right message? Yes, hetero marriage is superior, we know this info already, but at least there are elements of equality and woman power. All Beyonce’s vids focus on her crotch and hips, I swear her waistline is the focal point consistently. However, I gotta love this: WHO RUN THIS MOTHER**? WHO RUN THE WORLD? I just wish the answer was WOMEN–not girls… Yet, I play this song for my daughter with pride! So, is Beyonce a feminist? I still can’t decide.

    • Elle

      I agree! I’ve been obsessed with “Countdown,” too — which actually led to an argument with someone who insisted Beyonce makes too many “female empowerment songs,” which are supposedly unnecessary, leading to my comment below…. Even “Who Run the World” grew on me despite it being just girls. But that line “Hope you still like me/F U pay me” — ugh.

      About the waist/hips/crotch focus — dancing has pretty much always, to some extent, involved the simulation of sex. From an anthropological perspective (and, though I hate to say it, a marketing one), it does kind of make sense… :/

    • Evelyn

      I find it unhelpful to dig too deeply into the “meaning” of pop songs. Take it for face value and move on. That is how most people consume pop music, and that is how we should gauge pop stars’ influence on cultural trends. If the main theme of Beyonce’s body of work is “women deserve respect and respect is sexy,” then that message is going to resonate with Beyonce fans no matter how predictably “unfeminist” Beyonce behaves.

      Beyonce is not trying to be a feminist; she is trying to be a good businesswoman. She knows women in this country feel disempowered and she knows that sex sells. Put two and two together and you get songs like “Run the World.” But what makes Beyonce “more feminist” than her equally sexed-up counterparts is that she consistently releases songs that give women the permission to be financially independent, seek healthy romantic relationships, and cherish friendship.

      • Evelyn

        Sorry if the above post was curt. What I forgot to mention was I am happy you play Beyonce’s song for your daughter “with pride.” As far as popular female role models are concerned, Beyonce is one of the better ones at your daughter’s disposal. Plus, this live performance of “Run the World” is about as feminist as it gets in pop culture (

  • Elle

    I agree that a class about Beyonce makes sense. She has an interestingly polarizing effect on people, male and female. I’ve noticed that men who say that they “hate” or “can’t stand her” — typically because they see her as being (in so many words) pretty much just…uppity — tend to (not even necessarily on a conscious level, but in a way that becomes clear in their behavior) believe that women are less deserving of respect and/or should be more submissive.

    It does bother me when she portrays women’s empowerment as being a women-VS-men thing, which is just counterproductive, but still. She’s an undeniably powerful icon. Wish I could take that class, actually… Sorry for the wordy response!

  • Sjaan

    I agree with Nicki. Despite her talent, Beyonce uses her sexuality excessively to promote herself. Young girl may get the idea that talent and charm alone are not enough without prancing around half naked.

    If you’re looking for an empowered female recording artist, I think Adele is an excellent example. Unlike Beyonce, she writes her own songs. And despite her big body and the fact that she doesn’t use her sex-appeal to sell records, her music is extremely popular. They play it everywhere you go. She says she doesn’t want to be a trendsetter, but a singer. She doesn’t want to be skinny and be on the cover of Vogue or Playboy, she wants to be on the cover of Rolling Stone and Q. Because of her down-to-earth attitude, the tabloids show less interest for her than for less talented, raunchy media puppets like Rihanna.

    I almost immediately fell in love with her reluctance to mold herself into a glamourous image and just do what she’s got at. It that’s making music.

    She is a true icon.

    • Elle

      I really love Adele, too, but can only think of one song of hers that isn’t about a man (“Hometown Glory”). Her down-to-earth attitude is wonderful, and I love her songwriting — it’s so heartfelt and smart — but sometimes she can come across as a bit weak/needy. And I’d rather leave the commentary on being “skinny” (which Beyonce is not) etc out of it, partly since it implies that there’s something wrong with my natural body type.

      “Prancing” seems to belittle the work that Beyonce puts into her dancing/choreography and implies that there is something wrong with a female performer putting herself in the forefront in a physical way.

    • Elle

      I know that sexualization is a huge problem. But discussing to what extent someone should be overtly sexual is still keeping the dialogue focused on appearance. One of the key elements in creating change will be to shift the dialogue away from a woman’s appearance and what she should/n’t be doing with her body — we should be minimizing the importance of these things. It just adds to sociopolitical restrictions on individual women and the ideology that those restrictions are OK (and that women should be judged on appearance).

    • Alita

      i agree with Nicki and yourself. what i would say however is i think beyonce is a great example of faux feminism and perpetuating stereotypes about feminism (ex like Elle said its about being a girl v boy thing).

    • honeybee

      She is in the entertainment industry though – not a professional or a working class woman. EVERYONE in the entertainment industry – both male and female – is attractive and uses this to their advantage.

      Very few people can make it without looks in show-biz.

      I think sending the message that looks don’t matter at all if you’re going into an industry like this is in many ways more damaging then the reverse, because it’s not realistic.

      Similarly, to say that women can’t be sexy when in show-biz puts them at a disadvantage to men and essentially says that women can’t do the job they are being paid to do. B/c at the end of the day, entertainers are there to entertain which includes looking good for the masses.

      Besides, if women aren’t allowed to be sexy when they are a performer, then when CAN they be sexy? Surely you recognize that alot of women like to be sexy, to say there is no time and place where this is acceptable is to deny female agency bigtime IMO.

  • James

    I think that the creation of this class was a really wonderful idea. Beyonce is a major media personality with a pretty big influence on pop culture. Also, I’m betting that the class will talk about the juxtaposition between her sexualized image and her (at times) empowering lyrics.

    Sjaan, I both disagree and agree with you. While I think that Adele might be a better role model, she (in my opinion) doesn’t have the dynamic personality or career that can truly warrant dissection in a Womens & Gender Studies class. So I agree that it’s cool that she doesn’t use sex to promote herself, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the class that will be taught.

    And for the record, I’m saying that as a Beyonce-lovin’ Gender Womens Studies major :)

    (And also for the record, I personally believe Janelle Monae is the best of them all! Good music, talks about sex without objectifying herself- she’s everything)

    • Elle

      Ooh Janelle Monae, good call! She definitely deserves more recognition,

  • Siona

    This post just goes to show how divided feminism is. Beyonce’s and Madonna’s brands of feminism are so distinctly different. And while I love me some Beyonce, I do consider her music to be a guilty pleasure.

    Beyonce claims in the song “Dance For You” that she can show her man how much she appreciates, values and cares for him by wearing a garter belt and dancing around on a chair. In “Single Ladies” she runs around in a bathing suit with sleeves to say, here’s what you’re missing, you should have given me a diamond. She recruited Lady Gaga to be recorded on a “Video Phone” in sexual positions for a man’s pleasure.

    While Madonna used sex to her advantage, I would argue that it was typically used in an empowering way: i.e. Human Nature, Erotica, Justify My Love. All examples of how she was clearly in control of her sexuality and using it not to persuade a man to be with her or to keep him around, but because she wanted to.

    • Siona

      P.S. I think it’s a great idea to have a class about Beyonce and other pop singers. I wish I could take it!

    • James

      I totally agree, and I love your logic.

      My friend who works in student affairs posted a link on my facebook wall a few months ago talking about the new existence of a hip hop major at some school, and this story really reminded me of that. Many of the higher ed professionals who commented on the story said that it was useless and unnecessary, but I think that the study of pop culture (particularly when it involves complicated topics such as beyonce’s brand of feminism or all of the different social justice aspects of hip hop) is important, and frankly, kinda cool. I would love to see where the professor goes with this class.

  • natasha

    It makes a lot of sense to have a class on Beyonce. I’m not claiming she’s a great representation of feminism, but from a Women’s Studies perspective, I think it could be a really interesting look at what things are accepted and shunned when it comes to feminism in the mainstream media. Beyonce is obviously popular while pushing a pseudo feminism with her image. From that, I can see that the culture is not entirely afraid of a message of female empowerment, so long as that empowerment is sexy. The culture likes girl power themes that don’t challenge the status quo, ones claiming that gender equality has been reached, much like the messages in independent women and who run the world. Simplistic notions of feminism, the girls vs boys shtick Beyonce uses is accepted by mainstream media as if that’s what feminism is.

    Her influence on young girls can’t be ignored or separated from feminism either. Her message is far, far from great, but it does show young girls that they can be tough and smart and powerful and take care of themselves. The Spice Girls had a very similar influence on me, which I am grateful for, because at six years old they made me feel proud to be a girl for the first time, and helped me realize early on that I could do anything a boy could do, and anyone who would try to tell me different was wrong.