Beyonce Bow Dow

Why Beyonce’s “Bow Down” is not anti-feminist

Beyonce Bow DowI didn’t even have time to learn all the lyrics to Beyonce’s new song “Bow Down” before people started policing whether or not the track was anti-feminist. A friend sent me this piece from the Washington Post entitled “Beyonce sabotages her female empowerment efforts with ‘Bow Down.'” I wish everyone reading this could see how hard I am rolling my eyes at this.

First of all, I would like to point out something I’ve noticed about how we receive Beyonce. It seems like unless she’s singing, dancing, or showing off her outfits, we immediately want to critique whether or not what she is doing is feminist. We don’t hold all artists to this standard, and I think the practice of doing it to Beyonce (and a select few other celebs) is a little anti-feminist. Why can’t we allow Beyonce to be a singular expression of someone who is multidimensional? It’s almost as if unless she’s singing, dancing, and appearing (as opposed to existing) in love, she is only allowed to be one thing. But what do I know? I’m just a stan. Anyway…

You can not provide critique without context. And this Washington Post piece is so context-free that I question how she was able to write it. It’s 2013, and we still haven’t acknowledged that women can use the word “bitch” without setting all of feminism back? If you don’t use the word, that’s fine, but I don’t think that calling someone who has attacked you (verbally or otherwise) that is a set back. It’s contextual. 

Furthermore, women do not have to be humble, nice, and modest all the damn time! I repeat: Women do not have to be humble, nice, and modest all the damn time! She has been running shit as a performer, as a singer, as an artist for quite some time now, all the while with people telling her that her music isn’t good, that she’s anti-feminist, that she’s a narcissist, that her baby isn’t hers, that she sucks because she lip synced, that she isn’t black enough, that she isn’t a good role model for women, that she’s a hypocrite, the list goes on. I think Bey is long overdue to demand some fucking respect, from men and women alike. And no, she didn’t have to say it in a “nice” way. 

And those self-affirming, self-glorifying lyrics? Those descend from a tradition of self-glorifying verses that the creators of hip hop took to in rap battles and cyphers. That is the culture of hip hop to say: I’m the shit. Respect it. Bow down to it. I can’t say it enough: Context is so important. And while we would have preferred that Beyonce said, “I love and am proud of my work, take that!” she used the song to draw upon an alternative cultural framework to say the same thing in a different way.

So please, don’t get your undies in a bunch about how Beyonce is an anti-feminist mean girl. And did I mention the song is dope? It is. Bow down, bitches. Oh, and here’s some context to go with that.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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  • nikki

    I totally agree with you Sesali.
    Just heard the song..its pretty awesome IMO. She seems to be letting out a lot of frustration with how people have been talking about her in the media as of late, which is actually somewhat refreshing (I havnt liked too many of her tracks lately)
    She totally deserves every bit of recognition she is asking for. If men can say theyre the shit why cant women?

  • Courtney Zehnder

    I would appreciate some discussion of the ‘smack that trick’ lyric, though. Is there a use of that word different than what I associate it with that she could possibly be utilizing? Bc that just seems really problematic and horrible to me…

    • Athena G. Csuti

      While I don’t have an issue with the usage of “bitch” (I’d like to think we can take that word back, the same way other negative words have been recontextualized), I agree the “trick” line is definitely problematic. It negatively colours the rest of the song. The only justification I can think of is what was mentioned in the article, the cultural context of hip hop music shit talking. Though I sincerely hope rap music moves away from that, because my love for hip hop sometimes clashes with my feminist sensibilities.

      Even without the “trick” line I still think she’d come under fire for this song.

  • Olivia

    Eh. It’s not the arrogance I have a problem with. I don’t tolerate this “b*tch” crap from Lil Wayne; why should I tolerate it from Beyonce?

  • Matt Markonis

    The main reason the song isn’t anti-feminist is because it has no substance, it’s “not even wrong.”

  • Lala

    I have to disagree. The Washington Post article clearly states that Beyonce has aligned herself as a feminist in the past and we all know she has built a career on the idea of female empowerment. And she clearly describes her brand of feminism as being through female friendship and solidarity, which is complete contrast with this song. Granted, I don’t take Beyonce as anything other than an entertainer so her personal beliefs/philosophy don’t mean much to me.

    As far as the song goes, I can’t call myself a true Beyonce fan, but I do like the production. I’m not crazy about the lyrics but that has nothing to do with the message, they just sounded like throwaway lyrics to me.

  • lalareina

    I didn’t expect to find it here but thank you for this article I couldn’t have said it nor have I heard it better. Maybe I am a stan but I get fed up with people pulling out their ruler to measure her every breath. Godforbid she doesn’t fit their idea of perfection in every instance. Let Beyonce live, let her be great.

  • Candy

    Thank you for allowing me to finally create an account on wordpress. I just had to respond to your comments regarding bow down. You mention instances of criticism that Beyonce received for her lip syncing, not being ‘black’ enough etc, however we fail to see that this hasn’t impacted her ability to gain wealth from her LARGE YOUNG female fan base. There are grave issues with this song simply because it is Beyonce. NO one is saying in order to be a powerful woman we must all be nice or agree; however this entertainer has sold young ladies the drug of female empowerment. For her tour prior to Sasha Fierce she indicated she wanted an all female band as she finds great power and strength from being surrounded by woman. She wrote according to her independent woman and continue to push and market herself as a woman of power and someone who is empowering to woman. This is what Beyonce has done. To come out with a song such as BOW DOWN, to release the song after having such a frantic 2013 already is poor taste. This my friend is nothing more than bullying towards woman, this is nothing more than destroying woman, this is everything that we don’t want our young girls to condone. If Beyonce was any other singer this wouldnt be an issue because not many singers are selling female enpowerment. It appears that since she has become a mother she has gone from singing about Girls running the World to Bitches bowing down to her. How you can validate and justify that is besides me. In the name of female solidary I BEG TO DIFFER.

  • Angel H.

    The thing that pisses me off is that we never see white performers held to the same imaginary Perfect Feminist yardstick. Where was all of the outrage when able-bodied Lady Gaga rolled. Why is Gwen Stefani still making money from her “Harajuku” line? But when Beyonce upsets the sensibilities of white feminists all hell breaks loose?

    Stop clutching your pearls so tightly. You might choke.

    • Angel H.

      Correction: “rolled onstage in a wheelchair.”

      Damn rage-typing! :-p

  • Erica

    I have to disagree w/ this article. There is something wrong with a self-proclaimed feminist referring to other women as “b*tches”, especially when it’s done in an indirect way. You don’t know who she’s speaking about. You don’t know where all the sudden rage comes from.

    No one put Beyonce in the feminist category…she did. Most artist are not criticized like she is because most artist don’t proclaim as much as she has. She did not follow through on the public commitments SHE made and the public has the right to call her out on it.

    In my opinion, the article in the Washington Post was right on point because it focused on the direct issue, which is referring to females as “b*tches”. The problem isn’t her expressing herself in an abrasive way, she’s an artist and she can be creative! It was a little refreshing to see that Beyonce can get mad. But the song was done in poor taste and she failed to recognize her major influence on women, young and old…especially the young!

    • Kevin Hirn

      Maybe this is a bad exemption, but I don’t think the word “b*tch” in hip-hop culture has the same . There has clearly been some attempt to reappropriate the word in some phrases, like “bad b*tch”, which can be used by women as a term of empowerment similar to Black rappers using the n-word.

      In this song, she’s clearly not making that reappropriation. Nonetheless, I think the fact that the word is at least somewhat pliable means that its intent and effect could be less anti-feminist as it would be in other contexts. And I think that’s true here. Within hip-hop, there are clearly super offensive and problematic usages of the word “b*tch”. The comparison here is more apt to being insulted by someone you’ve mentored because they think it’s in their career’s interest. The term is used as a response to a feeling of betrayal, and it utilizes the vocabulary of the culture she’s from. It’s not, as it is in a lot of other songs, movies, etc, being used to tell women that their proper place is subservience to a man.

      I also don’t think that it’s completely amorphous in terms of who it’s applied to. The song is addressed to Keri Hilson, who had insulted her several times over the course of the last couple of years. She’s not mentioned by name in the song, but that’s also pretty common for diss tracks (because it’s a bigger insult to not even care enough to mention them by name).

      It’s also important to understand where all of these royalty analogies come from. Lots of references to kings/queens, thrones, etc are made in hip-hop as a way of recasting vocabularies and power structures to subvert them. When royalty ruled the world, they were presiding over the slave trade. There was no conceivable idea of Black people attaining anywhere close to that status. Now that there are avenues for Black empowerment, although still within the confines of an anti-Black society, using the obsolete vocabulary of their oppressors is one strategy for the continued subversion and implosion of that structure. If this sounds overly wonky and stupid, Lupe Fiasco explains it way better than I can.

      I still think we should criticize music (or any form of entertainment, art, etc) that uses words and themes that disparage women and encourage a culture of female disempowerment. I just think that the context is key, and in this context, I don’t think Beyonce is being very anti-feminist. I don’t think that feminist entertainers, particularly women of color who have been historically marginalized and precluded from accessing the wealth and prestige that people like Beyonce inspire many to believe they can achieve, should be castigated as anti-feminist for songs like this.

  • Athena G. Csuti

    I agree. As a woman who holds a substantial amount of sway and power in the music industry, she is criticized as intensely and frequently as she is worshiped. Both of those things place her on a pedestal and consequently start to dehumanize her. Why can’t she have a song hyping herself? Why can’t we enjoy and support it? While sometimes I question the messages her some of her lyrics, for the most part I get the impression she supports women and female empowerment in her own ways.

    I’m also reluctant to not support Beyonce, because women (and non-Caucasian women no less) still face so much more scrutiny than men in the media.

  • lynn lee

    First of all beyonce isn’t talking about ALL women, she’s talking bout ‘bitches’ and some men are ‘bitches’ too! She can still promote ‘female empowerment’ while ‘smacking down’ ‘bitches and tricks’. The commentors on here who are saying she’s talkin’ bout women are the ‘real’ ‘anti-feminist cuz they’re saying that ‘all’ women are bitches and we’re not. I love how the writer of this article ‘schooled’ on the fact that beyonce went into her ‘rapper’ mode and said she was the best like they ALL do! So now the singers AND rappers have to ‘BOW DOWN’! Plus, she rapped in a style that I don’t believe any other female rapper has done so far. So new and innovative for a female artist to do this. I bet the “late’ DJ Screw and his fam are proud!

    • bleepinbleep

      Uh she’s not talking about “bitches” in general. She’s talking about “little girls” that “dreamed of being in her world.” Please stop trying to apply some third wave spin to this. Why are feminists so invested in Beyonce? This is obviously her trying to assert power by reinforcing the patriarchy. She doesn’t care about women being equal with men, she just wants to be the “head bitch.” Girlfriend doesn’t realize that she’s too boring for anyone to want to be her. She’s just a pageant queen [REDACTED].

  • Zenobia Ortis

    Beyonce is not now nor has she EVER been a feminist and this song is one of many proofs of that. Seriously where are you guys getting this stuff? Why such committed kool-aid guzzling by so many women. I’m so confused by this.