Can Beyoncé Wear Another Woman’s Skin and Still Be a Feminist Icon?
“If it’s what you truly want … I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp, a cap. Her sternum my bedazzled cane. We can pose for a photograph, all three of us. Immortalized … you and your perfect girl.” – Beyoncé, Anger from the album Lemonade.
If that isn’t some creeped out Silence of the Lambs ish, I don’t know what is. (Don’t worry if you’re too young to catch that reference. Someone will do a remake in about 15 minutes and you’ll get caught up. Heeeey Roots!)
In the coming days, there will be an avalanche of fawning think pieces penned in well-deserved praise of Beyoncé’s much anticipated and recently released visual album, Lemonade. I have not come to fawn nor genuflect, but to ask a question that has been troubling me since I devoted an hour to consuming Lemonade on Friday night. That question is: can Beyoncé be considered a feminist while occupying space as a face of violence against women? And if so, how so we propose to reconcile that?
At its core, feminism – and its derivatives womanism, afrofeminism, etc. – is about protecting the rights of women as a group subject to systematic discrimination. That discrimination manifests in many forms and to differing degrees depending on geography. In 2014, a list of the 10 worst places to be a woman in the world was compiled for Marie Claire magazine. Among them were Pakistan, the DRC (no surprises there) and the United States of America.
While the reasons that it sucks to be a woman in America on the list are pretty bad, one can’t help but notice that the issues raised are fairly one-dimensional. For example, guaranteed maternity leave is a middle class issue. Socially disadvantaged people have to first worry about getting a job before they can worry about leave. The economically disenfranchised who make minimum wage and are known as the ‘working poor’ face a whole hoard of different issues that stem from their immediate surroundings, violence chief among these. Women and girls in America’s inner cities are particularly vulnerable to acts of sexual and physical violence from police, in their schools, at social gatherings and so on. As a result, gender based violence has been normalized in American culture. Women are taught how ‘not to get raped’, rather than rapists being held to account for their actions. It is has been present and prevalent in our societal fabric for so long that few hardly take notice anymore…which is why Beyoncé can whisper a few verses about flaying and dismembering another woman and the entire world manages to gloss over it.
I wrote (and never published) a post called “When Women are the Face of Violence Against Women” wherein I explored the many instances where women perpetuate and condone violence against other women. I focused on examples from Ghana that were making headlines at the time. The women I looked at would never call themselves feminists – because it’s such a dirty ‘f’ word in the country – but if you asked them if they believed that women’s rights are human rights, they would likely say yes. And then they would go home and flog their teenaged maid for burning rice, or cheer after receiving news that a college student had been raped for having the nerve to trust certain ace broadcasters at their word that they only wanted to go up to their hotel suite to talk and have a drink. During my exploration, I forgot to remember my sisters in the States who suffer similarly, and have done for years. I forgot because violence against women in America is just as prevalent and insidious but not as overt as it may be in say, India.
The use of violent language to sell records is not a new phenomenon. Artists craving a reputation for being “edgy” have employed lyrics that warn potential adversaries that it would be a bad idea to cross them. Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno, Axl Rose welcomed you to the jungle, Michael Jackson told you he was bad, Bob Marley shot the sheriff and so on. All the time, you got a sense that there was a righteous retribution attached to the mugging or murder, right? We were made to feel like the Little Guy was finally getting his comeuppance against a bigger, meaner foe who had finally met his match. But then something changed. Gradually – until it looked like it was a sudden event- it wasn’t enough for our hero musician to earn his stripes by establishing himself as an equal among men. Now lyrics had a new, weaker – but just as loathsome target: women. Subjugating women was just another tool to demonstrate power. And the use of misogynistic, depreciating and threatening language against women, with the sole aim of selling albums has netted the industry billions of dollars over time.
Do you remember the first time you a man threaten a woman with physical violence in music? I do. It was on House of Pain’s single “Jump Around”:
I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe
If your girl steps up, I’m smacking the ho
And then the lyrics in the 90s and early 2000s just got progressively worse until I had to stop listening to rap and abandoning hip hop culture altogether. There were only so many promises of a choking, beating, pimping and/or skeeting on I could take. People of like mind accelerated our love for R&B and pop, which have traditionally been safe spaces for women in music. We were in the minority obviously, because hip-hop as an industry has a trillion dollars in spending power and revenue per annum, according to Forbes. Who’s going to stand up for women when trillions are at stake?
Enter Beyoncé. And if she has to use Becky’s “sternum for my bedazzled cane” to make this album a hit, it should surprise no one that she uttered the words with such unflinching ease.
I imagine that Beyoncé must pose a quandary for established, old-order feminists. Having Beyoncé as one of the loudest voices for new wave feminism must be a bit like making a deal with the devil. As a new(ish) disciple of feminism- a concept that is both political and religion for some – Mrs. Carter’s unparalleled reach in terms of diversity of audience and exposure makes her a powerful ally for the movement. She reaches more people in a day than a Ted talk on feminism ever would. However, because she does have such high visibility, there is also an expectation (or hope) that she get feminism right. And that’s the conundrum. As a professed “feminist”, Beyoncé’s relationship with Becky with the good hair is out of step.
By the end of Lemonade and the couple’s imaginary feud, we see Bey cuddling with Jay Z, all sweetness and light, full of forgiveness. Never mind that Becky’s body is still hanging in a closet somewhere. If feminism is about sisterhood, the hard truth is that Jay Z’s severed hands should’ve been serving as gloves, not Becky’s. It was theoretical Jay who did the theoretical cheating. He’s the one who violated his vows to his wife. He’s responsible for breaking up his family, not this other woman. The video ought to have ended with Bey and Becky cuddling (or yodeling to the ancestors while throwing confetti into the bayou…or whatever our version of Eat.Pray.Love is) if Beyoncé were actually a feminist. But she isn’t. She’s a capitalist using every and anything at her disposal – even the destruction of another woman’s body – to hawk her wares.
(Furthermore, by killing Becky and giving the Mothers of the Black Lives Movement a place of honor on the visual album, she reinforces the idea that some women’s lives are worth protecting and others are not. That’s another discussion on its own.)
It will be difficult for me to give Beyoncé a pass on this score despite the many other feats Lemonade accomplishes. Just a few days ago, Amy Joyner-Francis, a sophomore high school student from Delaware was beaten to death in a bathroom over a boy.
She was fighting with another girl when a swarm of other students joined in the fray, knocking her head against the sink and eventually costing Amy her life. I have not read if any of these young women have expressed remorse as yet. And why should they? Even their fave, and her devoted Hive, would have done the same.
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