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.

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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.

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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18 thoughts on “Can Beyoncé Wear Another Woman’s Skin and Still Be a Feminist Icon?

  1. Maame O.

    Hmmm…. I for one didn’t watch it. You are the only looking at the real issue. This is a great piece.

  2. B.

    Wow. Talk about overkill. One woman telling another that she’s not a feminist because her feminism doesn’t match her own….Rich.

    1. Malaka Post author

      Fair point.

      But then my feminism doesn’t include murderous, villainous intent, so I’m not entirely sure how yours is a persuasive position.

  3. Biche | ChickAboutTown.com

    “She’s a capitalist using every and anything at her disposal – even the destruction of another woman’s body – to hawk her wares.” <-You summed it up well.

    "If your girl steps up, I’m smacking the ho…" <- You were listening, oh! 😀

  4. PDQuotient (@PDQuotient)

    My first reading of those lines is that Beyonce is saying she could start dressing like / doing her hair like / looking like the other woman in order to please the (hypothetical) Jay Z. As so many women do when they feel like they have to compete with younger, skinnier, blonder, whatever-er women. If she did that, she would no longer be her true self, and all three of them would somehow be there, instead of just her and the HJZ. But she used violent imagery to talk about such competitive mimicry, because it is a violence to one’s true self. Anyway, that’s how I interpreted those lyrics.

      1. Malaka Post author

        I dunno. When she said “ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks” it made it pretty clear to me that she wanted this woman dead.

  5. Kuukuwa

    Oh Gawd the dismembering of Becky made me uncomfortable too. I mean if you’re going to kill anyone, kill the guy who made the vows to you before God. Hard to swallow, but unless Becky is your relative or friend, she doesn’t owe you loyalty.
    It’s a beautifully dark twisted “I can be her if that’s what you want” type thing, but still ends up with Becky’s remains in an unmarked grave – minus a few body parts – and a forgiven husband, so ya it’s a no from me.

    That said, yes yes yes she can still be a feminist icon – there’s generations of conditioning to unlearn – even for the ones we decide are heroes. Our faves are problematic cos they’re human like us. Take Alice Walker and her daughter for example. Or many other feminists who change or refine their views as they grow and learn. Me saf I prefer bad feminists to the perfect class prefect types charley. I hope she sees your piece & others like it & reflects…

    ALSO I don’t think any of this cheating stuff is real – Bey knows how to play this game 🙄. I still love it and her though. There’s this thing where people always assume women creatives are ‘writing from experience’ or something… like no, they too can invent dark dark dark stuff. (If she says it’s a true story I’ll come and edit this hehehe)

    1. Malaka Post author

      Thank you for your nuanced response Kuukuwa! Absolutely brilliant.
      Like you, I don’t for a moment believe any of this performed angst is real. She and her husband are masters at playing the game and acquiring coinage. I heard it put this way on Twitter: Beyoncé so smart man. Be mad fake at your husband to sell records to women who aren’t even married.
      Of course, that’s a generalization, but people were prepared to slaughter Jay Z before the 30 minute mark of Lemonade. 😂
      And yes, feminists are fallible just like any other human beings following a perfect doctrine. I guess my question is if at the center of feminism there is the idea that women SHOULD NOT seek to actively and internationally hurt other women, is this ok? I’ve never declared myself a feminist and am only echoing the sentiments of my feminist friends, so I’m open to honest and intelligent dialogue. Thank you for that.

      1. Kuukuwa

        Lol, I’ve been looking for JayZ for a fight to the death since the elevator incident. Fake or real we serve The Hive.

        Jokes, jokes… I definitely don’t think killing Becky is ok. Feminist or not, it’s common sense, she isn’t the problem – it’s your husband!

        From my personal “bad feminist” p.o.v, supporting all women is all nice and cute on paper, but in real life not so realistic. Like, people are annoying – hey I’ll march with you for equal pay, and if your partner pummels you I’ll be right there calling for his head but I don’t like you and if you cross me, I’ll fight you.

        Yet I have feminist friends who are currently preparing to destroy the Beckys in their past, present and future lol. I’m still preaching “kill JayZ and free Becky” – unless of course she’s your best friend or sister… then “RIP Becky, you snake”.

        1. Malaka Post author

          Lol! Chale. I can’t ascribe to that support women for the sake of vagina doctrine. One of your local journalist’s hopped online and wanted to know why women ( particularly those who advocate for gender equality) weren’t supporting Charlotte whatever her last name is at the EC. The short answer is because she sucks at her job.

          But can I be honest? I really don’t care about Beyoncé or Lemonade or anything else right now. I wrote this as a distraction from my grief after losing Prince.

  6. James

    This article is odd. I couldn’t help but frown halfway through. How does a woman scorned act, generally speaking? There are endless bouts of anger and sorrow that usually overlap. Everyone within reach gets a taste of it, right from the cheating husband to the mistress, but there later comes clarity and that’s when the process of reconciliation begins for all the parties involved. This is what this album is about. Of course she threatened the mistress, she’s mad! And we all know in all sincerity that half the shit we say while angry we don’t really mean. This album captures the truth about such situations. All the truth of it, from the hurt, the anger to the forgiveness. You might not have a live for lyricism and symbolism but anyone who does can very easily look pass the life like instances of anger portrayed to the whole message. You highlighting just one aspect of it seems like a cheap shot. Like a hurt man never goes for the side nigga in a fit of anger? Men, women, they are the people. And when people in a relationship get cheated on the do all the things typified in this album. Not all of them reach the stage of forgiveness but that’s the message and the beauty of the album. As a male feminist(one of the very few that exist) I find it painful to read such an article so shallowly written about the great work of a great woman trying to further the cause and be an artist at the same time. This is something misogynist can use to talk about how even women are against themselves. You talk about women on women crime? This article is the perfect example.

  7. Kofi

    The video shouldn’t have ended with Bey and Jay cuddling up together. But to say that it should have ended with Bey and Becky yodelling to the ancestors contradicts the your statement that Becky owes Bey no loyalty. If you owe me no loyalty, why on earth should I take shots with you over my cheating ass, vow-breaking hubby. The alternative ending you propose fits into the assumption that feminism is sisterhood but contradicts the assertion that Becky owes Bey some loyalty. I may be wrong but I guess the alternative ending you propose is based on the strand of feminism you subscribe to. For others who subscribe to other strands, the perfect ending should be Bey sitting in a Jacuzzi sipping some expensive wine and enjoying her life as a single lady free from cheating husbands and hubby-snatching sisters.

  8. T.G

    So you’ve totally misinterpreted the meaning Becky and this song.

    Let’s be real this album is not about feminism….it’s about womanism. Until there is intersection within the feminist movement there will never be a place for women of color. Feminists care nothing about WOC.

    People who diminish Lemonade to simply cheating have missed the entire point of the project.

    1. Malaka Post author

      The lyrics have everything to do with cheating. The visuals have everything to do with womanism. Much like Formation, you can’t listen to this exclusively and come to the conclusion that either is about empowerment or decrying social injustice. “I twirl on my haters?” What has that got to do with addressing police brutality?

      HOWEVER, consumed in total with images of a Black boy dancing before a police force in a position of surrender, that conclusion is correct.

      Same applies to Lemonade. Separated from the visuals, it’s an album about a broken and reminded heart. Aretha n’ them have already done this.

  9. lajodi

    I never liked Beyonce, I like her even less now. Like someone wrote earlier, she is simply a capitalist using every gimmick that she can to maintain her spot at the top.

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