Beyoncé released a new album back in December with no advertising or warning beforehand. Everyone involved in the production kept it quiet, and, as soon as it was released, it shot to the top of the iTunes charts. Some people were saying that this was an example of how the music industry is changing, but, let’s be real, there aren’t a lot of people other than Beyoncé who could pull off something like this. She’s a tour de force and, arguably, one of the most self-aware, self-empowered female artists in recent years.
A lot of people will deny this, though, especially some different groups of predominantly white feminists. Beyoncé has faced criticism for her image since she began making music, but it became particularly heated after her marriage and the beginning of her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour last year. A lot of white feminists claim that her music is focused on pleasing men, on being dependent on men, and on being a sex object. They would call her anti-feminist. They could not believe she would take her husband’s last name, implying or outright stating that she was even objectifying herself with songs like “Single Ladies.”
I do not think any of this is truly valid criticism of Beyoncé’s music or her message or her feminism. If anything, it is indicative of the limited view of womanhood that a lot of traditional feminist views will allow, and that view of womanhood is inextricably tied up in whiteness. Mainstream feminism in general, particularly the different waves that have been designated throughout history, has always been dominated by white women who pose their needs and their views as representative of all women. This notion is quick to erase women of color and push them to the sidelines to be pulled into the spotlight only when they are necessary. It’s also quick to punish them for stepping outside of a homogenous view of “real feminism.”
There’s no pushing Beyoncé to the sidelines, though. She took in all this criticism and spat it back out in her self-titled album Beyoncé, and the results were amazing. The beginning of the song “Partition” features a clip from one of her concerts where she has the thousands of people in the crowd yell, “Hey, Mrs. Carter!” back to her, literally demanding recognition for her marriage. Later on in the song “***Flawless,” she brings it back around, singing, “I took some time to live my life / but don’t think I’m just his little wife,” and growling throughout the song, “Bow down, b******.”
Beyoncé has no time for anyone’s limited perception of what she’s allowed to be. In the middle of “***Flawless,” she samples a clip from “Why we should all be feminists,” a speech by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It summarizes some inequalities between what boys and girls are taught to be and taught to want, and it ends with the definition of what a feminist is: “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
That definition leaves a lot of room for expansion, for diversity, for an idea of feminism that limits nobody and accepts everybody and can grow past outmoded ideas of what’s empowering and what’s not. The addition of it to the album also works to show that Beyoncé is claiming feminism as her own, and she’s doing it successfully. People will continue to say that her work isn’t empowering because she’s singing love songs about her marriage or because she’s singing explicitly about being sexual or because, heaven forbid, she shows some skin in her videos or onstage. They do the same thing to Nicki Minaj, ignoring the trails that she’s blazing or how remarkably talented she is because of what she’s wearing.
Both of them will rise above this criticism, though. Nicki Minaj will continue to own all of your lives every time she raps a verse or sings another hook, and Beyoncé will take down beauty standards with songs like “Pretty Hurts” and feature male artists like Drake and Frank Ocean and her husband in a way that basically makes them background singers to highlight how awesome she is.
If these women aren’t already among your feminist icons, I’d urge you to dig back into their albums and get ready to bow down.