COMMENTARY

A feminist reckoning for six Beyoncé songs

Queen Bey is independent, sex-positive and successful, but how empowering are her lyrics and business practices?

By Sloane Kali Faye
Published August 22, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)
Beyoncé performs at the Grammys in 2017 (Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS)
Beyoncé performs at the Grammys in 2017 (Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS)

Denim thongs and Black cowboys don't typically come to mind when I think about women's liberation. Yet, Beyoncé's hot new video announcing the latest cowgirl-themed collection "Ivy Park Rodeo," left me pondering what the Queen's business decisions say about her self-identification as a feminist. 

Beyoncé has been a living example for the women's movement many times over: when severing ties with recklessly macho men like her Dad and embattled Ivy Park co-owner, Phillip Green; posing fearlessly before a humongous projection of the word "Feminist" in her 2014 VMA performance; and ardently speaking out against the gender pay gap. As a devout Beyoncé fan, I love singing along to songs like "Black Parade," "Independent Women," and "Me, Myself, and I" that left me feeling worthy and empowered no matter how hard patriarchal dimwits tried to shrink my life. Her music and persona make me feel like I can enjoy my bootyliciousness and journey to women's liberation at the same time. 

Still, as a 36-year-old Black woman sociologist – who wrote a dissertation on Black women cultural entrepreneurs – when I think about the underlying messages in her music throughout her career, I sometimes doubt that her booty-shaking and freedom fighting necessarily go hand-in-hand. After all, unlike the super successful songstress, most women cannot eject powerful men from their lives because they've been denied access to the  "f**k you money," that allows Beyoncé to do so without consequence. Also, one of the ways she's built her professional success is as a business leader who uses low-wage labor to manufacture her fashion line, seeming to indicate that her loyalty to feminism and her career aspirations may be in conflict. It might boggle the mind, but I wonder if Beyoncé's approach to women's empowerment shows that even Black women can have white feminist leanings

Hear me out. white feminism, also known as corporate, girlboss, or self-fellating feminism, is a path to women's liberation that creates financial success for already privileged women by exploiting underpaid women workers who are too oppressed to climb corporate ladders. White feminists presume that financially privileged white women's interests are universal – pause for laughter – and these women should set the agenda for how all women should think, act, and feel when advocating for gender equity.

Like Demita Frazier, co-founder of the pioneering Black feminist Combahee River Collective, I love Bey's sex-positivity, but am concerned that her fans see her extreme wealth and male-centric music as the "epitome" of feminism. In "How We Get Free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective,'' Frazier's biggest frustration is that young women desperately want to emulate Beyoncé and "This aspirational thing is intense!" 

And that's how I found myself reflecting on six Beyoncé songs, as well as what it means for women of different backgrounds (and tax brackets) to collectively "run the world" designed to objectify us.

"Suga Mama" off of "B'Day" (2006)

That was so good I want to buy him a short set . . .
It's so good to the point that I'd
Do anything to keep you home
Baby, what you want me to buy?
My accountant's waiting on the phone

As a woman opposed to slut-shaming, I love seeing women celebrate their sexual appetite for someone who hits it so good you want to create the conditions that keep him around. Enter Bey, who becomes the stereotypical Suga Daddy in her 2006 jam, "Suga Mama." She's found her favorite courtesan and is willing to pay big bucks to transform him into a kept man. The song affirms my own desire for a high-quality brand of Vitamin D. Plus, she reminds me: Women don't have to play the oft-expected submissive role in bed. 

However – and this may seem like a stretch – this song has a white feminist undercurrent that leaves me wanting more than playing out sexual fantasies. As OG intersectional feminist Audre Lorde warned: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." The reality Lorde helped me see is that many men fear having to compete with women on equal footing, and risking the ultimate humiliation of losing (their privileges as society's masters) to a girl. Pretending to be a Suga Mama seems to imply that, like a man, Beyoncé refuses to lose to anyone – even if it requires play-acting as the prototypical sexually needy and domineering man. 

If Beyoncé thinks flipping already problematic gender roles will free women from the economic oppression baked into a male-dominated society, she's projecting a white feminist delusion. Playing the economic exploiter instead of the exploited doesn't make systemic oppression go away. Lying to ourselves only offers a fashionable set of rose-colored glasses that leads us to think fighting to be men – and not against the human hierarchy that they unfairly benefit from – is the path to gender equality.

"Crazy in Love" off of "Dangerously in Love" (2003)

I've been playing myself, baby, I don't care
'Cause your love's got the best of me
And, baby, you're making a fool of me
You got me sprung and I don't care who sees
'Cause, baby, you got me, you got me so crazy . . .
Your touch got me looking so crazy right now (Baby, your touch)
Got me hoping you'll page me right now (Yeah, babe)
Your kiss got me hoping you'll save me right now (Oh)

In "Crazy in Love," Beyoncé reassures her partner that she appreciates the awe-inspiring love he shares, and is bonkers for their relationship. Despite media depictions of men as stoic, Beyoncé and I both know men can be vulnerable and emotionally insecure from time to time – anyone, regardless of gender, needs reassurance from their partner. Not Beyoncé's! She is boastful about losing her identity, becoming a woman who is "not herself" and "playing herself" for a man's hypnotic affection. 

In a popular interview Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie critiqued Beyoncé's feminist style, saying it "gives quite a lot of space to the necessity of men . . . did he hurt me, do I forgive him, did he put a ring on my finger?" Granted, Adichie's sentiments about trans women are as ridiculous as the ideological entirety of white feminism, which may call into question her legitimacy as a women's advocate. Still, her incisive commentary on the outsized attention women give men resonates with me. 

So, I wonder if Beyoncé's obsessiveness in this song – which reminds me of how I, too, have fetishized men – goes too far. I recently told a woman friend, "I should walk around with a sign that says, 'If you're an intelligent and charismatic man, please stay away from me.'" I hadn't yet realized that romantic entanglements with men aren't inherently dangerous. The true threat is the dignity I lose when obsessing over their approval or disregard.

"Independent Women, Pt. 1" off of "Survivor" (2001) 

The shoes on my feet, I bought 'em
The clothes I'm wearing, I bought 'em
The rock I'm rocking, I bought it
'Cause I depend on me if I want it
The watch I'm wearing, I bought it
The house I live in, I bought it
The car I'm driving, I bought it
I depend on me (I depend on me)...
Girl, I didn't know you could get down like that
Charlie, how your Angels get down like that?

As an "Independent Woman," Beyoncé declares women are entitled to take pride in hard work that may threaten men, but liberates us financially. She has certainly backed this idea up by taking actions that promote economic empowerment for both women and Black people. In her 2016 album "Lemonade" she showed Black women that, yes, even she has to navigate men's disrespect in the marital institution that continues to disadvantage Black women in particular. And, most recently the 28-time Grammy winner joined Twitter's Jack Dorsey in donating $6 million for African-Americans' mental health during the pandemic. However, like aloof white feminists, I'm not sure Beyoncé recognizes that emotional validation and charity are not enough to remedy economic oppression for the communities she belongs to. 

As a Black woman who makes a six-figure salary, I enjoy the ability to dismiss sexist colleagues that my own "f**k you money" affords. Still, I know that I wouldn't have been able to acquire the power to banish jerks and basic Beckys without the support of economically marginalized women. White feminists believe women's independence requires access to the same "shoes, clothes, and rocks" as the men they emulate, even if it means building their careers on the backs of the women who take care of our children and clean our homes. 

One look at various studies, like Prosperity Now's report on racial equity, Path to Zero -- and it's easy to see the alarming consequences of ongoing injustice. The racial wealth divide in America is growing at a dangerous rate, and is on track to leave Black women with zero wealth by 2053. In gross contrast, "median White household wealth would climb to $137,000 by 2053 and $147,000 by 2073."  

Evidently, the majority of women of color are too financially insecure to flaunt their own money, as hard as they may try to be independent. These women cannot afford to confuse individual financial prosperity with gender equity. The only way Beyoncé can help women "get down like that" is by advocating for complete redistribution of wealth and power – a structural change that creates irrevocable economic parity for all Black women, especially those most vulnerable to poverty.

"Cater 2 U"  off of "Destiny Fulfilled" (2004)

Baby, you blow me away
I got your slippers, your dinner, your dessert and so much more...
I'll keep it tight, I'll keep my figure right
I'll keep my hair fixed, keep rockin' the hottest outfits
When you come home late, tap me on my shoulder, I'll roll over
Baby, I heard you, I'm here to serve you (And I'm lovin' it)
If it's love you need to give it is my joy
All I wanna do, is cater to you, boy

Six years after the release of "Independent Women, Pt. 1," Beyoncé pulled a 180 with "Cater 2 U." Instead of depending on herself, as the lead singer of Destiny's Child, Beyoncé sang, "I put my life in your hands" to a man whose love blew her away. At the time, I was a 20-year-old woman who giddily imagined celebrating a kind man like the one Beyoncé believed would take care of her for a lifetime. 

When I feel safe, free, and understood around a man my default is to keep him close by any means necessary. Like Beyoncé, I thought doing things for a man like offering a warm welcome home, making a nice meal, and doing my best to satisfy him seemed obvious – especially satisfying what I presumed were his sexual needs. It wasn't yet clear that a healthier take meant seeking security, liberation, and validation in my own life pursuits, as opposed to a man who savored the ego boost my admiration provided. I didn't realize how centuries of masculine domination left a deep, sexist impression on my psyche. Our world has a history of reducing women to pets, fetching a man's slippers and being prepared to offer "so much more" as he pleases. 

Even though first-wave white feminists supposedly were against catering to men in their home life, they catered to them politically. True to white feminist form, they did so at the expense of Black women. Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ​​an early leader of the women's rights movement, were so desperate to gain political power and the right to vote, she appealed to white men with decision-making power. How did she do it? By selling Black women out. Harboring racist beliefs, Cady Stanton convinced men that allowing white women to vote would cancel the Black man's vote, and that made the men willing to support women's suffrage. 

Most men want to ensure that the women in their lives have nothing over them – if this were not the case, they would surely have used all that genitalia-centered power to ensure women's basic voting rights without requiring sycophancy in return. Although Beyoncé's feminism is light years ahead of unapologetically racist women, "Cater 2 U" locks her man's masculine fantasy of entitlement and superiority in place. Fortunately, vulnerable conversations with women friends and relationship-focused therapy has gotten me to a place where I won't let that mistake slip by. I will always correct myself when I start to think that I can cater to a man while secretly telling myself: "I'm here to serve him. I hope he allows me to be his slave."

"Run the World (Girls)" off of "4" (2011) 

DJ don't be scared to run this, run this back
I'm repping for the girls who taking over the world
Help me raise a glass for the college grads
41' Rollie to let you know what time it is, check
You can't hold me (You can't hold me)
I work my nine to five and I cut my check
This goes out to all the women getting it in
Get on your grind
To the other men that respect what I do
Please accept my shine

I used to see "Run the World" as an exciting escape from a sexist society. In various professional positions I've seen the common pattern of several women performing the emotional, physical, and intellectual labor that allow men to project an image of self-made success (even though it was largely due to their women caregivers).  So, I can see why it is appropriate to proclaim that the survivors of girlhood run the world.

Reality, however, would beg to differ. Although Fortune described the number of women CEOs as "soaring to an all-time high," the numbers aren't that impressive. There are now 23 women, compared to 477 men, serving as CEOs of Global 500 businesses. Given that there were 14 women Global 500 CEOs in 2020, the huge professional gap doesn't suggest that women are on track to run the world no matter how much we demand that men "cut our checks." 

Beyoncé encourages us all to know we have the power to run the world, while accurately conceding that she needs to ask a man to "please accept my shine." But is self-affirmation enough to put women on the path to success as equal workers and equal earners with equal power to shape the world? The feminist future is bleak if we have to ask for men to accept and acknowledge our hard work while we're still denied access to run powerful businesses.

"Sorry" off of "Lemonade" (2016) 

I don't give a f**k, chucking my deuces up
Suck on my balls, pause, I had enough (Sorry, I ain't sorry)
I ain't thinking 'bout you
I ain't thinking 'bout
Middle fingers up, put them hands high
Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye (Sorry, I ain't sorry)
Tell him, boy, bye, boy, bye . . .

I thoroughly enjoy telling anyone who disrespects me to suck on my imaginary balls. I know what it's like to feel done when a partner takes love and loyalty for granted. In a sexist society that makes it difficult for women to fend for themselves outside of marriage (an institution designed to privilege men), sometimes all you can do is flip the bird to someone who abuses your trust.

But for most married women of color, it's not that easy, and that's because there are harmful gendered expectations associated with the institution of marriage. Sure, Beyoncé's wealth and influence allows her to daringly say "boy, bye" to partnership with men. But women who don't want to risk being shamed for not being in a relationship at all, may concede to being in a relationship with someone who hurts and takes them for granted. Consequently, women ponder sacrificing their emotional well-being to protect themselves from the perception of being incomplete and vulnerable without men's companionship.

What's more, women of color can't "Sheryl Sandberg" our way out of America's racial, gender, and economic caste system. A caged bird can't set itself free no matter how many shallow, Oprah-like affirmations it recites. A cage is meticulously designed to not let captives escape. Failure to be Black women's accomplices seems to suggest that, like their men, white women are too threatened to help us get free – they wouldn't want to risk failing when forced to compete with us in an egalitarian society.

* * *

To be sure, I believe Beyoncé deserves grace given that she is only one person and doesn't have the governmental power to change the policies that harm women overnight. Nevertheless, as she attests in "Savage," a song starring hip-hop artist Megan Thee Stallion, "I'ma boss. I'ma leader," indicating that she well knows that people are looking to her as an example of women's power and freedom. I gathered this much while repeatedly watching her self-directed personal documentary, "Life is But a Dream."

In the short film Beyoncé seemed like any other sister when she said, "We all have the same abilities, and we all need each other . . .  It's nothing like a conversation with a woman that understands you." As her new Ivy Park Rodeo trailer conveys the singer's readiness for a showdown with any presumptive hater, I'm not sure that having a conversation with her about feminism would reveal how much she understands me. I have simple desires for sexual satisfaction, financial abundance, and the attention my fashion-forward choices command. 

But, I know without also meeting my deeper spiritual needs my life will not be fulfilling. The truest version of myself can only exist in a world in which my gender doesn't determine who I answer to, how my desires are judged, and my likelihood of poverty. I don't get to experience the true me unless I arrive at my authentic self in sisterhood with the community that defines my social identity.

The promise of feminism is a world in which all humans, including women, have the freedom to be their true selves, knowing that self-determination is their birthright. Even as a Beyoncé admirer, I'm still not sure I can consider voices like Bey's voice to be a trustworthy guide to that societal destination. Of course, we are all enablers of this system, especially someone like me who benefits from it professionally. But, unlike Beyoncé, I know that successfully making my way to the top of a rich white man's world is nothing to celebrate or encourage – which is why I disagree with the message Beyoncé sends in "Formation," rapping "best revenge is yo paper." 

Way before Beyoncé's solo career, women fought for the freedom to run their worlds as they saw fit. Yet, we remain stuck with the planet that imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal dicks have imposed. And, whether we accept it or not, all of us – and not just Beyoncé and white feminists – are enablers of this system. The tragically obvious truth is there is no hiding place for any of us – misogyny has everyone psycho-spiritually surrounded. We'll only find our way off the dangerous route to masculine domination when we replace white feminism's janky-ass map with a transformative, transracial feminist agenda. Otherwise, it's "boy, bye" for all of us.

 


Sloane Kali Faye

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