Opinion: Is Beyoncé a Feminist?

Opinion: Is Beyoncé a Feminist?

Beyonce is known for glitz and makeup. She’s known for dancing in, well, next to nothing. She’s known as an incredibly influential pop star that empowers women, but she’s also known for being an objectified victim of the male gaze.

So, when it comes to being a feminist—as many claim Beyonce to be—is that a role that truly describes her, or is she simply not cutting it?

“T[he] word [feminist] can be very extreme,” Beyonce said in an interview with Vogue UK. “I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality… Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman, and I love being a woman.” Some critics have been disappointed by this quote, since Beyonce is hesitant to even claim the term “feminist.” It’s almost as if she wants it both ways—to project the image of a free and powerful woman, but not be feminist enough to scare away fans and the male audience.

Additionally, it’s impossible to have this conversation without talking about Beyonce’s image.  This is, after all, the same woman who dropped a visual album that broke all sorts of selling charts, and trust me; the selling point of that album wasn’t her voice. Watch any of her videos, and you’ll see—and this is the gentlest way I can think of to put it—an incredibly promiscuous dancer.

So how can Beyonce be a feminist, when the very carefully engineered image we see of her is so blatantly and intentionally “booty-liscous?”

Let’s not give up on her yet.

First of all, I think critics who disapprove of Beyonce’s “wanton dancing” are missing the feminist moments that permeate her music and, yes, even her movements. Feminism reacts against centuries of viewing women as weak or soft, and I don’t think anyone who watched “single ladies (put a ring on it)” would describe Beyonce with those words. This is a woman who, yes, is baring her skin, but she is completely aware and in control of her body.

And you hear this strength in her lyrics as well. She uses commanding words, repeatedly talks about her own desires and agency and at times almost dares the listener to challenge her. “Don’t think I’m just his little wife,” she says in the song “flawless,” a song that is later interrupted by a clip from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech “We should all be feminists.” The clip says:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves. We teach women to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise they will threaten the man. Because I am female, I am told to aspire to marriage, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, when we do not teach boys the same? We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are. Feminist: a person who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

When it comes to Beyonce, the line “We teach girls they cannot be sexual in the same way that boys are” becomes especially interesting. Men, in this culture at least, are able to display their strength and virility without consequence. Think about the football player, post-touchdown, strutting his way past the delicate cheerleaders in the background or the athletes in dorm basements asking women to measure their biceps. Love her or hate her, Beyonce has certainly given women a space to be fierce and sexual on their terms.

That is an especially incredible feat when you consider the audience who listens to Beyonce’s music. Many of Beyonce’s fans have barely ever heard of the word “feminism,” much less seen it practiced in their own lives. Beyoncé’s incredible influence and massive following, has allowed her to be able to speak to young, African American women, women who sadly have few black female role models.  These women, when listening to Beyoncé, are listening to songs about long-term relationships, love and the bond of motherhood. Isn’t then, the kind of sexuality that Beyoncé represents, more preferable to the frantic sexuality of other singers in her genre? Just watch Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video to see what I’m talking about.

Her incredibly successful tour was even named “The Mrs. Carter” tour, a move emphasizing her married status that earned her opponents from the other end of the feminism spectrum. Critics claimed that Beyoncé was defining herself by Jay-Z and her marriage to him, rather than being an independent woman. However, these voices miss lines like “don’t think that I’m just his little wife,” and the fact that Beyoncé doesn’t need to show she is independent: she reminds us in every song that she is. She also happens to be in love with her husband, and—as she claims herself—wouldn’t be “Beyonce” if it weren’t for him. Barack Obama has said similar things about Michelle and he’s never been called an anti-feminist.

All right, I’ll give it to you; I wouldn’t claim Beyonce is the best feminist in the world—she caters too much to the male gaze to earn that title. As fantastic as the song “Partition” is, she is still dancing on a stage (amidst other women) craving the attention of the fully clothed, always seated Jay-Z, and moments like that are too offensive to ignore. But in a pop genre saturated with songs praising rape and drugs and broken relationships, shouldn’t we be praising Beyonce for representing to thousands of people long lasting relationships, motherhood, healthy love and yes, even sexuality? I’m not saying Beyoncé is perfect, but I definitely won’t feel guilty the next time I rock out to “Countdown,” either.