Sunday, 23 February 2014

Open letter from a feminist to Beyonce

Dear Mrs Carter,

I feel compelled as a feminist and a huge fan of Ms. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to write to you. I write partly in protest of the powerful western media machine's decision to make you the poster child for modern day feminism but also because I think you could benefit from understanding what feminism really means and why, while many of us admire what we see as your aspiration to feminism, would beg to differ from those who claim you already are a feminist. Let me make it clear from the outset, I don't see feminism as an exclusive club of an educated minority but I do think it requires a certain sense of responsibility and actions that reflect values that go beyond coining the phrase 'girl power' or telling men that they should 'put a ring on it'. It goes beyond the celebrity gimmicks that seem to surface periodically and while the definition offered by Chimamanda  - "a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes" seems straightforward enough - I would argue that feminism is in fact far from straightforward. Let me explain....

First of all, I have to confess that I was irritated by your decision to sample Chimamanda's Ted talk "We should all be feminists" - I found it frivolous in the context of 'that song' and while I realise that by sampling her, you've exposed her to a much wider audience than her usual fan base of bookworms and African literature buffs, I can't help but wish she had politely declined your request - assuming of course that she received one. You describe the song "Flawless/Bow down bitches" as your "angry moment" inspired by those who have tried to undermine you. Yet by sampling Chimamanda, who I might add refused to comment on the song when pressed in a recent interview, I think you undermine her message - and associate her otherwise powerful words with trifling accounts of 'bitches' and 'tricks' who dreamt of being in your world. I find it ironic that the same song minus the "we should all be feminists" sound bites was released months earlier and was greeted by a barrage of negative reviews - largely because of your use of the B word. Even if as you claim, it's a song that allows you to vent about all the haters in your life, I still find it troubling that you would consider all those 'haters' to be women - and that you would choose to respond to those 'haters' boasting about your flawless diamond and good looks? Really Bey? Is that the best you can give us - your

one-upmanship is reduced to your looks and wealth? It saddens me also as a feminist that your angry energy wasn't used to denounce the men you've had in your life who wanted to use you, parade you like an object and take away any agency you had to determine your life or future? Surely a song like that would have been worthy of Chimamanda's words and would demonstrate real female empowerment, especially in an industry like yours where all too often women are reduced to singing or dancing sexual objects .

Call me old fashioned or another jealous 'hater' but it saddens me that our society places so much value on all things celebrity, we consume without critiquing. Rather than point out the obvious that it is hypocritical for you to talk about the importance of empowering women in a social, economic, and political way on the one hand (granted through Chimamanda's words)  and on the other hand using the words bitch and trick - words that have been used, in particular by rap artists (like your husband) to denigrate and reduce women to promiscuous, money-grabbing sexual objects not worthy of any respect, we turn a blind eye because it's a Beyonce masterpiece. Being rich and ridiculously famous seems to make you immune to criticism and prone to an obscene amount of sycophancy. Take for instance the release of your music/video album in December last year - described by the media and your fans with so much fervour, a visitor to our planet would have been forgiven for thinking that within those songs and videos was the cure for cancer, or the formula to end world poverty. I remember thinking that the world had gone mad and *smdh* every time I read serious journalists wax lyrical about what a coup it was. How revolutionary you were. I was perplexed when people described the event as though Tupac Shakur had released a new album without anyone being aware that a) he had come back from the dead and b) was making beautiful music with another member of the living dead, Notorious B.I.G.

In addition to our blind consumption of everything you do, there is the tendency to give artists like you, the very famous ones, far more intellectual credit than they deserve, I say this with all due respect ofcourse. This is evidenced in the whole debate about you being a feminist - a new breed of feminist because you sampled Chimamanda and because this album demonstrates your sexual liberation - irrefutable proof that you are a feminist.  You couldn't possibly be another Miley Cyrus or Rihanna, selling an over-sexualised image as a desperate plea for attention, or a Lil' Kim pulling all the stops in an effort to keep up with younger artists. At your level of fame - it has to be interpreted as far deeper - according to one (albeit stupid) journalist you embody modern feminism. And while you haven't explicitly claimed the title of feminist icon, you seem nonetheless to somewhat ascribe to it. How else can we explain your gender equality essay in the Shriver Report - the term essay of course is used very loosely here - as it was less analysis and more stating the obvious in 200 words or less. Nothing you said in that short piece could be described as groundbreaking, yet once again the reaction was feverishly congratulatory - someone (another idiot) described you as the women's studies professor we always wish we had. Others referred to you as a Renaissance woman - and your "essay" as "badass" - you are, we're told "the freshest face of feminism". And you know what Mrs Carter, reading all this made me feel like the little boy in "The Emperor's new clothes". I watch on as everyone from renowned feminists to intelligent social critics refuse to point out the obvious .....that your brand of feminism is devoid of any substance - that it is, like the foolish emperor, completely naked. Essence magazine referred to  your "unconventional  brand of feminism" while a Huff Post live group chat with female academics, journalists and social activists said you had sparked a debate about black feminism with your album. "Really?" I thought, and found myself wondering if I was the one missing the point. 

So in addition to reading your 'essay', reviewing the lyrics of "Flawless/Bow down bitches", I  decided to go to the source and bought your self-titled album for myself - complete with its 17 videos -the first time I have ever purchased your music. And here Mrs Carter is where I fell further into the depths of despair albeit while bobbing my head to a few dope beats like your collaboration with Nas (more so for the beats than the lyrics) and the corny but very catchy "XO"(granted I wont be doing the hand signs). It goes without saying you've enlisted some great songwriters and music makers - there are a number of songs that will no doubt become hits and for the most part they demonstrate a lot more depth than your previous work although let's be fair it doesn't take a lot to go deeper than "your love's got me looking so crazy right now" or "ladies if you love your man show him you the fliest...grind up on it girl, show him how you ride it" or from the abysmal Cater to you, "my life would be purposeless without you". One of the first things that struck me as I listened/watched is that while you seem to want to denounce the shallowness of our world, and obsession with outwardly beauty - as demonstrated in a song like "Pretty Hurts" - there appears to be some confusion or mixed message as you nonetheless play up to that very stereotype by showcasing your body  in every single one of your videos. There's not a single video that doesn't treat us to Beyonce's bootyliciousnes (to borrow your term). In some we even get more flesh than we've ever seen before -those lucky lucky male and lesbian fans must be doing cartwheels with all the nakedness that's on offer on this visual album - for instance in the disco-ey tune "Blow" produced by Pharell, we get to see how you work your 'fatty' presumably during coitus. Lucky Jay!

And while I think it's great that you're so much at ease with your sexuality as to want to regale us with talk of your sexiness, your sexual exploits and prowess, I'm still not getting the feminism in your words Bey. In every song that deals with sex (and a lot of them do) the recurring theme seems to be pleasing your man. You're either letting him be the boss of you (Blow) or giving him everything he wants (No Angel) or even better going down on him to the point where he "Monica Lewinski's" all over your gown (Partition). I can't help but tut and wonder where the evidence of sexual empowerment lies in those lyrics. It's clear that you've always given a great deal of credit to your husband for making you the woman you are today and while I don't think that in and of itself takes away your feminist credentials (if indeed you have any), I do think that it's important to demonstrate that you really are more than just Mrs. Carter - more than 'his little wife' as you say. For instance during your Grammy Award performance last month, we saw a half naked Beyonce and a fully clothed Jay Z. I found it hard to spot the difference between that performance and the countless hip hop videos with naked women parading and shaking that "ass" while fully-clothed men act either aggressive, or like pimps who are displaying their 'goods' or completely disinterested - think Kanye West's "Bound" video with his butt naked fiancée. What would have been a feminist coup was if Jay Z appeared on stage in a string with his butt cheeks also on display for millions to gawk at. That I would have paid good money to see. Instead we saw a Beyonce that was gyrating on a chair while Jay remained composed and then it got worse as Mrs Carter sang along to Mr Carter's controversial rap lyrics that evoke one of the most chilling accounts of domestic abuse on film. I could not help but wonder how much of that was you, and how much was you wanting to please your man regardless of how affronted women and men who abhor domestic violence were by those lyrics.

But let's get back to the S word....even if we want to argue that the ease with which you speak about sex - in all it's explicit glory demonstrates your maturity - your feminist chops because you're exploring your sexuality - I would counter that by saying that your lyrics demonstrate that you still see your body as a tool to please a man - even if that man is your husband. Sexual awareness in the context of feminism is about liberation - a freedom to be at ease with your body in whatever shape or form it is, and a freedom to recognize that you too are a part of the act of sex and should be pleased. It's not simply about exploring new ways to please your man and playing up to the inexperienced female stereotype (even though I'm all for role-playing); it should instead be about commanding that pleasure-giving be reciprocal. And simply throwing in a few lines from a Hollywood film that deals with the perceived ambiguity between feminism and the act of sex ("Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe? Le sexe. Je veux dire, l’activité physique. Le coït. Tu aimes ça? Tu ne t’interesses pas au sexe? Les hommes pensent que les féministes détestent le sexe, mais c’est une activité très stimulante et naturelle que les femmes adorent."- translated as " Do you like sex? Sex. I mean, the physical activity. Coitus. Do you like it? You're not interested in sex? Men think that feminists hate sex, But it's a very stimulating and natural activity that women love.) in a song that also talks about wanting to be the kind of girl that "daddy" likes does not render the song nor you any more feminist. 

While I agree that sexual empowerment is a strong part of feminism- neither your album nor your Grammy performance demonstrate that Mrs Carter. But beyond my objection to your so-called sexual empowerment, I also think you fail to realise that the values we teach as feminists require us to demonstrate to our girls that what matters is not, their outer beauty but rather the same things their male counterparts are judged by - their intelligence, and mental or physical ability. Like so many female artists you do a disservice to feminism by only playing up your sex appeal. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating your beauty and sexiness - both qualities I think are undisputed - it seems all we've been treated to in the 15 odd years of your career, is bootylicious Beyonce and her 'jelly'. Why not switch it up a little and show us a fully clothed, non-gyrating Beyonce whose powerful voice is enough to get our attention? Why not post pictures on Instagram of you fully clothed and reading a book by...oh I don't know...let's say Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (your favourite author according to Elle magazine)? 

Your images are so over-sexualised that I found myself mouth wide open and in shock when President Obama  referred to you as a role model for his daughters, one of whom wasn't even a teenager at the time. I'm not suggesting for one minute that young girls should be your audience - in an ideal world they wouldn't be - your sexually explicit album would be the soundtrack to foreplay for grown, consenting adults - an audio and visual pornography if you will. Sadly though, your reach goes way beyond consenting adults especially because of the wide endorsement you get from everyone including the most powerful man in the world. I think this makes it all the more unfortunate that young girls are not given a variety of images from such a talented artist as yourself. It's unfortunate that the message you put out (perhaps inadvertently) is that even with a powerful voice - your breasts, your butt, your ability to turn a man on, matter equally, if not more. And because the image we receive of women in the entertainment industry as sexual objects is so one-dimensional, it makes the role of those of us who are trying to impart feminist values on young girls even harder.  In order for us to be truly empowered economically, politically and socially, men must be able to see us and we must see ourselves as their equals - which means we play by the rules they do. If they don't have to strip off their clothes for attention, we shouldn't have to. Our girls need to understand that what matters is what they can offer intellectually and while they should feel empowered enough, come a certain age, to engage in sex as they choose, it should never be as some man's 'trick' or 'bitch'. 

Finally...I'd like to say I really enjoyed watching your cleverly put together video "Grown woman" especially towards the end where you borrow some slick Congolese dance moves, but I couldn't help but wonder if you've missed the point of just what it means to be a grown woman. I think there's a lack of self-awareness, which, makes it impossible for you to fully comprehend what being grown and being a feminist means. All the same, I'm  hopeful you'll read Chimamanda's books, and listen to her talks and learn from her - there are many women like her who epitomise beauty, self-assuredness and humility, they have a sense of awareness that the power to influence others comes with great responsibility- all of these incredible qualities are what make her and women like her, true feminists.

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