Three key arguments have arisen out of the release of Beyoncé’s latest single and video, “Run the World (Girls).” Some are advocating that she could be the face of contemporary feminism. Others are saying that her lyrics and imagery are giving young girls and women the false impression that there is more gender equality and space for women to hold power than what actually exists. And finally, there is concern from other observers that the video for “Run the World (Girls)” takes a somewhat empowering message and turns it into one that says we, as women, must use our bodies to gain power, and that those efforts would prove effective.
I am not Beyoncé’s biggest fan; in fact, I kind of have an unnecessary love/hate relationship with her…probably because too many people act as though she’s the second coming of Christ, and as fabulous as she is, she ain’t JC. I can, however, accept and enjoy Beyoncé as an entertainer, because that is what she is, and she’s phenomenal at it. She makes a lot of women feel fantastic about themselves. That does not mean I don’t recognize that much of the work she puts out there is extremely problematic, especially as it relates to long-held perceptions of Black women, and really, women at large, in popular culture. I have never heard Beyoncé call herself a feminist or characterize her new single as the feminist anthem of 2011, but I would argue that as someone who appears to construct her performative image, literally, through the lens of the (white) male gaze, she is definitely not one. Antithetical to one of the baseline principles of feminism, Beyoncé not only seems to express her autonomy through her body, rather than her words, but there seems to be little authentic agency in those bodily expressions. While there have been movies and cultural references made about bold and beautiful Amazons who rule the land with their fierceness and sexual prowess, women cannot actually dismantle patriarchy and take over the world through the power and mysticism of vaginas. I’m sorry, BeyBey.
Lyrically, “Run the World (Girls)” is weak, but has a well-intentioned message. The video, however, is much more problematic, as it engages in complexion politics and uses female sexuality to suggest that’s how “Girls! Run this motha.” I have never heard an interview with Beyoncé discussing her creative vision or process for her videos, so it is difficult to determine how involved she is in the casting and drawing up the storyboards. However, as an entertainer and the face of the products she puts out there, including her own body as a product, she is complicit in the messaging and social cues that result from her videos, songs, and endorsements. As it becomes more apparent how much lighter and blonder Beyoncé is made to look in photographs, commercials, and videos, it is difficult for me to believe that she is completely unaware of the historical and political implications that manifest from allowing such decisions to be made through her body and appearance.
Though some Internet folks have questioned whether or not Beyoncé has been physically altering the pigmentation of her skin, I’m going to remain hopeful that it’s just the power of Photoshop. No matter her methods, Beyoncé looks to be achieving greater levels of whiteness as her career marches on. Use her latest video as an example. “Run the World (Girls)” opens with Beyoncé’s back to the camera, riding on a horse, dressed in all white with long blonde tresses blowing in the wind. From this point of view, she could easily be Shakira, Gaga, Ke$sha, Christina, Britney, or any other nonBlack pop singer. Throughout the video, it becomes apparent that special lighting, camera angling, and coloring are used to ensure that Beyoncé is the lightest and brightest on set, and not simply to let everyone know that she is the star.
Another great example of Beyoncé’s participation in upholding whiteness is her music video for “Video Phone,” featuring Lady Gaga. In a number of scenes, Beyoncé dances between two extremely fair-skinned, possibly white, fully dressed male models that have cameras for heads. As she dances and writhes around, the two “videohead” men watch her intently; she performs for their satisfaction. Juxtapose those images with other scenes in the same video where a clearly dark-skinned man and another brown-skinned man, not wearing shirts, have bags over their heads, while she points guns at them. Unlike the other suited models, these particular models/dancers are reduced to their bodies, which are controlled by a gun-wielding Beyoncé, and they are physically denied access to view her. That type of imagery is loaded with colonialist implications.
It seems that Beyoncé has been given license to play with, or engage in these type of complexion politics because she has been so incredibly successful throughout her career; she has turned out so many hits, puts on amazing performances, does great philanthropic work, and now she has a seal of approval from First Lady Michelle Obama. If these types of differential racialized images were present in any other artists’ music video, it would raise concern, and rightly so.
It seems almost blasphemous, especially if you are a Black woman, to question or critique Beyoncé in any way. In contrast to what some have argued, I do not see the work that Beyoncé produces as somehow undoing the hundreds of years of damage created by how Black womanhood and femininity have been represented in America and abroad. What Beyoncé offers mainstream society and culture has always been an acceptable mode of entertainment for Black women to engage in. Think Josephine Baker, and though she was definitely not a performer, Sarah Baartman was forced to become one, because mass society had a desire to see her body on display for their pleasure and consumption. As long as there is no indication that a Black female entertainer is attempting to disrupt the status quo or patriarchy, she is free to hump the sand and shake her ass all around the stage, all day long. I must question why Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, or even Jennifer Hudson are not being publicly hailed as role models for young girls and women. Folks wanted to see Erykah Badu prosecuted for walking through Dallas naked for her video, “Window Seat.” I’m not a social psychologist, but I would argue that besides a thin layer of glittered fabric, what makes it acceptable for Beyoncé to shake and shimmy all around our TV screens, and an “only naked for 1 minute” Erykah Badu can’t record a video is a matter of group ownership versus individual ownership of the body. Historically having existed as someone else’s property, Black women still have a difficult time gaining spaces to let our actions, behaviors, and subsequently, “performances,” be of our own self-determination. With her top 40s hits, fair skin, and blonde hair, Beyoncé is the people’s champ, so to speak. Fluctuating racial ambiguity allows her to have a certain level of universality. That ends up making her apolitical, where all people can and feel comfortable in having a stake in her success, and her body.
I have heard Black folks argue, both men and women, that because there are so few positive images of Black women in media, we (as Black people) should be pleased and supportive of Beyoncé and anything she puts out there. As we work from the bottom up to slowly regain control of our image, it is often easier to interpret any non-welfare queen representation of a Black woman as “progressive.” Instead of us resigning ourselves to the possibility that Beyoncé is the only person who can uplift young Black girls and women’s self-esteem and spirit, we should be demanding for more positive representations of Black women in television in media. It simply cannot be Beyoncé, NeNe Leakes, and Basketball Wives or nothing at all.
Young girls and women do not need any more messages or imagery that suggests our power lies between our legs. The focus should not be on bodies; sex sells because that’s the only option we’ve ever been given. The sexualization of young girls and objectification of women runs rampant in western society and needs to stop. Before girls and women can sashay around thinking, “we run this,” we need to focus on building our spirit, self-esteems, confidence, and intellect outside of the desires of men. Our pop stars are not helping with this cause (not even Lady Gaga, y’all). I don’t believe anyone is advocating that Beyoncé should not have done “Run the World (Girls)” but the larger problem with the message and the accompanying video is that it says to young girls and women, (and by default, men) that our power and ability to overthrow male domination lies in our lady parts. Those assets may grant a woman attention, and possibly a job, but not any long-lasting systemic change comes out of those practices, where women could actually run the world, or at least, have an equal say in how it functions. I understand that Beyoncé singing about her business acumen in smart sensible shoes and a pantsuit would not make for a great pop song, but there are ways to empower young girls and women that would truly help us gain a stake in running the world, instead of just the dance floor.