Monday, 13 June 2011

Here we go again: Beyoncé sings pop songs, not feminist anthems.

I have no qualms with Beyoncé. She is the perfect pop star – great voice, great image and great moves but that is it and that is all she needs to be to define herself as a popular recording artist. So why in May 2010 did students at Harvard University hold a debate to discuss whether or not Beyoncé could be regarded as a modern day feminist icon (source)?  It is not only these students who have toyed with the idea of Beyoncé being a spokesperson for feminism. I have come across too many publications that regard Beyoncé as a modern feminist in so many words or less and up until now I have ceased to engage with this argument. Her latest single "Run The World (Girls)" has once again picked the scab off of this debate: Is Beyoncé a modern day feminist?

There is no smoke without fire and songs such as “Independent Ladies” conjure up presentations of strong, powerful women. Without fail every time this song is played, the ladies come together on the dance floor and hip shake in unison to celebrate their ovaries. More often than not, these messages are contradicted with presentations of subservient and obedient women in “Cater 4 U” (Baby I heard you/I’m here to serve you) and “Upgrade U” (Run by the man/But the women keep the tempo). These inconsistencies alone indicate that whilst Beyoncé may make fun tunes for the girls, it is wrong to look to her as a radical female voice of the generation – as this voice is confused and conflicted.
Understandably, there has been a lot of excitement brewing about Beyoncé’s material following her brief break from the spotlight. My twitter timeline quickly became flooded with links to demo snippets of her new single. Upon listening to the demo I became overwhelmed with a strong feeling of déjà vu. The musical identity of both the demo and the final mix rely heavily on a sample of Major Lazer’s ‘Pon de Replay’. Experimental dance beats are quite popular in the chart at the moment so there is no doubt that this track will be a hit. This sound is a new direction for Beyoncé’s music, yet the mixed messages of pseudo-feminism are still present.

The video for “Run The World (Girls)” is a stylistic, grand production and nothing less is expected from Beyoncé. It opens with Beyoncé riding a white stallion across a baron wasteland. After some shots of women strewn over random props the story of the video becomes clear. Beyoncé is the leader of a Mad Max style gang of outlawed women. A menacing mob of men run onto the set all dressed in black and carrying riot shields. The women, led by Beyoncé stand up to this male threat with a choreographed dance routine. Essentially, the message from the video is that women can run the world, only if male oppression is fought off with lots of aggressive crotch thrusting dance moves in orange capes and suspenders. This simplistic approach to tackling important gender issues is another example of why pop music should be enjoyed as mere entertainment and not as soundtracks to serious social movements.

It might well be that feminism has morphed as a concept, and that nowadays, female empowerment is a more relevent term in popular culture such the ‘girl power’ chants which echo from the Spice Girls era. Beyoncé herself said she was “a feminist in some ways” (source) in an interview with Yours Magazine. Beyoncé then goes on to say “My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship, because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women." There seems to be a bit of confusion about being a feminist and simply being a hard working female, with a strong bond with her female friends. It can be that today, we can separate feminism from female empowerment and look at them as two completely separate entities. Female empowerment is saying that girls are great and feminism is actually acting on this premise.  

The video for ‘Run The World (Girls)’ shows a very reduced image of women as a mass of super sexy, dancers. Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with female sexuality, this is the only presentation of womanhood that is in this music video. Whilst the actual song may be powerful and empowering, the message doesn't translate in the visuals. Actually, this media representation of womanhood actually fits in with the status-quo of most pop videos where they empower women, degrade them or hold a neutral stance.

As a society we expect a lot from our celebrities. I believe that to study Beyoncé through a feminist lens draws irresponsible conclusions which will lead to a generation of young women with a distorted concept of gender equality. "Run The World (Girls)" was designed to get women dancing yes, but that is it and that is where the expectations should stop. Keep feminism out of it.