Thabiti Anyabwile Says Beyoncé’s Work Thwarts Her Goal of Redefining (Black) Womanhood


Beyoncé Knowles Carter is one of the most dominant female pop artists the world has seen. Married to “Jay-Z” (Sean Carter), Beyoncé is one-half of a billionaire entertainment power couple. She’s released fragrances, starred in films, and double dates with the President and First Lady. And while lots of people get invited to the White House, none yet had the First Lady say in People Magazine that if she could be anyone in the world, she would be them. Mrs. Carter has arrived.

Beyoncé released her latest work, the self-titled video album “Beyoncé,” without any advertising. This proved her pop prowess as fans and critics rushed to download the album. This latest project is a good place to start when thinking about the images she portrays of Black women.

Beyoncé’s Goal: Redefining (Black) Womanhood
In many respects the project is a comment on beauty itself. From the opening track, “Pretty Hurts,” Beyoncé seems to call us to serious self-reflection about “prettiness” and the self-destructive lengths some travel to attain it (eating disorders, surgeries, etc.). She makes a worthy attempt to move the discussion beneath the skin to the essence of our humanity, as the chorus chides:

Try to fix something but you can’t see,
It’s the soul that needs a surgery…

She tells us we “ain’t got no doctor or pill that can take the pain away; the pain is inside and nobody frees you from your body… it’s my soul that needs surgery.”

Beyoncé’s most critical reflections come in the cut “Flawless,” where she samples feminist thinker Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s probing critique of the messages we send to our girls:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors—not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing. But for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” (listen to entire TED Talk)

The most charitable reading of Beyoncé ’s self-titled album is that she’s calling for a world where a woman’s soul matters far more than her body and a world where boys and girls receive the same message about their purpose and potential. I like that vision. That’s a world worth working for. As a father of two girls, I resonate on some level with Queen Bey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Why Beyoncé’s Work Thwarts Her Goal
But Beyoncé confuses and contradicts the best possibilities in her music. Her picture of womanhood needs serious repair. Why?

She Reinforces Beauty Stereotypes. Though Beyoncé the album starts with promise, it recapitulates the worst stereotypes about feminine beauty. “Pretty Hurts” features an unhappy contestant smashing trophies but still finds her sitting in her swimsuit in a sensual position. “No Angel” opens with the protest, “underneath the pretty face is something complicated,” but goes on to approvingly flash scenes of strippers . In “Yoncé” she proudly tells us “man ain’t never seen a booty like this.” By the end that’s all man is seeing.

Mrs. Carter appears in a swimsuit (and far less!) in almost every video on the album. If pictures are worth a 1,000 words, these pictures repeatedly say “beauty is body” and “pretty” is synonymous with “very nearly nude.” In the end, Beyoncé seems imprisoned in the superficial emphasis on outward appearance she laments in some of the tracks.

She Demolishes Feminine Virtue. Recall Adichie’s objection, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” Beyoncé shows us exactly what it looks like if Adichie’s comment is taken to mean girls should be sexual beings in all the aggressive and physical ways boys are sometimes permitted. It’s not pretty. If most men are commonly regarded as “dogs,” then the women who emulate them can only be female dogs. Is there any wonder that in hip-hop and pop culture women often use the b-word to refer to themselves and other women? That’s what happens when women wish to match men in sexual depravity. Someone should stop and ask, “Why should a woman want to be equal with male perversion?” Aren’t there some higher heights for our daughters and sisters to achieve?

In Beyoncé’s videos we learn the truth of the proverb: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (). We’re witnessing the demolition of feminine virtue and discretion. You cannot elevate what you demolish. This form of feminism doesn’t have within itself a guardrail for protecting distinctively feminine virtues. Rather, it often eviscerates what it claims to liberate.

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SOURCE: The Front Porch
Thabiti Anyabwile

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