On Feminism and Femininity

Beyonce, feminism and the whole damn thing


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism, and I blame Beyonce.

The discussion of the tension (or contradiction) between feminism and femininity has reached fever pitch in the last few weeks, and it’s forced me to really think about what resonates with me and what my take on it is.

Firstly though, some definitions from dictionary.com.

Feminist: Advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.

Feminine: Having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, such as sensitivity or gentleness.

To be one's own woman: (of females) to be free from restrictions, control, or dictatorial influence; be independent.


Fem(me) vs Fem(me)

It seems we can’t go a day without someone with a public profile weighing into the debate around femininity, sexuality and a woman’s sense of agency, usually in relation to other women with a public profile, typically those who are (arguably) most visible to the masses - pop stars.

This week, it was Mayim Bialik - a star of The Big Bang Theory and 90s teenage fashion icon thanks to her show Blossom, a mother of two who holds PhD in neuroscience, and by her own admission a “socially conservative liberal”. She penned a piece asking if Ariana Grande “has a talent (is she a singer?), then why does she have to sell herself in lingerie?” 

Cast your mind back to the hoopla surrounding Miley with the release of her Bangerz album and her VMA’s performance with Robin Thicke. Her many public appearances prompted a heartfelt open letter (several in fact) from Sinead O’Connor imploring Miley not to let herself be sexualised, taken advantage of, and exploited. This spurred very well articulated counter response from Amanda Palmer, and a whole lot more controversy. 

As far as I can tell, this discussion is about the tension between commodification and femininity, and the notion of control. As Amanda Palmer says, “being a female musician/rockstar/whatever is a pretty fucking impossible and mind-bendingly frustrating job… we’re either scolded for looking sexy or we’re scolded for not playing the game.”

We see women trying to take ownership of their bodies and their creative and sexual expression, making it central to their brand or public persona. These women are dismissing the more demure and socially approved version of what a publicly visible female should look like in favour of more openly sexual, visibly powerful, and direct personal expression. And with that comes body shaming, slut shaming, the waves of public opinion, popularity and controversy. See Gaga, Nicki, Katy, et al.

The interesting thing is, this isn’t new - you could argue that Madonna has been playing with the commodification of her sexuality, a different kind of femininity, and ideas of control for years. Many a lady pop star has been there, done that.

Where it gets interesting though, is when the other f-word: “feminism”, is brought into the conversation.


Enter Queen Bey

As has been very well documented by now, Beyonce was honoured with a Video Vanguard Award at August’s MTV VMAs and performed a medley of the already iconic self-titled album she released without warning in December last year. This moment was revelatory, not because she’d earned herself the title of video innovator thanks to one epic visual album, but because she ended the 15 minute performance with the word “feminist” projected in bold bright writing behind her, in what was possibly the strongest public feminist statement in a generation.


When Beyoncé dodged the traditional media circus and announced her self titled visual album was available to download in the iTunes store via Instagram, industry folk called it "game changing”.  Music insiders, indie and mainstream journalists, pop-culture commentators, and almost every pop music punter on the planet lapped it up.

And the accolades flowed in. In April, Beyonce was featured on the cover of Time's 100 Most Influential People issue, (a coveted spot previously held by Mark Zuckerberg and the Pope) in acknowledgement of the influence she wields.

Beyonce’s feminism: It’s complicated

I remember when Beyonce’s Run the World (Girls) was released back in 2011. The strong female empowerment message of the song and sexy styling of the video prompted many an interesting conversation. Along the lines of, “she’s such a hypocrite to be trumpeting women’s empowerment and wearing that”, or “I’d believe her more if she covered herself up.” These discussions really stuck with me. 

Fast forward to December 2013 and the launch of her visual opus. As a long time committed fan I was not exempt from slightly ridiculous levels of excitement. I had watched the whole album no less than 10 times in it's entirety in the week after it's release. There were tears. At track 1. (Yes, really.) 

The album opens with Pretty Hurts (written by incredible Australian Sia Furler), and a video which points directly at all the trappings of celebrity in a culture obsessed with looks, femininity and ideas of how women should look. The clip doesn’t pull any punches, tackling many of the issues connected to our beauty obsession - eating disorders, body dysmorphia, hyper sexualisation, and plastic surgery in pursuit of perfection - and looks beyond it to dig into exactly what’s behind this obsession. It’s scathing, confronting, and eerily familiar, and perhaps for this reason watching it for the first was a profoundly moving experience. Hence the tears.

(The official release of this clip also coincided with a campaign around redefining what pretty means :: Join the #WHATISPRETTY conversation. Upload a photo or video to Instagram tagged #whatispretty that captures what the word 'pretty' means to you.)

But I couldn’t ignore the apparent contradictions as soon as Haunted rolled around. It’s unbridled sexuality and hyper stylised aesthetic seemed in direct contrast to Pretty Hurts. I was frustrated, and I felt almost insulted, to have identified so much with the “perfection is the disease of a nation” message of the previous track, and to now see Beyonce seemingly perpetuating the problematic sexualisation of women and embracing the pursuit of this perfection, almost in the same breath. 

This contradiction wasn’t lost on Muslim-American spoken word poet Bhatti, who says "if she was a boy even just for a day, she wouldn't have to crawl on all fours to crawl up the charts." As Bhatti says in an interview with Mic, ”You can advocate for social justice and still be complicit in systems of racism, patriarchy, exploitation.” 

And in some senses Bhatti is right. But here’s the thing, Beyonce does what she says, not what anyone else says.


The bit where I finally get it

It took me a while to get my head around it. (Clearly I should have taken Gender Studies or Women’s Studies at uni - I’m still quite new to this and I’m a bit slow on the uptake.) As I made my way through the album I finally began to understand. 

The contradiction is the point. 
The multiplicity of the female experience is the point. 
Beyonce’s ability to do this in such a way that she is in such supreme control of her own experience and her own image is the point.

The way she released this album all at once, rather than drip feeding singles as other artists might, reinforces that this is a complete piece of work. Each song is intended to be taken as part of a whole, complementary and contradictory sides of the same story.

There are elements of the album that I still find slightly problematic, particularly a reference to domestic violence in the Ike and Tina Turner film in What’s Love Got to Do With It from Drunk In Love. (Jay-Z’s verse: I'm Ike, Turner, turn up / Baby no I don't play / now eat the cake, Anna Mae / Said, "Eat the cake, Anna Mae!) 

The thing is, I don’t have to be totally ok with it, let alone like it, and nor does anyone else, because this is Beyonce's experience - no one else’s, and to see someone like her fully exploring and embracing the apparent contradictions of being a wife, a mother, a business woman, a creative, a human being, is intimate and empowering in a very contemporary and unusual way. Seeing a woman with such supreme control of her own brand being unapologetically vulnerable, sexual, in control, controlled, playful, strong, sexy - to me, it epitomises modern feminism.

Fans will be familiar with the struggle she’s been through to separate herself from her father and manager Matthew Knowles and become the controller of her own destiny. She documented this in her docu-film Year of 4, for those of you playing at home. (See also album bonus track Grown Woman.)

Her ability to come out of that experience, to step out of the control of a man (or anyone, for that matter), and to document her personal narrative about the complexity of her experience in musical and visual form is the reason why this album is kind of a big deal. The fact that she’s done it entirely on her own terms (without the publicity, distribution, media circus we’d normally expect) makes it all the more significant.

To quote Jamia Wilson in Rookie Magazine’s Great Big Beyonce Roundtable:

“This album is about being the CEO of your own life, not rising to the top of someone else’s industry. Beyoncé moves the conversation from “run shit within someone else’s institution” to “RUN YOUR OWN SHIT,” and that is the goal for real. This is something I’ve seen mischaracterised as selfish, but it is necessary and smart. People spend their whole lives toiling away on things that have nothing to do with their real purpose and joy and regretting it. Beyoncé worked hard to get where she is, and it took decades.”

And this exactly why Beyoncé managed to speak to me (and millions of others) in such a real way, despite the vast difference in our experiences and our situation. The fact that she is being exactly herself and being successful on her own terms means she is a feminist role model on another level, and the fact that she has embraced this and brought others along with her is really the icing on the cake.


Next Gen Fem

So why should we care about Beyonce’s feminism?

Well for one thing, Beyonce has succeeded where many a dogmatic feminist has previously failed. She has overcome feminism’s notoriously bad branding and made it totally ok - and actually cool - for thousands of women young and old to identify as feminists. Feminism is now a pop culture phenomenon. All of a sudden, women who would otherwise not have identified with the feminist cause understand how gender inequality impacts on their personal and professional lives.

Beyonce has redefined what a feminist looks like. True, feminism has been undergoing a gentle transition in recent times, but in embracing the title rather than being concerned about it becoming isolating or alienating, she has created a new tribe of feminists. 

The exciting thing, as Laurie Penny wrote in New Statesman, is that:

“Beyoncé, before she is anything else, is an artist of the market. She would never release an album, especially a surprise album, that her public was not in some significant way ready for, and the mainstream, dance-pop listening world was ready for this. It was ready for an album about feminism and sexual confidence and compassion that gets you on your feet and then gets you critiquing beauty culture and then runs through the streets burning cop cars in an insanely glammed-out version of black bloc. Beyoncé is good at giving her audience what they want, and the fact that we wanted this is significant.”

In many ways, this shift could not have come earlier, as it requires a mass audience that can be communicated with directly, easily facilitated by digital technology and social media, but Beyonce has timed things perfectly. She’s perfectly captured the zeitgeist and effectively rebranded feminism (with help from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her TED Talk We should all be feminists, which was sampled in Beyonce’s song ***Flawless).

And the impact has been profound and immediate. Where there was once ambivalence or active resistance from many a pop cultural influencer, the likes of Taylor Swift have joined the cause, with Swift recently saying, “I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means”.

What I find exciting about this is, as The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti explored, Beyonce calling herself a feminist, opens the door for celebrities to support social justice in other ways, beyond tokenistic brand alignment or spokesmodel contracts. It paves the way for women with a public profile - and women everywhere - to be ever more active in important parts of civic life, and to continue to improve the lot of others.

As Beyonce says in the ***Flawless remix with Nicki Minaj, “I’m the shit, I’m the shit, I’m the shit. I want everyone to feel like this, tonight.” It’s this unparalleled opportunity to bring others along with her that puts Beyonce heads and shoulders beyond every feminist before her.



In January, Beyonce Carter-Knowles contributed a short essay entitled “Gender Equality is a Myth” to The Shriver Report on women, gender and equality. In less than 200 words, she officially claimed the feminist title, and was promptly derided for being a pop culture figure, rather than a “real” feminist. (It’s those high heels, sparkly leotards and gorgeous tresses again, isn’t it?)

This blows my mind. Beyonce is under no obligation to be anyone’s perfect feminist. She is not and will never be every woman’s saviour, and we shouldn’t expect her to be.

Is it fundamentally problematic that our most visible female role models are pop stars are not business leaders, politicians, etc, like they are more likely to be for men? Yes.
Is pop music a great access point for women who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to or even interested in feminism? Yes.
Is Beyonce’s message less valuable because she’s a pop culture figure? Is she less worthy of critical and theoretical interrogation because of her relevance to a mainstream audience? I’d argue the opposite.

Beyonce’s feminism is interesting for so many reasons. She shouldn’t be disregarded because she doesn’t she fit the stereotype of earlier women’s lib style feminists. She should be celebrated because she’s has catalysed a discussion beyond the tall walls of academia and social theory. She’s bringing the conversation out in the open, somewhere other than the women’s pages, and this in itself means she is worthy of interrogation.

The fact that she removed the need to ask for permission, the way she moves away from any kind of prescriptive femininity - that makes Beyonce’s feminism accessible in a way previous waves have never been. She has made our own version of feminism AND our own version of femininity, sexuality, power, womanhood, something that we define for ourselves.

In my opinion, the more critical thinking and popular culture interact, and the more we bring this kind of discourse into the mainstream instead of keeping it locked up among a qualified few, the more valuable it becomes.

And that’s entirely the point. Feminism isn’t something that someone else - ANYONE else - defines for us. If we wait for academics, politicians, business leaders, or Beyonce herself to tell us what feminism should look like, then we might as well keep waiting another couple of generations for real equality to be realised.

The kind of feminism I want to see isn’t dogmatic, it is personal. As Harvey Keitel as the pageant king shows in the Pretty Hurts clip, the point is a woman being able to define her own aspirations in life, beyond being someone else’s version of attractive, successful, feminine: "What is your aspiration in life?" And Beyonce's answer: “Are you happy with yourself?”

That’s a kind of feminism I can get on board with: Freedom to figure it out for ourselves, free from any kind of prescriptive finger-pointing.