Musings Salon - February 2015

Our Musings Salon for February was on the topic of Intimacy v Internet, using a rambling essay I wrote recently as the jumping off point.

As always, it was absolutely delightful to have such clever people take part in a conversation about something that very much impacts our daily lives. A big thanks to Cameron Elliott, Sally Hill, Julia Sharwood and Rachel Service for their insights and their wonderful company. I feel so very lucky to get to spend such quality time with these wonderful humans:

A few notes from our discussion:

We spent a lot of time discussing how our relationship with our digital selves is evolving in an interesting way. In the early days of the social web, the people we connected with felt very authentic, but are becoming discernibly more curated and contrived. The more channels for "personal branding" and monetising personalities and influence emerge with digital media, the harder it is to figure out what is real and what isn't. The more corporatised and money making it becomes, the harder it is to find authentic connections and individuals amongst the noise.

Sally mentioned, "it's now second nature to us to 'manage' our profile / brand / image online. Those who don't seem to be doing so are actually the real pros." By that logic, perhaps it is actually people who are not concerned about accepted social media etiquette, often late adopters who haven't figured out the nuances, or who just have no interest in observing the idiosyncrasies of social media use. She recommended this piece on why your mum's Facebook use is likely to be more authentic than yours. As Sal said, "perhaps they're not so great at being humans on the internet but great at being humans". Maybe we can all learn a lesson from our mums in this regard.

While it wasn't what I was specifically hoping to address in my essay, we did talk a lot about connection, and whether true connection is possible digitally when the idea of authenticity is so problematic. Since we discussed it, I've noticed a rash of articles published on this very subject, many of which I've included in the further reading below.

Despite all the risks, we did all acknowledge the positive impact being digitally connected has had on our lives. To use Julia's words: "The good old days could be cruel and itchy sweater. Social media is more egalitarian. You can put your passion into making vines, or writing about culture, or taking beautiful party pictures and you'll find your tribe. They'll celebrate you for the things you love."

At the end of the day though, what really matters is that your nearest and dearest know you - the real you. And does digital help this? We didn't necessarily think so. As Sally said, "Although we had a lengthy discussion about authenticity, I think the outcome was that to be truly authentic we had to be disengaged from social media and not publishing or 'publicising' anything about ourselves."

All of us acknowledged that for the most part, that digital communities are only as good as the opportunities it presents to connect to connect with people in person. So if in doubt, remember to sit down and chat to people face to face - that way you can skip the life airbrushing and be sure you know exactly who you'e talking to.

 

Further reading / listening:

Intimacy v Internet

Authenticity in the era of the personal brand

A little while ago now, when I was deep in burnout mode, I had some really interesting conversations with a few great people in my digital community about how to be vulnerable and authentic online. Some were prepared to embrace it wholeheartedly, sharing their most personal struggles openly. Others felt that the lines between their personal and professional lives were sufficiently blurred that it could be a bad career move to reveal too much too honestly. And I totally understand where they're coming from. Being open and honest with your nearest and dearest is a completely different thing to being open and honest with thousands of followers across multiple platforms, especially if your business presence and next paid contract is contingent on maintaining a reputation as a thought leader, strategist or otherwise all-knowing type.

So does that rule it out entirely? Does it mean you’re only ever able to be honest and vulnerable in private, remaining stoic and upbeat in public? Is this only the case for people who have heavily digitised public persona? What does this mean for the quality of the connections we’re able to form with people in the digital age? Will every interaction be coloured by “brand alignment”?

I'm intrigued by the sense of digital isolation we feel in the era of the "personal brand", the way we construct our personas online, and whether or not we're truly able to be honest and vulnerable when people know us from behind a screen. I feel like there has been quite a bit written on this phenomenon of late, and I wanted to write a few things down about my take on it, as I do.

 

[I]dealised

People often say to me that I don’t have ‘filters’, and I’m not convinced it is always intended as a compliment. I strive to be always honest, always up front, and always transparent across all areas of my life - digital and analogue. But in my experience so far this can create as just many problems as it solves. Not everyone is so comfortable with intimacy, I’ve discovered.

As R J Magill Jr explores in a wonderful piece for Salon, intimacy wasn’t always so idealised. Throughout the 20th century as social protocols began to relax, consumer culture took hold allowing us to “create” our public identity rather than just stick with the one we were born with, we began to get the hang of a greater level of intimacy in our public lives. Magill argues that when the counter-cultural movement took off in the 60s, emphasising a more genuine and authentic self than mass consumption offered, it brought a desire for intimacy that never really disappeared. In fact, as so many of the ills of modern life seem to increasingly be the result of everything becoming impersonal and industrialised, our desire for intimacy has grown.

Fast forward a few decades and a digital revolution, and still not everyone has got the hang of this degree of intimacy and transparency, and especially not those who don’t spend a lot of time on the internet. Does that have to do with them perhaps spending more time among those older social protocols - in a corporate or hierarchical setting? Are those who live active digital lives more prone to be “early adopters” with a stronger appetite for change? Is it possible that the radical transparency afforded to us on the internet is too much for the real world? Or am I just a compulsive over-sharer? 

Those moments when I am sharing too much for someone else’s intimacy threshold aren’t just uncomfortable for them. When people I know from “the real world” tell me they’ve read my blog or saw something-or-other I posted on Instagram I feel a little nervous. And I think I’m nervous because I’m worried that people outside my digital universe don’t understand that it really is ok to be so honest in a public forum, or at least that people on the internet seem to be ok with it.

As old social conventions - manners, protocol, class and caste systems - deteriorate, we’re free to embrace new ways of interacting with each other. The invisible line between intimate disclosure and inappropriate oversharing will be different for every individual. But with the loosening of these expectations, and the emergence of new platforms and opportunities to engage with others, we have much greater freedom to determine what authenticity will look like for us.

 

[Edited] Reality

Like most internet users, it isn’t uncommon for me to occasionally spend a few idle minutes flicking through the digital profiles of those I know, and those I’m “meeting” for the first time online. From Facebook photo galleries and carefully edited Instagram shots, to witty twittercisms and a trumped up LinkedIn profile. And like most internet users, I occasionally find myself feeling somewhat impressed, intimidated, and even envious when I stumble across a someone who seemingly has it all together - at least according to their online profile. This applies particularly to young overachievers, professional travellers, or impossibly fit and healthy types. Gets me every time.

But then I remind myself that it is mostly bullshit (or in marketing speak - SPIN). You know what I'm talking about. Those oh so carefully edited "about me" pages, strategically courted LinkedIn endorsements, Instagram feeds full of perfectly filtered images of beautiful people on a perpetual holiday. Nary a non-airbrushed photo in site, let alone an an honest confession or heartfelt conversation. We know what our social media updates would look like if they were honest. Something more like this.

I'm not exempt. I've spent long enough time thinking about whether or not to post this particular status update, or that exact photo that I know I’m as much a part of this as everyone else. The subconscious processing of what I should and should not tweet / post / otherwise spread far and wide is more frequent than I’d like. And I think it’s unnatural. 

I also think it prevents us from knowing each other. I mean really knowing each other. I know a lot of people. A lot of people know me. Except I don’t really know them, and they don't really know me. They know a digitised version of me, and I know a carefully edited version of them.

So recently, I did a cull. I selectively unfollowed about 1000 people on Twitter, and unfriended about 600 people on Facebook. 600 people - people I know, people who know me. Except they don't really know me. Perhaps they knew me, once upon a time. Perhaps we met and they learned my name. Perhaps they met me in a semi-professional capacity. But they don't really know me. In fact, I'd say very few people do. Maybe a dozen or so in varying degrees, maybe 20 at a push. Facebook stats tell us 120 is the upper limit. Far less than the 400 odd I still have as Facebook friends. There's no offence intended by this cull. All it boils down to is that I want my Facebook "friends" to more closely reflect my true friends, because I want ALL my interactions to be more honest, and that includes interaction via the interwebz.

 

Artificial Intelligence

It can be hard to see the distinction between an edited or filtered online presence and a constructed artificial brand. And I’ve found at times that it is difficult to see the distinction from the inside too. The line between truth and "enhanced" truth can become blurred...

Many moons ago now I struck up a conversation with a fellow tweeter (who I’d not engaged with previously, but who has since become a dear friend) about the idea of a “consume-preneur”. Interestingly, our concepts of the term were different. He thought of it as someone who is active in the “entrepreneurship” space, and consumes all the relevant material, but never actually makes the jump to being a real life entrepreneur because they never actually create anything, instead building a “brand” about knowing all the right people / info / events, etc. And I assure you I’ve met quite a few of these types.

My idea of a “consume-preneur” is best personified by the fashion blogger - a professional consumer who builds a business and a brand out of their edited/curated/donated-by-a-pr-professional tastes and experiences. 

(Even mega fashion blogger Garance Dore - who makes a living from a cleverly curated digital image (with just the right amount of carefully planned blog intimacy) - conceded that her digital life doesn’t correspond to the reality of her sometimes up, sometimes down existence. She also reminds us that a digital existence is no substitute for the real thing. “Between Instagram and real life, I say, always pick real life.”)

The thing I realise now though, many years later, is that so many off us fit into this category. The more our tastes and experiences are able to be documented via social media, the more they’re able to be quantified. The more we post the more we’re lauded. The more we’re lauded the more we want. And before you know it, you’ve moved a long way away from your real taste and experiences, and much closer to your followers’ tastes. Perhaps that’s too big a jump to make - but maybe not. It’s dangerous - the construction of a “self” meant entirely for public consumption, or consumption as an act of the construction of the self.

Our last Salon, veered toward the topic of “life airbrushing” - deliberately or unconsciously editing your appearance, interests. I’d argue that this is not a new phenomenon. Editing your preferences, for yourself or an audience would have once been called style or taste. But when the popularity of your edits become visible, and arbitrated by an international audience of anonymous voyeurs thanks to social media platforms, the stakes are raised. It becomes a competition of sorts. Where there had never been a right or wrong answer, just a series of personal preferences, there is now a quantifiable level of appeal - followers, likes, shares. How do you counteract the fact that you’re still being judged on a series of 140 character tidbits, or how many elements of your personality you can cleverly jam into your blog profile (subtly interspersed with gentle wit and self-deprication, of course).

We know it is damaging for women to conceive of themselves only as they look to the outside world. We know this can create insecurities, problems with self image, and a demon of body obsession. Therefore, isn't it possible that being overly concerned with the construction of a false digital identity can lead to preoccupation with our publicly projected image? Where does it end?

 

Me-trics

Now that our once quirky tastes or persuasions are now able to be tracked, quantified and measured for ROI, the clamour for more likes, retweets and comments feels like a perpetual popularity contest - public validation of your tastes and affirmation of your value. 

When our engagement with others is via a third party platform, and filtered by the user for “brand alignment” and to ensure we’re presenting our best angle, we become consumers of media, not individuals. When once upon a time we might have been just two people chatting, our modern day (digital) conversations are able to be quantified by number of likes or number of comments - and these conversations are there for the whole world to see - like a friendship badge of honour.

One of my favourite people on the internet had some great thoughts on this during the week. Brian Bailey is the founder of Uncommon - a digital community that strives to resemble a real (offline) community - “a front porch for the internet” as he says, and one of my ongoing digital wonder-places. Brian’s perspective is especially insightful as he further develops Uncommon into something more focused on the meaning and connection that seems to be missing from so many of our digital interactions.

His thoughts:

“I don’t remember counting friends before the rise of social networks. Now, that number is part of our public identity. Profile boxscores quantify our performance and provide easy comparisons with others. 
Every photo and thought we share online, from the perfect brunch to a deeply personal essay, has a number attached to it. We're told that what matters is how many people see it, like it, share it, and comment on it.
Higher numbers serve as a proxy for popularity and sometimes, value. 
When shown a set of numbers, we can be counted on to find ways to make them go up. These services thrive on our efforts to attract more friends and followers and increase the number of people who see and share our contributions.”
“When Uncommon first formed and our online home was still in the distant future, we decided that the site would not have any numbers. There wouldn’t be totals of friends, views or likes, and no red number telling you that you’re falling behind. The crowd wouldn’t determine what is seen and what isn’t. On a front porch, everyone should have a chance to speak and be heard.
There's a place for counting and competition, but not within the bonds of community and friendship. Uncommon is a neighborhood, not a network.”

Perhaps you can see now why I like Uncommon so much.

 

Radical [Digital] Transparency

And it seems I’m not alone in feeling this - and social media is certainly a great way to see this play out in real time. Like the counter-cultural revolution in the 70s - rebelling against mass consumption and industrialisation, the movement toward a more honest and open presentation of the self has been gaining traction - a response to what I think of as “peak life-airbrushing”. And this movement has found fertile ground in the digital space, where creatives, innovators and provocateurs engage directly with their audience without the need for editorialising by mainstream press.

The likes of Lena Dunham - who takes this approach across her other creative mediums - has become quite a poster child for this movement, despite being lambasted for her honesty in her book “Not That Kind of Girl”. (Which I loved, unsurprisingly.) Her attitude to transparency is refreshing, but it isn’t for everyone.

It has its pitfalls. Dunham has recently returned from a twitter sabbatical after being tormented on social media after allegations of molesting her sister based on a very honest story from her recently published book. (Which I loved, unsurprisingly.)

It isn’t just celebrity tweeters. Just this week I had lunch with a brilliant friend of mine who has also spent a long time working and playing in the digital space, and he remarked how much of a personal and emotional toll it takes to be so open and honest across so many platforms - editing and curating your public persona across 10 different platforms, 10 times over, tweaking it so it is just-so and gives just the right idea you want to portray. “It’s exhausting”, he sighed.

The downside of constant internet use - managing a public persona that can’t be left at the office, but needs to be maintained 24/7, and constantly feeling like you need to be emotionally available to everyone all the time is being emotionally fatigued. Being honest and intimate with EVERYONE is exhausting. Sometimes (often!) impersonal transactional encounters are necessary. But does our increasingly digital public profile allow for that?

Gone are the days when we knew only a handful of people beyond our own family, or our small village, but it is only so recently that the ability to have direct conversations with broader networks have emerged. The difference is, we’re doing it from behind a screen, with the added benefit of editing available to us. How does this colour our interactions?

As Helena Price reflected in her recent post about her social media purge: “We’re among the first generations expected to maintain connections with every single person we’ve ever met, thanks to the Internet. The weight of our swollen social networks can be super stressful, let alone a distraction from knowing who you want to focus your time on.”

 

Social soul searching (aka ALL of the questions)

So what it is about the present day that feels like we’re entering some kind of a tech-enabled 70s era cultural revolution where intimacy is the end goal? Is our sense of impersonality and desire for intimacy a logical conclusion given the state of industrialised capitalism? Is our craving for intimacy and authenticity testament that we’re looking for meaning wherever we can get it? Is it a way to foster humanity in an increasingly inhuman (mechanised) world. Are we trying to overcome the distance and estrangement our own inventions have created for us? Or, as Umair Haque ponders in his essay “Youtopia”, “Are we being had by others who are better at playing the game? Is a constructed identity / versions of the truth the key to capitalism’s stronghold?”

But also - The ideology of intimacy - is it real? Why do we crave emotional intimacy with those we don’t even know? Is it that we’re being so severely deprived of it with people in our personal lives? Are we craving the meaning and connection we’re not getting from our working and civic lives?

Do we crave intimacy because we’re self obsessed? Because we would rather find the connection with another unique individual like us than understand ourselves as part of a bigger homogenous whole?

Is it that we’re craving a connection with something bigger than ourselves? Is the opportunity to construct an authentic digital brand the ultimate existential indulgence? And in an age of pervasive atheism the only thing bigger than ourselves is someone else?

According to Adorno (Minima moralia) “A good, honest life is no longer possible, because we live in an inhuman society.” Does this mean that any attempt to “be honest” in a digital world is impossible, as it is deliberate and constructed and therefore far from honest?

The idea of the constructed public identity is problematic. The idea of life-photoshopping the everyday for external consumption is problematic. But the thing I can’t figure out is: are we lying to everyone else or to ourselves?

 

Personal Profile

This week, in a mood of reflection, I spent some time looking back through old blog posts, tweets and status updates. It’s been interesting to observe the shifts in my own digital behaviour as my attitudes to authenticity and vulnerability evolve. I wrote a while back about being very aware that I wasn’t maximising my social media opportunities - instead becoming aware of moments that don’t NEED to be captured digitally, and making a point of keeping these for myself. It’s been an interesting shift. Where I once was looking for interesting things to share, now I try to be more discerning and incidental about sharing things that I think will be of value.

Kevan Lee wrote a great post for Buffer about how to be honest and authentic online and he offered this handy advice. 

Always be authentic. Be varying degrees of transparent.

It sounds simple enough, but I wonder if the focus on what’s being publicly portrayed is irreversably damaging our ability to even BE authentic, in favour of always being transparent. It kind of feels like all this is yet another distraction from the job of actually getting to know ourselves, because a cleverly curated digital brand is really just a way for us to be known, rather than a way to know ourselves. The time we spend carefully cultivating a digital presence is time we’re not spending getting to know ourselves - our real selves - personally and intimately. And the time we spend getting to know other people’s digital profiles is time we’re not spending getting to know other people - their real selves. Or is our digital life it a tool for exploring our own identity (and that of others) meaningfully? Can we really use the internet to get under the ego to stare directly at the id, or is it creating an even bigger roadblock than had previously existed.

 

My more than 140 character summary

For me, it comes down to this:

We haven’t figured out how to make this work for us in a digital sense. It’s no different to that awkward teenage stage when we’re trying to find our voice, and to speak in a way that honours who we are, while allowing room for us to evolve. Will it get there? I’m not convinced yet, but there certainly are interesting things happening in some hidden pockets of the internet.

As humans we're very complex. And that complexity is almost impossible to distill down to a series of 140 character soundbites or a carefully curated photo album. Each of us can be simultaneously very wise, and also really struggling with certain things. We can be very together and also trying to figure things out. We struggle with nuance. We might be complex, but we struggle to hold two conflicting ideas in our head at the same time.

We forget that it’s all the stuff between the carefully edited pictures, blog posts, shared links and professional profile that makes us real. Its your tiny insignificant likes and dislikes, voice inflections, language quirks, body language, and all the other bits that you would never think to share. And if you are sharing them to a mass audience then it would be hard to claim intimacy or authenticity. It’s impossible to know anyone entirely from their digital footprint no matter how authentic, transparent and vulnerable they are willing to be.

The thing is: we’re more than what we claim to be and more than we project publicly. We’re more than we can comprehend. The depth and diversity of the human experience is so vast, and there is no way we could possibly distill all that we are, all that we have been and all that we’d like to be into a perfectly considered and articulated personal brand communicated in a series of edited photos and 140 character updates. No one can do that. Not even Beyonce. (And she has a whole team dedicated to it. Plus she’s probably superhuman.) If we can use all the possible channels available to us (yes, including the internet) to explore ourselves and others to the fullest extent possible, then perhaps we’ll come close to understanding this.

 

Further reading:

Musings Salon - September 2014

The first Musings Salon held this week was a quite a wonderful thing really.

As I've explained, my idea for a Salon was mostly selfish - an opportunity to get some of my clever friends in a room to discuss topics I'm interested in. 

And it was great. I loved it. And part way through, it got even better, because I was reminded that the other people in the room genuinely enjoyed it too. The collective experience of a passionate but respectful discussion about something interesting is a powerful thing. Discovering that others share your opinions, or that they are able to respect you and your perspectives even if their views are different is magical.

And better yet when the topic of discussion is Queen Bey. 

This month's provocation was my piece about our favourite feminist gateway drug, Mrs Carter Knowles: 

On Feminism and Femininity: Beyonce, feminism and the whole damn thing

Having already exorcised many of my opinions on the subject, I was intrigued to see the conversation move beyond Beyonce to Emma Watson's recent speech at a UN Women event, the public reaction, and specifically an article by Clementine Ford downplaying it's significance.

The consensus seemed to be that we - all of us - need to embrace imperfection, as Beyonce implores. We cannot let perfection be the enemy of good as we strive for equality and better understanding. Because every time a step in the right direction is admonished for not being big enough, or for not being the right approach, it alienates an audience and prevents someone from making any kind of attempt at progress.

I think it's useful to remind ourselves that feminism is about freedom. Freedom for women, and men. Freedom that allows us to be ourselves, and feel confident and comfortable in ourselves and in a community of others like, and unlike us. Lena says it best:

Happily, we also began to explore a couple of future Salon topics, looking at how gender inequality impacts on men, and how the way we represent ourselves online is changing the way we relate to ourselves as women. More to come on both of these.

Some further resources that emerged during our discussion.

The illustrious attendee list:

Thank you to these gorgeous ladies for their attendance and their contributions. Looking forward to continuing the discussion at our next Salon.

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.

feminist.jpeg

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.

 

Pop-feminism

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.