Beyoncé

This article is a preview from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

For some time now, there’s been a question circling among pop critics: is Beyoncé a feminist? It heated up in 2013 with her Mrs Carter world tour, which prominently displayed the surname of her husband, Jay-Z. How could she call herself a feminist, some asked, when she bases so much of her public identity on her marriage to a rich, powerful man? Pressed on the subject in an interview with Vogue, the woman herself was ambivalent. “That word can be very extreme,” she said, “but I guess I am a modern-day feminist.”

More recently, she’s embraced it wholeheartedly. Her latest, self-titled album samples the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who proclaims, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much’.” Beyoncé has also contributed to the latest edition of the Shriver Report – a study of women in American society – writing a short essay entitled “Gender Equality is a Myth!” under her full name, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

But the debate about Beyoncé – is she really a feminist? – exposes the scrutiny which black female pop stars encounter when they express their politics. White pop stars like Kate Nash or Lily Allen can call themselves feminists without inviting the same kind of critique from a white-dominated feminist scene. When it comes to women in pop taking their clothes off or keeping them on, some believe they are masters of their own agency, others are adamant that it’s exploitation. As with the differing reactions towards Chris Brown and Charlie Sheen, both men who have publicly admitted engaging in domestic violence, there is an element of leniency based on the colour of an artist’s skin. When Miley Cyrus takes her clothes off, there’s paternalistic concern; when Beyoncé does it, a newspaper (the London Metro) uses the word “whore” in its headline.

Debate rages among black feminists, too – from an uncritical embrace of the only prominent black female artist engaging in feminist politics to outright rejection of Beyoncé’s perceived complicity in the misogynistic lyrics her husband raps. Her work divides opinion. Beyoncé means a lot to young black women. Some of us have grown up with her music, some of us first identified with some semblance of feminist politics through Destiny’s Child songs like “Independent Women” or “Bills Bills Bills”. Beyoncé told us not to stand for men who want to take advantage of us. She assured us that we can and should depend on ourselves.

Beyoncé is now synonymous with success. In 2010 she decided she would be her own manager. Now aged 32, she has had a career spanning 16 years. So what does it mean when one of the bestselling musical artists of all time embraces feminism, inserting TED talks into her club bangers and writing essays on gender equality? The gravity of this move should not be underestimated. Her politics might not be intricate. At times they come across as heavily contradictory. Many can’t reconcile the fact that she Instagrams sexy swimsuit shots while talking feminism on her tracks. But it’s still something to be admired. Once she had reached a certain level of wealth, adulation and fame, it could have been so easy for Beyoncé to pull up the ladder.

A few years ago, one of my closest friends would always switch off when I started with the preachy feminism talk. No matter how concrete I tried to make it all sound, she found the theory dry and alienating. I’d go to Reclaim the Night marches on my own, and that was fine. But when Beyoncé’s album came out, suddenly we were having conversations about the slew of blogs and articles dissecting the album’s politics, and exploring tensions such as how she appears to endorse domestic violence on one track (“Drunk in Love”) yet espouses feminism on another (“Flawless”).

Like it or not, pop culture gives us the symbolism to base political conversations on. After a rocky few years, there seems to be some consensus that feminism is now here to stay. In that context, it’s remarkable that Beyoncé’s latest album sold 617,000 copies in just three days, transporting her politics into the earphones and the hearts of thousands of people who might never come across it otherwise. But contrary to some headlines, she isn’t the new face of feminism. Clutching at the latest high-profile woman to embrace feminism obscures the fact that it really is a leaderless movement. Like the hype that surrounds lone women who make it on to executive boards, laying all of our expectations at the feet of one individual tends to lead to disaster. But if just one girl undergoes a revolution in her mind thanks to Beyoncé’s lyrics, her work is done.