Still from my play “Green”
Still from my play “Green” (Maria Vergara)
Still from my play “Green” (Dury Kim)
Still from my play “Green” (Nuria Del Real)
I’m a fan of Beyoncé; an outstandingly talented and versatile performer who has publicly made it clear she is a feminist. Back in the 90’s she sang about independent women, being a survivor, “bootylicous” women, and in 2011 she sang that girls “run da world”. She is an afro-american, strong woman who presents an empowering role model for young girls; a contrast to (predominately white) whaif like models who stare passively at us from inside fashion magazines and billboards. When Beyonce is played at a party all the girls start dancing. And when in their drunken excitement they sing along like Beyonce they don’t put on a baby voice a la Britney they GROWL - because if you wanna be like Beyonce you’ve got to unleash your inner fierceness. On her quest for her artistic freedom she first broke away from Destiny’s child, then her father/manager Matthew Knowles and finally, late last year, she did a groundbeaking thing: she launched an entire”visual” album, without the whole media carousel that normally precedents an album launch (normally directed by the record label). Beyonce showed the world she is indeed an independent woman, who doesn’t need anybody to help her out: she runs her own show now.And yet, as her accompanying videos begin to be released individually I have begun to question some of her choices. Especially her latest video, partition, which is basically what you would find if youtube was a dictionary and you’d looked up “the male gaze”. In the video, Beyonce plays a frustrated rich wife who at breakfast is desperately seeking the attention of her husband Jay-Z, and when he keeps reading the newspaper instead, she fantasizes about being a stripper, withering in lingerie in front of him. Beyonce has said this new album is her most honest and feminist to date, so why the need for her to wriggle around semi naked in front of her husband? And this leads me to a key question I suppose: is Beyonce only getting away with calling herself a feminist because she is “sexing it up”? This topic is the subject of much debate within feminism. Because unfortunately, there is still a huge stigma around what it means to be a feminist. Recently, in a Swedish documentary, when two mothers were asked in a park what they thought a feminist was, one of them replied she used to have a neighbour that was feminist and she didn’t shave her armpits. “That’s what feminism is, isn’t it?” she asked. The stereotype of a feminist who doesn’t shave her armpits, hates men and has daddy issues may seem laughable but it’s certainly not an uncommon conception. Lady Gaga, when asked if she was a feminist replied she wasn’t because “she loved men.” While there certainly are many, many different types of feminists (some don’t shave their armpits, and some do, but guess what hair does grow out there, and we didn’t choose that, it’s called evolution) the common stereotype is one that many feminists are trying to get away from. It’s not about hating men, it’s about being treated equally, or at least less unequally than we are. “But surely, women are liberated by now?!!” I hear some of you object.And yes, we have come very far. But if you think about how many thousands of years humans have been around for, and then you think that it is still less than one hundred years ago women were allowed to vote (and even later: allowed to have a career and independent lifestyle). We’re not quite there yet!
The great thing about feminism is that it’s not a monolithic ideology, it’s a collective; a united group of many different types of individuals who all believe in equality. Within that idea, there are many branches, many different schools of thought, and that’s sort of the whole point. To liberate rather than suppress. So in that sense the debate of what feminism should be about is a little self defeating and also in a way impossible to answer.But let’s return to Beyonce - because she seems emblematic for what almost seems like a backfiring defense: ” Yes, I am a feminist BUT look! I do shave my armpits! I’m not a lesbian! I love men! In fact, I love men watching me pretending to be a stripper and grind on a velvet rope with leopard spots projected onto my skin!”I suppose what I’m wondering is would she have been as listened to and respected had she not made sexy videos like the one above when talking about being a feminist?In a similar vein, there has recently been a debate whether or not burlesque dancing is feminist or not (See Nadia Kamil’s feminist burlesque here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/02/25/nadia-kamil-feminist-burlesque_n_4853522.html and one of the responses from the burlesque community here: https://lililascala.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/feminist-burlesque-dont-make-me-laugh/). The basic argument, put in simple terms is this: on one side of the “feminist boxing ring” there is a fighter who says: "Women like Beyonce are reclaiming their sexuality (and therefore the sexy dancing, outfits and behaviour is in fact empowering and therefore feminist). Beyonce is sexy in her videos because that is something she has chosen to express, and it’s on her own terms. What’s wrong with a woman expressing her sexual desires?!”
"Well", says the other fighter as she steps forward: " There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a bit more complicated!" Fighter number two continues: "This particular form of sexual expression that Beyonce displays is not empowering, simply because it’s in line with patriarchal ideals of women as objectified and being rated based on her level of ‘looked at-ness’, and even worse: it’s being disguised as feminism. These ideals are so deeply embedded in our culture that sometimes we might not even be aware of them. Beyonce might not be aware of it either, but nonetheless, we need to question this type of depiction of female sexuality because it is in fact, degrading, not empowering."
It’s not an easy fight to conclude because the more you begin to unravel this question, more and more questions begin to stick to the first one. And yet at the same time, these two “fighters” essentially want the same thing: for women to take charge of their own sexuality as part of the fight for equality. And essentially, nobody has a right to tell anyone else how they should express their sexuality. That is everyone’s right to choose themselves. So in a way, there can never be one answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep asking ourselves and each other how we can express our sexuality without subjugating ourselves to becoming objects of male desire in a demeaning way.Ladies, it’s time to reinvent what it means to be sexy.