At just 21, Beyoncé was already terrifyingly successful. At 31, she’s magnificent.
In a year that marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the much debated question of whether the Houston native has the right to call herself a feminist continues to rage.
The statistics aren’t the issue.
Even after earning two Grammy’s with the former band Destiny’s Child, shifting millions of records, five Grammy’s from her 2003 solo debut Dangerously In Love, selling out world tours, establishing a production company, and silencing those who saw her lead position in DC3 as nepotism by her then manager father as opposed to a blazing talent that has led some to name her Michael Jackson’s heir — the issue many have with Beyoncé has always been this:
Her right to define herself on her own terms.
In 2008, “the hottest chick in the game” announced in Marie Claire: “I’m over being a pop star. I don’t wanna be a hot girl. I wanna be iconic.”
And she did. In the four year interim, she punched out another sell-out tour, married hip hop titan Jay-Z, gave birth to her first child Blue Ivy, dazzled in an actions-speak-louder Super Bowl reply to an overblown Lip-Sync Gate, co-directed a documentary, and inked a spanking new sponsorship deal with Pepsi.
Now, a version 2013 Beyoncé is at a place where she feels comfortable openly defining herself as a feminist. To be accurate, the singer told BritishVogue she was a “modern day feminist,” and therein lies the key to understanding where Queen Bey (or King, as she is also called) is coming from.
“I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality,” she declares. “Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman. I do believe in equality and that we have a way to go and it’s something that’s pushed aside and something that we have been conditioned to accept.”
That simple reading of feminism as the belief that a woman is equal might seem trite given the complex overlays it’s had put upon it over time, but it is no less essential.
The flawed but dangerously prevalent idea, that proper feminism makes a lot of noise, imagines public toplessness furthers the feminist cause and believes that a sexy woman in make-up and visible pants has somehow let the side down still walks among us.
Much has been written about why female performers in pants are considered to have negated their right to call themselves as feminists. But while Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna et al frequently wear pants on stage, more often than not it’s Beyoncé who gets burned at the stake for seeing no conflict in wearing just pants over her lady parts and being an advocate of equality.
Her February GQ cover and shoot inside featured a blonde, nubile Beyonce in a series of pants images and accompanying “equality” quotes from the singer. It sparked acres of dissent from many quarters, notably The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman who wrote that the feminist “deal” these days is:
“apparently… famous women can sing about ‘independence’ and ‘girl power,’ as long as they’re wearing next to nothing.”
Freeman’s criticism, albeit pithy and well argued misses the point, as does my fellow IQ writers’ observation that shots of Beyoncé in her undies undermines her consistently empowering words and actions because they fall “in line with that male definition of sexiness.”
Here’s why. Female bodies in their many forms, usually if well maintained, will inflame male — or female — desire. That’s just biology. But it isn’t a reason why a female shouldn’t have the freedom to celebrate and publicly present her body any way she chooses.
Whether it’s wearing a hijab, or pretty much nothing if you’re a female athlete these days, donning a genital skimming tutu, a habit, or a Thierry Mugler take on Barbarella as Beyoncé did on her 2009 “I am… Sasha Fierce” tour — the point remains.
A woman’s right to choose whatever the heck she wants to wear (or doesn’t), on any given day is as intricately bound with her right to carry (or not) a child to term, her right not to have her genitals mutilated, and her right to equal pay, education and the acknowledgment of her person.
Realities that an American women currently earn 77 cents to every dollar that that a male makes, why countless women died, were damaged or traumatized in back street abortions, or why rape victims — although less now — are asked by the defense what they were wearing, stems from a fundamental belief that a woman’s body is not her own.
The idea that a sexually liberated woman cannot also be an empowered one is perilously close to mindsets that blame women for rape, excuses straying men and allows workplace harassment. At their heart is the belief that the beauty of a woman cannot be celebrated and enjoyed by the one who owns it and is — in effect — saying that a woman cannot claim her own authority.
For most young girls the first point of self-actualization is choosing what they wear. Before lofty concepts of female power and equality are taught as subjects and things to be learned, it’s the early understanding that your body is nothing to be ashamed of that bears fruit in healthy, secure, well-adjusted young adults that see their sexuality as theirs to honor and control.
Whether you accept that Beyoncé with her countless awards, healthy marriage, business acumen, self-management, self-discipline — and who, as a young girl turned the popular pundit joke that blamed her for the exit of two ex-Destiny’s Child members into a hit song, and has now set up an female empowerment program with Salma Hayek and Gucci — is a feminist, is neither here or there.
Beyoncé is living her dream and her definition of feminism, not someone else’s. She may have made mistakes in her many years at the top — attempting to pull unflattering photos being one of them — but she has far more victories than missteps to be proud of.
One of them is the self-acceptance she bequeaths to females of all races, ages and bootylicious shapes simply by being who they are. Feminism shouldn’t be and isn’t a mono-definition concept. One day, maybe sooner than we think, it will be something that every female can access and express their own version of.
That’s progress. That’s power.