Beyoncé, featured in the latest edition of UK Vogue, offered some illuminating and wary thoughts on adding the mantle “feminist” to her growing array of titles. To be fair, she is already a wife, businesswoman, mother, pop superstar, sing/songwriter, fully realized performance character named Sasha Fierce, fashion designer, and producer. Her slate is a little crowded. “Feminist” might just be that proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. And because that camel might not have access to the same health care and earns less than her male camel partner… you get the gist. Beyoncé stated:
“That word [feminist] can be very extreme. I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. 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.”
Beyoncé, no one believes you are “just a woman” and no one believes you believe that about yourself, which is exactly why it is more important than ever to take the leap (more like one giant step, actually) and add “feminist” to your multifaceted identity. Feminist critics have pointed out that Beyoncé doth protest too much when she denies the feminist moniker despite promoting (for the most part) a positive image of women in her music, being critical of the economic disparities between men and women in the music business and elsewhere, and involving herself in charitable efforts that benefit women. As the saying goes, Queen Bey, if it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and sounds like a duck… When Beyoncé and other successful, confident, intelligent, self-made women hold the feminist label away from them, pinched between their thumb and forefinger like a used Kleenex during a SARS outbreak, they send the message that feminism is both taboo and somehow distasteful. In Beyoncé’s case, this posture diminishes her image as the “bold,” “fearless” and extremely empowered woman that her pop empire rests upon.
In her take on Beyoncé’s recent remarks, Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams attributes some of the singer’s “reluctant feminism” to what has become the defacto image of a feminist: a burlap-clad, man-hating-bra-burning-Lesbian-loving, broom-riding, humorless, angry shrew. And that is not taking into account the descriptors that are really pejorative. This in itself is a problem and not one that Williams’ assurance to readers and, presumably, Beyoncé that “It’s O.K. to be a feminist” will remedy. Feminism needs icons and advocates willing to challenge those perceptions through their words as well as their actions and that starts by self-identifying as a proud feminist.
Williams also identifies Beyoncé’s unwillingness to buy into pigeonholing herself within one representation or identity, which may come from her sensibility as a performer and artist. But that seems less likely when held up against the careers of other artists such as Madonna and Lady Gaga who adroitly demonstrate that there is no pigeonhole capable of containing them for very long. Instead, this feels like an instance where Beyoncé wants the gains of feminism without having to take responsibility for the messy, complicated, and, often, unpopular work that comes in being an advocate for the movement. It is a missed opportunity. Fortunately, feminism, like so many other movements, will continue to shift, change, and evolve with or without Queen Bey’s blessing.