If you haven't seen the performance, here it is, and I recommend watching it. I just did, and first and foremost it is 14 minutes of mesmerizing vocals and choreography. During part of the song Flawless, words defining and advocating feminism from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an African writer also known for her TED talk) flash across a giant screen. You can read the full lyrics of the song which include Adichie's statements in verse 2 here.
Editor of the Federalist Mollie Hemingway lays down pretty typical conservative spin on this, claiming that Beyoncé's performance at the VMAs proves "feminism right now is an incoherent mess of double standards." Hemingway's reasoning is that Beyoncé's hyper-sexual performance is at odds with feminist objections to the objectification of women. The problem is, even if one finds the sexual segments of the medley too bawdy to be in good taste, the performance doesn't read as objectification. The gist is clearly that the woman is being sexual assertive and seeking her own sexual gratification as much as that of her partner. The most sexual part of the entire performance is followed up by the voice of Adichie (and her words projected on the backdrop), commenting, "We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boy are." Beyoncé is certainly an exhibitionist, but that she does it for her own gain and pleasure is made explicit.
Megyn Kelly who interviews Hemingway snarkily comments, "But she's okay with 'Bow down bee-otch" (her mis-pronunciation proving that Kelly hasn't actually watched the performance or know those lyrics in their full context.) The line "bow down bitches" is chanted as a challenge to other women to acknowledge, value, and be inspired by Beyoncé's ambition and success that goes beyond the domestic sphere. Again, the lyrics from Adichie in the song read, "We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men." Oh, those pesky details getting in the way of Hemingway's and Kelly's conservative spin.
Hemingway makes a judgmental comment about Beyoncé as a parent in this article, saying:
I mean, it wasn't totally usual in that Beyoncé's toddler child was in the audience to witness all this dry-humping and simulated getting down, but other than that, your typical Beyoncé.
I am perfectly comfortable with either of my toddler children watching this performance, because first of all, they wouldn't even understand the most sexually explicit lyrics (and by the time they do understand, they'll be mature enough to process it), and in case anyone hasn't noticed, we live in a culture that is absolutely saturated with sexually suggestive images of women. Does Hemingway never notice billboards or magazine covers featuring women in provocative outfits giving bedroom eyes to the viewer with their lips suggestively parted that are everywhere? At least in Beyoncé's performance the glittery butts are attached to professional dancers who are not just on display for us to gawk, but actually engaged in an impressive dance routine.
The biggest problem with Mollie Hemingway's criticism of feminism is that what might appear as an incoherent mess can be pretty quickly sorted out if one bothers to take a close enough look.
I'm not going to go into details that anyone can look up on Wikipedia, but I can put this particular performance in some context. After all the major successes of what is often called first wave feminism (voting and property rights) and second wave feminism (reproductive rights, equal opportunity in jobs and education, changes in attitudes regarding gender roles) we entered into an era where feminism is suffering from its own success. Some leaders in the movement thought the next big fight should be against abuses of women in the sex industry (sometimes dubbed "anti-porn feminists"), but there was backlash against those leaders because some anti-porn feminists allied with religious conservatives, and also because it could be perceived as an attack on women who work in the sex industry, including those who enjoy and make a good living off their work. Thus we had the birth of sex-positive feminism, which emphasizes women's sexual freedom as a fundamental to the goals of the feminist movement.
While there are still anti-porn feminists, it is clear that sex-positive feminists are winning that war. Beyonce's uber-sexually titillating performance juxtaposed with the feminist label is nothing new. Candida Royalle is a former porn actress who produces and directs pornographic films for couples and which specifically aim to appeal to female sexual desire. Feminists Against Censorship is an organization in the UK whose mission is to prevent censorship, particularly of materials with sexual content. Hell, just check out sex-positive feminist Annie Sprinkle's website.
There is a middle ground between the extremes of Andrea Dworkin who wrote "No woman needs intercourse, few women escape it." and Camille Pagilia, who justified "certain forms of rape" as "what used to be called unbridled love."
I suspect that most feminists, such as myself, fall in this middle ground. I wouldn't label myself an "anti-porn feminist" because I think porn, while often a shady, manipulative and degrading (to both men and women) industry, can and often is produced under ethical conditions. Similarly, I'm also not against legal prostitution across the board, but I am deeply concerned about how any form of prostitution - legal or otherwise - is run and regulated, given the abuses common to that industry.
While I'm totally cool with Beyoncé's hyper-sexual VMA performance as the act of a particular artist in the appropriate venue for such a performance, I am disturbed by the omnipresence of images of women displayed in a cheap, narrow, and generically titillating fashion for the real purpose of making a quick buck. Context matters.
This issues are not black and white. They are not simple. Of course there will be endless debate within the feminist movement. That doesn't change the fact that issues of inequality exist and call out for research and thoughtful discussion followed by plans of action. Feminism is the social movement that specifically addresses issues of sexual inequality. And, gee, sorry if that gets complicated because the world is complicated. When Mollie Hemingway dismisses feminism as meaningless, she undermines the work of grassroots feminists who are working to achieve and maintain sexual equality.
I do think some of the liberal, feminist response to Beyoncé's VMA performance is rather over-enthusiastic.
Jessica Bennett wrote in Time that Beyoncé has "accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses." She goes on:
Universally loved, virtually unquestioned, and flawless, the 33-year-old entertainer seems to debunk every feminist stereotype you’ve ever heard. Beyoncé can’t be a man-hater – she’s got a man (right?). Her relationship – whatever you believe about the divorce rumors – has been elevated as a kind of model for egalitarian bliss: dual earners, adventurous sex life, supportive husband and an adorable child held up on stage by daddy while mommy worked. Beyoncé’s got the confidence of a superstar but the feminine touch of a mother. And, as a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion.Oh, yes, it is totally refreshing and exciting for sex-positive, third-wave feminists to see a successful, talented, black woman taking ownership of the feminist label in the expressive languages of R&B, hip hop, and soul. But how much of what Bennett writes is hopeful hype? Clearly Beyoncé is a talented artist and super-celebrity, but when it comes to the shifting socio-political landscape with regards to women's equality, is she taking us in a new direction, or really just part of a tide that was already moving that way?
Amanda Marcotte writing for Slate, remarks:
Having dismantled the idea that feminists are just ugly wannabes during her performance, she might as well clean house by smashing the notion that feminists hate men or are somehow not maternal.Oh give me a break. There are plenty of self-declared feminists out there who are, while not as stunning as Beyoncé, perfectly attractive, happily married, and mothers, so as far as I can tell, the accusations from assholes like Rush Limbaugh that feminists are "ugly" and "man-haters" should have been laughed into oblivion the moment he said them. And yet they weren't. Stereotypes of feminists as ugly, bitter man-haters took hold and continue to thrive.
Those who perpetuate or who eagerly accept those stereotypes will not be moved to change their minds by Beyoncé. Like Mollie Hemingway, conservatives are mocking the idea of Beyoncé as a feminist, using her VMA performance as proof that feminism is contradictory and meaningless, and then just for good measure, shaming Beyoncé for being, as Megyn Kelly puts it, skanky.
What Amanda Marcotte suggests is that feminism needs a ridiculously gorgeous performer who wears scantily clad clothing and dances and sings in a manner that would rival the greatest stripper act in its ability to titillate the average straight man in order to refute the stereotypes of feminists as ugly man-haters. But we don't, and we never did.
Fans of Beyoncé who are totally ignorant of feminist history and current issues and grassroots action might take an interest in it because of her, but I doubt we're suddenly going to see a surge in feminist activism or a big bump in the percentage of people labeling themselves "feminist" any time soon.
Indeed, what good does the trendy rebranding of the "feminist" label do to achieve actual equality of the sexes? Lauren Duca writing for Huffington Post points out that Beyoncé championed feminism in the midst of an award show rife with old-fashioned sexist behavior. She writes:
The VMAs are like a petri dish for all of the misogynistic crap in the music industry: It is the reality of refusing to accept women as legitimate artists and reducing them to sexual objects boiled down into a handy two-hour television special.
Duca concludes that Beyoncé's efforts are futile unless the label and definition of feminism she promotes are taken into action.
Beyonce isn't just hot in the sense that she turns on most men (and no doubt a lot of women, too.) She's hot in the sense that she's known and adored by the general public. She has reached the apex of popularity. It's called pop culture for a reason. Feminism is not hot. It's not popular. So those devoted to the feminist cause and the feminist label are getting a huge charge out of it being adopted and promoted by such a hot celebrity. That's great and all, but I'm skeptical that it goes any deeper than that.