Beyoncé and the F-Word

I suppose I’m going to be the bizillionth person to add my two cents to the discussion of Beyoncé’s brightly-lit feminist declaration at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. But the fact that so many people are talking about it, griping about it, debating about it, loving her or hating on her for making the big ol’ f-word a part of her performance is —in my books —an excellent thing.

A short re-cap: Beyoncé does a sixteen-plus minute performance sampler of all the songs from her recent self-titled album before she accepts the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award from her husband, Jay Z. Strutting, gyrating, singing, and smiling while at the same time seeming to own the world, she and an entourage of male and female dancers give the crowd a show. In truth, it wasn’t that dynamic, but it did seem sincere. About mid-way through, before her song “Flawless”, there’s a sampling of lines from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her definition of feminist, a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, is heard and the word FEMINIST lights up the stage, with Bey’s curvy silhouette in front. Then it’s over, and on to more hot dancing, flashing lights and by the end, a heartfelt acceptance from a singer who was clearly honoured to be there.

I must first admit that I didn’t watch this until after I heard about the brouhaha. I don’t generally dig the VMAs because the music isn’t really my style, and I feel too old to know or care about most of the celebrities on parade. Not to mention that it’s usually a pretty sexist soirée (and it seems that can actually be said about much of the show this year — even with the big f-word closing it out). I’m not a particular fan of Beyoncé’s music either, but she did earn my respect when she publicly breastfed her baby while out for lunch with her hubby in NYC. A bold move for a celeb, really. She’s labelled herself a feminist several times in interviews, so making it a part of her show isn’t a revelation, but it is intrepid nonetheless.

Why? The f-word is still, to many people — to many women — a bad word. It’s loaded. It’s confusing. It’s got baggage. Most reasonable people would never argue with Adichie’s definition of feminism, but like most “isms” the practice in the real world is rarely simple or clear cut. Like most potentially controversial issues, (though I could write a 2000 word sidebar on why feminism shouldn’t really be controversial at all), celebrities don’t often declare a side. It’s bad for business. Labels pigeon-hole you, and make it easier for haters to hate on you, point out any perceived hypocrisy on your part, and leave you open to even more scrutiny. Lately there’s been lots of probing of young female celebrities, with microphones jammed in their faces, about whether or not they call themselves feminists. Some are wishy-washy, or say no, but then when they go on to explain, it’s clear that they’re either misinformed about what it is to be a feminist. Or they’re meeting all the criteria (whatever that may be) but just don’t jive with the label. I get it. I wish more of them wouldn’t hedge, but I get it. So for Beyoncé to shout it out in such a public forum is actually pretty cool.

Ah, the naysayers cry, how can she call herself a feminist and then dance around all seductively with no pants on? What is this “modern feminism” that has women talking about equality and then prancing around like a stripper? Isn’t this the woman who recorded a song encouraging all the single ladies to get hitched? Isn’t she adding to the objectification of women by reinforcing how important it is to be “beautiful” and “sexy” ? Does she actually “act” like a feminist? They’re reasonable questions. It’s grey territory for sure, with even self-labeling feminists disagreeing on whether strutting your stuff is female empowerment in action or further adding to the objectification. But bringing the conversation back to her backside, as though her body should speak louder than her opinions, is a classic way to shut that feminist voice down. How can you call yourself a feminist when you look so sexy? It’s ridiculous. There is nothing in that definition above that specifies that a woman’s beauty and sex appeal disqualifies her from having a voice.

And as for whether or not she “acts” like a feminist in her daily life, in her family, or out in the world at large? It’s hard for anyone to truly say what happens in her personal life or in her own mind. But again, in the context of this performance and that blazing f-word in capital letters, it doesn’t matter. At least not to me. What does matter is that legions of young women — and men — who idolize, emulate, lust after or respect Beyoncé have been given permission to think about, talk about and hopefully embrace a definition of a word that is so much scarier than it needs to be. There was something more to take away from those 16 minutes, than singing, dancing and a blowing mane of beautiful hair. It gave cool cred to a word that is so not-cool with many people. It opened up a conversation. One that we still really need to be having.

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poem: Footpath

Footpath

Inside me she kicked

tiny, newly formed feet

firm against womb wall

and up into my ribs

when she floated

upside down

 

In bed, between us

she flings her legs in slumber

and doesn’t wake

when her feet hit our backs,

bellies, heads, when she ends up

reversed.

We are too tired to protest.

Maddening at 3 a.m.

and forgivable by dawn

when we roll over and see her

rosebud mouth

suspended in half-smile

of contented sleep.

 

She kicks at her little sister

when fury hits

and then, later,

a boy on the playground

who threatens her sister.

 

She connects with soccer balls

easily now. Proud in new sneakers

that light up when she runs

alongside other girls

and boys.

 

I worry about school.

Will she have it in her to quash

playground taunts?

Stomp out frustration

over answers that don’t come easily?

 

She is a girl now.

My girl.

And I know there will be

a lot of kicking left to do

before she is a woman.

When she is a woman.

 

Doors to kick.

Habits to kick.

Ideas to kick around

while she figures out

who she wants to be.

There will be kicks to the teeth

that rattle her for years.

And kicks in the ass

that help her move

when she’s stuck.

 

It’s kick or be kicked

at every stage.

And I want her to remember

as she is kicking the mud from her boots

that it will be a dirty, hard path.

But she has it,

the strong legs, strong heart, strong mind.

To get her through.

Often imitated, probably duplicated

Writing is often confession, and today I feel like disclosing one of my biggest fears: plagiarism. Not the worry that I will be plagiarized, but the panic that I will commit it. Inadvertently. I don’t want someone stealing my stuff, of course. That would suck. But worse, for me is that I would end up snatching someone else’s work.

The root I guess, comes from the fact that I feel people should be honoured for their originality. Growing up, I loathed being copied. I know the old line about it being the sincerest form of flattery and all that jazz, but it truly irked me. I was even averse to compliments sometimes, like “I love that sweater. Where did you get it?” because I worried that meant the flatterer would rush out and buy one too. I should stress that I wasn’t then, and still am not, a trendsetter in anything. But I have always been protective in some ways of my own ideas, thoughts, likes, and dislikes. As I got older, I became much more comfortable with spreading my opinions around (as anyone who knows me will attest, probably with a loud “Uh-huh” and eye roll). I am happy when people share my ideas or thoughts enough that we can find common ground. But there is a difference between having things in common and copying. It’s weak to bite someone’s style. It shows a lack of character. But it can be inspiring when two people have independently come to some conclusion or way of seeing the world, and can relate to one another.

But what about those times when something might seep into your subconscious, and end up oozing back out again, with the attached notion that it originated with you? Some of the best, or most famous, examples of this are in popular music. There was much hubbub last year when Marvin Gaye’s family launched a suit against Robin Thicke for perceived similarities between Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” and Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” And a few years before that Coldplay took flack from Joe Satriani’s crew for the similarities between his “If I Could Fly” and Coldplay’s hit “Viva La Vida.” I recently read that Radiohead actually gave a writing credit to Albert Hammond, due to a legal wrangle about the chord progression in Hammond’s 1972 song “The Air That I Breathe” and Radiohead’s “Creep”. Do I think that some of these songs do sound strikingly similar? Yes indeed. Do I think that any of these artists consciously heard a particular guitar riff, or melody and thought “Woot! This rocks. I’m stealing it”? No. I don’t. And what I’ve always wondered is how did the accusations make people like Chris Martin or Thom Yorke feel? If it were me I would feel like crap. Even if it was purely accidental, and I stood by my own “creation”, there would be the nagging feeling that something you thought you created was really just a copy. Even if Plato’s right, and most things are just a copy of a copy, it’s still harsh when your own art is called out for it.

I think most times the art that we’re drawn to is the art that we wish we could make ourselves. It’s a chicken and egg thing where we are both inspired by people, and tend to do the same, and are drawn to those who are the same as us. Certainly my favourite poets and fiction writers are people who I wish, hope, I can write like — in some very distant year or in some other reality. I respect them for their ideas, images, ability with words. I aspire to be. I probably model the same. But are there times when I actually do the same? When a phrase or image is repeated, almost verbatim, and I don’t even realize? It’s a scary thought for me. Will I have some “A-ha!” moment where I think something really works, precisely because it has worked in someone else’s writing? I hope there is some mechanism in my brain that says “Hey, this is good. But tweak for originality, please.” Or as they say on all the singing reality shows, “Really make it your own.”

Or, do I just accept the wisdom of Plato? Art will always be a mere imitation of the objects and events of ordinary life, effectively a copy of a copy of an ideal form. Maybe I should just try to write my best, try to invent, rather than steal. Get inspired, and try to inspire. But drop the worry and remain cognizant of what’s uttered in the lyrics of one of my favourite Nine Inch Nails songs, “Copy of A”: I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before.