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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