Beyoncé’s “Flawless” Feminism

By Amanda Grigg

tumblr_mxqhjtelWV1sk0vqbo2_250Unless you live under a rock (not that kind Bey) you know that Beyonce just surprise released a visual album featuring 14 new songs and 17 new videos. Obviously the internet came pretty near to exploding and lost the ability to even can. On track 11, “Flawless” previously released as “Bow Down,” Beyonce samples extensively from a Ted Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists” given by Nigerian author and Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Here’s the speech/verse, taken from Rap Genius which, no surprise, had yet to annotate it as of this post (afternoon project, anyone?).

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”

lanactrlaltdelreyGet. It. Chimamanda. Beyonce’s inclusion of this sample on the track is particularly interesting because the original release of the song as Bow Down/I Been On saw some serious (largely white) feminist backlash, and ranting about her anti-feminist turn from (large and white) Rush Limbaugh. In both versions of the song Beyonce repeats the line “bow down bitches” (haters to the ground) and the anti-sisterhoodness of it all was too much for some feminist critics. Defenders argued that the song was feminist, or at least not antifeminist. Here’s Sesalie Bowen of Feministing, highlighting the importance of context in interpreting the song:

And those self-affirming, self-glorifying lyrics? Those descend from a tradition of self-glorifying verses that the creators of hip hop took to in rap battles and cyphers. That is the culture of hip hop to say: I’m the shit. Respect it. Bow down to it. I can’t say it enough: Context is so important.

And here’s The Root editor Akoto Afori-Atta on Beyonce’s brand of feminism:

Also, here’s what is central to her brand of feminism: the option to play like the boys play…If men can boast about their accolades on a track, so can Bey and any other woman who chooses to. In that sense, isn’t “Bow Down” pro-women?

tumblr_mxqhxqMLTF1qma32qo2_500The criticism eventually led to interviewers asking Beyonce to make her position on the F-word clear, and Beyonce hesitatingly declaring herself a feminist in British Vogue. Beyonce has clearly had some doubts about the feminist label, which makes sense considering the history of white feminism excluding black women, the public backlash to prominent feminists and the feminist backlash to imperfectly feminist celebrities. Here’s Beyonce, after telling Vogue she’s a “feminist, I guess”:

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. … But I’m happily married. I love my husband.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-16947-1386920107-31It seems like Beyonce was working through what all feminists work (and re-work) through, which is finding a place for yourself in a feminist movement made up of a million different versions of feminism, and deciding whether you’re comfortable labeling yourself a feminist when you disagree (potentially fundamentally) with others who share that label. With the release of this song, and the sample of Adichie, it sounds like she’s found her place.

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