While her contemporaries have straddled the line between powerful female personas and more potentially problematic sexualisation, the fan-anointed Queen of Pop Beyoncé has managed to remain above the fray and become the most prominent feminist icon of the new millennia.
That's not to say there isn't a sexualised aspect to her image - you only need to look at some of her music videos to see that the idea of her as untainted virgin when compared to others is not exactly warranted, but her oft-repeated (despite being 32, she's a veteran of the modern pop landscape) espousal of empowered women who can be perfectly content, successful and happy without a man has meant that she is now the cultural touchstone for independent women everywhere.
However her latest album has caused something of a stir, with many of those who eagerly ran her the feminist flagpole now baying for blood down below. One particular lyric - delivered by her husband Jay Z - alludes to the abusive relationship between Ike and Tina Turner, and appears to suggest that he wouldn't be adverse to a similar arrangement. Taken out of context, it looks bad. Taken in context, it doesn't look much better. A juxtaposed allusion to Mike Tyson taking a chunk out of Evander Holyfield's ear appears to be an attempt to create an impression of his all-conquering, domineering lust for his wife (the song in question is aptly titled Drunk in Love).
For a rapper of Jay Z's repute, it's slightly clunky and ham-fisted, and on reflection, ill-advised, despite Beyoncé's repeated citing of Turner as one of her heroes and the fact that the incident being referenced is actually fictional. However, while Beyoncé perhaps deserves some flack for including the line on her album, to declare her a feminist Judas is unjust. How can she have betrayed an identity that she has actively stated isn't hers?
"That word can be very extreme," she said when questioned on her feminist credentials last year. Ironically, this admission that she didn't self-identify as a feminist was then used as a stick to beat her with for not being a good feminist role-model. Confused? She probably is too. While the likes of Rihanna and Katy Perry are able to (mostly) avoid the ire of feminists, Beyoncé is admonished for letting down generations of women everywhere. It's not hard to see why the likes of Perry (who has declared that she isn't a feminist but does "believe in strong women") wish to distance themselves from if not the movement, then the specific notion of "feminism". After all, the semantic connotations of the term in the wider consciousness doesn't exactly adhere to the image of unbridled sexuality that is entrenched in her appearance and her music.
Beyoncé has never said she's a feminist. Like the "voice of a generation" title hoisted upon Bob Dylan in the Sixties, she has been awarded a poisoned chalice and has then been chastised every time she has failed to live up to any one of its immensely broad definitions. Years after Dylan's supposedly all-encompassing voice had cracked into the now-familiar rasp, he said the accolade was "just a term that could create problems for somebody, especially if someone just wants to keep it simple, write songs and play them". Comparing the greatest American songwriter in history with she of California Gurls fame may be somewhat trite, but you get the impression that Beyoncé probably agrees with both - she is all for strong women, but she shouldn't be punished for just wanting to sing about them without the immeasurable pressure of speaking for an entire gender upon her shoulders.
Rihanna can sing that she likes it "when you tell me 'move it there'", Perry about teasing boys in her Daisy Duke bikini, and nobody bats an eyelid - but when Beyoncé demands "bow down, bitches", she finds herself judged by an entirely different set of standards. Admittedly, both Perry and Rihanna have been subjects of are they-aren't they feminist wranglings, but neither experiences the microscopic scrutiny that Beyoncé does. and neither have their various failings written about with such a palpable sense of disappointment. Mrs Carter (the name of her current tour, and yet another way she has apparently promoted gender-inequality and subservience to men) famously sang of her belief that if you like it, you should put a ring on it, and being an artist of the utmost integrity, you can be sure that if she was a feminist, she'd be all too happy to say so. However until she does, she shouldn't be held up to the exacting standards of one.
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