THE BLOG

Feminism and the Beyonce Problem

07/11/2014 10:39 GMT | Updated 06/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Victoria's Secret recently boobed after it created an ad displaying a row of 5'7-ish, size 5-ish, female models, wearing not very much, and plastered 'THE PERFECT "BODY"' onto the front of it. The blatant objectification didn't work. It was at best dumb and at worst helped perpetuate issues of body insecurity, propping up out-dated modes of thinking in the fashion industry in the process. More than 10,000 people have already signed a petition calling for the company to, basically, get a grip.

The increasingly vocal criticism of ads like this has no doubt encouraged brands like Aerie in the US to ditch Photoshop in favour of 'real' images of women - freckles, stretch marks, blotches and all. According to Business Insider, this helped Aerie see a nine-percent increase in sales in the last quarter.

So what's going on? Online it's increasingly easy to ridicule the blatant objectification and sexualisation of women inherent in a lot of advertising. As a result it's been suggested that a fourth wave of feminism has taken hold in the digital age, with campaigns like Dove's 'Real Beauty' taking their cue from it.

But fourth wave feminism is currently only a new way of getting across existing ideas. Emma Watson's speech at the UN about feminism wasn't saying anything fundamentally new, although the rate at which it spread online was novel. Clearly, as the discussion around Elle's 'This is What a Feminist Looks Like' T-shirts has highlighted, there's still confusion about where feminism is going and what it actually means beyond legal and economic equality.

Much of the impasse is cultural, and not easily resolved. It can best be described as the 'Beyonce Problem'. Queen Bey recently displayed her feminist credentials in neon lights at the MTV Video Music Awards. She's a great medium to deliver the feminist message, but does it matter that she clearly benefits from people objectifying her (not to mention benefits from being married to a rapper who made millions singing about bitches, hoes and pimpin')?

As celebrity royalty, Queen Bey benefits from objectification like any other royalty; she's doing it consciously, on her own terms and to her own advantage. But there's a problem here, as Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist has recently noted. There is something wrong she notes, about feminist messages being delivered by someone who embodies 'the standards we're supposedly trying to challenge.' She notes that 'when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism, all of a sudden...at last, we have a more tolerable voice proclaiming the very messages feminism has been trying to impart for so damn long.'

It's a strange paradox we've reached. Beyonce is one of the most effective mediums out there for talking to young women about feminism. But she's potentially undermining the feminist message by continuing to benefit from, and play to, a culture which elevates her conformity to standards of femininity and sexuality. This problem's not easily resolved. Hopefully, as the failure of Victoria's Secret highlights, attitudes will continue to shift.