Table of Contents
2. Matters of (Black) Feminist Thought
3. Blackness and its Role within White Supremacist Music and Media
4. In-between Black Identity and White Pop Culture: Whitewashing Beyoncé
4.1 Black Feminist Thought in Formation and Flawless
4.2 Empowered or Objectified? The Female Body in Beyoncé’s Partition
4.3 The Significance of Hair(styles) in Black Beauty and Culture
6.1 Primary Sources
6.2 Secondary Literature
Who run the world? is a song by pop star Beyoncé and the singer has an answer to this question: Girls. However, the answer may in fact not be that simple, as the successful singer has made some compromises in her self-determination in order to become successful which shows that she does not have the agency over her representation she pretends to have. During a 2014 debate about the liberation of the black female body, social activist and feminist author bell hooks1 stated “I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist especially in terms of the impact on young girls” (hooks “Are You Still a Slave?”) when discussing a the recent cover image of Beyoncé on the Time magazine displaying the artist in underwear. This is part of the idea of female empowerment through sexual display which aims to depict women as strong and in control of their bodies and sexualities through sexualised imagery in which the woman is depicted as dominant (cf. Hansen 173). Beyoncé constantly makes use of this concept in her videos, performances and when in pictures be it for social media, magazines or self-marketing seeking to support her feminist image, she thus displays herself as a strong female artist that is in control of her representation and sexuality. The artist proclaimed herself a feminist during her 2014 MTV VMA performance, the word “FEMINIST” largely displayed in the backdrop of the stage in bright capital letters. Furthermore, she has spoken out on gender equality in a column for The Shriver Report titled “Gender Equality is a Myth!” where she states that gender equality “isn’t reality yet” in order to show her dedication for the issue (Knowles-Carter). Beyoncé, as one of the most popular and successful pop stars in the world, has the power to empower millions of people and especially girls and young women that look up to her as a role-model, through her actions. However, as Halliwell, Malson and Tischner were able to prove in their study on the effect of advertising images on young women that the sexual self-empowerment displayed in images such as Beyoncé’s time magazine cover is in fact “a form of pseudo empowerment and does not […] have an empowering impact on young women; rather it seems to be more damaging” (Halliwell et al. 43). Thus, there occurs a friction between the artist’s self-identification as a feminist and her sexualised image. Another topic Beyoncé engages in is the black culture and its display and acceptance in society. Her Superbowl 50 Performance in 2016 comes to mind first as she celebrated her African American roots during the performance. Thereafter, she had to face a major backlash by the American public criticising the performance “as an anti-American act of terrorism” (Gammage 716), experiencing the white supremacy that prevails in pop culture. Thus, the artist is confronted with intersectionality, a problem that all black women experience as it “is a conceptualization of the problem that seeks to capture the structural dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more axes of subordination” (Crenshaw 177) in this case being female and black.
This paper aims to show how the representation of a black female body in media influences the self-perception of black women in order to call attention to the sexualisation of black female bodies that still prevails in pop culture. Moreover, this paper seeks to shed light to the struggle of being black in a white supremacist culture. Beyoncé is the most influential black pop artist and she struggles to keep a balance between her success and her black cultural identity which causes a discrepancy between her self-identification and her self-representation evoking issues in her authenticity as a feminist. It will hence be analysed in how far Beyoncé manages empower black women through her representation as an artist on stage and off stage and to what extent the pop culture she finds herself in influences this representation. Additionally, it will be examined in how far this influence on her self-representation affects the credibility of her feminist commitment. In order to do so, the paper subdivides into three main parts. The following chapter will offer a short introduction to feminist thought and especially black feminism, as the latter will be the main focus of the analysis. The third chapter will focus on the perception and status of black culture and bodies in contemporary pop culture. In chapter four, the actual analysis of Beyoncé as an advocate for black women will be provided in three subchapters. In doing so, her struggle between black identity and white pop culture as well as the consequences for her representation shall be regarded. The first subchapter will have its focus on the black feminist thought of Beyoncé’s songs Formation and Flawless. Secondly, the representation of female bodies in contemporary pop music videos will be analysed by scrutinising Beyoncé’s video for her song Partition as well as the lyrics. Lastly, the influence of white supremacy on Beyoncé’s hairstyle will be examined with regard to the significance of hair(styles) in black beauty and culture.
2. Matters of (Black) Feminist Thought
Prior to analysing Beyoncé’s feminist activities, a general notion of the term (black) feminism must be guaranteed. As “women’s politics have developed organically in settings so diverse that the plural feminisms [emphasis in the original] more accurately describes them” (Freedman 2) this chapter will shortly explain the emergence of the theory and its complexity while focussing on the matters of black feminism.
The first feminist ideas have come up during the Enlightenment in the 18th century when “the idea […] that people have certain inalienable ‘natural’ rights upon which governments may not intrude” (Donovan 17) were first being constituted in the American Declaration of Independence and The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and feminist thinkers suggested the same rights for women as for men (cf. ibid.). Since then, three major waves of feminist thought have shaped the theory.
In each wave of the movement women of color have [uttered] that feminism addresses the needs of all women.
During the first wave, when American laws enforced white dominance over blacks, African American women led the way in formulating this critique (Freedman 75).
The first wave of feminism has been centrally concerned with the women’s right of suffrage (cf. Donovan 42) and the achievement of the legislation protecting married women’s property “that gave the married woman considerable leverage to establish her own economic base and also improved her legal position in child custody cases” (ibid.).
As these were global matters in feminist movement taking place at different times throughout the histories of several nations cannot be assigned to a specific timespan. However, it can roughly be dated back to the 19th century (cf. ibid 47) and “most feminists and historians have come to regard the 1920 as the end of ‘first-wave’ feminism” (ibid. 74) due to the inclusion of the Suffrage Amendment into the American Constitution.
Nevertheless, it does not mark the abandonment of feminist activity until the emergence of the second wave in the 1960s as it has continued throughout the following decades (cf. ibid.). “Viewed from the perspectives of race, class and gender, the U.S. women’s movement experienced significant growing pains in the decades after the suffrage victory” (Freedman 84). According to Freedman, it has been black women that sparked the second wave of feminism in the 1960s:
By articulating their personal experience of race, African American women contributed the knowledge that enfranchisement alone could not ensure equality; that female pedestal was myth; that sexual stereotypes, whether of purity or immorality, exerted forceful social controls; that power relations always rested upon both race and gender hierarchies; that alliance across race and gender could challenge these hierarchies; and that dignified resistance in the face of seeming powerlessness could be a mighty weapon for change (ibid. 83).
However, second-wave feminists have not agreed on the change that should be accomplished, as it has been the case in the first wave. In fact, a liberal branch aiming for equal pay and the end of sex discrimination in work places through integration of women into male dominated power structures (cf. ibid 85, 87) has stood in contrast to radical feminists thought “that patriarchy […] is at the root of women’s oppression […] women’s mode must be at the basis of any future society” (Donovan 156). African American women, however, have been excluded from both liberal as well as radical feminist ideas due to a standardisation of white women’s experiences (cf. Freedman 89). As black women of had always worked next to the men of their race due to slavery they have felt the impact of “gender as well as race affect[ing] their lives” (ibid.). This has caused the emergence of a black feminist thought that black men and women must unite in order to fight united against racism and sexism (cf. ibid. 90f.). Out of this thought the idea of intersectionality, first conceptualised by Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989 (cf. Lutz 2), has arisen. Crenshaw argues that the concept specifically addresses the manner in which racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create background inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and the like. Moreover, it addresses the way that specific acts and policies create burdens that flow along these axes constituting the dynamic or active aspects of disempowerment (Crenshaw 177).
Regardless, as professor of Women’s and Gender Studies in Sociology Helma Lutz rightfully mentions, the concept can only be understood when “the interaction of the macro level (inequality structures functioning as social positioning) with the micro level (subjective experiences of discrimination and identity formation as an excluded group)” (Lutz 4) is considered while applying it. Hence, self-definition is crucial for the empowerment of African-American women (cf. Hill Collins 106) as “[o]ppressed people resist by identifying themselves as subjects, by defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, telling their story” (hooks, “Talking Back” 43). bell hooks insists that due to a continuing devaluation of black womanhood including the representation of black female sexuality as bestial (cf. hooks, “Ain’t I a Woman” 65) it is “extremely difficult and oftentimes impossible for the black female to develop a positive self-concept” (ibid.86). She further argues that “the mass media […] is one way that negative images of black womanhood continue to be impressed upon all our psyches” (ibid.). Therefore, mass media needs to present positive images of black womanhood and black female sexuality in order to change the widespread negative images and empower (young) black women by giving them the possibility to create a positive self-concept. In hooks sense this cannot be achieved without black woman’s permanent resistance to the representation of their womanhood, in particular to the way successful individuals “are appropriated and exploited in white supremacist dominant patriarchy” (hooks, “Yearning” 92). According to Djamila Ribeiro, member of the Simone de Beauvoir Society, intersectionality means “to perceive that there can be no primacy of one form of oppression over all others and […] thinking about race, class and gender not in an isolated manner, but as inseparable categories” (Ribeiro 101). This correlates with the notion of Patricia Hill Collins, professor for African-American studies, “that Black women’s struggles are part of a wider struggle for human dignity and empowerment” (Hill Collins 37). She, thus, approaches “Black feminism as a process of self-conscious struggle of women and men to actualize a humanist vision of community” (ibid. 39), making it relevant for every person regardless of gender and ethnicity. Hence, black second-wave feminists [i]n the context of the complex power relations of a postcolonial but still imperial and capitalist world, […] questioned what they saw as a predominantly White, middle-class, and heterosexual feminist agenda and raised the issue of a differentiated-identity politics, based on the contingent and diversified but no less decisive intersections of gender, class, race/ethnicity, and sexuality (Kroløkke & Sørensen, 12f.) Since the 1990s a third wave of feminism has emerged that utilises new technologies as platforms (cf. ibid. 16). During this wave, feminism has become incredibly diverse and complex and expands the question of not whether on is a feminist but what kind of feminist one is (ibid. 15), alluding to the manifold movements that now exist. Based on the achievements of the former waves, third-wave-feminism seeks to “redefine feminism by bringing together an interest in traditional and even stereotypically feminine issues, while remaining critical of both narratives of true femaleness, of victimization and liberation” (ibid. 17). Since “African-American women have been victimized by race gender and class oppression” (Hill Collins 237) “the acknowledgement of racial injustice has led to further explorations of personal identities that now empower many groups once relegated to the margins of women’s movement” (Freedman 94). Hence, the establishment of new perspectives on black feminist issues is still a central matter to feminism in the third wave.
3. Blackness and its Role within White Supremacist Music and Media
In contemporary pop culture whiteness remains an ideal (cf. Redmond and Holmes 264) and is even being seen as a norm (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 55). This chapter shall elaborate reasons for the status of black culture and black bodies in music and media and its consequences in order to provide a basis for the analysis Beyoncé’s representation of black culture and black bodies.
Blackness and whiteness as races are social constructions and not based on scientific fact (cf. Cregan 158) that can only exist when there is a comparison between both. The mere existence of the term black in order to differentiate shows its significance in society as “Blackness and the resolution of racism are not just incompatible but irreconcilable: remove the subjection and exploitation by whites and the reasons for Black identity […] disappear” (Cashmore 230). Thus, the race is an invention in order to distinguish between blackness and whiteness and as the white race is dominant the black race automatically becomes the Other (cf. ibid.). Othering is a concept within postcolonial theory that describes the “process of defining one group against another” (Benshoff and Griffin 56) in order to suppress the other group as “the rise of any culture […] involves suppression or annihilation of forms of ‘Otherness’” (Ashcroft et al. 97). The standardisation of whiteness is rooted in the concept of displacement, when a group or person transfers its own undesirable traits onto another group (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 56). Regarding African American people this is the case with the stereotyping of their sexuality through the white dominant culture that emerged during slavery when black females “were used as sex objects for the pleasure of white men” (Hill Collins 167). As “[i]n order to maintain authority over the Other […] imperial discourse strives to delineate the other as radically different from the self” (Ashcroft et al. 102) the dominant group has defined their sexuality as a norm and anything differing was perceived a threat (cf. Hill Collins 165). Hence, stereotypes of African Americans as animalistic and overly sexual, imposed on them by whites, have been a strategy to display them as threating in order to maintain dominance by contrasting whiteness as the ideal moral and good (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 56) by suppressing the Other. As objectification is the privation of individuality and subjectivity (cf. ibid. 230) these stereotypes are thus objectifying and the objectification and exoticisation of black women is still an issue today e.g. in contemporary pornography (cf. Hill Collins 172). This paves the way for a fetishization of black female bodies as fetishization requires an object which emotional or sexual investment can focus on (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 238). Especially in music videos, female bodies become objects of fetishization due to explicit display of certain body parts, such as legs, hair and breasts (cf. ibid).
Due to white centrism in media and especially pop culture, whiteness becomes invisible whereas blackness stands out (cf. ibid. 56). According to López “[t]he idea of whiteness as a cultural aesthetic norm combines with the idea of whiteness as a desirable and even necessary trait for colonized subjects [in this case African Americans] who wish to achieve […] financial success in a colonized (or formerly colonized) society” (López 17). This results in a hegemonic culture that supresses and marginalises the values of the suppressed culture which makes “assimilation to the colonizer’s cultural world […] essential for any colonized subject who hopes for any social or material advancement” (ibid. 18). Thus, the white dominant patriarchy only accepts groups that assimilate to its ideals which often evokes passing, the denial of racial background in search for acceptance, “because whites are still afforded more privilege and power in […] [pop]culture, and those who pass often want to share those opportunities” (Benshoff and Griffin 57). Cashmore argues that the persistence of “connotations of purity, goodness, and moral excellence” with whiteness even after segregation forces black artists to masquerade their blackness in order to “appeal to mainstream audiences” (Cashmore 229). According to Gammage, the promotion of white culture as the official culture in America has evoked ab exclusion of other cultures from being represented in mass media, forcing black artists to perform the dominant white culture without representing their own culture (cf. Gammage 717). When black artists display their own culture publicly they “are ridiculed judged and ultimately damned” (ibid.) often leading to a denial of their black identity in order to be successful (ibid. 725). A reason for why this has not changed until this day could be the fact that successful black individuals give an illusion of a wealthy or middle-class black society and deflect attention from the issue of racism and victimization of blacks in American Society (cf. Cashmore 210, 232). This is rooted in of a new form of racism—symbolic racism—which “involves the belief that Blacks no longer face discrimination; their lack of progress is due to their unwillingness to work hard enough” (ibid. 231). The driving force for symbolic racism is the media as “whites see Black individuals differently to Blacks as a group; they might like, admire, and respect certain individuals—actors, athletes, musicians, for example—but fail to generalize these qualities of which they approve to Black people as a whole” (ibid.).
Thus, being a black artist in contemporary pop culture and being promoted by white supremacist media can cause issues in self-identification and self-representation, especially for successful celebrities such as Beyoncé, since she is a role model for a broad audience, including many African American women.
1 The author writes her name in lowercase letters to distinguish herself from her grandmother who had the same name.
- Quote paper
- Anonymous, 2018, Beyoncé as an Advocate for Black Women’s Rights. Who Run the World? Girls?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/704275