By Kristy Kaden


Beyoncé is one of the biggest names in the contemporary pop music scene—yet with power comes responsibility. Having such widespread influence on society, it is well worth the analysis into exactly what kind of message she elucidates. Since the release of her self-titled album in 2013, Beyoncé’s persona has come attached with proclamations of feminism: she encourages girl power, she tells women to ‘slay’, reminds us to work hard to get what we want and to let nothing stand in our way.[1] However, many critics question Beyoncé’s particular brand of feminism and have brought to light serious concerns of objectification and commodification. So just how feminist is Beyoncé? Given how difficult it is for (especially black) women to make such bold proclamations and remain independent and successful, should we be expecting her to hold the beacon for feminism? There is a middle-ground one can arrive at, with the help of French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, who proposes a strategy for women to make waves in a patriarchal world without putting themselves at risk of complete exclusion: mimesis. Through analysis of her most recent two albums, I will argue that Beyoncé has, whether consciously or not, successfully used the strategy of mimesis to gain her power, status, and influence, while also attempting to subvert feminine and particularly black female stereotypes and open up a path for other women to do the same.

Though Beyoncé’s music has always included themes of financial independence, girl power, and freedom of sexuality, it was not until Beyoncé (the album) that she has been strongly associated with feminism. Here she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ into the song ‘***Flawless’, and presented the word ‘FEMINIST’ in big bold letters on screen at the start of her performances on her Mrs Carter tour.[2] Beyoncé was a big step away from her previous work in many ways, significantly in its intimate personalisation—a contrast to her former tightly-constructed persona. It explored themes of sexuality, emotional openness, love, and the consequences of perfection; however, it attracted criticism for objectification and oversexualisation.[3] Consequently, Adichie commented on the inclusion of her speech, and despite her support, claimed that Beyoncé’s particular brand of feminism is not her style, believing it “gives quite a lot of space to the necessity of men.”[4] Three years later, Beyoncé dropped her visual album Lemonade, which pushed the boundaries even further.[5] Though the album was centred around the concept of marital infidelity (whether a reflection of her own reality or more of a fictional creative endeavour, no one knows for certain), the visual and poetic aspects of the album demonstrate clear engagement with several political and societal issues such as police brutality, the intersection of racism and sexism, and an allusion to the ongoing effects of America’s history with colonial slavery.[6] Most significantly, the album is not only made about and for a black female audience, it is specifically made “unavailable to white fans.”[7] Still, despite its success and praise, feminist and social activist bell hooks accused the album of “capitalist money making at its best,” sexualising violence, and celebrating the mere endurance of pain, rather than moving beyond it and, therefore, enabling the continuation of a patriarchal romanticisation of male domination in relationships.[8] These critiques are well-warranted, but might just be missing the point; within contemporary American society, it would be unreasonable to presume that anyone (particularly a black woman) could achieve the level of success and influence that Beyoncé has achieved without submitting to patriarchal, capitalist expectations. Her more recent efforts to push these boundaries do not necessarily make her contradictory, but may be ascribed to a more careful, subtle strategy to not only survive but also subvert the current social order.[9]

French philosopher Luce Irigaray, well known for her feminist analysis and interpretation of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, suggests that there may only be one ‘path’ available to women at this point in history that enables us to destroy the discursive mechanism which binds us to repression.[10] Mimicry, or mimesis, involves assuming the feminine role deliberately—a woman’s attempt to recover her place of exploitation “without allowing herself to be simply reduced by it.”[11] The point here is to make the feminine visible and to break the hierarchical relation of power between the two sexes. But, according to Irigaray, a direct challenge often means merely demanding to speak as a masculine subject, to occupy the space of the masculine, and to thus maintain sexual indifference and masculine domination, rather than to disturb it.[12] Thus, by playing with mimesis, a woman is able to erode the stereotypes assigned to her from within, and to make visible not only the suppressed feminine qualities, but “to unveil the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are not simply resorbed in this function; they also remain elsewhere.” [13]

While Irigaray focuses on psychoanalysis and philosophical literature, this strategy of mimesis can be used within many different realms of creative production, including music and visual projects. Despite some powerful rejections by Beyoncé of feminine stereotypes (although her proclamations of being an “independent woman” and working hard for money fit neatly into American liberal-capitalist expectations), she has more or less occupied stereotypical femininity throughout her career—singing about love, centring her ideas of self around men, and offering her sexualised self as an object of consumption. With her most recent two albums, however, she has begun to subvert these stereotypes and speak into other aspects of femininity, and has thus brought forth what is traditionally silenced. Most notably, she explores a deeper and more complex emotionality, offers a more personal and woman-focused conception of sexuality, has successfully navigated the identities of mother and woman as separate and simultaneous, and made visible both an enduring sisterhood and a genealogy of women. Particularly in Lemonade, she also both explicitly and subtly integrates an intersectional understanding of feminism, with allusions to historical and ongoing experiences specific to black women.

Following the release of Beyoncé, most attention was focused on her highly sexually performative video for ‘Partition’, with critics debating whether it should be seen as empowering or objectifying.[14] In truth, the video is presented specifically to satisfy ‘the male gaze,’ and this intent is backed up by Beyoncé herself in a documentary made about the process of creating the album.[15] However, in focusing on the problems of ‘Partition’, critics subsequently neglect other presentations of sexuality in the album. The song ‘Blow’ speaks of a man satisfying a woman’s pleasure through cunnilingus, while the song ‘Rocket’ embodies a sexual experience focused on the woman’s pleasure and culminating in the female orgasm. These are clear attempts to reframe an understanding of sexuality, and to make visible a personal and specifically feminine sexuality which serves to “challenge the monopoly of value held by the masculine sex alone”.[16]

But Lemonade works to move beyond a focus on sexuality, evoking a strong sense of womanhood, both in identity as well as inclusion of what Irigaray calls a sociality of women-among-themselves.[17] Patriarchal society by nature depends on “women remain[ing] dispersed and exiled atoms” amongst men, thus encouraging competition between women.[18] Instead, the visuals in Lemonade show (almost exclusively) women coming together and sharing experiences; men are not absent from the content of Lemonade, but they are not its subject, and they are not being addressed. Even through the subtle use of ‘you’ in the spoken poetry, Beyoncé is not only speaking for but also to other women, and thus bringing women together as a group to speak their shared experiences.

As Beyoncé was released after the birth of her first child, Blue Ivy, the album includes a song dedicated to her. However, it wasn’t until Lemonade that Beyoncé strengthened her signalling of motherhood. Specifically, the poetry that features throughout—adapted from the work of Warsan Shire—speaks to motherhood and evokes a genealogy of women which, as Irigaray emphases, is silenced under a patriarchal society.[19] Several instances refer to tracing the lineage of women: “The deep velvet of your mother and her mother and her mother”; “The nail technician pushes my cuticles back, turns my hand over, stretches the skin on my palm and says, ‘I see your daughters and their daughters’”; and particularly:

Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.[20]

This specific verse of poetry speaks into existence a shared femininity through its allusion to magic, creation, and a feminine inheritance.

Not only does Beyoncé give space to motherhood, she does so while simultaneously retaining her sexual identity. In her work, Irigaray uses analysis of Oresteia as a specifically feminine answer to Freud’s Oedipus complex, and argues that society aims to control the ascent to motherhood by burying the madness of women and introducing an image of the virgin goddess.[21] What this does is effectively amalgamates a woman’s sexual identity with her ‘role’ as a mother, and demands that she abandon her sexuality when she gives birth and thus occupies the role of caretaker, feeder, desubjectified entity—her body relevant only within the framework of biological function.[22] Beyoncé certainly steps into this role; she was referred to as a “modern fertility goddess” after announcing her recent pregnancy through Instagram, and performed heavily pregnant at the 2017 Grammy awards, her gold outfit and headpiece evoking goddess-like symbolism.[23] However, even in this performance she made room for subversion by choosing to be introduced by her own mother instead of an awards presenter.[24] Regardless, her perseverance to perform while pregnant, and her happy, clean portrayal of pregnancy and motherhood completely buys into what hooks sees as an oppression specific to black women:

When… white women were rejecting the role of breeder, burden bearer, and sex object, black women were celebrated for their unique devotion to the task of mothering; for their ‘innate’ ability to bear tremendous burdens; and for their ever-increasing availability as sex object.[25]

Lemonade certainly alludes to bearing the burden of motherhood, but works to create a more subtle respect for all of these feminine experiences. The poetic line “Your mother is a woman and women like her cannot be contained” forces a separation of motherhood and womanhood, enabling women to be both at the same time, while alluding to making visible and accepting the madness of woman which is often suppressed through motherhood.

So is Beyoncé merely buying into these black woman stereotypes, or is she occupying them in order to subvert them, and reclaiming the position of both mother and sexual woman? The nature of mimesis makes it difficult to arrive at a confident conclusion. This is, of course, not to dismiss any critique against Beyoncé’s work; she clearly works within a capitalist framework, continues to centre her work around romantic relationships with men (in which a question of power and hierarchy is up for debate), and most certainly steps into feminine (and sometimes specifically black) stereotypes of sexual objectification, enduring strength despite pain, and motherly creation and care. However, this might be an intentionally strategic engagement, one which affords Beyoncé the possibility to subvert and break down these very stereotypes from the inside. It is impossible to deny the space she has made for a feminine experience that is usually forcefully silenced or repressed, and to allow a positive interpretation of (black) femininity. She is careful enough to play into the stereotypes while simultaneously working to break them apart. It’s the subtle nature of this mimetic strategy which makes it so effective, and one can only imagine what she might come up with next, or what other women may now be able to make of the path which she has opened up for them.


Kristy Kaden is a University of Queensland student who has dipped her toes in Journalism and Science before settling on Peace & Conflict Studies and Writing, though recently captivated by Literature and Philosophy. She has been involved in student publications both overseas and at the University of Queensland, and is currently a publications officer for Jacaranda Magazine. She is passionate about editing, can pick a spelling error out from a mile away, and hopes to create her own magazine one day.


Endnotes

[1] Beyoncé, Beyoncé (New York: Parkwood Entertainment, 2013).

[2] Jake Friedler, “‘The Girl You Like’, or Beyoncé vs. the Male Gaze,” Stanford Arts Review March 16, 2014.

[3] Ibid.; Kai Arne Hansen, “Empowered or Objectified? Personal Narrative and Audiovisual Aesthetics in Beyoncé’s Partition,” Popular Music and Society 40, no. 2 (2017).

[4] Aimée Lutkin, “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Finally Says What She Thought of ‘****Flawless,’” Jezabel October 10, 2016.

[5] Beyoncé, Lemonade (New York: Parkwood Entertainment, 2016).

[6] Anwen Crawford, “The Reckoning: Anwen Crawford on Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” The Monthly June 2016.

[7] Inna Arzumanova, “The Culture Industry and Beyoncé’s Proprietary Blackness,” Celebrity Studies 7, no. 3 (2016).

[8] bell hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain,” bell hooks Institute Blog May 9, 2016.

[9] Susan Kozel, “The Diabolical Strategy of Mimesis: Luce Irigaray’s Reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty,” Hypatia 11, no. 3 (1996): 116.

[10] Luce Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (New York: Cornell University Press): 76.

[11]Ibid.

[12] Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse,” 76.

[13] Kozel, “The Diabolical Strategy of Mimesis,” 116; Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse,” 76.

[14] Hansen, “Empowered or Objectified?”

[15] Friedler, “‘The Girl You Like.’”; Beyoncé, “Part 4: Liberation,” Self-titled, produced by Ed Burke, Bill Kirsten, and Carly Hugo, directed by Zachary Heinzerling (2013), video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b1loWJfxaA.

[16] Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse,” 73.

[17] Luce Irigaray, “Women-Amongst-Themselves: Creating a Woman-to-Woman Sociality,” in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 190-197.

[18] Ibid., 191.

[19] Irigaray, “Body Against Body,” 19.

[20] Beyoncé, Lemonade.

[21] Irigaray, “Body Against Body,” 13.

[22] Ibid., 18.

[23] Lauren Cochrane, “How Beyoncé’s Instagram pregnancy makes her a modern fertility goddess,” The Guardian May 23, 2017.

[24] Olivia Blair, “Grammys 2017: Watch Beyoncé’s performance in full,” Independent February 13, 2017.

[25] bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 6.


Works Cited

Arzumanova, Inna. “The Culture Industry and Beyoncé’s Proprietary Blackness.” Celebrity Studies 7, no. 3 (2016): 421-24.

Blair, Olivia. “Grammys 2017: Watch Beyoncé’s Performance in Full.” Independent February 13, 2017.

Beyoncé. Beyoncé. New York: Parkwood Entertainment, 2013.

———. Lemonade. New York: Parkwood Entertainment, 2016.

———. “Part 4: Liberation”. Self-titled. Produced by Ed Burke, Bill Kirsten, and Carly Hugo, directed by Zachary Heinzerling, 2013. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b1loWJfxaA.

Cochrane, Lauren. “How Beyoncé’s Instagram Pregnancy Makes Her a Modern Fertility Goddess.” The Guardian May 23, 2017.

Crawford, Anwen. “The Reckoning: Anwen Crawford on Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” The Monthly June 2016.

Friedler, Jake. “‘The Girl You Like’, or Beyoncé vs. the Male Gaze.” Stanford Arts Review March 16, 2014.

Hansen, Kai Arne. “Empowered or Objectified? Personal Narrative and Audiovisual Aesthetics in Beyoncé’s Partition.” Popular Music and Society 40, no. 2 (2017): 164-180.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981.

———. “Moving Beyond Pain.” bell hooks Institute Blog May 9, 2016.

Irigaray, Luce. “Body Against Body: In Relation to the Mother.” In Sexes and Genealogies, translated by Gillian C. Gill, 7-22. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

———. “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine.” In This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter, 68-85. New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

———. “Women-Amongst-Themselves: Creating a Woman-to-Woman Sociality.” In The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford, 190-197. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.

Kozel, Susan. “The Diabolical Strategy of Mimesis: Luce Irigaray’s Reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.” Hypatia 11, no. 3 (1996): 114-29.

Lutkin, Aimée. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Finally Says What She Thought of ‘****Flawless.’” Jezabel October 10, 2016.

Weidhase, Nathalie. “‘Beyoncé Feminism’ and the Contestation of the Black Feminist Body.” Celebrity Studies 6, no. 1 (2015): 128-31.


Featured image by C T via flickr

Advertisements