Music

The Queen And I: A Personal And Political History Of Loving Beyoncé

"As a brown migrant teenager going to school in Western Australia, Beyoncé stirred this sense of pride and strength in me that enabled my 'coming out' as a woman of colour."

My love story with Beyoncé began as an exercise in irony. I thought of myself as a smart indie girl who only listened to “good music” (read: anything made by suicidal white men who died in the ’90s). At first, I thought there was a kind of hilarity in listening to Beyoncé’s mainstream R&B. Then I fell into it. My love for her escalated to the point I got a boyfriend to tattoo her name across my toes.

Turns out the irony was actually in the person that I was trying to be; before I opened myself up to writers, artists and performers of colour. Having this “indie” identity — and the incredibly white culture which surrounds it — had been the safest way to state my difference as a brown migrant teenager going to school in Western Australia. Beyoncé stirred this sense of pride and strength in me that enabled my ‘coming out’ as a woman of colour.

As I became more aware of this (and sat through a fair share of gender studies and racial literacy classes at uni), my love for Beyoncé became more complex. I began realising that Her Majesty Queen B is, contrary to her lyrics, clearly flawed. Loving Beyoncé as a feminist woman of colour on the internet feels like riding a fucking rollercoaster, and not the fun, beautifully lit, kind from ‘XO’, but the kind that I should probably talk about in therapy.

Thankfully, ‘Formation’ has made everything a little easier.

We Flawless Flawed, Ladies Tell ‘Em

Despite famously standing in front of a giant sign which read “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs, Beyoncé has faced a lot of criticism over the years for her gender (and occasionally, racial) politics. Unlike many artists, her feminist wins and problem areas aren’t really traceable to specific moments in her career; instead they sit side by side in all of her albums.

In her surprise 2013 self-titled EP, for instance, Bey was commended for her criticism of unrealistic beauty standards in ‘Pretty Hurts’ and her proclamation of independent success in ‘Flawless’. In the latter she also sampled part of a lecture given by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the necessity of feminism.

But this same year featured that awkward bit in ‘Drunk in Love’ where Jay-Z raps about identifying with Ike Turner and his abusive relationship with Tina Turner. “I’m like Ike, Turner, turn up / baby no I don’t play / Now eat the cake, Anna Mae / I said eat the cake, Anna Mae” Those last lines reference a scene in What’s Love Got To Do With It, a 1993 film about the couple, where he forces her to eat a slice of cake. Many noted the problems with this potential mockery of domestic violence.

Then there’s the issue of her “oversexualised” body which continues to generate arguments among black feminists and women of colour in particular. During a New School panel discussion in 2014 called ‘Are You Still A Slave: Liberating The Black Female Body’, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, Marci Blackman and bell hooks debated her then-controversial Time magazine cover; controversial because, while the other 99 Most Influential People depicted all appeared in authoritative suits, Bey was in a bikini and sheer shirthooks’ impression of this had been that Beyoncé didn’t have a lot of agency in choosing her outfits, which Mock took issue with. (If anyone knows anything about Beyoncé is that she prides herself on having control over her own image).

“I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist — that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls,” hooks said. “What I’m concerned about constantly in my critical imagination is why don’t we have liberatory images that are away from, not an inversion of, what society has told us? … She’s colluding the construction of herself as a slave.”

As a woman of colour who’s aware of colonial history, I get that the permeating imagery of oversexualised bodies of colour in contemporary culture sometimes feels like an offence on our foremothers. The bodies of Indigenous women, black women and other women of colour have been, and continue to be, raped, abused and exploited because of our race. hooks has written extensively on the topic. In her 1990 essay ‘Reflections on Race and Sex’, she noted “black women’s bodies were discursive terrain, the playing fields where racism and sexuality converged. Rape as both right and rite of the white male dominating group was cultural norm.”

What I understand of hooks’ criticism, is that one of the most influential African American women in the world should bear the responsibility to speak up about this element of race in her work. But is it really Beyoncé’s duty to educate? Why can’t white people teach themselves?

The Acquiring And Rejection Of White Girls

Beyoncé is an overwhelmingly successful and intelligent businessperson with a net worth of US$450 million. She knows that sex sells and a great deal of her wealth arguably comes from the deliberate and empowered sexualisation of her own body. This also happens to make her fairly accessible to white women.

There’s a strong theme of overt sexuality in white feminism at the moment (and, I say ‘white feminism’ because, unlike us, white women don’t have to consider the history of violence imposed on bodies of colour). Liberation and agency are praised. Embracing your own sexuality is crucial. Yet, as with everything, this comes with its own questions and stigmas. Is this genuine subversion or are we playing into the desires of oppressors? And in Bey’s case, how does this relate to a ‘duty’ to speak to race?

As Roxane Gay, another woman of colour, famously said in her essay collection Bad Feminist, there are too many contradictions and differences of opinion in these politics for any one woman to satisfy. “How can we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do?” she wrote. “In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.”

Beyoncé is not only flawed; her mistakes are magnified under the spotlight of her success. We saw this last week when she was accused of cultural appropriation in Coldplay’s new video ‘Hymn for the Weekend’. Set in India, the clip sees Beyoncé adorned in full Desi dress playing a Bollywood actress and her failure to see how her use of Indian culture to profit from a collaboration with a white British band disappointed many.

The same could not be said of ‘Formation’.

After dropping over the weekend, both the song and the video are being rightfully praised by pretty much everyone. Facing her criticisms head on — and those bizarrely directed to her daughter’s natural black afro — she celebrates and reclaims her ancestry and its ties in slavery, as well as owning up to the position of wealth she currently inhabits.

“My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma / I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils / Earned all this money but they never take the country out me / I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag.”

From a broader cultural perspective, ‘Formation’ has also set the scene for this year’s Black History Month and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. It’s about remembering what it means to be black — past, present and future. It claims back history and uses memory and marginality as a site of possibility. It demonstrates an evolution of Beyoncé’s business and performative genius with her identity as a proud black woman who’s aware of the African American struggle on both personal and political levels.

Speaking about all this in a Vulture roundtable yesterday, New York writer Rembert Browne said, “I hear the song and watch the video, and it’s like, ‘oh shit — one too many white people and two too many men got a bit too familiar with Bey’”. “In these moments, when someone slips up and gets a little too comfortable, that’s when a full stop must be enacted, immediately. This song is that. ‘Formation’ is a clear exercise in setting boundaries, in reminding everyone that we aren’t all the same.”

Perhaps ironically, bell hooks might approve of ‘Formation’. In another of her essays, ‘Choosing the Margin As A Space Of Openness And Possibility’, she wrote: “In much new, exciting cultural practice, cultural texts — in film, black literature, critical theory — there is an effort to remember that is expressive of the need to create spaces where one is able to redeem and reclaim the past, legacies of pain, suffering, and triumph in ways that transform present reality. Fragments of memory are not simply represented as flat documentary but constructed to give a ‘new take’ on the old, constructed to move us into a different mode of articulation.”

To me, Beyoncé is a survivor, a believer and she is doing what she can to keep herself and her career moving forward. If that isn’t feminism, I don’t know what is.

Ana Maria Gomides writes about experiencing the world as a feminist woman of colour living with mental illnesses.