Just as we were all wrapping our doobies and twisting up our twist outs and trying to recover from Scandal, not quite a week ago, Yonce clicked a button, shattered our lives, and then probably ate a vegan cupcake, tickled Blue’s feet, and went to bed. In the days since there has been an avalanche of discussion about whether Beyonce and her surprise self-titled album are feminist (conclusion: Beyonce self-identifies as feminist and has specifically said that she has been reading up on feminism and intentionally incorporated what she learned into the album. So… yeah.), all of the dancing, and probably several babies conceived to the tune of the more sultry tracks.
There have also been what some consider to be curiously guttural emotional responses from many black women, some even Instagramming pictures of themselves literally in tears in reaction to listening to the album. Why? My addiction is Twitter, not Instagram, and I seem to only be capable of producing tears when I am extremely frustrated, so I can’t speak to that particular experience. But I can speak to my own, and try to communicate why the themes of this album mean something to me, and why- besides the bawse beats and tantalizing verses of Yonce the gully rapper- I’ve had it on repeat for six days and feel some type of way.
It’s hard out here for a black woman in America. Besides the plethora of social, political, and economic inequalities we face, there is the basic psychological frustration of not being truly seen, of being constantly misread. Melissa Harris Perry talks about this in her book Sister Citizen. To explain the often soul crushing pressure to conform to the fundamentally wrong stereotypes and expectations that this country has for black women, she uses the metaphor of a black woman placed in a crooked room and given the extremely frustrating task of standing up straight, using only the warped image projected by a mirror in the room as guidance. To me, this album is Beyonce looking in that mirror and determinedly standing up straight. She took ‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.’ and turned it into a visual album.
People (myself included) have been coming for Ms. Carter for years, and pigeonholing her too. She’s ghetto. She’s lascivious. She’s too basic and sexualized to be a real feminist. She’s too dumb to actually be this successful on her own, so actually all the credit is due to the men in her life from Matthew to Jay. In fact it is so unimaginable is that she has strategically worked her way to the top of the game that the Devil must be helping her out; she must be in the Illuminati. With this album, Beyonce put her foot down.
She did it with the way this album was written and produced- she is a writer and/or producer and/or DIRECTOR of every single song and video. No one can tell her she is not firmly in control of her sound, her image, or her message. She did it with the way it was released- she broke every rule of releasing an album and as a result broke some sales and chart records too- it can’t be denied that this is because of her brilliance, not Lucifer. From placing the devastating Pretty Hurts as the very first track, to sampling Chimamanda, to throwing in sex positivity in French just for kicks she in no uncertain terms made clear that she believes in “the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” and shut the feminist police down. And through the sheer mix of content on the album (Beyonce touched on everything- from love, the joys and strains of marriage, miscarriage and post partum depression, body image and self worth, ambition and rejection, patriarchy, and motherhood… to just how much she enjoys cum shots, spankings, and oral sex so rough it makes her eyes water) she rejected black politics of respectability, white ideals of womanhood, and basically every single trope about black women, simultaneously. Neither the Mammy nor the Jezebel, and certainly not stressing to achieve some “true womanhood” bullshit, Beyonce said “Fuck your expectations. I am a full and complex person, not a caricature. And I am who I say am.” …and it went platinum. As someone trying to do exactly the same thing- avoid getting squeezed into others’ definitions of me, that means everything.
Whew. Ok. In addition to awe inspiring self-determination, I love how this album acknowledges contradiction. In Pretty Hurts she is a critic of and participant in problematic systems at the same damn time. She straight up sings the first lyrics of the song “Pretty hurts… we shine a light on whatever’s worst… perfection is a disease of a nation” while on stage for what is clearly a trifling pageant full of brown women parading themselves in front of white male judges. It really resonated with me, because that is real life, that is my life. Who among us isn’t in some way a complicit participant in the oppressive systems we critique every day? What does it mean to be condemning a pageant while *on stage* at a pageant? To be speaking out about beauty standards as the airbrushed pop superstar Beyonce is, when some of your own success can undeniably be attributed your beauty? To, as I did, do anti-classism organizing while paying tuition to Wellesley, the type of institution that helps perpetuate economic inequality ? To be doing any type of critique of a system you are a part of? It is problematic, but it is also really brave.
To see such a prominent artist acknowledging and thinking about the same questions through song… everything.
Failure and Co-Dependence
I hear this a lot: “WHOO GO YOU, YOU INDEPENDENT STRONG BLACK WOMAN WHO DON’T NEED NOBODY AND CAN CARRY THE BURDENS OF THE WORLD.” And sometimes (most of the time?) I’m just not here for it. Ain’t nobody tryna be Atlas out here. I want partnerships. I like having a companion. I want to help people and have people help me too. And sometimes I just fail. I lose. I break down, and I need it to be ok if I am not a “strong black woman.” Throughout the visual album Beyonce repeatedly reminds the watcher that even she is not perfect, even she has been rejected- and sometimes, even when she does “win” all she if left with is some bullshit meaningless trophies from The Man that she kind of carries around even though she’s not sure why. I needed to hear that.
The album also focuses on partnership and the importance of relationships. So does every other Beyonce album and practically every other lady artist’s album ever, right? Right. But here, Beyonce specifically emphasizes that you can have relationships without them defining you. She doesn’t carry all her burdens alone, but don’t get it twisted, that doesn’t mean she’s just Jay’s “little wife.” She enjoys letting her guard down and being submissive during sexy time, but makes it clear that she is still Jay’s “equivalent.” You can fail without being a failure. You don’t have to do this life by yourself. Your relationships don’t define you. Can somebody please put those sentences in a frame and hang them on my wall, because I need to hear them often.
So back to that crooked room. What do you do when you find yourself there? What are your options as a black woman in a world that’s always trying to unload piles of its own garbage onto you? How exactly does one look in that mirror and stand up straight? Miss Third Ward’s visual album has some suggestions. Sometimes, as Beyonce did in the Pretty Hurts video, you can subtly and elegantly critique from inside the system- or you can just start smashing shit. Sometimes you gotta ignore these fools and go get loved down by bae, and be a beautiful and unapologetically sexual being while you do it. Sometimes you must sit and take time to really feel and reflect on the pain and loss the world has given you. Sometimes, like the Houston parents, sex workers, children, and gun shot survivors in No Angel, you have to look the camera in the eye and silently demand to be humanized. And sometimes, whether you are The Queen or Domo you should say “Fuck this shit,” twerk in front of that mirror, and tell yourself you are fucking FLAWLESS- see yourself properly even if no one else does.
That’s it. Beyonce is not perfect. What’s the deal with Jay’s verse on Drunk in Love? Why did it have to be released in the least accessible, most capitalistic possible way? But it is the first album where Queen Bey has opened up and shared her life with us, and it’s finally an album I can finally identify with. Even though Beyonce and I live worlds apart, it tells me that she, and I, and so many other women have some similar struggles. And it has folks all over the world looking in the mirror differently. And that makes me feel some type of wonderful way.