Scholars and consumers alike have attempted to break down Beyonce’s brand of feminism. Although the singer has explicitly identified herself as a feminist, critics have questioned whether her sexualized outfits, song lyrics, and music videos discredit her message. Such criticism exemplifies that “within Western culture Black women’s bodies are not their own. When there is a deviation from the traditional scope of what a wife and a mother should be, in many cases, their sexuality then becomes examined” (Cooper, 2016, p. 207). We’ve seen Beyonce be scrutinized for her choice of clothing and choreography time and time again, and with arguments like that just mentioned, we think such scrutiny has been debunked. Instead, we’d like to focus on her relationship with the prominent rapper, Jay Z. The couple have dealt with continuous rumors about marital strife and tend to keep the majority of their relationship private. Yet, their music capitalizes on the excessive media coverage of their marriage as it tells the narrative that our society craves.
Born in Texas, Beyonce exhibits traditional southern values that express a desire for a monogamous marriage and family. Opposingly, her art implies Jay-Z’s infidelity and her refusal to leave him. This essay explores a timeline of Beyonce’s relationship with both Jay-Z and feminism. It is our aim to prove that the contradictions of the star’s feminism lie in society’s unwillingness to accept her intersectionality as an African American and woman.
Beyoncé was a part of the all-girl singer group Destiny’s Child since she was eight years old. At the age of 16, she was given a major record deal with the group. They performed songs that both empowered women and played into traditional gender roles. As some songs exploited patriarchal gender stereotypes by sexualizing passivity in women, it’s plausible that the group utilized gender norms in order to extend their outreach and popularity. Once attracting and profiting from male listeners, they group proceeded to challenge the patriarchy and gave agency to the female listener. We see this in songs like “Independent Women,” which features values widely accepted in the feminist community:
“Try to control me boy you get dismissed/Pay my own car note and I pay my own bills/Always 50/50 in relationships.”
Their romance began when the singer was just nineteen. At this time, Beyoncé was still considered a rookie in the music industry, while Jay-Z was in the highlight of his career. Twelve years her senior, the dynamic of the relationship is not hard to read. “To some, the urban savvy rapper, known for his lyrics about crime and drinking pricey champagne, was an unlikely match for the R&B churchgoing southern girl” (Lieb, 2016, p. 78). On the other hand, the two as a couple made the perfect marketing strategy. “Jay-Z provided Beyoncé with a dash of street credibility, while she provided him with associations with class and elegance” (Lieb, 2016, p. 78). Together, they began crafting an empire.
The image captures a performance in which Destiny’s Child gives three prominent black men lap dances while singing “Cater 2 U”. With lyrics like: “Let me cater to you/Cause baby this is your day/Do anything for my man/Baby you blow me away/I got your slippers, your dinner, your dessert and so much more/Anything you want, just let me cater to you” the song definitely capitalized on traditional gender roles in relationships. Such a mixture of messages made Destiny’s Child a paradox of feminist and anti-feminist ideas. Some scholars credit persisting anti-feminist values to racial discrimination: “In the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, because of widespread and trenchant racial and gender discrimination, black women often found their unpaid domestic work… as a great source of pride. Accordingly, black women more readily embraced their status as mothers, wives, aunts, and sisters than their more embattled status as wage earners” (Harley, 1990, p. 337). These gender values endured throughout the generation of Destiny’s Child.
After Destiny’s Child broke up in 2006, Beyoncé’s career as a solo artist began to take off, and the audience witnesses her identity as a feminist emerge. The song “Irreplaceable” tells the narrative of the singer’s reaction to breaking up with her unfaithful boyfriend. She plays with role-reversal as she embodies a traditionally Masculine/non-emotional outlook of the breakup: “You must not know ’bout me/I’ll have another you by tomorrow/So don’t you ever for a second/Get to thinking you’re irreplaceable” She emphasizes her self-worth and refuses to hear out the male figure of the song’s pleas makes to take him back.
Fast forward two years into her solo career, and Beyoncé has advanced more and more into a persona of womanly fierceness. “Single Ladies” stresses her desire for men to take the initiative of proposal as a reward, of sorts. Not coincidentally, Beyoncé and Jay-Z get married the same year. This leads us to believe that perhaps Beyoncé’s music is more than just fictitious stories designed for profit; it is an actual representation of her own relationship with Jay-Z.
In 2013, the singer released her surprise self-titled album. She featured her now husband on a couple of the tracks, “Drunk in Love” being the most controversial. Wildly popular, “Drunk in Love” earned her the 2015 Grammy awards for both Best R&B performance and Best R&B song. With sexually violent and explicit lyrics, many listeners have criticized the couple for perpetuated domestic violence. Z. Hall (2015) does a close interpretation of the lyrics and finds many references to female genitalia, professional boxers, and men who are notorious for domestic abuse like Ike Turner within close proximity. Hall (2015) takes the analysis further in arguing that the song is a 21st century parallel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. “Traditional shrew tales make a mockery of women: boisterous women, inebriated women… nagging wife jokes… Any female behavior that crosses into what is considered the male domain is socially penalized” (p. 159). However, Hall insinuates that both “Drunk in Love” and The Taming of the Shrew depict the couple as “two fiercely independent, yet sexually attracted persons,” (p. 162) thus, “Drunk in Love” arguably “functions to disrupt the foundations of the patriarchy” (p. 162). Nevertheless, not all audiences are willing or able to give sexually explicit songs like these such an in-depth analysis.
At the 2014 VMAs, Beyoncé performed in front of an massive screen that read ‘FEMINIST.’ While the star had hinted at her political beliefs in the past, her message and claim of feminism was now unmistakable. As her success roared on, rumors about her deteriorating marriage did too. In 2014, a video of Beyoncé, Solange (her sister), and Jay-Z in an elevator leaked onto the internet. It exposed Solange in a fit of rage as she attempted to assault Jay-Z. The viral video implies Jay’s infidelity, and Beyoncé’s publicist released a public apology in response.
The societal obsession with Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s relationship continued, even after the family deliberately represented themselves as stable, happy, and healthy. In 2014, the star remixes one of her own songs, in which she directly refers to the elevator incident: “Of course sometimes s*** go down/When it’s a billion dollars on an elevator.” We hypothesize that Beyoncé realized the potential profit of the extensive media coverage of her marriage at this time. She launches a tour entitled “Mrs. Carter” and feminists everywhere are outraged. At this point in her career, the star is assumingly aware of her critics. She responds in her song “Partition,” in which the French sound bite is loosely translated to “Don’t feminists like sex?”
Approximately sixteen years into her relationship with Jay-Z, Beyoncé released a visual album that fully capitalized on the rumors of infidelity in “Lemonade.” The album indicates a confirmation of the rumors as she deals with her anger towards her husband. In “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she warns “If you try this shit again/You gon lose your wife.” At this point, the fact that the singer is alluding to her own marriage is apparent. But are these allusions auto-biographical or a dramatic marketing technique? After releasing an album in response, Jay-Z admits that both albums were informed by his infidelity in an interview with The New York Times. So there we have it: Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé while she perfected her brand as a feminist icon. This leaves the audience questioning whether or not Beyoncé is authentic in her claiming of feminism.
Most recently, the couple released a collaborative album titled “Everything is Love.” We have witnessed what some have called Beyoncé’s progression and Jay-Z’s decline. We have also seen the power dynamic shift – Jay-Z now plays the role of the apologetic husband and worships the empire that his wife has created. The power couple’s new brand aims to depict a relationship that has made it to hell and back and is better because of it. In a sense, Beyoncé has reclaimed her power within the relationship; shifting her role from passive to active.
We have cited gender scholars that recount how racial discrimination formed the identity of African American women. Beyoncé was raised in a region where such gender roles were deep-seated, and her early career was a reflection of that. Later in her career, her evident value of the sanctity of marriage and simultaneous mistreatment by her husband undoubtedly sent her feminist brand into disarray. But to discredit her for this reason would be to perpetuate a whitewashed feminism––that to be respected, we have to express abstinence and refrain from loving “imperfect” men. The media has repeatedly tried to pigeonhole her into “recognizable stereotypes of black womanhood” (Hobson, 2016, p. 23) but she is steadfast in her intersectional identity as a feminist, wife, mother, and sexual being. Historically, we don’t see the same condemnations of white pop stars like Britney Spears or Madonna. Her identity is complex and multifaceted, and her feminism follows suit. Ultimately, a proper evaluation of Beyonce must consider outside factors such as race, origin, and family values come into play to construct her feminist trademark.
Cooper, E. W. (2016). Sex(uality), Marriage, Motherhood, and “Bey Feminism”. In A. M. Trier-Bieniek (Ed.), The Beyoncé Effect: Essays on Sexuality, Race and Feminism(p. 207). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company.
Hall, Z. (2015). The Shrews are Drunk in Love. Popular Music and Society,40(2), 151-163. doi:10.1080/03007766.2015.1101276
Harley, S. (1990). For the Good of Family and Race: Gender, Work, and Domestic Roles in the Black Community, 1880-1930. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society,15(2), 336-349. doi:10.1086/494587
Hobson, J. (2016). Feminists Debate Beyoncé. In A. M. Trier-Bieniek (Ed.), The Beyoncé Effect: Essays on Sexuality, Race and Feminism(p. 23). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company.
Lieb, K. (2016). I’m Not Myself Lately: The Erosion of the Beyoncé Brand. In A. M. Trier-Bieniek (Ed.), The Beyoncé Effect: Essays on Sexuality, Race and Feminism(p. 78). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company.