Beyoncé and…***Flawless, Feminism, Intentionality, Performance : A Correspondence with Author of “Answer Me Soon,” Mia Hood

Mia Hood, a friend and colleague from Teachers College, a fellow lover and aficionado of pop culture, and author of the blog Answer Me Soon, invited me to engage in a correspondence about Beyoncé: to debate, air out, challenge and celebrate the woman, the artist, the celebrity, the performer. We’ve exchanged emails over the last few months, both taking time to sit with each other’s thoughts before writing back. Below is what we’ve put together, hope you enjoy!

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Image: Mia Hood (2014)

Emily,

Let me confirm what you already know: I’ve been putting off launching this conversation. This song has brought me joy and anxiety in equal measure. In the past, we’ve talked about simultaneity—about being able to simultaneously enjoy and criticize a cultural product. Usually, I’m pretty comfortable with this sense of incoherence.

So I have to begin by admitting that I’m not comfortable with this song. To avoid writing about my discomfort, I’ve been reading everything the Internet has to say about it. I’ve been looking for a reading that squares the song and its imagery with some semblance of my feminism. What I’ve found instead are folks who have made it their business to review Beyoncé’s feminist bona fides. Does she “count” as a feminist? Maybe it is their business to do that, but I’m not interested in this. Instead, I’d like to start by making sense of my own anxiety.

Here’s what I’ve got so far: in this song and its video, Beyoncé embodies and celebrates simultaneity in a broad sense. She is simultaneously “sexy” and powerful; a wife (“I took time to live my life”) and a superstar (“don’t think I’m just his little wife”); someone who’s learned both “home training” and how to “speak [her] mind.”

The imagery of “***Flawless” is so stark: Beyoncé snarls and, in her lyrics, destroys her haters (“bow down, bitches”) and, at the same time, she’s wearing these—what would they be called?—thong cut-offs that do nothing to disrupt patriarchal notions of femininity and beauty and sexiness. To me, there’s a real incoherence there, and when it’s in my face, I’m forced to consider the incoherence in myself. My party line has been that when something—say, patriarchy—works on you, you’re in a great position to criticize it. You understand what makes it appealing. So I’ve used this line to kind of apologize for my long blond hair and interest in fashion. I claim to be in a good position to criticize popular imagery because, apparently, it works on me. It influences how I construct my appearance. This video makes me wonder if I haven’t just used this label “simultaneity” as license for inconsistency. Maybe I should be more rigorous about bringing my beliefs and actions into alignment.

I’d love to know how you responded to the song and video. Part of me secretly hopes you’ll be the one to square the song and its imagery with my feminism. But the better angels of my nature are glad to know that you’ll complicate and disrupt.

Answer me soon,

Mia

*          *          *

Mia,

I could begin my response a dozen different ways…there’s so much to potentially touch on. First, a few confessions: I put off reading the articles that critiqued, pulled apart, celebrated, questioned both the content and delivery of Beyoncé’s self-titled “visual album” for quite some time. Second, I listened to the song that sparked this exchange for the first time more than a month after you pitched me about engaging in a collaborative reckoning of this media text. Third, and I’m not sure if this will enhance or hinder my part of these exchanges moving forward, I’m not incredibly familiar with Beyoncé. I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to think more deeply about her as a person, a woman, a celebrity, a singer/entertainer, or a character in her music, so I’m really looking forward to digging deeper and pushing my own assumptions and perspectives of the topic at hand. All of this said, let’s begin.

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I’ve now watched the video for “***Flawless” a few times and with each viewing while I feel like I’m able to trace the storyline a bit better, to make sense of what’s happening visually and aurally, I am, in some ways, still confused about what’s happening in the video and why it necessarily “matters”. I say that rather rhetorically because I think all things “Beyoncé” and this idea of incoherence and inconsistency in relation to our own ‘feminisms’, are incredibly intriguing topics worthy of critique and discussion.

I think the reason why it’s taken me so long to respond to your initial post is that I was hesitant to critique someone and something that I know relatively little about. My knowledge of Beyoncé largely comes from mainstream culture and sensational gossip. As a result, the video and my opinions about it felt out of context and compelled me to read up on the conversations and critiques happening throughout the interwebs. It quickly became clear (not to mention overwhelming and virtually unhelpful) that the majority of the reviews did, in fact, center on critiques of what you call “Beyoncé’s feminist bona fides.” I wonder what happens to us as a society, as individuals, as women, when we get these monolithic conversations in bulk? I’m a strong advocate of reading and responding to media texts and celebrity/popular culture in critical ways, particularly as a media literacy educator, but there’s a difference between critique and criticism.

In your email, you mention this notion of  ‘simultaneity,’ being comfortable with feeling two very different and often conflicting ways about a cultural product. This struck a chord and two connections came to mind. I immediately thought of my short affair with The Jersey Shore and The Bachelor and The Bachelorette series. I rarely watch ‘reality TV’ now, but when I did, these were my shows of choice. For quite some time, I often justified my viewing of the shows both to myself and others as being simultaneously a “guilty pleasure” as well as “research.” After all, with my background in sociology, women’s studies, and media education, it was okay, even important, for me to engage with and enjoy these shows because I was also critiquing them. I paid attention to the scripted-ness of the dialogue, the editing to create storylines, how dominant narratives and stereotypes were so easily reinforced. But I also loved the mindlessness of the shows, getting absorbed in the ridiculous dramas, and honestly feeling a bit better about myself when I went to sleep that night. But after a few seasons, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of simultaneously enjoying and deeply critiquing a media text when it came to anything placed under the false pretenses of “reality” television. What was once fun and mindless to watch gradually became annoying and exhausting; I could no longer take the texts at face value. I decided that I needed to more rigorously align my beliefs with my actions and I stopped watching both shows. Of course, it’s not always that easy. I don’t necessarily have a finite answer here, but I use this as an example to illustrate how nuanced and sticky relationships to popular cultural artifacts can be, which ties into the last point I’ll touch on in this piece.

You also ask, “I wonder why Beyonce’s incoherence seems starker to me than my own?” and I can’t help but think about the role that “celebrity” plays in all of this as well as how magnified these incoherencies become when they are depicted in a music video that is calculated and constructed to tell a particular story, perhaps to make us feel a certain way. This is, after all, what pop culture is often about: making the images and messages in media texts seem more stark, more extreme from our lives so that we are pushed to fantasize about and strive for unattainable goals, or compare ourselves and our experiences to unrealistic ideals and “realities”.

As you may recall, bell hooks recently stirred up the discussion about Queen Bey when she stated that she “see[s] a part of Beyoncé that is anti-feminist–that is, a terrorist–especially in terms of her impact on young girls”. I’m quite eager to hear your thoughts about this statement in conjunction or in juxtaposition with Beyoncé’s decision to include a sound byte of Chimamanda Adichie’s speech about gender equality. How do we make sense of the ebb and flow of coherence and inconsistency about messages of “girl power,” for lack of a better term, woven throughout the video?

Emily

*          *          *

Emily,

Thank you for approaching our correspondence with so much joy and rigor. I appreciate that you’ve put Beyoncé in a bigger pop culture context and in the context of your personal grappling. What you’ve done here is the opposite of what I did in the first chapter of my dissertation. I spent several pages parsing one line of “Flawless” (“I woke up like this”), trying to see if multimodality and poststructuralism would make possible some interpretation that I wasn’t able to develop as a casual listener (tl;dr the line, in fact, doesn’t make any sense). I guess it’s good to zoom in, but I’m really glad to have the opportunity now to pan out.

The way you described your own participation in pop culture resonates with me. For me, it’s not The Bachelorette or Jersey Shore. My pleasure is celebrity gossip and the Kardashians. The reason these things are pleasurable to me is because I find gossiping pleasurable: talking about people and watching them interact with each other, move in and out of relationships, get into and resolve fights. That’s what’s most interesting to me. It can be negative and even destructive to engage in that kind of chatter with and about people in my own life. So I can call my friend Rhiannon and dish with impunity about Kim and Khloe or Gwyneth and Chris in a way I would otherwise think unkind.

To me, Beyoncé is different. I’ll risk sounding old-fashioned and Romantic now, but I think Beyoncé is a serious artist. I found myself saying something like the following in conversation last month (it may or may not have been after several drinks):

  • To say that Beyoncé isn’t very good or talented or whatever is just as irrelevant as walking into the Sistine Chapel and saying that you think it looks gaudy and that Michelangelo wasn’t really all that talented.
  • She’s a musical genius, and if you don’t think she’s a musical genius, it’s because you have trouble imagining that a “hot” [more below w/r/t bell hooks’s comment] Black woman can be a musical genius.

Obviously, I’m reporting these things to you rather than just saying them because I want to distance myself a bit from my own words. I’m invoking ideas I would never otherwise invoke: genius and high art. It’s kind of an second-wave move to say, if this club (genius club, high art club) is going to exist, let Beyoncé be a member. So, even though I’m skeptical of declarations of genius and rigid distinctions between low and high art, I find myself declaring genius and making that distinction when it comes to Beyoncé.

Right now, I want to say what I love about her music. I love the way she makes syllables morph and slide over beats (see “Drunk in Love”). I love the way the songs on her latest album have these bends in the road. They start somewhere and then turn and go somewhere else and then turn again and end up somewhere totally surprising (see “Partition” or even “***Flawless”). Plus, she has a voice, which, especially when she sings in her lower register, is probably the third best pop voice of all time—which, again, is not even the kind of thing I say! I’m not usually one to rank talent! So, I guess, another way to say it is that her voice, especially in the lower register, just totally wrecks me (see “Superpower”).

This is all to say that the kind of pleasure I get from listening to Beyoncé is very different from the kind of pleasure I get from reading celebrity gossip or watching the Kardashians. Yet, I know Beyoncé is not apart from pop culture. After this album, it’s impossible to be so naïve to think that art descends from on high and exists as some untouchable thing above the sociocultural and historical conditions that made it possible, . The whole album is loaded with self-reference (see the inlaid Knowles family videos in several songs and the clip from Star Search at the beginning and end of “***Flawless”). Or, let’s take “***Flawless.” It started as “Bow Down/I Been On,” released on SoundCloud. Critics and fans responded, working themselves up, of course, over the uncharacteristically aggressive—and potentially anti-feminist—lyrics. And then Beyoncé incorporated and recontextualized those lyrics in “***Flawless.” In doing, she inserted herself into these interactive pop culture spaces.

My point, I guess, is that Beyoncé doesn’t just happen to be a part of pop culture. Pop culture is a fundamental part of not who, but what Beyoncé is. Yet, here I am, still waxing poetic about Beyoncé’s artistry.

So, bell hooks. I can’t think of any reason bell hooks would call Beyoncé a terrorist other than to draw attention to her other comment, which I think is an important point. Maybe hooks wants us to take the accusation seriously, but I really can’t. She doesn’t, you know, support the accusation with evidence or explain the line of thought that led her to that word. So I’m just going to assume that comment was meant to shine a light on the other comment, which is more in keeping with the kind of critique she’s done in the past (for example, of Madonna). This is the other comment: “[Beyoncé’s] colluding in her construction of herself as a slave.”

hooks is talking about Beyoncé’s wearing glorified underwear on the cover of Time. Do I think Beyoncé colludes in the construction of herself as—I don’t know about a “slave”—at least an object? As a commodity? Yes! Yes, I think she does. But so do I. Beyoncé constructs herself as “hot.” She’s got the long, flowing blond hair and the skimpy clothes and the eyeliner and whatever else. I have/do all of those things too! I construct my appearance to be in line with someone else’s idea of what I should look like. And yet that idea has come to feel like my own idea of what I should look like. And, yes, simultaneously, I think it’s some crazy white patriarchy bullshit that I’m compelled to spend a second of my life evaluating the extent to which I meet some standard of beauty, and I’ve made it my job to talk about what bullshit that is. So, again, there’s that incoherence. And, as you say, Beyoncé’s expression of that incoherence is amplified. We’re all looking at it, listening to it. How can she say that “Pretty Hurts” while looking so damn pretty?

I’m saying that I think hooks is right about that part, and I think we should talk about that collusion but in a non-judgmental way. At least, that’s what I want because I don’t want people to judge me for my own collusion.

Mia

*          *          *

Mia,

After having coffee the other week, I walked back home with my brain buzzing. As I’ve mentioned, these responses back and forth have been challenging for me but I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly why.

I’ve finally had some time in the last few days to process our conversations and make sense of what I’ve been wrestling with. And then yesterday I stumbled across an article on MTV.com with the image below: a photograph Beyoncé posted to her Instagram a few days ago, sans caption. And then all of this clicked.

She’s posed and poised in a Rosie-the-Riveter-stance, in the wake of hooks calling her an “anti-feminist,” in light of the most recent hashtag campaign, #womenagainstfeminism. Perhaps this is her understated response to all of it, perhaps it’s meant to challenge us as she rallies for solidarity, but as we know, also goes it alone. The bottom line is that the image doesn’t need a caption. She doesn’t need to explain herself. Something clicked in my mind and it’s giving me a new and better understanding of your perspective and positionality in relation to the topic(s) at hand.

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MTV: “Queen Bey isn’t new to feminism — she’s basically been dubbed an honorary Riot Grrrl by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and she contributed an essay to Maria Shriver’s “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.” Oh, and she’s been repping the “f” word on tour with Jay Z, too, incorporating the term into her stage show in massive black and white letters.”

I think what’s been ‘bothering’ me about Beyoncé–in general, but specifically throughout our correspondence–has relatively nothing to with Beyoncé herself. What’s been irking me and manifesting itself in a feeling of I-have-no-idea-what-to-write on this topic, is this kind of constructed sensation of distance that I feel exists between Beyoncé and me. I mean that not in a delusional way, but in terms of how I’m able to engage with her as a human, a woman, a celebrity, a meaning-maker, as mediated through a variety of other players and platforms. It renders a feeling of disconnection for me, like I can’t totally ‘know’ her and that makes type-A me over here a bit uncomfortable. As a result, in response, or perhaps rather in defense, I have erred on the side of disengaging with her, with trying to figure her out and know her.

Her [perceived] intentionality in when and where she chooses to speak, what she decides to say, and how she says it (often without any explanation) feels so deliberate that it throws my self-proclaimed pop-culture-analyst-extraordinaire identity off its axis. I’ve been trained, even normalized, as a female in American society, and more recently as an emerging scholar working to define my identity in the academy, to constantly explain myself. To cite my sources. To provide my rationale (and back it up with ideas that already exist, that shape my thinking). To convey my original ideas using a particular rhetoric deemed “correct”.

Beyoncé demonstrates a control over explanation, over image, over representation that we do not often see, particularly among celebrities. As a singer and performer, she has incredible wide-reaching public platforms and opportunities through which to engage in a type of multimodal play, as Vasudevan and DeJaynes (2013) would call it, a space in which to “craft new narratives of being and belonging” (p.11). And she takes these opportunities in full force, while many others do not (and some just straight up should not). The “distance” is felt in the ways the media often portrays her as guarded, even shady, with an extreme absence of photographs of her life, her baby. But what appears to really be happening is that she is choosing when and where to share parts of herself. I’m thinking of “Beyoncé: Life is But a Dream,” her documentary special on HBO, filmed often with a hand-held camera to give it even more of an ‘intimate’ feeling with her, and about this latest self-titled visual album, which prompted you to invite me to engage in this whole correspondence.

So this response is really more of a self-reflection, I’m not sure if it necessarily furthers the conversation, I hope it does…and I thank you for your patience and thoughtful explanations and analyses that have supported me in pressing further into myself to make sense of my orientation to this topic, to Beyoncé, and to what she represents in the greater frames of feminism, fame, popular culture, and critical discourse.

In process,

Emily

P.S. Can’t wait to hear about the “On the Run” tour. While I’m sure you were completely consumed, relishing in all things Beyoncé that night (as you should have been!), I wonder if you’ve given any thought to the show through the lens of our correspondence since? Any new noticings or musings? I’m so curious! Looking forward to our last installment and final thoughts.

*          *          *

Emily,

I think I’ll end where I began: with a sense of incoherence, which, happily your writing only amplified. It’s funny what you said in your last letter. Beyoncé doesn’t need to explain herself…but, wow, a lot of us feel the need to explain her. I think that urge to classify Beyoncé, to contain her, to make sense of her is a fundamental part of my experience of her, and the way she (by “she” I mean not the person as much as…the phenomenon) resists classification, containment, and coherence is just as fundamental.

At the end of our exchange, I’m thinking about how Beyoncé is the ultimate postmodern performer. She’s postmodern in the way she collapses reality and fantasy in her stage shows that feature home videos, for example, or her expertly curated tumblr, or the line in the “***Flawless” remix (“Sometimes shit go down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator”) that addresses something that “really” happened but reappropriates it into the fantasy of Beyoncé. She’s also postmodern in the way she’s a collage, a mash-up of all these disparate and incommensurable reference points. There’s this artful thrown-togetherness about her songs, videos, and performances: we’ve got Bob Fosse and the blues, Bonny and Clyde, and ratchet culture.

But I guess the one thing that’s not very postmodern about her is that Beyoncé the person is at the center of all of this. She demands the kind of attention and praise that the capital-A Artist of modernism demands.. So she’s both a mash-up and a Cartesian subject, an agent of her own destiny…as if we didn’t have a strong enough sense of incoherence.

Emily, thanks for writing. It’s been appropriately confusing and so fun.

Mia

*          *          *

Mia,

In putting together these final thoughts, I found myself tracing the trajectory of our correspondence over the last few months. It’s a conversation that began with a deeply thoughtful critique and analysis of ***Flawless and then merged into wider and deeper conversations and musings about celebrity, intentionality, talent, the popular culture landscape. In our exchange, I’ve been able to engage with “Beyoncé”–as a capital-A Artist, a woman, a postmodern performer, an experience–in what have proven to be quite meaningful and unexpected ways. You’ve pushed me to stay in the tensions rendered by what you refer to as “Beyoncé, the phenomenon,” when my default was to make sense of (yes, also classify and contain) Beyoncé, the woman and celebrity. This, I think, stems from me working to make sense of my own hybridized identity, which in this case dealt mostly with the intersections between being a woman, a scholar, and a pop-culture-head.

2014 MTV Video Music Awards - Show

I just watched Beyoncé’s performance at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards for the first time (yes, another delayed viewing, haha). Woah. Her 17-minute set (an artist given that much stage time at a jam-packed awards show is impressive in and of itself) so perfectly illustrates what you say in your final thoughts:

Beyoncé doesn’t need to explain herself…but, wow, a lot of us feel the need to explain her. I think that urge to classify Beyoncé, to contain her, to make sense of her is a fundamental part of my experience of her, and the way she (by “she” I mean not the person as much as…the phenomenon) resists classification, containment, and coherence.

I haven’t [yet] engaged with Beyoncé’s visual album–I’ve only seen the videos for the songs that have made it onto the radio–but I imagine that her performance at the VMAs was the extended trailer-version of it. That said, watching her performance–which is incoherent, emotionally charged, visceral–was incredible. And I am not saying this for the sake of neatly tying my last reflection up in a tight bow. Everything about her set was so intentional and to see her human side in between songs—talking to the audience, initiating call and response participation, and then the ‘home video’ footage of her, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy while she sang one of her last songs–was beautiful and genuine, while also feeling incredibly purposeful, curated and Artistic.

I’m leaving this exchange with a different (a ‘good’ different) perspective on Beyoncé as a person and performer. Watching the video this morning, I saw our entire correspondence through an entirely alternative lens. And yes, if I’d spent time with the visual album before we started our exchange, our conversation would have been different, perhaps much more informed on my part, but at the same time, I’m just seeing it today. It’s leaving me with a sense of what Maxine Greene calls wide-awakeness, “a capacity to see nuances out of complexity, to focus on details, yet see still the whole instead of only the parts.” I’m regarding it as a personal call to push myself past a default approach to pop culture analysis that often begins with skeptical critique. As a media literacy educator, I try not to harp on the negative or problematic in a media image or message, but it happens sometimes, and without exception of the topic at hand. Bottom line, this has served as a reminder to not get lazy or comfortable in my stance, in my ‘expertise,’ in my assumptions and expectations.

Thank you for the invitation and opportunity to engage in this exchange. It was so refreshing to be in intellectual debate and conversation rooted in a shared love for popular culture outside the confines of traditional academic writing.

Hope to write again soon,

Emily