On Beyoncé and What It Means To Be A Feminist

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Maggie Niemiec
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Spendowska_Beyonce

Art Credit: Marta Spendowska

“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are . . . Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

These words from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TEDx talk "We should all be feminists" are featured in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless,” as well as in her recent VMA performance. The lights dim and Beyoncé stands still against a wall lit up by the word “Feminist.” Moments before she was sitting on a bleacher surrounded by dancers wearing nude, shimmery tights and black thongs. As Beyoncé begins to sing “Drunk in Love,” the dancers lift their bodies up to the ceiling and spread their legs wide. It’s an image that made many people—myself included—stop and say, Whoa.

Since then, I’ve been wondering about the performance. If, as Adichie says, we should stop teaching girls they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are, does that necessarily mean we should teach girls to put sex on public display in the way Beyoncé did?

Let me be clear: I think Beyoncé is an incredibly talented artist and performer. There’s no doubt about that—just listen to her isolated vocals. I’ve heard her Beyoncé album in its entirety enough times to know all the lyrics, and I’ve watched each of the accompanying music videos. I’ve turned said album on with the volume at full blast and danced around my room more times than I can count. When I watched her sixteen-minute VMA performance, I literally got chills. This woman knows how to bring the house down.

Despite my respect for her sheer talent, I can’t help but think about how dichotomous her message is.

Does being a feminist mean gyrating on stage and singing about having “your cherry torn out”? Does it mean listening to and sharing Adichie’s talk about how women shouldn’t shrink from ambition? Does it mean singing about your baby daughter and how she means the world to you?

To me, being a feminist means being strong and independent, and being able to make the decisions that are best for you personally—whether that means being a stay-at-home mom or being a single CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Being a feminist shouldn’t have to equate with making sex a spectacle, which is how it's come across in many of Beyoncé's videos and performances. I agree with Adichie: Women are sexual beings. We have sexual desires just as men do. And that’s OK! But I would argue that sexual modesty, which is completely countercultural to what we see in pop music and entertainment in general, can make a woman just as much of a feminist—if not even more.

I believe in the equality of the sexes. I am ambitious, and I strive for success in my career. I’ve always gone after my dreams, working to be my best and having no shame about it. But I also appreciate being courted by a gentleman, receiving flowers, and having the door held open for me. I value my family, my friends, and my faith above everything else. That’s what makes me a feminist—because of all of these things, not because I put my body on display.

“You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé,” people often say.

I think it’s time to retire that phrase. If we’re feminists, too, then that should mean we’re proud of our own individual journeys and accomplishments. We should not feel the need to compare ourselves to her “flawless” body, career, motherhood, marriage. We only see one snippet of her life, but I guarantee she’s not flawless. No one is.

"Queen Bey" has been put on a pedestal and built up in the public’s eye as the “greatest living performer of our time,” as was said at the VMAs. That’s a lot of pressure. So many of us idolize her. But at the end of the day, she’s a human, like the rest of us.

Beyoncé has created conversation around feminism, an often-controversial topic that many people are hesitant to discuss. My favorite song from Beyoncé’s latest album, though, is one that got the least airtime at the VMAs.

In “Pretty Hurts” we hear the poignant lyrics, “My aspiration in life … is to be happy.” The song encourages women to forgo false ideals of perfection, to have confidence and strength, and to love their bodies. And that’s an idea I can definitely get behind.