Last year, Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) celebrated its 50th anniversary, and this past Sunday, while slithering across a stage in a shimmering bodysuit, superstar singer Beyoncé proclaimed herself a FEMINIST as she swayed in front of the illuminated backdrop of the stage where she performed as part of the MTV Video Music Awards. This moment came midway through a medley of the singer’s latest album as she performed the song “Flawless,” which features a sample of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 TED talk, “We should all be feminists.”
Photo: Getty Images.
Freidan’s work articulates the “problem that has no name”—specifically, the growing dissatisfaction felt by many suburban housewives of the mid-twentieth century—“a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning…the silent question—‘Is this all?’” and today, writers like Adichie boldly resist prescribed gender roles by suggesting that girls should be taught that they are not defined by their sex. This is certainly important.
Adichie says, “We teach females, that in relationships, ‘compromise’ is what women do. We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs, or for accomplishments — which I think can be a good thing — but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…We police girls. We praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity…” All of this is true—there is most definitely a cultural double standard of expectations for the sexuality of genders (e.g. a woman who is sexually active runs the risk of being labeled a slut or worse, a whore—while her male counterpart is a stud or one who has “game”). It makes sense, then, that women may want to appropriate these cultural perceptions and rework them. To proclaim that women can be successful, competitive, strong, and sexual.
By many women, Beyoncé has been vaunted not only for her star power nor her own admonitions (“Respect that, bow down bitches. I took some time to live my life. But don’t think I’m just his little wife.”) but rather, for her unabashed public embrace of a multifaceted femininity. She is Mrs. Carter, yet she is Queen Bey. She is a businesswoman and a mother. She is a God-fearing Christian and a sexual being. I get it. But the appropriation—and reworking—of the language and tropes of the oppressor by the (previously) oppressed is nothing new (listen to any rap music or activist rhetoric from the gay community as evidence). And after watching Beyoncé’s most recent performance, I am not convinced that it is an effective strategy. Of course, many would argue that she is not only a Video Vanguard, but a cultural force rewriting womanhood. For example, The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti proclaims that Beyoncé’s feminist act at the VMAs “leads the way for other women” and Slate’s Amanda Marcotte suggests that Bey gave viewers “a pretty good education” on feminism through her performance.
To me, a performance at an event where attendees sport $56K manicures is not real life. And by offering only extremes—a heartfelt tribute to your daughter and a robust celebration of carnal experience—seems to me to be overstating the case. The loudest voice isn’t always the most thoughtful. We get it, Beyoncé Knowles Carter isn’t just one thing—none of us are. And though there is an element of spectacle that the stage requires, I wonder if feminism is more effectively grown in more deep-rooted ways such as the sort that Freidan advocates for in her final chapter of The Feminine Mystique. She writes, “The time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.” This is still true—but women (and men) don’t need to defer to one bedazzled spokesperson to rally the cause—it must come from within.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it important to emphasize the extremes of female possibility to undermine prescribed gender expectations for women?