Feminism needs more than a 'moment': lessons from Beyonce, Emma Watson
Yet one of the biggest conversations this year centers on Beyoncé's feminism. I am not the type to weigh issues against one another, à la, "why talk about Taylor Swift/Lena Dunham/Nicki Minaj when children are starving." Pop culture, as superficial as it may seem, is relevant. It impacts our lives and conveys messages about society, for example, about the status of women.
The question of whether or not Beyoncé's self-declared feminism matters or is legitimate is one worth exploring. But let's ask that question within a larger context.
The uncontested highlight of the VMAs was Bey's performance. She was, in her own words, flawless. But the most-talked about moment was her "feminist" moment.
Beyoncé's performance of the song, "Flawless," began with the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
"We teach girls that they can not be sexual beings in the way that boys are. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man."
The word "FEMINIST" appeared behind the singer as we hear Adichie's definition: "A person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes."
There it was -- our name up in lights -- at an awards show that has never shown any interest in our movement. Feminists everywhere were thrilled – myself included. There is no doubt that it was a significant moment and message.
But so was what preceded those words.
"Take all of me/I just wanna be the girl you like," Beyoncé sang, as she and her dancers – in nude-coloured thongs and bras – performed a pole-dancing routine.
The lyrics to her song, “Partition” (and the video that accompanies the song) ensures we know that Bey's sexuality is for her husband. Her beauty is for him, her sexiness is for him. She pole-dances, performing as though she's in a strip club – but the women who work in strip clubs are a far cry from Beyoncé. They perform for any man who has paid cover. They perform -- not as a sexy game for their husbands, who know it's "ok" so long as it's just "for him" -- but out of necessity. What working class women do in order to survive is co-opted and turned into a sexy dance number, performed by a millionaire entertainer.
What Beyoncé actually conveys is actually a very conservative message. "A lady in the streets, but a whore in the sheets" is what, we learn, men want. They want a woman who will perform all of their pornified fantasies – but just “for him.” He doesn’t want her sexuality not to be hers at all – he wants it to be exclusively his.
What Adichie says is true. "We teach girls that they can not be sexual beings in the way that boys are." But what Bey teaches doesn’t necessarily challenge that. Her message is that they can indeed be sexual, but only for men and only within the confines of a traditional, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
"I do this all for you," she sings in “Yoncé.” "Tell me how it's lookin, babe."
Maybe her supposed sexual emancipation isn’t so liberating after all.
When we talk about the male gaze, what we mean is that women's bodies are to be looked at and admired. They are not our bodies, they are "for you." The damage caused by this message is significant. Girls kill themselves trying to stay thin, women have dangerous cosmetic surgeries in order to achieve the "perfect" bodies they believe they need in order to become or remain attractive to men.
Women and girls are harassed on the street daily, and they learn learn that sex is something men enjoy and women perform.
Girls are taught to believe they must endure pain and put up with degradation in order to keep a boyfriend, our self-esteem is based almost entirely on our desirability which is lost when we age out of objectification, only to become invisible and irrelevant. The notion that we "belong" to men -- that we exist for their pleasure -- has contributed to a global epidemic of rape and violence against women.
It’s ok to get swept up. It's ok to have hope. It's ok to love Beyoncé and to accept her identification as a feminist. She doesn't need to be flawless in her feminism or in her feminist message – none of us do.
But when we talk about feminism 'making a comeback', it’s important to remember that this is a political movement that has spanned a century. It isn’t simply a word or a marketing campaign. Popularity isn’t what feminists are seeking – they’re seeking justice, rights, and an end to gendered violence. If you’ll allow me to reference LL Cool J: Don’t call it a comeback, we’ve been here for years. And a celebrity moment or two won’t make the movement.
Women need far more than a word up in lights. They need a revolution.