Beyonce, Music Videos, and Female Sexuality

Beyonce has become a spokeswoman of feminism, including quotes from feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in one of her latest tracks and having the word “Feminist” displayed behind her while performing at the VMAs.
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For feminists like me, this is wonderful to see.  The majority of women benefit greatly from the efforts of early and current feminists, but few women (especially female celebrities) publicly embrace the term the way Beyonce has.  I hope that the promotion of the term and the movement by someone as adored as Beyonce will help shift the public’s perception.

When I heard of Beyonce’s song “Pretty Hurts”, and the accompanying music video, I eagerly anticipated its release.  The song is about the very painful and exhausting process many women dedicate their lives to in order to be considered “pretty”.  The music video features Beyonce competing in a beauty pageant.  We see her and the other women engaging in various routines including getting spray tans, working out, kneeling in front of the toilet, and ingesting non-food substances in order to fill up their stomachs, all while her song plays.  Half-way through the video, all the women are on stage and the pageant MC asks Beyonce what her goals are in life.  She thinks for a while, admits she wasn’t ready for that question, and then answers “My goal is to be happy”.  Shortly after that scene, we see her standing in front of her various trophies.  She grabs one and smashes the others with it.  The last scene of the video actually seems to be taken from a home video of Beyonce’s.  The scene is of her as a little girl, giving her very brief acceptance speech after winning a pageant. 

The video is undeniably powerful, yet I still felt like I wanted more.  The ending felt somehow unsatisfying.  In reading an interview with Beyonce about the video, I realized why.  She described the video as being about “inner beauty and substance. […] That song represents finding that one thing in the world that makes you really happy.”  I realized that’s what was missing from the video.  We see Beyonce as a heartbroken, angry pageant contestant, but we never see her happy.  We never see her as herself.  We never see her, or any of the other women, outside of the context of the pageant.  In her video, Beyonce is vividly illustrating a very dark problem deeply enmeshed in our culture, and I would have loved to see her create just as vivid an image of her character healing and “finding that one thing that makes [her] really happy”. 

As I recently watched Beyonce’s VMA performance, one of Chimamanda’s quotes struck me: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are”.  I understood why Beyonce included it in her audio track as she danced onstage.  Beyonce is known for her beautiful and provocative style of dance and costuming.  When I heard that quote, I realized that Beyonce sees her very sexual style as an expression of her feminism.  Yet, to me, her performance still felt sexually objectifying instead of empowering.  What is the difference?  Can a female performer express her sexuality without objectifying herself?

I watched some of Beyonce’s more recent music videos, and started to realize what felt so off to me.  They felt objectifying because we were mostly in the place of “watcher” while she was mostly in the place of “beautiful sexy object”.  She made flirtatious eyes at the camera almost constantly.  She contorted her body to present certain parts of it to the camera.  Her dance moves always felt choreographed instead of internally inspired.  Her movements seemed to be motivated by what the viewer would want to see, not how her body wanted to move at that precise moment.  Her flirtatious eyes felt like a way to draw the viewer in and keep us watching, not how her natural expression would be if she were singing the song.  It felt like she was using her body as an interesting prop to help keep viewers engaged in the video.  It felt like every movement had the intention of satisfying our eyes instead of her body. 

In a culture where everyone grows up learning that female bodies belong to those who see them, it’s difficult for women to feel connected to their bodies.  We quickly learn that our sexuality is only acceptable if it appeals to the male gaze.  Even when we just want to move our bodies to music, we are expected to do so in a visually pleasing (and preferably also titillating) way.  Most of us internalize these messages at such a young age that it soon becomes difficult to untangle our own sexuality from the way we are expected to be sexual.  It becomes difficult to quiet the external messages that have seeped into our own thoughts and just move our bodies the way they truly want to move. 

There are a few music videos where I feel the artists express their sexuality in an empowering way.  The first is Mod Carousel’s “genderf*ck” cover of the well-known track “Blurred Lines”:

The video has a distinctly groovy feel to it, as if the track started playing and all the performers just danced along to it.  Even the men, wearing nothing but glittering thongs and heels, dance in a way that is empowered, genuine, and flirtatious.  They have a full range of facial expressions, instead of only sultry stares into the camera.  The women have the same broad range in their expressions and movements.  This multidimensionality helps give their characters life, instead of flattening the characters into visually consumable objects. 

A much darker, more emotionally intense example is P!nk’s video for her song “Try”:

The interactions between P!nk and Colt are incredibly sensual.  Their entire routine is obviously carefully choreographed but it still somehow feels organic.  We see a lot of P!nk’s body, but no part of it is ever “presented to the camera”.  P!nk is physically, mentally, and emotionally engaged with Colt.  At no point does she even present her body to him.  They are two people fully interacting with each other, no one ever falling into the role of “object”. 

A lighter, more bubbly example is Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” music video:

It’s very flirtatious, with lots of great dancing.  Again, despite the clearly choreographed routines the dancers all look like they’re moving the way their bodies want to move at that moment.  The dancers’ personalities shine out of their faces and gestures.  Even Meghan’s glances into the camera are not “Do you find me sexy?” but more “Come join our dance party and enjoy your body like we’re enjoying our bodies!”

As feminism becomes even more of a hot topic, thanks to many people (including Beyonce), I hope to see more music videos that feature multidimensional female characters.  I want to see music videos become another medium where female artists can fully express themselves.  I want to see more empowered female sexuality.  I want to see women following their own bodies.  I want to see the “subject/object” dynamic gone from interpersonal relationships and media, replaced by “person/person”.