Monday, November 17, 2008

Sasha Fierce and what passes for empowerment these days

I am always interested in the messages women in pop music send about womanhood. After all, the Beyonces and Britneys have more sway over the minds of young girls than the Women's Studies set. I love bell hooks, but my seven-year-old niece is more interested in what Rhianna and Duffy have to say. And maybe these women don't make such bad spokespersons for the female condition. After all, they have to know more than a little about the burden of sexism, particularly as it relates to beauty, femininity and sexuality. They are judged, exploited and commodified in a way that average women are not. On the other hand, despite feints at grrrl power, most pop princesses make their millions acquiescing to and exploiting the very sexism that constrains all women. It is contradictory, no? The you-go-girl sentiment of asking all the women who are independent to thrown their hands up at you is diminished when several videos later you are gyrating on all fours in booty shorts. Unfortunately, when most female pop artists talk about what it means to be a woman, it sounds to me like the same old gender-bias and tired messages.

Take for example "If I Were A Boy," Beyonce's new hit currently riding the sales charts on iTunes. In the song, the former Destiny's Child member laments not being able to live the carefree life that "boys" do:

If I were a boy
Even just for a day
I'd roll out of bed in the morning
And throw on what I wanted and go
Drink beer with the guys
And chase after girls
I'd kick it with who I wanted
And I'd never get confronted for it
Because they'd stick up for me

It is true that women are judged more harshly for what they wear, how much they drink and who they hang with. But rather than call foul on that double standard, the song gives in to unfair and antiquated gender roles. Most women I know recognize that one needn't be a boy to toss on a pair of sweats, drink or chase members of the opposite sex. In 2008, we're more liberated than that, aren't we?

More troubling to me is when the song hints that being a "boy" means being a selfish, philandering liar, while being a "girl" is to be a foolishly trusting doormat, waiting home for said boy.

If I were a boy
I would turn off my phone
Tell everyone its broken
So they'd think
that I was sleeping alone
I'd put myself first
And make the rules as I go
Cause I know that she'd be faithful
Waiting for me to come home (to come home)

If I were a boy
I think I could understand
How it feels to love a girl
I swear I'd be a better man
I'd listen to her
Cause I know how it hurts
When you lose the one you wanted (wanted)
Cause he's taken you for granted (granted)
And everything you had got destroyed

Have you ever noticed that women who believe the "all men are dogs" trope always seem to wind up with, know. This is dangerous thinking because not only does it give men license to follow their presumed "nature," but it also takes away the agency of heterosexual women. We are powerless to choose if all men are the same. In truth, there are good men and bad. No woman need waste her time on a jerk playing cell phone games, but too many women make the mistake of believing bad romantic behavior is part of what makes a "boy."

"If I Were A Boy" is the latest single from Beyonce's upcoming album "I am...Sasha Fierce." The singer says of her alter ego, "Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I'm working and when I'm on the stage."

Modern women ought not buy into the Madonna/Whore Complex. It is disturbing to hear a grown, married woman talk about needing an alter ego to indulge enjoyable expects of her personality. Between the alias and the lyrics to her latest song, one might think that Beyonce believes women are to be subservient, long-suffering, quiet, passive and tame "good girls." I hope not.

But I am reminded why it is so important for young girls to have strong, smart women in their lives--women to teach them to take charge of their romantic lives, skip "boys" in favor of men who treat women with respect, and to live juicy, adventurous, courageous lives. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said that well-behaved women seldom make history. That's true. They seldom have any fun either.

Someone tell that to Beyonce.


MacDaddy said...

Good post, Tami: I remember working as a counselor and girls singing Janet Jackson ("What have you done for me lately") and other songs sung principally by women. I found them wanting, which is a strong argument for having strong parents in their lives. Ultimately, parents are the real role models in their lives.

Ferocious Kitty said...

Amen to all that!

Might I recommend an antidote to all the fake-girl power messaging?


JenX67 said...

The whole time I was reading this I was thinking, "I'm glad someone is saying what I've been thinking for a long time." Then, I got to the last line and it felt like the start of a new commentary - not about women who trade on sexuality, but on women pressed down into irrelevance and boredom in fundamental churches. I will say it was a huge disappointment the direction Carrie Underwood went. The blanket snow - all sexxed up. I guess that's what sells. It's mutual exploitation. Another great post. This should be in a newspaper.

Faith said...

She works hard and has led a rather scandal free life (for the most part) of your typical superstar. She graduated high school and has no further official education. I don't know how she's tapped into consciousness if she has at all. I'm disturbed to hear of a 7 year old who listens to her. I felt this way about my 12 yo niece listening to Fergie even though there were some songs on her debut I liked. I get uneasy about how kids are exposed to things I don't necessarily watch or listen to - and I'm in my 30's. Is it any wonder why they're having oral sex and contracting STIs?

Brian said...

I have to call BS. Did we not listen to the whole song? You know the end when the "boy" loses the girl because he's "just a boy" (ie not a man).

She wants to be a "boy" because he can get away with anything, but she realizes at the end that boys lose - and "better men" don't.

And Beyonce doesn't write these songs, she takes what she is given and puts some "suga" on it.

Let's not get it twisted - our kids react to what they see and question what they see, be there to give them the correct answer.

Tami said...


Yes, I listened to the whole song...multiple times. And I maintain that it implies that "boys" have a freedom that "girls" don't.

Beyonce may not write all of her songs, but she chooses them. Some of her choices, paired with her statements in the press, lead me to believe that she has a rather antiquated view of womanhood: Women should be "ladies" in the quiet, demure and submissive view of the word. That is her right.

I like Beyonce. I have her first album and the newest one. She's a pop singer not a professor. and I don't expect her to be anything other than what she is. but our society gives a lot of weight to celebrities and their opinions. And we need to be smarter about critiquing the messages we get from them.


Mista Jaycee said...

I believe Bey's true triumph has been The all Woman band she tours with. All the women including Cindy Blackmon are true pros and it can't be cheap to have all of them on tour but Bey does and it's wonderful!

Kjen said...

Although I am a Beyonce fan, I've become a little irritated about how she distances herself from her music - from everything from her costumes to the lyrics of her songs, she has at one point or another, said that she does not stand behind the image and message that she might be sending.

But I do think she holds old-fashioned gender values after listening to 'Upgrade U'.

But because I refuse to not believe she is an intelligent woman who makes her own choices in her career I finally just chalked up her actions to being her thinking about being a pop star as being a job.

And she knows she gets paid a whole lot more with the less she wears and not saying anything to upset the status quo.

Lady C said...

One of my all-time favorite actresses was Bette Davis. Why? She didn't put up with crap from big boys even in her time, and she worked steady until she was no longer able to work. Why? Talent.

I don't believe a woman has to get naked and gyrate across the floor like a spinning top to be successful. Beyonce is not forced to do what she is doing. It is her choice to be who she is to her public.

Crystal said...

Hi, Tami -

Just wanted to let you know I think your blog is great. I really appreciate your thoughtful, principled, insightful reflections on this world I live in too.

Kjen said...

@Mista Jaycee

It is really cool that she has an all female band. I use to put that in the score column as more "proof" that Bey has definite progressive feminist leanings (whether she would ever choose to use the f-word or not), but that reasoning has been sounding hollow to me more and more lately. When compared to what she is actually SINGING her lyrics, heck her videos and physical appearance all seem like she is for a return to 'traditional womanhood'. Then the fact that she has an all female band feels like a convenient prop like when white people who make racially insensitive comments suddenly point out how many Black friends they hang out with.

Kevin said...

Good post,Yes, I listened to the whole song...multiple times. And I maintain that it implies that "boys" have a freedom that "girls" don't.

Brother OMi said...

I agree with Mac... my daughter doesn't know who Beyonce is. Whose fault is that? OURS!

My daughter does know who Ida B. Wells is. She knows who Bell hooks is. She knows artists such as Rha Goddess (who held my daughter in her arms), Amaris, and loves her some Erykah Badu. My daughter knows who Rocafela (the b-girl not the record label) is and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.

if we continue to let television to teach our children, then we are going to be in worst shape.

if we continue to allow pop artists to define feminism, then we might as well shoot ourselves in the head now..


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