Feminist Media Reader #20: Defending Beyoncé's feminist credentials on 'Lemonade'

by - Friday, April 29, 2016

When Beyoncé surprise-dropped her self-titled album back in 2014, I wasn't sure I could love her any more. I'm not sure anyone could. She took everything that made us adore her - the sass, the defiance, the sex appeal, the vulnerability and of course, the fact that this girl can SAANG - and turned it up to eleven, looking fricking fabulous as she did it. Exploring what it meant to be a celebrity, a red-blooded woman, a mother and a black cultural icon, it hit every nail on the head and then some, inspiring women around the world to adopt 'I Woke Up Like This' as a symbol of acceptance that being yourself is not only good enough, but will set you free. For me personally, it was a huge step forward in my own cultural identity - for the first time, it felt like as a black woman I could win my own marathon, not just try to keep up with others.

But then came Formation. Dripping in dark imagery, ominous beats and incredible costumes, it changed everything once more with a whole new slogan of it's own - anybody else now sporting hot sauce in their bag? It was clear that this record wasn't going to be Beyoncé mark 2, but nor was it going to take a step back into daddy-managed territory. Having taken the big commercial risk that was her self-titled record, it seemed she was now ready to tackle politics issues in a much more overt manner. Beyoncé's feminism is and always was inextricably linked with race, but her message was always positive, one of overcoming the haters rather than letting them in. So what was to happen when the world's most flawless performer took off the mask?

I don't think anybody was truly expecting Lemonade. Another visual album yes, but the polar opposite of what came before. If the self-titled record was a pageant reel of everything B can do, then Lemonade is the behind-the-scenes film, almost uncomfortable at times due it's rawness. Anybody with an internet connection will know by now that it's narrative relies heavily upon the alleged issues in Beyoncé's marriage, but it's so much more than that - it's an artistic expression of betrayal in all it's form - betrayal of a husband, betrayal of the justice system, betrayal of your family unit. Whether it be the lows of paranoia ('Hold Up'), bargaining ('Love Drought'), defensiveness ('Sorry') and sheer unbridled rage (Don't Hurt Yourself'), every single angle is portrayed with such honesty, her voice audibly breaking in parts with the raw emotion of it all. Without doubt, it's the bravest thing she's even done.

So let's talk further about that oversized elephant in the room. Did Jay-Z cheat? Does this explain the elevator incident? Is this about her parents relationship? Or is it all just an extended metaphor for the failings of the American justice system? It remains to be seen whether we'll ever know the answers to these things, but it doesn't really matter. Such is the point of great art - to raise questions, to invite interpretation.

While things have never been explored this overtly, jealousy and insecurity have been themes in Beyoncé's arsenal for a really long time - 'Ring The Alarm', 'If I Were A Boy', 'Why Don't You Love Me', 'Mine' and of course, 'Jealous'. Nobody can say that there wasn't some pre-emptive content in her back catalogue, which bolsters the assumption that whatever happened between the pair, it happened long enough ago for some reconciliation to have occurred. Album's like this take time and considering Jay's involvement in the record, it could be assumed that he has accepted his part in the whole debacle and respected his wife's decision. While the wrath on the record is both understandable and wholly justified (for those internet users claiming that calling out 'Becky' isn't a feminist move, I invite you to accept that feminism doesn't revolve around liking every single woman you ever meet), it's just as interesting when you consider the infidelity through the accompanying visuals.

Tales of her daddy's dishonesty, shots of the deep south where men are manly and women are trophies - It's a subtle acknowledgement of nature vs nurture, and how environment affects upbringing - cheating is never acceptable, but in Jay's case, maybe his behaviour is a product of what he was taught to be acceptable growing up, and in Beyoncé's case, what she was exposed to as having been acceptable?

Just like the one before it, Beyoncé's relationship with her father plays a heavy role. The breakdown of her parent's relationship is clearly something that has manifested itself in her own, holding a mirror up to her (probably justified) insecurities. But what plays an equally large part is that of her sisterhood. Much like a group of friends huddles around in times of need, Lemonade calls on some of the strongest black women of our generation as a celebration of solidarity in the face of adversity - the importance of community under pressure (and a neat parallel to the way black America has come together in the face of police brutality). Amandla, Zendaya, Winnie, Serena (looking serious af, by the way)- all women who have been critiqued and trashed by the media for not looking a certain 'acceptable' - in essence, for being the very opposite of 'becky with the good (read: westernized) hair'.

One of the visual album's most poignant moments is the sample of a Malcolm X speech: "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman," On Lemonade, Beyonce has been both disrespected and unprotected. Her husband has cheated, but what can she do? She does what the black woman does - picks herself up in the face of oppression, and keeps on keeping on. If black women are not protected, they have to endure, to be the bigger person. What other option is there? When life hands her lemons,  she makes lemonade. She seeks enterprise from the deepest of adversity, making her weakness her strength. It's not always as simple as walking away - this couple lost a child together, birthed another, grew up together in many ways. If you wish to look at it differently, I ask you to consider the final line of the record: 'Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper'. Now tell me again why her deciding to stay with Jay Z is anti-feminist? How do we not know that her true punishment for Jay is the knowledge that while his platform falls in penance for his action, hers can only rise?

Feminism is not about validating the behaviour of every single woman. If 'Becky' did indeed sleep with Jay Z, she knew what she was doing and deserves Beyoncé's anger the same way any woman would. This doesn't make Beyoncé less of a feminist, but is sure as hell makes her human. Which brings us to Lemonade's most affecting lyric: 'I'm not too perfect to feel this worthless'. No woman or indeed human is above the most basic of emotions, the foundations of what some of the greatest music has been born from: pain.

But even after all is said and done, Beyoncé pulls herself up. She gets back in formation, game face on. Whether she is smashing the shit out of a classic car, watching one drown or stalking through a burning building, she is a woman formidable. Despite all the devastation, all the hurt, she somehow comes out on top. All of those supernatural gothic influences you see in these videos aren't by accident - this is real black girl magic.

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