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What Beyoncé can teach us
July 14, 2014, 10:12 am

Beyoncé recently topped Forbes’s celebrity power list. “Who runs the world?” it asks. “In entertainment, it’s Beyoncé.” 

In a course called Politicizing Beyoncé, lead by an adjunct lecturer on Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, America, it looks at her music and career in order to relate her fame and celebrity to the history of black feminism in America. By analysing Beyoncé, her new status as entertainment leader, students are also analysing the culture and world around people in America. In perspective, it is studying culture as it’s happening. 

Beyoncé is known as many things: singer, songwriter, actress, performer, mother, wife, and now, according to Forbes, the most powerful entertainer working today — but still, very few take her seriously as a political figure or object of intellectual curiosity. Some of that may now be changing, particularly because she’s recently put a lot of emphasis on feminism in her music and writing.

Her new album Beyoncé is self-consciously feminist, and she wrote a short essay for the Shriver Report denouncing gender equality as a myth. But, even as she has cautiously entered this political arena, she’s not thought to have much to do or say about the politics of race, gender, sexuality and class in the US or beyond.

In the course, many students have positioned Beyoncé as a progressive and feminist figure through close examination of her music alongside readings on political issues, both contemporary and historical, by classic black feminist thinkers and writers. They question what, if anything, has changed in the interim between these black feminist texts and the release of Beyoncé’s latest music. They ask if her music videos — through the visual images they put forward — challenge the same structures of power that any of these writers did.

By juxtaposing her music with these writings, students are asked to interrogate if her work can be seen as a blueprint for progressive social change. And they are encouraged to think about what form social change does and could take, not in the past, but today.

Here is an example. The students look at a song such as Partition alongside readings by bell hooks.  Partition is one of her most visually explicit videos, despite not being lyrically that sexually explicit.

When seen in this context, it becomes clear that Beyoncé isn’t sensationalising her own body and putting it on display for viewers to gawk at. Rather, she performs the historical objectification of black female bodies and replays that objectification in order to point out that, stereotypically, black women have had a few means of garnering attention beyond sexual performances. She goes so far as forcing the viewer to be complicit in this objectification by positioning them as the direct viewer of the show she is enacting. This is a key, and necessarily political, distinction.

When not arguing that Beyoncé herself is unworthy of study, some other opponents of the course have taken issue with my pairing highly regarded black feminist writers with Beyoncé’s music. While there is no explicit political comparisons with the likes of Angela Davis, Alice Walker or Sojourner Truth [all of whom are assigned in the course], performances by black women in pop culture, particularly Beyoncé, speak to the very same trajectory of black feminism as the previous authors mentioned.

 More often than not, students in a classroom have been introduced to feminism, and black female empowerment specifically, by Beyoncé herself, which has led them to well-known authors such as Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Kimberl Crenshaw, all of whom, again, are assigned in the course.

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