Beyoncé Knowles Carter is one of the most dominant female pop artists the world has seen. Married to “Jay-Z” (Sean Carter), Beyoncé is one-half of a billionaire entertainment power couple. She’s released fragrances, starred in films, and double dates with the President and First Lady. And while lots of people get invited to the White House, none yet had the First Lady say in People Magazine that if she could be anyone in the world, she would be them. Mrs. Carter has arrived.
Beyoncé released her latest work, the self-titled video album “Beyoncé,” without any advertising. This proved her pop prowess as fans and critics rushed to download the album. This latest project is a good place to start when thinking about the images she portrays of Black women.
Beyoncé’s Goal: Redefining (Black) Womanhood
In many respects the project is a comment on beauty itself. From the opening track, “Pretty Hurts,” Beyoncé seems to call us to serious self-reflection about “prettiness” and the self-destructive lengths some travel to attain it (eating disorders, surgeries, etc.). She makes a worthy attempt to move the discussion beneath the skin to the essence of our humanity, as the chorus chides:
Try to fix something but you can’t see,
It’s the soul that needs a surgery…
She tells us we “ain’t got no doctor or pill that can take the pain away; the pain is inside and nobody frees you from your body… it’s my soul that needs surgery.”
Beyoncé’s most critical reflections come in the cut “Flawless,” where she samples feminist thinker Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s probing critique of the messages we send to our girls:
“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.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors—not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing. But for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” (listen to entire TED Talk)
The most charitable reading of Beyoncé ’s self-titled album is that she’s calling for a world where a woman’s soul matters far more than her body and a world where boys and girls receive the same message about their purpose and potential. I like that vision. That’s a world worth working for. As a father of two girls, I resonate on some level with Queen Bey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Why Beyoncé’s Work Thwarts Her Goal
But Beyoncé confuses and contradicts the best possibilities in her music. Her picture of womanhood needs serious repair. Why?
She Reinforces Beauty Stereotypes. Though Beyoncé the album starts with promise, it recapitulates the worst stereotypes about feminine beauty. “Pretty Hurts” features an unhappy contestant smashing trophies but still finds her sitting in her swimsuit in a sensual position. “No Angel” opens with the protest, “underneath the pretty face is something complicated,” but goes on to approvingly flash scenes of strippers . In “Yoncé” she proudly tells us “man ain’t never seen a booty like this.” By the end that’s all man is seeing.
Mrs. Carter appears in a swimsuit (and far less!) in almost every video on the album. If pictures are worth a 1,000 words, these pictures repeatedly say “beauty is body” and “pretty” is synonymous with “very nearly nude.” In the end, Beyoncé seems imprisoned in the superficial emphasis on outward appearance she laments in some of the tracks.
She Demolishes Feminine Virtue. Recall Adichie’s objection, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” Beyoncé shows us exactly what it looks like if Adichie’s comment is taken to mean girls should be sexual beings in all the aggressive and physical ways boys are sometimes permitted. It’s not pretty. If most men are commonly regarded as “dogs,” then the women who emulate them can only be female dogs. Is there any wonder that in hip-hop and pop culture women often use the b-word to refer to themselves and other women? That’s what happens when women wish to match men in sexual depravity. Someone should stop and ask, “Why should a woman want to be equal with male perversion?” Aren’t there some higher heights for our daughters and sisters to achieve?
In Beyoncé’s videos we learn the truth of the proverb: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (Prov. 11:22). We’re witnessing the demolition of feminine virtue and discretion. You cannot elevate what you demolish. This form of feminism doesn’t have within itself a guardrail for protecting distinctively feminine virtues. Rather, it often eviscerates what it claims to liberate.
She Glamorizes Juvenile Notions of Womanhood. Now, I suspect Beyoncé might say, as some feminists do, that her sexuality is a kind of liberation and “voice.” She now owns and uses her body the way men do. For her, this is what it is to be a woman.
Yet Beyoncé’s discography suggests she holds an immature and incomplete definition of womanhood. The track “Grown Woman” gives us her working definition in the refrain, “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want.” In some respects that’s her mantra. If this video album gives us the vision she associates with her lyrics, then from “Haunted” to “Glow” she’s telling us that “whatever I want” means “sex when and how I want”—not meaningful accomplishment and achievement as a woman.
But is “I can do whatever I want” really a “grown woman’s” main quality? That’s a rather juvenile approach. How many parents have heard this very outburst—“I’m grown and I can do what I want!”—from their rebellious teenagers? Which parent did not immediately explain that such a view was proof of immaturity? At the heart of womanhood (and manhood also) is self-control—which means adulthood often requires not doing “whatever you want” and often doing a lot of things you don’t want. Beyoncé’s CD actually encourages an extended adolescence that masks itself as Black female beauty and autonomy.
She Sells Sex. Ultimately, Beyoncé unabashedly sells sexual fantasy to her fans. When a U.K. newspaper calls your album “the most X-rated pop album since Madonna’s Erotica” — it’s clear you’ve crossed some lines. Beyoncé knows this, too. She sings about it:
I do it like it’s my profession,
I gotta make a confession,
I’m proud of all this bass,
Let me put it in your face,
(from “Rocket”; emphasis added)
Queen Bey wants us to think we see a woman, in control, powerful, even “flawless.” She wants you to think you could either be her or have her as she teases in “Rocket.” It’s always about her derriere and as she says in “Rocket” the “mass appeal” she gets from it.
But this fantasy destroys both men and women. I’m not sure it’s too much to say that her videos are a kind of soft porn. With pornography enslaving more and more women, we need to be careful that little brown girls don’t develop the sense that sex is a commodity or an asset to be wielded for comfort, pride and/or profit. If we raise our daughters and sons on a steady dose of Beyoncé, they’ll no doubt miss the deeply spiritual and satisfying pleasure of sexual intimacy in the context of marriage and covenant fidelity. They’ll think the meaningless act produces joy, rather than realizing joyful commitment infuses the act with meaning. And we’ll lose another generation of African-American girls to body-ravaging, soul-destroying worldliness and sin.
She Presents a Sad View of Marriage. Finally, Beyoncé presents us with a tragic view of marriage. We applaud her and Jay-Z for apparently doing things in proper sequence. First they marry; then they begin a family. They model the healthy family formation that social science and common wisdom teach is so necessary. Sometimes this peeks through in the album. For example, I’m grateful for the artistically beautiful “Mine,” which includes the chorus: “This is a song for the good girl… All I can think of is we should get married.” Praise God for the promotion of so positive a message. When the Carters appear with the likes of the President and Mrs. Obama, the images of their marriages represent something quite powerful and sadly rare in much of the African-American community. As Christians, we know they’re presenting a portrait of Christ and His bride, the church (Eph. 5:22-32).
Yet sadly, it’s a marred picture. For where Christ sacrifices himself for His bride, in the lyrics and videos on this album Jay-Z exploits his. In “Partition” Jay sits back to enjoy his wife’s private show, made public for the world’s consumption. In “Drunk in Love,” Jay channels his inner Ike Turner, demanding Tina to “Eat the cake!”—a reference conjuring images of domestic abuse. His “love” is really a kind of violent conquest.
Is this what we’d expect of a husband and want for our daughters? Shouldn’t he—and every man—protect the virtue of his bride? I’m screaming, “Jay! C’mon, man! If you like it put some clothes on it!”
This is what Christ does for the Church, washing her in the water of the word, making her more radiant in His robes of righteousness. It may be too much to ask a non-Christian husband to emulate Christ in a fulsome way. But we ought not forget that marriage is a creation ordinance; it’s pre-Christian, which means every marriage ought to reflect a cherishing and protecting love. Not only does this album give us the wrong picture of womanhood; it compounds that problem by giving us a woefully sad picture of manhood and marriage, too.
Art Creating Reality
Why should we even care about any of this? Well, because we love our sisters—including Beyoncé. And, as a pastor, I’m well aware that sexual purity is the number one discipleship issue the church faces. It has been since the apostles called a council meeting in Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Our sons and daughters arrive at our churches saturated in sensuality. The images of a Beyoncé video play over and over in their heads. They’ve listened to the lyrics hundreds of times. We have the difficult duty and personal privilege of trying to bend their thoughts and desires back to the Scripture. If we don’t know what we’re contending with we can’t hope to be effective. I care about this issue because it’s twisting our daughters’ thinking about the most intimate matters of life and their sense of self-worth.
Beyoncé is correct. The soul needs surgery. The kind of “pretty” the world promotes really does hurt. I’m sad she furthers the hurt with the exploitation of those bankrupt worldly ideals. Only the Great Physician can cure our communities of the brokenness that calls itself “beauty” even as it defiles womanhood itself. We need our daughters to understand true beauty and the true Perfection of Beauty. Instead of Beyoncé’s gratuitous displays, we need more of this kind of video and poetry. Here’s a visual display of beauty and womanhood as it should be modeled.