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Beyoncé and the problem of the ‘universal’ girl

by Guest Author , June 13, 20114 Comments



Beyoncé’s latest song and video clip, released a few weeks ago, have sparked furore amongst fans and feminists alike. Entitled Run the World (Girls), the song celebrates a type of universal, female domination, and functions as a shout-out to successful women – college graduates, mothers, those who make millions and, of course, those who can shake it on the dance floor. The mantra ‘Who run the world? Girls!’ is repeated with gusto through every chorus – a type of rhetorical girl power. The tone of the song is both celebratory and aggressive, and the style of the video matches this, with its bright costumes and multitude of female dancers shakin’ their booties in front of a group of male soldiers. Beyoncé and her back-up dancers create a female militia, armed with suspender-stockings, push-up bras and sexy dance moves, the men motionless before them.

Whatever symbolism may have been intended, my initial understanding of gender relations in the video was that that hyper-sexualised female bodies left men goggle-eyed. The more I thought about this song, though, the more I realised that it raised questions not only around methods of female empowerment, but the very rhetoric Beyoncé employs to speak about a collective group of ‘women’ in the first place.

The thing is, I actually do think Beyoncé represents many great things to which women can aspire. She has achieved huge success in her performing career (which already spans about fifteen years, even though she is only twenty-nine years old), has a seven-year-long marriage which (so far) shows no sign of faltering, and has recently collaborated in a teenage anti-obesity campaign with Michelle Obama. Furthermore, her status as a fashion icon (she has modelled for Tommy Hilfiger) and the positive attention she has received for her voluptuous (as opposed to waif-thin) figure completely trounces the ludicrous claims about African and African-American women recently made by Satoshi Kanazawa, the London School of Economics professor who claimed that black women were less attractive than those of other ethnicities.

If Beyoncé can put her money where her mouth is when it comes to ‘running the world’, then why the uproar? One particular feminist, who runs a YouTube channel under the username nineteenpercent, argues that it’s because Beyoncé’s lyrics are a lie – that women do not run the world, but rather, are the world’s largest ‘minority’ group, which actually constitutes a majority of the population. She runs through a number of statistics (such as the overwhelming percentages of female rape victims, unequal rates of pay and, shockingly, that a bill rendering domestic violence a felony was not passed in South Carolina during 2006) and contends that while women’s liberation has been effected to an extent over the past century, there is still a large amount of work to be done before we can attain what she calls an ‘egalitarian society’ (let alone the female world domination that Beyoncé claims is already in place).

Other blogs with a focus on women, such as Jezebel, have claimed that Beyoncé sends women false messages of empowerment through the way her new video plagiarises the work of other artists like Pieter Hugo and Lorella Cuccarini. ‘Do you run the world by stealing ideas?’ they ask. Furthermore, my Zimbabwean housemate and our other African friends have been equally appalled by Beyoncé’s increasingly ‘whitened’ appearance (her hair is bleached in the video, and her skin appears paler than her comrades’) and feel let down by a woman who they believe had the potential to be a role-model to black females in a way that white pop stars could not.

The fact that both feminists and African women are dismayed by Beyoncé’s latest hit highlights a gap between the singer’s lyrics and her personal appearance, or between her claims about women and the way that real women actually feel. As such, the issue for me is not just Beyoncé’s problematic message of empowerment (or even, as nineteenpercent has demonstrated, her outright error) but the way she substitutes her own success for all women, everywhere. It’s the problem of the universal ‘girl’ of which she speaks, the girl who is at once representative of all women, but who, according to the video clip, has a very specific appearance and methodology. Beyoncé’s girl power is maintained only through an overwrought and violent female sexuality exemplified by a certain body shape – I wonder how many girls would feel confident bouncing about in the outfits that Beyoncé’s dancers wear. Besides, consider the message she is sending to black women. ‘You will do anything for me,’ she sings to the men – but again, only if the women conform to a certain blonde appearance. Ironically, just as the rest of the world was responding with rage to Kanazawa’s racist remarks (released just a few days before Run the World (Girls)), Beyoncé herself seemed to be conforming to an outmoded stereotype of beauty.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with Beyoncé dyeing her hair, dancing in a way that accentuates her curves, wearing certain clothes or promoting the capability of women. But a problem occurs when these things converge in how Beyoncé attempts to represent women, particularly when all women cannot directly identify with either Beyoncé’s personal experience or the claims made by her song. By invoking the language of ‘girl power’ in such a universalising fashion, Beyoncé actually excludes women from her philosophy, rather than including them. Had Beyoncé entitled her song Run The World (Beyoncé) she perhaps would have retained more credibility – we could have to looked to her particular achievements for inspiration, without feeling that she had rhetorically flattened out the differences between individual and groups of women – differences which must be taken into account if we are address to the real hurdles that still face women today, or to celebrate the success already gained.

Julia Tulloh is currently completing a Master of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.




  • Donna R

    This is a thoughtful post, and raises many contradictory elements in this debate. It reminds me of the scandal surrounding Rhiannon and her partner subjecting her to horrendous domestic violence, only to go on to star in Eninem’s song celebrating domestic violence! How easily this issue turns in on itself.

  • Matt

    I agree in part with some of the statements made in this post, but overall it seems to hold Beyonce to an arbitrarily high standard of literalism. I always read the lyrical content of the song as quasi-performative, attempting to conjure a reality that doesn’t yet exist. I imagine that Beyonce, someone deeply embedded in a music industry, and a nation, that is deeply white and masculine, is aware of the limitations of female power today.

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