In December last year, Beyoncé gave her fans the best Christmas present imaginable: a surprise new album with seventeen tracks, each with their own music video. There was no forewarning, no single pre-released – the entire album became available on iTunes at midnight on December 13 through a single tweet from Columbia Records. The internet exploded. During the first month of its release, Beyoncé outsold the number of copies her previous album, 4, has sold since its release in 2011 (over 1.4 million records).
The album is basically a feminist onslaught, celebrating the sexuality, bodies, success and potential of women. I use the term ‘feminist’ not just because I find the album empowering (which I do), but because Beyoncé uses it. In ‘***Flawless,’ she plays an excerpt from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, including lines like:
‘We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller… We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist. A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.’
‘Pretty Hurts’ explores the pressure women feel to look beautiful (the video shows girls at a beauty pageant, competitive and jealous of each other, bulimic, and swallowing cotton wool to feel full), and ‘Grown Woman’ playfully declares how Beyoncé is free to make what choices she likes.
The feminist ethic of the album is affirmed by Beyoncé’s command and enjoyment of her own sexuality. She positively radiates sexual satisfaction in songs like ‘Drunk in Love’, ‘Blow’. ‘Rocket’, and ‘Partition’, and appears in control of her desires and their expression. In ‘Partition’ Beyoncé performs an exotic dance for her husband, Jay Z, based on the choreography of the Crazy Horse cabaret. The entire performance is framed as Beyoncé’s personal fantasy: at the beginning of the clip, she begins daydreaming, suggesting that the dance takes place in her own mind, rather than her husband’s.
One could argue that Beyoncé’s sexual focus is simply the result of the pressure placed on women in the pop music industry to objectify themselves in order to succeed. While this is perhaps true to an extent – we can’t separate Beyoncé from the system she works in – there is a major difference between Beyoncé’s work and other pop music: it’s clear that her erotic life takes place within a strong, monogamous marriage. Rather than singing about an abstract ‘he’, Beyoncé sings explicitly about Jay Z, who himself appears in many of the videos. You get the impression she’s not just showing her body for the sake of it, but because she derives so much pleasure from sharing it with her long-term partner.
The album is not just about sex, though. Beyoncé also sings about grief (‘Heaven’), the joys and anxieties of motherhood (‘Blue’ and ‘Mine’ respectively) and relationship issues more generally (‘No Angel’ and ‘Jealous’). It’s a well-rounded album that foregrounds female experience across a range of situations.
Notwithstanding a disturbing lyric in ‘Drunk in Love’, sung by Jay Z, which appears to advocate domestic abuse, Beyoncé is an album which will hopefully help pop music fans to engage with ideas about feminism and will encourage pop stars to embrace the term ‘feminist’. Whether or not you agree with the way she presents feminism, no one can deny that Beyoncé is advocating for gender equality in a way that will reach millions of people – her fans. Truly, listening to her songs makes me feel just like a ‘grown woman, who can do whatever she wants.’
Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based writer working on a PhD in Literature at the University of Melbourne.