Ed. note: This is a joint post by Sesali and Maya in response to this article criticizing Beyoncé for posing “nearly naked” in a new GQ profile.
Sesali: First off, one of the most interesting things about people like this who come after Beyoncé for “fucking up feminism” is that I have never once heard Beyoncé self identify as a feminist. So whose feminist standards are we holding her up to and why? This reminds me of a feminist stance we’ve seen here recently–one that is basically waiting for the opportunity to tell someone else that their feminism, that they may or may not own, isn’t good enough. How ironic. And do I catch the tiniest whiff of white privilege here?
Maya: Yes, I’d venture more than a whiff. And you and I have actually touched on this topic before. I don’t think celebs who have never claimed to speak for the feminist movement have any obligation to be feminist role models, period. But no matter how anyone self-identifies, it’s far more interesting to look about what they’re doing and the ideas they’re supporting–whether they have a gender awareness and commitment to equality. And in that regard, Beyoncé is killing it in this profile. “Equality is a myth, and for some reason everyone accepts that women don’t make as much money as men.” she says. “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.” On fucking point.
That’s my main problem: of all the things you could possibly discuss about that profile, Freeman chose to focus on the most boring one. I mean, of course Beyoncé is half-naked on the cover of GQ. Kinda like how she is in many of her music videos. Kinda like basically every other pop star today. It’s one thing to bemoan the fact the fact that the sexist objectification machine is so extreme that even women who are famous for other things, like, say, playing sports or being pundits, are often sexualized by others or sexualize themselves. Even in the latter case, though, I’d generally recommend not being a judgmental, slut-shaming asshole towards other women, since, ya know, the whole point is that there is strong cultural pressure to conform to this expectation. But pop stars? Please. Beyoncé’s image–which, yes, is damn sexy–is part of her multimillion-dollar career. Call me if Hillary Clinton starts doing strip dances for the Austrian ambassador or something, and maybe we’ll stage a feminist intervention.
Sesali: Yeah, the slut shaming in the article is so real. Freeman acts as though somehow because Beyoncé already has money and fame, she should not fall prey to the same sexist ideas that women’s worth is defined by their sex appeal. “I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men’s magazines, such as Esquire and GQ, and these covers are, to my eyes, becoming increasingly close to porn.” Does she really think that Beyoncé’s appearance in GQ was an opportunity to “celebrate her career”? She doesn’t think that magazine spreads and other endorsements are just part of the job? Please, Freeman, I’d love to be clearer on the boundaries between owning my own sexuality, doing my job, and participating in what you later call “attention-seeking nonsense.” And at what point do we acknowledge sex appeal as something that we can embrace?
Maya: Seriously, has it really never occurred to Freeman that sometimes women like being seen as sexy? And that is not an inherently awful thing? Or that sometimes posing in your underwear is empowering? Or that just because there’s pressure for female pop stars to take off their clothes doesn’t mean that there aren’t also opportunities for claiming control of your own image? Can we please have some recognition of nuance and context here?
Sesali: Nope. It feels like we can’t fucking win for losing with these people. In the same way the patriarchy sucks for telling me I need to be more sexy, you suck for telling me I’m too sexy.
Maya: Yah, weird how you sound so much like the patriarchy, Hadley Freeman. We may never be able to win, but we should at least be able to expect that other feminists not play the role of sexy-police.
And even beyond the slut-shaming, it’s just so disrespectful of Beyoncé. There’s an assumption that either she’s too dumb to not realize that she’s being duped into stripping down for the patriarchy, or else she’s a just hypocritical narcissist who only cares about her fame. The possibility that she’s an extremely powerful woman who works in a sexist industry–one whose gender dynamics she quite clearly understands way better than Freeman–and is constantly navigating how to assert her own agency while resisting/accommodating/subverting the world’s expectations of her is not entertained. Which is weird since that’s basically what all of us, even Helen Freeman, are doing every single day. We just don’t do it will millions of people watching.
Speaking of claiming control of your own image…what does that remind me of? Oh right, that whole fascinating part of the profile that discussed Beyoncé’s extensive archive as a way of “owning your own brand, your own face, your own body,” which Freeman dismissed out-of-hand as about nothing more than her ”raging narcissism.” Nope, couldn’t possibly be any interesting feminist analysis to be found there, let’s talk about her underwear instead!
Sesali: Exactly, Maya! In conversations I’ve had with folks on the web, I’ve also found it interesting that Bey’s insistence on controlling her own image and her willingness to put in the work to do so via all that archiving makes people worry about her sanity–her ability to function in the world and capacity to actually experience life and process emotion–and, as we see here, gets her called a narcissist. But this is the same person who has resisted the demand to bare all of the intimate details of her life in a way that tells me she is very much concerned with her personal well being and that we should trust her to make healthy decisions for herself. Plus, what would we call a man who was such a perfectionist like that? The hardest working man in show business? A genius? A boss? A role model?
Maya: Totally. And that’s the other thing–we can’t ever really know about the pressures Beyoncé must face on a daily basis, but if there is one person in the world that I’d trust is making an informed, empowered decision whenever she displays her body, it’s Beyoncé. I mean, as the woman herself said–in the cogent analysis Freeman all but ignores–the thing about money is that it gives you the power to “define what’s sexy.” And I think it’s safe to assume that, at this point in her career, Beyoncé is defining sexy–not the other way around. Like, I’m pretty sure that she could don a trash bag and the world would worship at her feet.
Sesali: Yes, and she would look amazing in it! And speaking of her power, I’m actually really offended by the way Freeman dismisses Beyoncé’s extremely moving statement “I’m more powerful than my mind can even digest” as another example of her narcissism. I understood this as a sign of her resilience and a commitment to respecting her own individual and unique greatness: something we all have. I personally would encourage every black girl I know to say that to themselves at least three times a day.
Maya: Ugh, yeah. Here’s Beyoncé offering a structural analysis of gender inequality, as well as just being the greatness that is Beyoncé. And here’s Freeman complaining about what another woman is wearing. Remind me again who is supposedly hurting the feminist cause?
Sesali: Yeah, seriously, I think there are bigger feminist fish to fry than Beyoncé in a pair of panties.
Maya: To conclude: