The complexity of Beyoncé: a reply to Rakhi Kumar

The argument that Beyoncé is not a role model is uncomfortably close to the idea that women must be de-sexualised to be worthy of respect.

Rakhi Kumar's “An Open letter to Michelle Obama,” in which the author argues that Beyoncé is no longer a role model for girls, has been trending online. In her letter, Kumar takes issue with the First Lady’s calling Beyoncé a role model, claiming that her doing so gives a “seal of approval” to a commercial domain in which sexiness forms a prerequisite for a woman’s success. The article hinges on Beyoncé’s wearing an outfit during her tour that was “sheer with nipples showing”—considered by Kumar to be “the final degradation of her [Beyoncé’s] talent.” Kumar calls on Michelle Obama to retract her claim that Beyoncé is a good role model for young women. That of the body suit, though inaccurately described (the outfit wasn’t sheer, and was rather embellished in a pattern that delineated exaggerated nipples) is not the only point Kumar made. The author moves to equate this outfit and Beyoncé’s sexual connotations more generally with a culture that promulgates sex trafficking through its commodification of women.

It has been duly noted in responses to the article that the misguided partial attribution of sex trafficking to the sexual dimension of Beyoncé’s image—particularly with regards to the “nipplesuit” she wore once on tour—participates in a form of slut shaming. Slut shaming, in this case, can be thought of as the public decrying and guilting of Beyoncé for breaching Kumar’s own definition of “appropriate” sexuality. In general, Kumar’s reductive style of argument strings together a bunch of scary terms vaguely related to gender—alpha males, sex trafficking, drug-dealers, oh my!—and ties them to the clothes Beyoncé wears and the lyrics she sings with brittle linkage at best. Kumar makes the crude structural deduction that, since Beyoncé mentions sex and money in her lyrics and performs in scant outfits, she is complicit in a broader cultural universe permissive of sex trafficking. Girls who listen to her music learn the lesson that the easiest way to get the things Beyoncé has is to sell their bodies. That is, sex trafficking = sex + money + women; Beyoncé = sex + money + women + singing; and therefore sex trafficking = Beyoncé – singing. Q.E.D. Kumar wields the logical fallacy of the slippery slope in a way that makes her article nearly intolerable to read. Aside from its misunderstanding of the veritable complexity of gender-as-modality in the formation of Beyoncé’s many identities and diverse messages, the article has many other flaws. A point-by-point analysis thereof is not the intention here.

However, the article is illustrative of our society’s problematic relationship with sex and sexuality, and ought to be discussed in that regard. In particular, the underlying assertion Kumar makes is that role models for girls ought to be desexualized and that (Beyoncé’s) sexiness is base and “soulless.” The conclusion? Good girls are chaste. They are the ones who grow up to have doctorates and hide their secondary sexual characteristics so as to preserve their sanctity. So that, when the time comes to have “honorable” sex, the act is more “meaningful.” From this it follows that the complement set—the girls who participate in different sexual practices or the girls who wear their sexuality (which by Kumar’s logic must mean that they lack confidence and substance)—have been raised improperly. Sound familiar? This is the age-old virgin-whore dichotomy. When mapped across the dimension of time implicit in the directionality of girls looking up to women, it becomes clear that the (mythical) concept of the ideally desexualized role model replicates the fault lines of this binary across generations.

What lesson is Kumar teaching girls in writing her open letter? Once women are put into the box of “role model,” excursions out of that box—like, wearing a sexy number during a concert—mean they need to be dragged out into the public, de-crowned from the honorable title of role model, and thus shamed. In that the letter is addressed to Michelle Obama, Kumar seems also to be threatening the First Lady with scandal and a loss of political clout unless somehow she keeps up her obligation as role model to cast out those who breach contract. In this framework, role models form a co-validating group of women who keep tabs on the sexual practices of those in the group so as to maintain collective sanctity. The implication is that role models for girls are women who are either having licensed sex—in wedlock, having babies—or are ones whose sexuality is covered up. Those who do indeed wish to be sexual in any explicit or different way are to be cordoned by a deeply rooted fear of being similarly outed and exiled.  So when young girls, who according to Kumar ought to learn all of their lessons from trips to museums and “clean” stimulation, grow up to emulate their role models in an adult world in which almost all people actually have sex, their finding themselves to have sexual inclinations as well becomes a source of guilt and shame. In this way ensues the same old projective process of otherizing and shaming those who extend beyond the confines of licit sexual behavior, defined to be those within which the “honorable” girls find themselves capable of functioning. The structural parallels with queer-phobia are obvious. In both slut-shaming and queer-phobia, (some might argue that the latter subsumes the former) the legitimizing of one’s own sexual practices as “normal” places oneself in a comfort zone from which he or she might cast out those who differ from historically and institutionally constructed notions of gender normalcy.

Have I gone too far? Here is further proof. Kumar treats Beyoncé as the manifestation par excellence of the entertainment industry’s (alleged) mantra that “Girls are no more complex than dolls.” In that she fails to even consider the possibility that some dimensions of Beyoncé’s image may have simply gone over her own head, Kumar betrays a lack of understanding of the complexity surrounding Beyoncé and her many ways of signifying. More damning, perhaps, is the fact that this lack of understanding is a result of the fact that the author herself can’t see beyond Beyoncé’s bikini line to understand what she’s about on a more profound level. Instead, because one of the less chaste versions of Beyoncé wore an outfit with nipple detailing, Kumar seems to think that she can’t possibly have anything of substance to say—that Beyoncé’s message is not “refined” or “intelligent.”

It might seem though, that at this point I’ve snarkily argued myself into a corner. What, you might ask, do I propose as an alternative? That role models be sexualized? God forbid! Well, I don’t argue that role models have to be sexualized. However, I don’t think that they have to be desexualized, either. For the above reasons, I believe that the required desexualization of role models proliferates a shame culture that is detrimental to the cause of women and gendered society more generally. Maybe, we should go for a more sensible requirement: we allow role models and celebrities to be human beings, who do indeed have sex. In the case that a role model for women is, for instance, dually a sex symbol, the definition of sex as it pertains to that role model ought not comply with the oppression of women. This is in direct contrast to the culture of slut shaming in which participating women collude in their own oppression.

So where does this place Beyoncé? In general, the performativity of reference looms large in Beyoncé’s ability to signify. It makes it possible for Beyoncé to do overtly sexual things when in character and reverse the denotation of those acts from that of their original context. For example, when Beyoncé does a seductive dance on a piano (which she was doing even in the pre-nipplesuit-era) she is referencing performances in which the intention was actually to seduce. Contextualized by a crowd predominantly comprised of women and gay men, the intention is different. In such cases the unsexed nature of overtly sexual dance moves can mean something other than male seduction and female oppression. Try, for example, a celebration of the female figure. This turning of an obvious or original meaning on its head is very successfully achieved in her video for “Why Don’t You Love Me?” From an analysis of the role of performativity in this music video, it might become clear (to those for whom it wasn’t already clear) that not all manifestations of sex are equal, and that unlike in sex trafficking, the role of sex in Beyoncé’s symbolic market is not necessarily deleterious to girls and women; and that unlike the notion of sex deployed by slut shamers, that of sex in the video does not oppress women.

In the video Beyoncé appears in character as the 50s housewife “BB Homemaker.” The 1950s suburbanite housewife is received in society today as an archetypal symbol of Western female oppression. She was a trophy for a man returned from the war, the lynchpin of an artificial and commercial domestic utopia, a master of home economics. And she had to do all of it dressed-to-the-nines in heels and perfectly applied makeup. BB Homemaker turns the dial all the way up on the imagery of the commodification of the female figure. The video cuts between scenes of BB Homemaker doing chores with dated appliances while tottering around in heels of death-defying height, and crying desperately on the phone to an absent husband who doesn’t love her. The overt and yet subtly construed irony of the video cues the viewer to the fact that the message is not actually that women ought to desperately cling to their husbands. Rather, as the lyrics tell us, women like BB Homemaker have done so well in a world of obstacles defined by men that a husband’s rejecting such a wife means he’s “plain dumb.” And the reference is brought into the future and inverted when Beyoncé is seen in a veritably 50’s house using a ridiculously impractical feather duster to polish her vast collection of Grammy trophies. The insouciance of her look says nothing more than, “Look at all of these hoops you’ve given us to jump through, men. We’ve done it over all these years, and we can still be on top.” The video always reminds me of one of my mother’s favorite sayings – “everything Fred (Astaire) did, Ginger (Rogers) did backward and in high heels.” In a similar way, the video presents a subtle commentary on the history of traditional female oppression. It appropriates a beauty and fashion culture that, despite being derivative of 50s commodification is construed as entirely for women in the present.

You may not agree that the above is fully representative of Beyoncé’s impact on those who experience her. Frankly, I don’t. This small sampling does however show that Beyoncé’s messages are not only complicated and substantive, but that it is possible that she be both a sexualized woman and a role model for girls. In closing, I would advise that we shy away from playing a zero sum game in which case studies from Beyoncé’s work are pitted against each other to get down to some “singular” message about sex. This simply isn’t how large-scale signification and its reception by society works. Anyway, given the sheer volume of data to choose from, such a project is fundamentally intractable. By appeal to a specific case though, it becomes obvious a bit more interpretive effort debunks the reductive tendency to demonize all notions of sex and sexuality.

The discussion of what defines a role model is one that society has to have. Hopefully it will result in a productive redefinition of the concept. In having this discussion, as in others, we must understand that sex is not universally base. Not all of its manifestations can be readily linked to sex trafficking and the like. Perhaps, if you personally judge your children to be more likely to take things at face value, a complicated signifying phenomenon like that of Beyoncé might not be appropriate. However, I’d be wary of underestimating a young person’s ability to parse complex messages and draw sensible conclusions about the positives and the negatives therefrom. More importantly though, if as a parent you take the meaning of sex in all of its manifestations to be base by default, though well intentioned, you are very possibly causing more harm than good. Censorship and condemnation of cultural phenomena like Beyoncé on the basis of overt sexuality is problematic, and moreover restricts your child’s exposure to diverse ways of being that exist outside of museums.

 

About the author

Matthew Capetola is reading for an MPhil in General Linguistics at Oxford University, where he is a Columbia University Kellett Fellow. His focuses include semantics, gender and language, and computational discourse theory.