By Cherise Smith
It’s not about having a successful career, making buckets of money and forming a perfect nuclear family. Maybe it’s old school, but for me feminism is still about caring about the women out there who are still stuck in a raw deal.
Credit: Hot Gossip Italia on Flickr, under Creative Commons
AUSTIN, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)– With the release of the remix of “Flawless,” a new book about her published last week called “Beyoncé: Running the World: The Biography” and her recent performance in front of a large image of the word “FEMINIST” at the MTV Video Music Awards, it’s worth reflecting on whether Beyoncé’s displays of individualism are feminism in action, or something else.
Full disclosure, I am not a fan of Bey, nor am I a detractor; I tend to approach her and her products with skeptical distance, as a scientist studies natural phenomena. In the past, I would have shaken my head and thought “You go, girl!” at her boasts in “Flawless”–“You can say what you want, I’m the shit.”
However, my position on the fan spectrum shifted toward the negative when, during her performance of “Blue” at the Video Music Awards, she sang to what appeared to be a home movie of herself post-partum, reclining in a hospital bed holding newly born Baby Blue Ivy, sharing what must have been a tender moment with husband Jay-Z.
I admit to being touched by the sentiment: it made me recall the wonder of meeting my son and becoming a mother. A moment later, shaking myself out of the reverie, I felt angry that Beyoncé seemed to be peddling an extremely rarefied version of motherhood, one made possible by her wealth, beauty and respectability as part of what seems to be a successful marriage. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that image edged me toward the detractor camp.
Different Things to Different People
Do such displays make Beyoncé a feminist, and what does feminism even look like in 2014? Throw out antiquated ideas of women burning bras! Today, it means different things to different people.
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, would tell us that feminism means making it to the top so that you have the power, prestige and resources to build a nursery next to your executive office inside the corporate headquarters.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive of “Lean In” fame, would have us believe that it means getting an elite education, using your networks to climb the professional ladder, working long and hard and selecting a supportive partner who will go halfsies on domestic duties.
For Beyoncé, it means profiting off the beauty and labor of your own body unselfconsciously and marketing your likeness strategically.
Each, in her own way, seems to prove definitively that women can have it all because–“Look, no hands!”–each has created a successful career, made buckets of money and formed a perfect nuclear family.
What they don’t tell you is, “I’m special, exceptional really.” They don’t tell you their strategies won’t work for other women who don’t have the same resources at hand. “Nevermind,” they say, “that I am an outlier, the exception to the rule rather than the example that proves it. I worked hard, and I deserve this.”
An Exceptional Outlier
I recognize their positions, for I, too, am an exceptional outlier: through my wits and doggedness, I have created a thriving career, attained a measure of financial security and participated in the making of a family. A major difference between Beyoncé, Mayer and Sandberg and this professional woman is the recognition of privilege.
When I nursed my children past the recommended six-month mark and through to their second years, or when the nanny retrieved the children from school so that I could squeeze in the last bit of work for the day and cook dinner, I felt a deep sense of gratitude that my career and partnership allowed me such flexibility. At the same time, I understood that other working mothers are not afforded the same extraordinary privilege.
Feminism isn’t just about getting yours, and it isn’t about your individual privilege. It isn’t just about making sure you get paid. It isn’t about your kids getting a meal of home-cooked organic food every night. It isn’t about finding Mr. Right who respects your professional ambitions and participates domestically. It isn’t about the fact that you have never experienced spousal abuse.
Maybe it’s old-school, but even in 2014, feminism is about seeking to end violence against women, leveling the economic playing field so that women earn salaries equal to their male counterparts, allowing women to decide what is appropriate for their bodies, changing perceptions about women’s abilities, reforming family leave and child care and ending systemic gender discrimination.
When Beyoncé markets herself as feminist, it might come off as the (not so) humble brag that says “I am a common woman, and you can achieve this too.” But the real message is “I’m different and special, and you can be too.”
Feminism is about more than the individual rights of individual exceptional women.
Dr. Cherise Smith is associate professor of art history and African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin where she directs the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. She is the author of “Enacting Others” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.