Recently, I have been checking out the wonderful world of feminist theory.
The release of Beyoncé’s most recent album 4 prompted me to write an article about the seemingly conflicting gender roles in her music throughout the past decade, including the Destiny’s Child era. Singles Run the World(Girls) and 1+1 present a conflicting mish-mash of traditionalism (old school gender roles associated with women, you know, like having babies, serving your man, or up in the kitchen) and gurrrl power liberation.
Bitch Media’s Kelsey Wallace wrote that most of the singer’s hit songs are “about being a woman and negotiating women’s roles in heterosexual relationships, for better or for worse.”
After re-listening to B’s Greatest Hits (made it myself, but expect that album to drop soon), I noticed a trend if money in Beyoncé’s brand of feminism. Money, gender and power (and the inter-workings of all three) are important to understanding her version of female empowerment and her take on traditional female roles.
Why is Beyoncé’s brand of pop feminism important to examine? Because pop music is never just pop music. It is pop culture. If everything was just “just”, we’d be living in 1984.
The “strong woman” theme in Beyoncé’s music relies on a few key concepts, such as a strong (male) partner and a fierce weave. But more importantly it relies on the acquisition of money and material things.
Beyoncé’s feminism is what we will call monetary or commodity feminism. In an industry where social and cultural power is tightly aligned with the almighty dolla dolla bill y’all and where women are often treated like money or objects to be passed from one dude to another, monetary feminism a la Beyoncé is a challenge to those social structures, particularly the claim to power through having the money or buying their females “things”. By buying their own “things” and making their own money, these women are taking power away from the hands of men.
Sex & Money: The Problem?
If you got the money, you got the power.
A seemingly simple, yet pretty problematic example of inequality in society. Beyoncé and other female artists in the industry in the past decade have reclaimed this male dominated source of power. It is an interesting form of feminist activity, although equally problematic in terms of feminist theory. Relying on “things” produced by an industry that dominates the ways in which your needs and desires are constructed, arguably doesn’t involve much liberation or challenge, and instead plays back into the hand of the industry.
Amy Beer argues that targeted media to women, particularly women of colour (her study looks at Latinas), construct their audience as consumers of specific commodity by:
converting the needs and desires of Latinas into commodities to be sold to advertisers, and by equating empowerment and representation with recognition as consumers… [Commoditisation] reinforce[s], rather than challenge[s], the fundamental correlation between economic and political power that contributes to the disenfranchisement of not only Latinas, but all marginalized peoples. (p. 178)
In other words, the ways in which media and commercial industry parcels and packages options of empowerment for women, matters. For Beer, accessing power through buying “things” is not enough in challenging male dominated forms of power. By taking female empowerment to mean having money and objects cannot effectively address the many faces of gendered inequality.
Money, bling, and buying it yourself in Independent Women (Destiny’s Child, 2000) for example, may have “echoed” Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox in Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves, however, in a very different way. While Annie and Aretha were talking about an “earlier” wave of feminism where women challenged traditional female gender roles by coming out of the kitchen and becoming doctors, lawyers, politicians too, monetary feminism focuses on reclaiming power and status through money and material objects only. By “depend[ing] on no one else to give you what you want,” (Independent Women, 2000) a woman is taking back her right to provide for herself as an individual, however, is doing so within a system that arguably prescribes female “wants” in the first place.
To Hell with the Price Cuz Money Aint A Thang
With the slew of male rap, hip hop and R&B “artists” that have “ruled” the popular music charts in the past decade, I think we are all comfortable making a few “general” observations. Money has pretty much always been associated with power, and that translates into music and music videos. Money has also been a “male thing” where we typically hear and see men bragging about the Benjamins, Baby and how BIG their “car” is to the other dude. We see men throwing money at the screen, (or at strippers), drinking copious amounts of expensive liquor, or driving in cars worth more than people’s houses. Remember “Bling” and how important it was (still is) to have phat chrome rims spinnin’, Cristal champagne, diamond encrusted teeth, enough gold around your neck to kill a horse, or more recently a G6?
The cultural examples are endless, but the main point is that gender, money and commodity are very much linked. This is particularly illustrated with the exhibition of dominant male and submissive female forms of power, especially in the music industry.
No Scrubs: The Club is Full of Ballers, Anyway
I see Destiny’s Child’s Bills Bills Bills (Writings on the Wall, 1999), in context of TLC’s No Scrubs (Fanmail, 1999) as acceptance, rather than a challenge to men having the money and using it for the woman’s needs. While she is pissed that he be maxin’ out her card, and buying gifts with [her] own ends, there is a conviction that while the man should be paying for himself, and definitely stop freeloading off of her, he should also be able to provide for her as well.
In Bills Bills Bills, Beyoncé sings that if the male protagonist can’t afford to pay for his own shit, and furthermore, pay for the heteronormative male related “expenses” in a relationship, he was in fact, trifilin’ and good for nothin’. Additionally, the lyrics rely on stereotypes of male-centric financial power, especially with the follow up, “silly me, why haven’t I found another? A baller, when times get hard, I need someone to help me out. Instead of a scrub like you who don’t know what a man’s about.” So here, the female is still relying in some way on the male to retain and use his own monetary power, instead of buying her own things, as would become the message in later songs (at least some: Independent Women).
According to TLC, women in the late 1990s didn’t want “No Scrubs”. No, I don’t want no scrub, a scrub is a guy who cant get no love from me. Wanna get with me with no money, oh no, I don’t want no scrubs. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez raps: I don’t find it surprising if you don’t have the G’s to please me and bounce me from here to overseas.
Men who did not have money, were not appealing to these women of the late 1990s. Money and commodities pleased them, and they were not about to get mixed up with men who could not provide this. These lyrics are more reminiscent of what second wave feminists were fighting against in the 1960s and 1970s, the condition whereby the power of commodity and purchase lay in the hands of men. While they alluded to being able to provide for themselves, lyrics still showed that the onus lay more with the men. In 2000, with Independent Women, DC was singing a very different tune.
My Love Don’t Cost a Thing, Now
There could be no clearer example of monetary feminism than in Independent Women. The lyrics say it all, the reclaiming of the ability to buy stuff becomes a female or woman’s right, which makes her ‘independent’.
The shoes on my feet. I’ve bought it. The clothes I’m wearing. I’ve bought it. The rock I’m rockin’. ‘Cause I depend on me. All the women who are independent. Throw your hands up at me. All the honeys who makin’ money. Throw your hands up at me. All the mommas who profit dollas. Throw your hands up at me. (Independent Women, Charlie’s Angels OST, 2000)
In, Why Don’t You Love Me? (B’Day, 2006) Beyoncé more or less is questioning why her man doesn’t see her as important as she claims to be. She sells herself to her man with her physical ass-ets but still reminds him that she puts money in the bank account too, and doesn’t have to ask for any help:
I got beauty, I got class. I got style, and I got ass. And you don’t even care to care. Looka here. I even put money in the bank account. Don’t have to ask no one to help me out. You don’t even notice that.
Irreplaceable (B’Day, 2006) , where we all point our fingers to the left, cock our heads and give a little, mmmmhhhhhmmmmm, Beyoncé commodifies men by making them an object which the diva could replace at a whim, thus giving her the power.
In the closet, that’s my stuff. Yes, if I bought it, baby, please don’t touch (don’t touch). Because you was untrue. Rolling her around in the car that I bought you. I won’t lose a wink of sleep (a wink of sleep). ‘Cause the truth of the matter is (truth is). Replacing you is so easy.
For Beyoncé, being a diva is being powerful, successful, and rich. With Diva, Beyoncé seeks to reclaim power for women through taking back and reinventing male-centric concepts. A female version of a hustler, defined by Oxford as an “aggressively enterprising person,” or at least, in my observations, someone in the business of making money, getting money, and/or taking money.
Gettin money, divas gettin’ money, If you ain’t gettin’ money, then you ain’t got nothin fo’ me. This is a stick-up, stick-up (I need them bags, all that money…)We’re gonna stick-up, stick-up (You see the mask, “where that money?”) (Diva, I Am… Sacha Fierce, 2008)
So, still, Diva is about power through money, or female empowerment through monetary means.
A more recent example comes from Beyoncé’s new album, 4 (2011), with Run the World (Girls).
This goes out to all my girls. That’s in the club rocking the latest. Who will buy it for themselves and get more money later. Boy I’m just playing, come here baby. Hope you still like me, fuck you pay me. My persuasion can build a nation. Endless power, with our love we can devour. You’ll do anything for me. Boy I know you love it. How we’re smart enough to make these millions. Strong enough to bear the children. Then get back to business.
What You Want To Eat, Boo?
Run the World introduces something “new”. Power is clearly coming from the ability to “rock the latest” and to “make these millions”, but the negotiation between being an Independent Woman and traditional house wife comes into play. For Beyoncé, and classic liberal feminist theory, playing these roles are not necessarily a feminist faux-pas; women can still “bear children” and be feminists because, and if only because, they can still “get back to business.”
Beyoncé’s music is intentionally hypocritical, but there exists a double standard for women in her music. Check out Cater 2 U, a DC track that proclaims:
Let Me Help You. Take Off Your Shoes. Untie Your Shoestrings. Take Off Your Cufflinks (Yeah). What You Want To Eat Boo? (Yeah). Let Me Feed You. Let Me Run Your Bathwater. Whatever You Desire, I’ll Aspire. Sing You A Song. Turn The Game On. I’ll Brush Your Hair. Help Put Your Do Rag On. Want A Foot Rub? (Yeah). You Want A Manicure?. Baby I’m Yours I Want To Cater To You Boy. (Cater 2 U, Destiny Fulfilled, 2004)
In Countdown, and one of my favourite lines, Beyoncé sings:
I’m all up under him like it’s cold, winter time. All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinner time. (Countdown, 4, 2011)
The imagery of Beyoncé cooking dinner in the kitchen in her heels, is well, more than sexy. #justsayin But you see the allusion to gender roles in gendered spaces, like the kitchen.
Upgrade U (B’Day, 2006) is a bit more obvious and telling:
You need a real woman in your life. Taking care of home and still fly. I’m gonna help you build up your account. That’s a good look. Better yet a hood look, Ladies that’s a good look. When you’re in them big meetings for the mills. You take me just to compliment the deal. That’s a good look. Anything you cop I’ll split the bill. That’s a good look. Believe me Ladies that’s a good look.
Beyoncé seems to want to stay within the realm of traditionalism yet relies on her monetary feminism to balance the equation. Real women, strong women (like in, Run the World and Countdown) can “take care of home” and still be “fly”.
Does she have to choose what realm she plays in? Can she work seamlessly through both? Is there a defined feminist and non-feminist space? Beyoncé’s often gender-bending notions of female-hustlers and cooking dinner in heels, just highlights her own negotiation of roles for women, rather than argues for a specific role to be played. Although, one of her main themes – that women are empowered through money and buying things – I think is a little awkward. I just don’t agree with the message that liberation or independence from male power is only possible through things and money.
Recently, Lady Gaga wrote: I wish I could be strong without the Sheiße. A satirical self-examination of how women are seen, depicted, or made to feel about themselves, the song Sheiße brings an interesting element to the way Beyoncé’s “feminism” works.
All the “things” that go along with being a woman are perhaps, excessive. Maybe, you don’t need to be able just to buy things for yourself or have your own money to be a strong woman. What if all that Sheiße was the shit that keeps us from really being strong?