Friday, January 3, 2014

Beyonce: An Ode to Radical Motherhood?

Much has been said about Beyonce's self-titled, secretly-released "visual album." A large part of the conversation (including my own contribution) has focused on some collective hand wringing about whether or not we should consider Beyonce a feminist.

In another article on that topic, Elizabeth Majerus makes a good point about the lack of textual analysis in many of these posts about the presence/acceptability of Beyonce's feminism:
I want to hear more about what Beyoncé says on her album. As I admitted at the outset, I have yet to hear Beyoncé. But the buzz is making me want to hear what exactly she articulates on the album. It’s also making me wonder why I haven’t heard more about the album’s content in all the articles and posts that have taken up this issue.
I can't pretend I've mastered the internet enough to say no close textual analysis of Beyonce exists. In fact, I'm sure that it does (feel free to link in the comments!), but I am fairly well-read in most mainstream feminist circles, and I've seen plenty of articles about whether or not this album gives Beyonce feminist credibility and very little about the songs and videos themselves.

With that in mind, allow me to give a little explanation of how I read the album.

This Sin City Siren post (the bulk of which is also concerned with Beyonce's feminist credibility) ends with an observation that really resonated with me:
 When I was watching some of Beyoncé’s videos last night, I kept thinking that it’s been a long time since we saw her this truly fierce. Not just a put-on kind of fierce, but actual gut-level ferocity. I can relate to that. Immediately after I had my daughter, I had a period in which I felt soft and vulnerable and defined from outside myself. But then, as I became more confident in my new role as a parent and in my new body (because things shift in flight and never shift completely back), I found a kind of power and bad-assery that I have never fully realized before. Maybe it was always there, dormant. Or maybe the experience of pregnancy and childbirth pulled me across a new threshold of power and consciousness. I don’t really care how or why it is there, but it is. And I like the idea that people, especially young people, will be watching Beyoncé hold two seemingly conflicting thoughts simultaneously in each hand — that she is a mother and she is powerful.
While I realize that I am bringing my own experiences and biases into my reading (which is how we always read things), I have to say that this is exactly how the album resonated for me: an ode to radical motherhood.

What little textual analysis I have seen of the album focuses (understandably so) on Beyonce's overt sexuality. This Thought Catalog piece, for instance, moves quickly through each song and asserts that "no sex is being sold here, sex is being told."  Jezebel has a post about a recent behind-the-scenes interview with Beyonce in which she explicitly connects this display of brazen sexuality (an ode to oral sex on the track "Blow," discussion of using sex toys in "Drunk in Love," and many, many, many images of her displaying her body sexually) to motherhood:
I was very aware of the fact that I was showing my body. I was 195 pounds when I gave birth. I lost 65 pounds. I worked crazily to get my body back. I wanted to show my body. I wanted to show that you can have a child and you can work hard and you can get your body back. I'm still finding my sensuality, getting back into my body, being proud of growing up. It was important that I expressed that in this music because I know there are so many women that feel the same thing after they give birth. 
You can have your child and you can still have fun and still be sexy and still have dreams and still live for yourself.
While I am personally troubled by the "post-baby body" obsession (especially among celebrity representations of mother's bodies), I can hardly put that blame on Beyonce. She's just as much a victim to those expectations as the rest of us, and since her career is intricately tied up in her appearance and performance, the stakes are higher. Yes, the phrase "get my body back" irks me, but I also think that she's right. That is a thing that many (most? all?) new mothers worry about, and her discussion of it in this way directly links her to those other mothers.

She says "I wanted to show my body." And Bey gets what she wants.

We get the distinct impression that this visual album was accompanied with music videos specifically so she could try on so many different versions of herself. She shifts from overtones of fun, creepy, militant, sexy, and nurturing. But the most important part of her display is the way that these identities merge and diverge, the ways that they intersect. 

This, for many women, is the crusher of motherhood: the identity can be all-consuming. It can be very hard to find a sense of self outside of the role of mother, especially in a society that tells you motherhood must be perfect, must be--to put it bluntly--"flawless." 

In order to be a "good" mother, you have to give birth the "right" way (a scrutiny Beyonce faced), breastfeed for "long enough" but not "too long" (another site where Beyonce's body was used for public commentary), stay home with your child or risk being called selfish, work or risk being called lazy, make homemade organic snacks by hand each day, never use a nanny or daycare, have regular sex with your husband daily (you are married, right? and it's to a man, right? if not, well, you already lost the perfect mommy wars), give your child ample attention, not coddle your child with too much attention, never use cry it out methods, never co-sleep with your baby, only use cloth diapers, make your own baby food from scratch, never miss a school meeting, throw elaborate birthday parties, enroll your child in every extracurricular activity imaginable, have dinner on the table, and keep your body looking slamming hot while you do it. 

The act of motherhood is exhausting but also rewarding, amazing, and awe-inspiring. The myth of motherhood, on the other hand, is just downright insane. 

Throughout most of Beyonce, the tracks are an ode to Beyonce's sense of self. Her exploration of sexual pleasure, personal satisfaction, and professional success read as nothing less than mini-manifestos that fly in the face of the myth of motherhood. There are also some specific references to the overwhelming nature of motherhood tucked away in unexpected places. 

On "Flawless," arguably the most popular track from the album, Beyonce croons the lines:
I took some time to live my life
But don't think I'm just his little wife
Don't get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches
While there was much speculation about whether or not Beyonce would be able to return to her glory days once she became a wife and mother, this album (and this song in particular) act as a clear, aggressive defiance of such doubts. It also seems to be a direct affront to critics who said Beyonce's dubbing herself "Mrs. Carter" were hurting women and the feminist movement, making her a bad icon.

In "Mine," a collaboration with Drake that explores relationship woes, there is this:
Been having conversations about breakups and separations
I'm not feeling like myself since the baby
Are we gonna even make it? Oooh
While this song may not be as clearly autobiographical as some of the other works on the album, it's a nod to the way that motherhood and pregnancy impact relationships and complicate our lives in ways we couldn't have predicted.

Still, these lyrics are little moments in songs that otherwise fit neatly with the idea that this album is Beyonce's reclamation of her post-baby sexuality, but in order to maintain the simplicity of that narrative, we'd have to ignore the last three (four if you count the bonus) tracks completely.

I don't think it's any accident that the tone shifts so drastically for the final songs. While Beyonce certainly claimed her sexuality as a position of power early in the album, it's these final numbers that leave me stunned by her exploration of human complexity.

"Superpower" is lyrically a fairly straightforward exploration of the power of a relationship:
And when I'm standing in this mirror
After all these years
What I'm viewing is a little different
From what your eyes show you
I guess I didn't see myself before you
For an album that has focused so much on her own confidence in her body, this admission that a partnership with another human being makes her see herself differently is powerful.

She goes on to explicitly call upon that power:
The laws of the world never stopped us onceCause together we got plenty super power
She couples these lines, which could be read as a kind of vulnerable dependency upon a husband for power, with a video that displays her at her most militant.

She takes the role of wife--with all of its potential weaknesses through dependency and subordination--and turns it into a powerful partnership that cannot be broken. She's on equal footing with her partner, and together they are unstoppable. 

Immediately following the track that shows Beyonce at her most militantly empowered is one that shows her at her most vulnerable. "Heaven" is a sorrowful ballad of loss and grief, and many of Beyonce's fans have speculated that it is about her own miscarriage

And while "Heaven" may or may not be about the vulnerability and emotion of motherhood, the next track (the final official track on the album) most definitely is. "Blue" is explicitly about her relationship to her daughter Blue Ivy (who is featured on the track and in the video). Beyonce explains that: 
Sometimes these walls seem to cave in on me
When I look in your eyes, I feel alive
Some days we say words that don't mean a thing
But when you're holding me tight, I feel alive
And this is coupled with beautiful images of love and the simple joy of holding your child.

An album that starts with raunchy odes to cunnilingus and videos shot in strip clubs ends on a beach with a mother holding her daughter. And I don't think we're supposed to read it as a simple transformation story. Beyonce is still all of those other selves, too, but when the walls are caving in as she tries to hold all those other identities up, it is looking in her daughter's eyes that gives her a sense of being alive. 

This entire complicated narrative about identity, marriage, and motherhood is summed up with incredibly clarity in the bonus video for "Grown Woman," the very last thing on the entire album. 

Beyonce sings "I'm a grown woman. I can do whatever I want." 

As she sings, images of her performing throughout her life segue into a dance sequence that takes her through many different iterations of her public persona. It's almost a summary of the rest of the album. She can play sexy, flirty, drama queen, down home girl, etc. "Grown Woman," then, can be read as a the conclusion to this story (which also explains its placement as a bonus track, the afterward). She realizes that she has presented conflicting identities in her performance on this album, and not only is she not apologizing for it, she's telling us that was the point. She can do whatever she wants. She is not any one of those things, she is all of them, and that makes her greater than any of them. 

The most powerful part of all of this is the very final image in "Grown Woman." Remember, this is a song that is claiming Beyonce's right to be anything she wants and a summarizing conclusion for her album as a whole. She ends it with this: 

She draws careful attention to the fact that her role as mother, as nurturer, as caretaker is very much included in the "whatever I want." Motherhood is not antithetical to the sexuality she expresses elsewhere. She is just as much herself in this moment as in any other, and the album acts as a striking declaration of that fact. 

If some are concerned that Beyonce is not touting a "real" version of feminism, perhaps it is because so much mainstream feminism has no place for motherhood (as the #FeminismIsForMothersToo conversation recently pointed out). If motherhood is included in mainstream feminist narratives at all, it is often a conversation of economic disparity that ignores the fact that the pink collar and nurturing work of the world is work worthy of exploration in its own right. 

When I listen to Beyonce, I am reminded of my own struggles with identity in the face of motherhood. Beyonce crafts a visually stunning exploration of these difficulties and dropped it outside of the confines of her record label and the capitalist PR that normally drives such a release. From beginning to end, from sex toys to a bed covered in babies, Beyonce presents a radical view of marriage, motherhood, and sexuality that rattles the confines of identity even within many feminist paradigms. 

Photo: Joe Lencioni


  1. I love this post! Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. I am still exploring the album myself, and I have found so much resonating in my own exploration/struggles in being a girl/woman/wife/mother of 3/ community member/citizen, etc.

  2. This is brilliant. I enjoyed reading it. I totally agree with this statement: "If motherhood is included in mainstream feminist narratives at all, it is often a conversation of economic disparity that ignores the fact that the pink collar and nurturing work of the world is work worthy of exploration in its own right."

    Motherhood is power of a certain kind, but we don't recognize it because of the patriarchal perspective through which it is viewed even by other feminists. Patriarchy and Feminism are as Yin and Yang. Motherhood is an experience outside of this dynamic.

  3. I haven't seen the videos or heard the album, only picked up little bits and pieces of the hype around it. But I REALLY enjoyed this and appreciate the fact you took the time to dig deeper and look at the big picture of the album as a whole. It is really a fascinating breakdown! Thank you!

  4. "Patriarchy and Feminism are as Yin and Yang. Motherhood is an experience outside of this dynamic!" I love this! It's especially outside the dynamic of feminism that has focused almost exclusively on economic equality, a flavor of feminism that has no space for motherhood and often even seems threatened by the complexities it brings.