In a godless world, Beyoncé is the closest thing we have to a goddess.
I can think of no other figure worshipped so vehemently by men and women alike. She is described as “flawless” from the very first moment of her existence, for as we all know, she woke up like this. Like any great mythical figure, she needs only one name. Not since Cleopatra has the world seen the Greek ideal of beauty so seamlessly intertwined with the mystique of the African queen.
Beyoncé is the 3.6 octave-spanning voice of a generation. She is “Bootylicious.” She calls to her “Single Ladies,” who run the world? “Girls.” There was a time, as recently as the April 2013 issue of British Vogue, when Beyoncé felt the need to be ambivalent about her stance on feminism: “That word can be very extreme… But I guess I am a modern-day feminist.” Fast forward one year, and “that word” stands in capital LED letters as the introduction to her stage appearances on the Mrs. Carter tour. Her self-titled surprise Beyoncé samples a TED talk on women’s issues by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; the album’s visual accompaniments have been heralded as bold reclamations of female sexuality. In January, Beyoncé published an essay emphatically titled “Gender Equality is a Myth!” which argues “we have to teach our girls that they can reach as high as humanly possible.”
Convinced of the radical notion that women are people, I have been out of the closet as a feminist since the tenth grade. Which is why I was so enthralled, then confused, then frustrated, then enthralled again, and then completely perplexed by my repeated viewings of Beyoncé’s raunchiest video yet, the one for “Partition.” Complete with undulating synths, a thrusting bass line, and the unforgettable line “he Monica Lewinsky’d all on my gown,” the song is an absolute banger (and not in the half-assed Miley Cyrus sense of the term). The video, on the other hand, deserves a closer look. Even as Beyoncé makes strides toward sexual liberation, she remains trapped in the male gaze. This video is a textbook case, shot entirely from the perspective of a heterosexual man.
Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” to describe the power asymmetry which usually takes place in film and video representations of women. Men control the camera, and we, as viewers, have no choice but to follow their lead. When Brigitte Bardot steps into frame, the camera pans up and down her curves; when a Bond girl emerges from the ocean, we watch the water trickle down her cleavage in slow motion. Women are systematically objectified, reduced to the sexualized body. Rarely do we watch cinema from a truly feminine perspective.
Beyoncé’s “Partition” is no exception. Directed by Jake Nava, its implication of the male gaze is not a secret, nor is there any question of whose perspective the camera assumes. Before we even see Beyoncé’s face, we see the newspaper, because we are eating breakfast with her, because we are her husband, Jay Z. She tries to get our attention, and then the beat comes in and we all (married couple and viewer alike) dissolve into a phantasmagoria of sex and sound. In each fantasy, we have a subtle but present reminder of who this is all being done for. When Yoncé struts before the headlights of a car, Jay is watching from inside. When she pops out of her sexy Elvira cape, we see Jay’s head foregrounded in shadow. And when she dances in a cage wearing only lingerie, Jay sits alone in the audience puffing on a cigar, his face shrouded in smoke so that the male gaze retains the nefarious anonymity which is the source of its power. Though the man is clearly Jay Z, we never quite see his face, so any male viewer can readily imagine themselves in his place.
The video is not without its achievements. I adore the opening scene, when Beyoncé capriciously drops her napkin so that her white maid (is that Lana Del Ray?) has to scurry and pick it up. The psychedelic mirroring shots display the female body in the most perfect geometry I have ever seen. And I can’t deny that I kinda want to join in on whatever is going down between B and J in that car. In no way do I mean to argue that Beyoncé should have toned down the sensual qualities of this video. I’m all for pushing the limits of decency, and I believe that media like this can be empowering. Rihanna’s video for “Pour It Up” showed us how a woman could usurp the man’s throne and disregard his gaze; there isn’t a male in sight as her dancers work the pole with an intimidating degree of athleticism. Women can and should be inspired to reclaim their sexuality. I’m just not sure that “Partition” takes the right approach. Do we really need to shine leopard print on Beyoncé’s skin as she does her most “exotic” dancing? Do we really need Jay Z’s presence to legitimize the video, especially after he bombed his verse on “Drunk in Love”? Do we really need to see Jay at all? At no point can this video be described as Beyoncé dancing with her girlfriends because that’s what they like to do. At every turn, we see Beyoncé dancing for her husband because that’s what gets him off.
There’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to please her husband, but I take issue with the way that Beyoncé tries to subsume this under the pretense of “feminism.” At one point in the song, a woman’s voice chimes in to remind us in French that, contrary to popular male belief, feminists love le sexe – c’est une activité très stimulante et naturelle, que les femmes adorent. I don’t think there was ever a question of whether feminists enjoy sex. The question was (among many others) how they might come to enjoy sex on their own terms after a long history of objectification by the male gaze. After watching Beyoncé’s motionless body being rotated on a stage while she sings, “I just want to be the girl you like,” I can’t believe that her video takes a single step away from this history. Simone de Beauvoir is rolling in her grave.
To expect our female idols to hold to ideal standards of feminism would be just as unfair as holding them to impossible standards of femininity. We should never underestimate how difficult it is to think outside of the patriarchy, which has governed the Western conversation on beauty, desire, and female sexuality for millennia. If even the Queen Bey can’t escape the male gaze, it is certainly not she who should bear the blame. At the same time, we must consider what is at stake when we use the term “feminist” to describe artists and performances which continue to structure themselves around fundamentally traditional paradigms of gender and marriage. We risk diluting a radical movement whose most important transformations are yet to come into a pop feminism which settles for what has already been accomplished. Even more insidiously, we risk allowing the word to be reduced to a marketing strategy, something that can be appropriated by the capitalist men who run the record companies to perpetuate their own dominance. To have power, feminism must remain dangerous.
Beyoncé is our vision of the feminine. She is a goddess. But let us not forget whose hands sculpted all those statues of Aphrodite.