First lady Michelle Obama has described Beyoncé as a “role model who kids everywhere can look up to.” Oprah Winfrey called her the “pre-eminent mistress of the universe.” Despite counting two of the most influential women in the world as fans, Beyoncé still has her detractors – particularly within the feminist community. And it seems, when it comes to the question of whether or not Beyoncé is a feminist role model, the dividing line is often one of race between her detractors and supporters.
Early Friday morning, the singer quietly released her self-titled “visual album,” leading to the singer’s best first-week numbers during her career. Beyoncé, which is available exclusively on iTunes for the time being, reportedly sold 617,213 copies in the U.S. iTunes Store and 828,773 internationally in its first few days. It broke the record for first-week digital sales of an album in the United States, and is set to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart.
Despite this rapt reception, almost immediately after the debut of her fifth studio album, the debate over Beyoncé as a feminist figure was reignited.
The controversy over Beyoncé as feminist icon
As much as fans loved it, reviews also rolled in blasting Beyoncé for its overly sexual lyrics and images. Simultaneously, others — including MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry — heralded it as a “feminist manifesto.”
WATCH HARRIS-PERRY’S SEGMENT ON BEYONCE’S NEW ALBUM
Does Harris-Perry see the singer differently because she is also a black woman?
“Beyoncé has been making feminist moves without having to call herself a feminist. I think black women in particular have always recognized that,” image activist Michaela angela Davis told theGrio. “It seems like she’s on her own terms. You don’t get the feeling that she’s being manipulated by someone else’s fantasy of her and that’s an important part of her appeal to many women.”
Analyses such as those of Davis and Harris Perry compete with heavy criticisms of Beyoncé in mainstream feminist circles. In fact, when the singer appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine — a feminist mainstay — in 2012 under the headline Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism, the publication received so much backlash, it inspired an article on their site about the ways white feminists lack solidarity with black women.
At the root of the debate over whether Beyoncé is a feminist is a much deeper question of how to define feminism.
“What does it mean to be a feminist? Who gets to be one? And what does it take to be one? Who gets to decide who is a feminist and who isn’t?” asked writer Lauren Rankin in response to the Ms. backlash. “These questions, while perhaps important in theory, are almost always a means of excluding and demonizing those who don’t fit the white, liberal feminist narrative of what makes a woman a feminist.”
How white, mainstream feminists see Beyoncé
In a piece titled Why White Feminists Are Mad At Beyoncé, Julia Sonenshein, contributing editor at theGloss.com, explored the many critiques leveled at the singer in reviews shortly after the debut of her album. She shared her take on why so many white women have difficultly stomaching Beyoncé’s version of empowerment.
“White feminists tend to critique Beyoncé first and foremost for the way she uses her sexuality as a tool. White feminists also tend to criticize her attitude towards wealth and materialism, along with her bravado and confidence,” Sonenshein told theGrio. “While there is certainly room for criticism, and major figures like Beyoncé should be criticized, these particular conversations tend to approach any analysis from a very white point of view, and don’t consider how the themes of sexuality, wealth, and confidence differ across communities.”
Beyoncé’s supporters seem to be in agreement that there is a need for change in the feminist movement. In fact, women of color are coming to the forefront, demanding to have their issues and interests represented.
“This is one of the ways that the old rift between white and black feminists plays out,” said Davis. “White feminists have had a good run of defining the movement, but we’re tired of those old standards. Like women, feminists come in lots of different shapes, sizes and types.”
Beyoncé’s definition of feminism
One track on the new album, Flawless, is a remix of Beyoncé’s Bow Down, a song heavily criticized for its use of the word “b***h” when it leaked earlier this year. Perhaps in reaction to accusations that using the b-word is the antithesis of the “girl power” ethos the superstar tends to tout, Flawless features a sample from a presentation by renowned Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Titled, We Should All Be Feminists, in the talk portion sampled for the song, Adichie defines a feminist broadly as, “[a] person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” This is a wide definition that can include many forms of feminism — including a feminism that is body-positive, sexy, and proud of wealth accumulation.
And it appears that Beyoncé herself has such an open definition of feminism. In 2010, she told the U.K.’s Daily Mail: “I think I am a feminist in a way. It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be; perhaps it’s because I grew up in a singing group with other women, and that was so helpful to me. It kept me out of so much trouble and out of bad relationships. My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.”
Three years later, at the start of her controversially-titled Mrs. Cater world tour — because the name seemed to define her by her husband — Beyoncé told British Vogue: “I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman, and I love being a woman.”
Will mainstream feminism open up to Beyoncé’s brand?
Widening what it means to be a feminist is something mainstream leaders of this political group will need to do if it truly wants to speak to all women, including women of color.
This means accepting that for many of these women, Beyoncé is their icon.
“People are starting to understand that insular, mainstream white feminism that excludes any other oppressed group — [such as] women of color [or] transwomen — isn’t sustainable or effective, so it’s in the interest of white feminists to learn about the ‘sisterhood’ they claim to represent,” Sonenshein said.
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR