- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Beyonce is just full of surprises. In the past 24 hours, she dropped an album, joined Weibo, and — to our particular delight — paid tribute to one of Foreign Policy’s 2013 Global Thinkers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose 2013 novel Americanah is topping book charts.
On a track called "Flawless," Beyonce samples Adichie’s April 2013 Ted Talk, which is a thoughtful, amusing examination of subtle sexism in everyday life. Beyonce bookends Adichie’s words with distinctly less thoughtful lyrics of her own: She shallowly trumpets material wealth and physical beauty and, working in a few lines from her spring single, advises others to "Bow down, bitches."
This dissonance is a pleasant surprise, argues Daniel D’Addario at Salon, and the unlikely tribute to Adichie seems to bolsters Beyonce’s at-times controversial claims to feminism. "Her music," he writes, "is feminist in precisely the manner Adichie’s speech is."
It’s a nice thought but, unfortunately, not at all true.
The pairing of Adichie’s speech and Beyonce’s lyrics is striking, but not for the reasons D’Addario suggests. Beyonce gives us a heavily-edited, watered-down version of Adichie’s speech that aligns with the singer’s banal brand of beginner feminism: She reduces Adichie’s powerful message to an overly simplistic, inoffensive pro-girl anthem that does little to challenge trenchant gender ideals. Here’s how that talk was repurposed in "Flawless":
We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
"You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man"
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes
Adichie’s actual speech offers deeper insights than Beyonce’s treatment would suggest. Breaking down the many subtle yet insidious ways that sexism guides our choices and shapes our worldview, she’s particularly pointed about how cultural expectations surrounding marriage inhibit women’s potential by framing subservience as "love." It’s not a new argument, but seems particularly relevant given Beyonce’s efforts to reinvent herself as, chiefly, a wife and mother, as well as the singer’s longstanding valorization of female domesticity. Apart from her well-known admonitions that men "put a ring on it," the woman titled her last tour, "Mrs. Carter," and is famous for songs with lyrics like these:
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
[…] Baby I’m Yours I Want To Cater To You Boy
For what it’s worth, Adichie is sharply critical of the fact that women are raised "to cater to the fragile egos of men," taught to pretend to enjoy household chores and servitude for the sake of love. I’m fairly confident she would characterize the above lines in the same way she characterizes marriage: "a language of ownership rather than a language of partnership."
It’s ironic that Beyonce would reference a speech that, in this and so many other ways, seems to highlight the tacit sexism of her own music. Then again, Beyonce — for all her undeniable talent — doesn’t seem to understand the notion of irony. In a recent issue of GQ, for example, she is quoted as saying "Let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous." Truer words were never spoken. But they would have been more powerful if they hadn’t appeared next to photos that unironically embody GQ’s definition of what is sexy and feminism.
Adichie argues that women are socialized to "turn pretense into an art form." The same could be said about Beyonce.