Why Beyoncé Is as Important to Feminism as Oprah

Isn't the point for women to be whomever they want to be: mom, pop star, CEO, or any combination thereof?

(Photo: Larry Busacca/Chime for Change/Getty Images for Gucci)

Dec 20, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Shannon Kelley writes about the intersection of politics, pop culture, and feminism. She lives in California.

Oprah “forgoes” motherhood, and the world asks: Is she woman enough?

Beyoncé sings about being a mom, and the world asks: Is she feminist enough?

When it comes to being a woman, being a feminist, and the expectations and judgments that surround those roles, a girl's gotta wonder: Can any of us ever win?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that last week Queen Bey dropped a bombshell, full-length album unannounced, complete with eye-popping videos and a who’s who of guest cameos, a bold move that totally subverted the standard operating procedures of her industry (and succeeded wildly: It’s iTunes’ fastest-selling ever).

The release of the eponymous album has also ignited one hell of a debate about feminism.

While there’s catnip for debate lovers all over the album, the most straightforward nod to the oh-so-incendiary F-word—feminist, naturally—comes on a track called “Flawless,” in which Bey samples a TED Talk by Nigerian-raised author Chimamanda Adichie titled “We Should All Be Feminists.”

Adichie’s talk, for the record, is wonderful, humorous, and yet stinging in its truth, calling out everyday sexist slights as well as the entrenched expectations around gender that hold everyone—women and men—back.

In the song, Adichie is heard saying:

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.... We teach girls they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

Juxtaposed against the lyrics and images of the song and video, there's some dissonance to be found. In a sex-charged montage Beyoncé grinds up against her husband, shows off her “rock,” and commands people—using the word for female dog—to "bow down," before claiming “I woke up like this,” while bobbing her perfectly coiffed head around. She strikes a challenging pose. Which, naturally, has led to a whole lot of conversation, much of it in the familiar Is she really a feminist? vein.

Perhaps the sharpest words came from Foreign Policy magazine’s Catherine A. Traywick, who, having none of it, tidily sums up the opinions of much of the dissent when she writes, “Beyoncé 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.”

Maybe—but that seems a bit too easy. And what's the value in insulting a pop-star's willingness to claim the label "feminist" as "beginner," when, to be fair, she's working in the medium of pop music (as opposed to, say, writing a dissertation)? An equally easy counterpoint is offered with the video for “Pretty Hurts,” which makes clear that Beyoncé is perfectly willing to issue a challenge. As she’s shown under the scrutiny she must realistically face as a star—being measured, being weighed, sweating, and obsessing—she rails against the ugliness inherent in being a beautiful woman in her own industry, saying, “Perfection is the disease of a nation.”

Is there irony there, given how pretty she is? Of course.

But “Pretty Hurts” says that she’s not immune to the “disease.” All women get the message: She who is prettiest wins. And the song offers an honest commentary on an important reality: As much as we hate that message, most of us play along to some degree.

It’s the playing along while hating the game that shrinks us too.

In another part of her talk, Adichie gets at the motivation that keeps us playing along: “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer we would be to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.”

Those expectations follow all of us, no matter what we’ve accomplished or the nature of our individual experience.

Hell, even Oprah isn't immune.

Just last week, The Hollywood Reporter published its "Power 100" issue; and one of the 100 is (spoiler alert! or not) Oprah. The story about her, which focuses primarily on her OWN Network, runs with the headline “Oprah Winfrey on Forgoing Motherhood, Being ‘Counted Out’ and the Meeting That Turned OWN Around.”

Interestingly, the part that was picked up everywhere, from "Today" to E! to CNN, was the “forgoing motherhood” part of the story—broad attentions considering the subject is covered in a couple paragraphs halfway through the piece. This is one of the most powerful women—nay, people—in the world... interviewing for the magazine’s “Power 100” issue. She just won a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yet, that she isn’t a mother is what people want to talk about.

The many differing expectations of women are so knotted, there’s hardly a safe path to take.

While some may argue that looking sexy while singing about pleasing your husband, or wanting a ring, or loving motherhood, or issuing rap-star-variety bravado about how big a baller you are, cannot by definition be feminism, I’d ask you to look again. While some may argue that being curious about a woman who opted out of motherhood is perfectly normal, I’d ask you to look again.

The ways in which Beyoncé flouts the conventional expectations of feminism—while repeatedly, and proudly, claiming the label for herself—may well be the most revolutionary thing about this album. It’s an interesting parallel with Oprah. She too has subverted many of the traditional gender expectations: She’s not a mother, by choice, and she has achieved mind-boggling success that she refuses to play down.

Adichie says that women are raised being told—subtly and not so subtly—to make themselves small. We do this by buying in to expectations, shrinking our voice, downplaying our achievements, and not going for whatever it is we really want.

Beyoncé and Oprah are powerful and successful beyond all measure because of their willingness to buck expectations and refusal to shrink themselves. What’s empowering about them—and therefore truly feminist about them both—is that they’re showing other women that there’s more than one way to do things. That they too can chart their own path, and define with their lives not what it is to be a woman but what it is to be a very specific woman—what it is to be themselves.

There’s nothing more feminist than that.