Can Beyoncé’s Feminism Overcome MTV’s Sexism?

Her VMA performance, which featured a sample of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on women's liberation, was the show's high point. But the network only offered viewers a narrow definition of what it means to be a woman.

(Photo: Feminist Campus/Twitter)

Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications.

The popular consensus is that Beyoncé owned this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. As the recipient of the 2014 Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, Queen Bey performed an energetic and well-sung 16-minute medley of songs from her most recent self-titled album. In a move that has launched a thousand screen grabs and profile pic changes, during the song “Flawless,” her performance featured a large projection of the word “FEMINIST” while a sample of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk played in the background. 

“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are,” said Adichie in a voice-over as her words flashed on a screen behind Beyoncé and her dancers. “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.’ Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

It was one of the most powerfully feminist statements ever seen in mainstream popular culture, and it was the highlight of a relatively staid awards show that was full of bad lip-synching and puzzling winners. (The prize for best hip-hop went to Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” which features no rapping, and the trophy for best rock went to Lorde’s “Royals,” which features not a single guitar.) There is no doubt that young women across the country, perhaps even those featured on the troubling #WomenAgainstFeminism Tumblr, will see someone as slick, powerful, beautiful, talented, and desired as Beyoncé announcing her allegiance to equality and will feel more comfortable calling herself a feminist too. That is undoubtedly a good thing.

But in some ways Beyoncé’s performance was ill timed—for example, the Adichie sample started just seconds after Bey and her dancers spun on stripper poles—and out of step with the tenor of the rest of the evening. To decry MTV for sexualizing or exploiting woman is as futile and passé as criticizing the channel for not playing videos anymore. Also, to be angry about the cable network’s depiction of women is to be in a constant tizzy since 1984, when Madonna writhed on the ground in a most unvirginal performance of “Like a Virgin.” But part of feminism is about choice, options, and celebrating all the different kinds of people women can be, and MTV (as exemplified by the VMAs) has only a singular definition of femininity.

Sunday night’s show began with Nicki Minaj’s ode to her ass, “Anaconda,” featuring dancers dressed as snakes humping the ground. It continued with former Nickelodeon tween star Ariana Grande in sparkly lingerie and thigh-high boots, Taylor Swift’s dancy play for pop diva–hood (remember when she used to be a confessional, countryish singer-songwriter?), and Iggy Azalea’s latest feat of black-cultural appropriation, performed in a catsuit with strategically placed cutouts. It’s a strange evening when Miley Cyrus, who at last year’s show twerked her way to infamy, seems like the most thoughtful entertainer for inviting a 22-year-old homeless man to accept her award for best video and draw attention to the plight of the dispossessed. 

It’s not that I’m scandalized by all the commodified sexiness; I’m bored by it. Never has so much skin and gyrating failed to arouse at all. I support the rights of these women to wear as little as they want and dance as raunchily as they choose, though I do wonder why everyone has chosen the exact same lane. Shouldn’t we have come far enough by now that a covered-up introvert with a unique point of view and a husky voice could be in the pop pantheon among ingenues in bustiers panting over an EDM beat? (In fairness, that’s Lorde’s M.O., though she didn’t perform on Sunday.) Isn’t there a way to make a splash at the splashiest of awards shows without showing skin or simulating sex acts? I don’t care if musicians can dance—this is MTV, not Broadway—but if they do, shouldn’t they be inspiring strippers with their moves, not the other way around?

Lest you think the VMAs are the only offender, I direct you to Monday night’s Emmy Awards, which are supposed to honor the best work on television but instead took time out from an overlong broadcast to do a tone-deaf skit that featured Modern Family star Sofia Vergara rotating on a platform like a statue. The offending moment came during the chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ mid-show speech, and the joke was “this is the boring part, so look at the hot lady,” which was punctuated by his final line: “What truly matters is that we never forget that our success is based on always giving the viewer something to watch.”

Say what you will about Modern Family—and I didn’t think it deserved to win its fifth best-comedy trophy Monday—but Vergara is an award-winning actor and comedian who has, four times, been nominated for a prize given by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. She is more than an enviable set of curves meant to be ogled by men indifferent to the requisite chairman’s speech, and she deserved better from a body that has honored her acting.

So yes, Beyoncé, I’m glad you’re a feminist, and I felt real pride watching you stand next to that sky-high eight-letter word on Sunday night. But I wasn’t satisfied. As the rest of the VMAs proved, we still have a lot of work to do. But that doesn’t make you any less #Flawless.  

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