Beyoncé, “Partition” and female role models

In the week since its launch, the Ban Bossy campaign has been making waves online. I’m not interested in talking about Ban Bossy, but I’m interested in the celebrities who have jumped on board to endorse it, and the notion that these celebrities are good role models for young girls. Namely, I’ve got a few thoughts on Beyoncé.

(I’m hesitant to tear into this topic, because if you’ve been awake since December, you know there are myriad facets to Beyoncé—the woman, the entertainer, the eponymous album, among others—that it requires a hell of a lot of context to talk about her in a way that is balanced and fair. I’m going to try, but this is me acknowledging that I’ll likely fall short somewhere.)

Have I been drinking the Yonce Kool Aid since her super-secret album dropped in December? Maybe I’ve been sipping on it. Full disclosure: I am a fan of Beyoncé, the artist. I grew up listening to Beyoncé as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child. By the time I got to high school she had broken out as a solo performer. And now, years later, she’s a solo performer megastar, a mom, a wife and a self-proclaimed modern feminist.

A lot’s changed since I was bopping to “Bills, Bills, Bills” on my Walkman en route to junior high. In particular: Beyoncé’s age. Beyoncé’s life stage. Today, she’s a 32-year-old married mother of one. Her latest album speaks to her maturity, with songs about marital conflict, jealousy, her daughter, and yes—sex. 

Some people, like Bill O’Reilly, feel like “Partition”—a steamy number about having sex in the back of a limo—is a betrayal to Beyoncé’s younger fans, who look up to her as a role model.

“Teenage girls look up to Beyonce, particularly girls of color,” O’Reilly said. “She is an idol to them. Why on earth would this woman do that. Why would she do it when she knows the devastation [of] unwanted pregnancies and fractured families.”

Thanks for your concern, Bill.

Jezebel posted this article that I hoped would be the antidote to O’Reilly’s thought process, but I felt like it fell short, so here I am taking a stab at my own response.

Tracie over at Jezebel took issue with O’Reilly, but she was writing in response to a CNN column by LZ Granderson. Granderson, too, thinks that Beyoncé as a role model is “questionable as hell.” But he adds that the parenting choices people make with their young daughters “isn’t Beyonce’s cross to bear. Nor is it a cross O’Reilly should attempt to leave on her doorstep.”

Agreed. But Granderson also says Beyoncé’s sexuality isn’t the problem; the issue is that that she chose to make her sexuality our problem by singing about it for the world:

I’m all for handcuffs, hot wax, stripper poles, whips — whatever it is two consenting adults want to do in the privacy of their bedroom to keep the relationship fresh. But increasingly, Beyonce has chosen not to keep such things private.

I’m trying to keep score from Granderson’s argument. Here’s what I’ve got:

  • It’s not fair to expect Beyoncé to raise an entire nation of young teenage girls; that’s not her cross to bear.
  • However, Beyoncé really needs to keep the whole “sex in a limousine” thing to herself, because, my god, do what you want with your husband but don’t bring it into my living room!

In conversation with others on the idea of Beyoncé as a role model, I’ve also heard the rationale that Beyoncé can do what she wants—but we (as a society, as the people behind Ban Bossy, as whoever)—shouldn’t put Beyoncé in front of grade school girls, because she is a bad example for youngsters.

For the record, I don’t have designs on sitting down with a room full of third graders and playing “Partition” on a projector screen. That would be in poor taste. But why can’t Beyoncé—the whole woman, not just the controversial “Partition” video—be a role model for young girls? What are we afraid she’s going to teach them?

Other commentators (including Tracie at Jezebel) are comparing the Beyoncé “Partition” backlash to what we’ve already been through with Madonna years ago. It does feel a bit like deja vu.

Here’s the problem with asking our role models to stifle their sexuality: Everybody has sexuality. Artists, in particular, are inclined to express their sexuality in their work. It should be obvious, but I’m not arguing in favor of lewd behavior in inappropriate settings simply for the sake of free expression; I’m not asking to be allowed to express my sexuality by showing up to my office Monday in nipple tassels and singing about sex I had over the weekend. But the question that’s been wearing at me this week is, When are women allowed to be sexual? Beyoncé is a woman who’s playing by all the societal rules (marriage, monogamy, heteronormativity.); why can’t she express her sexuality now that she’s an adult? Has she not, in a way, earned it—by keeping a relatively squeaky clean persona throughout her entire career as a young, unmarried artist, and waiting until she was much older, much more mature, (much more married) to show us this other side of herself? Shouldn’t the family-focused, right-leaning, marriage-is-sacred type folks be pretty pleased with this scenario?

From what the public can see, Beyoncé has played by every heternormative rule in the book. She is part of a nuclear family, albeit one with far more star power than most. It seems awfully pre-second-wave feminism to ask Beyoncé to keep her mouth shut about sex with her husband. 

I haven’t watched all of Beyoncé’s “Self-Titled” videos, which are part of a mini documentary about the album “Beyoncé.” But I have watched part five, called “Honesty,” in which Beyoncé says in her own words exactly what I believe the bottom line is:

“I always felt like it was my responsibility to be aware of kids and their parents and all these generations, and I felt like it stifled me. I felt like, in a sense, I could not express everything … At this point I feel like I’ve earned the right to be me and express any and every side of myself.”

No role model will ever shield a child from learning about sexuality or other adult themes. We can look at Beyoncé’s talent and path to success and say to young girls, “This is how hard work paid off for Beyoncé. This is what you can learn from her.” Of course that doesn’t ensure that you’ll never have to answer your daughter’s questions about a racy Beyoncé song lyric, but look at the world around you—children are going to ask those questions, whether they’re picking things up during recess or from watching music videos on YouTube.

When Beyoncé was a teen, she wasn’t singing about sex in a limo. She was singing radio-friendly girl power anthems with Destiny’s Child like “Say My Name” and “Independent Woman.” (She’s admittedly churned out a lot of well-intentioned yet misguided feminist anthems.)

But how long did you expect Beyoncé to be that girl from 2002? If I have kids someday, they’ll grow up listening to Beyoncé, just like I grew up listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson by way of my mom. I won’t sit my kids down for an obligatory viewing of “Partition,” just like my mom never went to the library and picked up Madonna’s “Sex” to read as a family. And if my daughter becomes a hypersexual scab on society because I subjected her to such a poor role model? Well, that’s my cross to bear, so don’t worry about it.

(x-posted from tumblr)