Beyoncé’s "***Flawless" as the Anthem for Fourth-Wave Feminism
Article by: Marco Marcelline
During a performance of her song “***Flawless” at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 24th, 2014, Beyoncé stood in front of a screen emblazoned with the word, ‘FEMINIST’ in bold. This simple act would very quickly become recognised as one of the most iconic moments in pop culture history, as it was perhaps the first time that a mainstream pop artist would so publicly proclaim their feminism in such unequivocal terms.
Beyoncé’s association with feminism has been subject to derision and criticism from various feminist authors and figures who question her true allegiance to the cause. One of the reasons for the criticism Beyoncé receives is that such a large segment of her brand appeal is based on the construction and projection of her sexuality which caters to the straight male gaze. Indeed, the song “***Flawless” has been specifically over-analysed and used as an example to denigrate her feminist credentials. Alongside a powerful excerpt from the “We Should All Be Feminists” TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the hyper-successful entertainer appears to contradict the message of the speech by telling her peers to “Bow down, bitches.” “***Flawless” is a perfect representation of the malleability and individualism which defines fourth-wave feminism. Fundamentally, the herald of the fourth wave, Beyoncé, has cemented the idea that feminism is no longer restricted to white, middle-class, cisgendered spaces. Rather, anyone can be a feminist – Beyoncé included.
“***Flawless” propagates the idea that feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. Beyoncé can perform the song in a leotard and flesh-baring tights and still be a feminist. She can gyrate against models in the music video for the song - all whilst wearing a full face of make-up - and this does not mean she cannot call herself a feminist. “***Flawless” is both a vindication and affirmation of feminism. It affirms Beyoncé’s inability to be fitted into rigid feminist pigeonholes (which in itself is a feminist act of defiance), and it clearly shows that the structures which her feminist foresisters built were unaccommodating for the realities of the modern, millennial, sexually empowered woman. The advent of social media has meant that there are no longer limitations on how a woman can and should present herself, and Beyoncé perfectly epitomises this new-found popular narrative.
The song centres around the hook, “I woke up like this.” Many critics have pointed out that this – in addition to the song title - underlines the constant societal pressure on women to look good for men, while reinforcing the idea that the self-worth of a woman is limited to her appearance. However, it should instead be interpreted as a call for women to recognise that they are beautiful and worthy enough in whatever state they wake up. Beyoncé is therefore unapologetically reinforcing the idea of self-love and self-elevation. Considering that the majority of her fanbase are black women, “***Flawless” is a source of self-empowerment and encouragement for people who are constantly bombarded with a projection of beauty that is strictly white, skinny and straight-haired. Beyoncé is preaching that they are enough; they are, as the title says, “Flawless”, despite what the world would otherwise tell them. It is also interesting to note that in the video for the song, the dancers predominately sport punk hairstyles, and are adorned with boots and heavy jewellery which are reminiscent of the punk rock Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s. The movement itself started as a means to ensure young women were granted a space in the male-dominated environment of the punk rock scene.
“***Flawless” also depicts a woman who is unafraid to be perceived as aggressive. Beyoncé is conscious of the ways in which black women are especially viewed as aggressive any time they speak up. In the first verse, Beyoncé controversially demands that those who do not respect her “bow down.” She is demanding respect. The whole point of this song is that even after all she has achieved, she still has to aggressively assert her greatness in order to be heard. The braggadocious chants of the song’s first section mirror the cockiness exhibited constantly by male rappers. However, their attitude goes largely unchecked because it is expected and normalised. Meanwhile, Beyoncé receives undue amounts of flak from feminists and misogynists alike for being aggressive. The point that Beyoncé is trying to make is that women should be able to assert and stand up for themselves.
Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” also includes men in the feminist movement. She is a champion of the everyday woman. Whereas second- and third-wave feminists insisted on a woman’s financial and social independence from men, Beyoncé introduces the idea that a woman can find joy and happiness from her man, or marriage, while at the same time being a feminist. In “***Flawless”, she affirms that “her man makes [her] feel so goddamn fine”, while her “dad taught [her] to love [her] haters”. Here, she is enforcing the narrative that women can find encouragement and love from men, yet this does not detract from the power of their womanhood. Men have a space to occupy in the fourth-wave feminist movement. This mirrors the message of the 2014 HeForShe campaign which the actress Emma Watson spearheaded. The UN-sponsored initiative advocates that the only way to achieve equality is by encouraging all genders to participate in the feminist movement, since gender inequality affects everyone regardless of their sex. Beyoncé proclaims that despite “having taken time to live her life” by giving birth to her daughter, and renewing her vows to her husband, JAY-Z, she is not just “his little wife.” Here, she is directly firing back at the critics who did not appreciate her decision to name her sell-out 2013 tour, The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour.
Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” is an anthem for fourth-wave feminism. It is a personal and explosive affirmation that a woman can be a feminist in whatever state of clothing she is in, no matter how much make-up she wears, and whether or not she has a man in her life.
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