Super Bowl XLVII: Why Beyoncé’s Appeal Crosses Gender Lines

By Rachel Grate. Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on February 1, 2013. 

Beyoncé is the Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show performer this Sunday, and it’s a fascinating choice. The Super Bowl is one of the most traditionally masculine events of the year, with its encouragement ofmanly soda or beer drinking, bro talk about cheerleaders, and a slew of sexist commercials andtactics to get your girlfriend to stop distracting you with questions (because girls couldn’t possibly understand sports).

Beyoncé, on the other hand, is an (admittedly controversialfeminist icon. In a recent interview inGQ magazine, she said,

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And 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.”

Why are spaces as hypermasculinized as the Super Bowl and GQ willing to feature Beyoncé’s promotion of female empowerment?

 

 

One answer could be Beyoncé’s sexuality and seeming openness to the male gaze. Many pointed out the contradiction of Beyoncé calling out this sexualization while appearing in her a tiny cotton jersey and underwear on the cover of a magazine run by men that in fact declared her the sexiest woman of the century. However, I resist the notion that any show of sexuality is inherently disempowering – in fact, one of the consistent qualities of Beyoncé’s music is her ownership of her own sexuality.

Back in her Destiny’s Child days (rumored to be reappearing together during her half time show), “Bootylicious” was about owning her own body and being proud of her sexuality even if men don’t appreciate it (“can’t handle that”). More recently, in “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé asserts that she “don’t need no permission” to express her sexuality, with “gloss on my lips, a man on my hips” – the man no more integral to her expression of her sexuality than an accessory like lip gloss. However, with her repeated challenge to “put a ring on it,” Beyoncé would be happier with a specific man by her side, just like many of us who crave companionship.

Whether she wanted to express herself sexually in this particular spread we don’t know, but this self-promotion is a necessary part of a job in the music industry, and it took guts for Beyoncé to speak out against men defining sexuality in a magazine reliant on the male gaze. Beyoncé took advantage of the photo shoot to promote her Super Bowl appearance, appearing in (sexual) jerseys and posing with footballs and helmets.

Her combination of feminine apparel with sports items in the spread signifies a second reason for male acceptance of Beyoncé’s feminist persona: Beyoncé makes it clear that being pro-women is not being anti-men.

While Beyoncé’s songs assert women as independent beings who are empowered by earning their own money and owning their own sexuality, the presence of important men in these women’s lives in no way threatens their empowerment. Individual men are shown as a threat to this empowerment (see: “Survivor”), but never men in general.

Beyoncé urges both men and women to be financially independent and self-reliant. ”Bills, Bills, Bills” is about rejecting a relationship with an unequal financial balance – in this case, the man relying on the woman to pay his bills. One line in particular stands out – “a scrub like you don’t know what a man’s about.” While this language seems to reinforce a stereotype as a man as a supporter, it’s clear that Beyoncé wouldn’t want a man paying her bills either – advising in “Independent Woman” to “make sure it’s your money you flaunt / depend on no one else to give you what you want.”

Relationships built on equality are clearly Beyoncé’s ideal. “Independent Woman” (“try to control me boy you get dismissed / pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills / Always 50/50 in relationships”) reflects the same sentiment as Destiny’s Child’s newest single, “Nuclear,” which opens with “You had your dreams and I had mine” and continues to assert that “you had your half and I had mine.”

Because the relations between men and women in real life aren’t typically as equal as Beyoncé’s ideal, she encourages women to stand up for themselves – but once again, not at the expense of men.

Beyoncé values the lived experiences of women, emphasizing in both “If I Were a Boy” and “Schoolin’ Life” that gender inherently influences standpoint. Beyoncé speaks for seemingly all women in “Schoolin’ Life” when she declares, “I’m not a teacher, babe, but I can teach you something.” With women in generally lower-ranking positions than men, this belief in lived experience (“Who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life?”) values the voices of many women.

“Girls (Run the World)” is one song about female empowerment that is more idyllic than true – saying boys “disrespect us no they won’t” and that “my persuasion can build a nation.” In reality, women are disrespected on a daily basis, and the fact that persuasion is her method of rule implies that there is someone, most likely a man, who she needs to persuade – after all, women are still underrepresented in politics.

The reason these masculine spheres still accept Beyoncé with her self-proclaimed feminism is because she doesn’t shun men to make her point about women’s power. Even in “Girls (Run the World),” Beyoncé disclaimers her song with the lines, “Boy I’m just playing / Come here baby / Hope you still like me,” indicating that she welcomes them in this idyllic world (as long as they “pay” her what she’s worth – wage gap shout-out).

Some songs – such as “Cater 2 U” and “Naughty Girl”- go so far in welcoming boys that some feminists have critiqued them. Like “Dance For You,” these songs depict her doing things for the man she loves. In “Cater 2 U” she sings, “I’m here to serve you / If it’s love you need / To give it is my joy / All I want to do is cater 2 U boy.” The important consideration for this song is that it’s a love letter.

Like anyone in love of either gender, Beyoncé wants to pamper her significant other, just like we all want to be pampered once in a while – and based on her other songs, I bet Beyoncé’s expecting to get pampered back in due time. As Jezebel wrote defending the song, “There’s a giant difference betweenwanting to do something for a man and having to do it.”

And this is why Beyoncé’s music crosses gender lines: It asserts female power while proving female empowerment does not exclude men. This is what feminists have been trying to convince men of for ages – that we are not anti-men, we are pro-equality. Beyoncé is pro-equality and questions gender roles, and her spreading that message to the Super Bowl – to a space largely defined by those roles – is in many ways a feminist victory.

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Follow her on Twitter or read more of her work on her blog.

Happy Holidays & Good Gifts

Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on December 14, 2012. Editorial Intern Rachel Grate continues her series on Christmas traditions and gender stereotypes

by Rachel Grate

Now that we’ve educated ourselves on the problematic aspects of Christmas traditions, the sexist elements in popular Christmas songs, and the gender stereotypes in Christmas advertisements, it’s time to look on the bright side.

We may be surrounded by the Christmas season portrayal of a perfect family, and it can be depressing when that family doesn’t look anything like our own, but it can also be liberating. Christmas is what we make of it – if we even choose to celebrate it. For those of us who do, we can make our own traditions, listen to the music we choose, think critically about commercials, and vote with our wallet.#NotBuyingIt isn’t just a Twitter campaign, it’s a dedication to boycott brands and products that are selling something you don’t agree with.

This Christmas, let’s use our money to support products that support women. With that in mind, we’re wrapping up this critical look at Christmas with a #MediaWeLike Good Gift Guide.

For All Ages:
Parks and Recreation is a delightful comedy starring Amy Poehler as a determined, smart and hilarious government worker with aspirations of the White House. (You may know Amy Poehler from her YouTube channel “Smart Girls at the Party“.) Get the latest season or some memorabilia.
Feminist Ryan Gosling (the book).
-A “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-Shirt from the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Miss Representation on DVD, or one of our many T-Shirts, including “Future CEO” and “Future President.”
A donation! There are many deserving charities and non-profit organizations that need your help.MissRepresentation.org is just one of such organizations. Another personal option includes making a loan to a female entrepreneur through KIVA in honor of your gift recipient. Once the loan is repaid, your gift recipient can either take the money or reinvest in another woman’s future.

For Children:
-Books that portray complex, strong women include Just Ella or Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine.
-A Mighty Girl has a thorough list of gender-neutral or empowering toys in their 2012 Holiday Guide.
New Moon is a bi-monthly advertisement-free magazine dedicated to empowering girls.

For Teens:
-Books with powerful, complicated women include The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Divergentby Veronica Roth, Matched by Ally Condie and A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray.
-The online magazine Rookie just released a Rookie Yearbook One with some of their best articles, interviews, and illustrations.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great TV show to introduce to budding feminists.
-A classic feminist film, such as A League of their Own.

For Adults:
The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic feminist novel that still remains relevant.
-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie (based on a novel) that portrays a complex, powerful female character – not necessarily a good role model, but certainly a refreshing break from the average portrayal of women in the media. (Mature)
-A feminist magazine subscription. Ms. MagazineBitch magazine, and BUST magazine are all great options.

These are just some of suggestions that are personal favorites, items which have changed who I am as a person and helped me develop my beliefs. Still don’t see the perfect gift? There are many other great feminist gift guides, including Ultraviolet’s Holiday Gift Guide: A Non-sexist Guide to 21st Century Holiday ShoppingJezebel’s Gifts for Budding Feminists, and Bitch Magazine’s Bitch in a Box: Holiday Gift Guide.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

In Defense of Taylor Swift

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on October 23, 2012.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Taylor Swift recently. Not only is her new CD “Red” out this week, but I also go to a college in a consortium with Harvey Mudd College, who recently won Swift’s “Taylor Swift on Campus” contest. So last Monday night I was in the fourth row of her concert, for free. And it was incredible. In addition to getting a ridiculous amount of free stuff from her sponsors, the concert itself – Taylor Swift’s performance and oft-critiqued live singing – were great.


Taylor Swift at Harvey Mudd College on October 15.

But the sentiment was not so united in my Gender & Women’s Studies class. One girl expressed her desire that the campus-wide Humans vs. Zombies competition hadn’t ended the week earlier so that zombies could rush the stage. I’ve been a fan of Taylor Swift since “Tim McGraw” first came out while I was in 8th grade, and I knew the words to every single song she sang at the concert, but feminism is integral to my identity. I needed to understand the hate.

So I did my research. And I wasn’t convinced.

The Taylor Swift criticisms I read all seemed to rely on distinguishing “Taylor Swift the product” from “Taylor Swift the person” (Jezebel). Or, as Salon phrased it, “Taylor Swift, lyricist, vs. Taylor Swift, public figure.” According to them, Swift’s business success is the most compelling pro-Swift argument, but her lyrics hold her back.

The thing is, you can’t separate two halves of a person. Taylor Swift the businesswoman is the same Taylor Swift writing and performing love songs. When young girls hang posters of her in the room, they aren’t distinguishing between the two – so neither should we in figuring out what her impact on them is.

Since Swift’s business savvy is generally accepted as a good model, I’ll delve into the criticism of her lyrics – most of which relies on claiming they reinforce a virgin-whore dichotomy.

First of all, since I don’t think you can separate the person from the artist, I feel the need to point out that Swift is one of the few teen stars recently who resisted the purity ring trend. In fact, as public as Swift is about her relationships, she’s kept her sexuality private and never implied any judgment about sexuality. Even her ex, Joe Jonas, followed the purity ring trend. Admittedly, the song she wrote about that breakup is problematic. “Better than Revenge” claims that his new girlfriend is an actress but “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”

I can’t deny that this song relies on criticizing another woman for her choices, sexual and otherwise. But I also can’t deny that I listened to it on repeat when my boyfriend dumped me for someone else in high school. Was that girl a slut? No. Was she the one I should have been mad at? No. But I was, and so was Swift.

That doesn’t excuse the girl-on-girl rivalry that this song sets up, nor the slut-shaming in it, but just as with all feminist works, it’s important to keep in mind the specific historical context. And the context of being dumped for someone else doesn’t often lead to being level-headed.

I concede the virgin-whore dichotomy in that song, but I haven’t been swayed by any other songs. An oft-criticized song is “Fifteen,” in which Swift’s friend “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried.” A critic on Astrostraddle responds by saying, “I’ll spare you the time of listening to the song and give it to you straight: Abigail had sex with a boy, and later they broke up. That’s right. No marriage. She gave him all she had. That’s right. All Abigail had was her hymen.”

The issue is, without listening to the whole song you’re not getting all the context. The phrase “giving it all up” is common to refer to giving one’s virginity, and while I agree that the diction surrounding a woman’s first time is generally sexist and demeaning (“losing it” implies a loss, rather than a gain), Swift did not create this diction. She’s just using it. Swift doesn’t even specify that “everything she had” is sex – it’s the reader, the critic, imposing our expectations of this sexist diction on the song. Everything she had could have been her heart, or too much of her time.

But, granted that it likely means sex, it must be pointed out that Swift never mentioned marriage. She never said Abigail should have waited til she was older and married, she just said she chose the wrong guy. And Swift doesn’t shun Abigail for her choice, instead they simply cry together and take it as a growing experience. The song is hardly a lecture on abstinence – it’s a story of growing up, which includes mistakes of all sorts.

The other song I’ve seen heavily criticized for a virgin-whore dichotomy is “You Belong with Me,” in which Swift positions herself against a cheerleader who wears “short skirts.” I’m not a fan of the girl-on-girl rivalry created by this song, but as Notes on Pop Culture writes in response to a post by Bitch magazine, “Sady [Doyle] calls the comparison between the two girls ‘girl-on-girl sexism”. What Sady forgets is that this is what people do. That is what girls do, that is what teenage girls do, this is what girls do when another girl has the guy they like. It’s tame, and pretty damn fair.”

There’s also something to be said for the fact that Swift plays herself and her rival in the music video, which provides at least a visual deconstruction of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Notes on Pop Culture concludes that the biggest issue with the Swift criticism is “reading the music from a very adult perspective, completely forgetting that Taylor is singing from a teenage girl’s perspective TO teenage girls.”

As a teenage girl (for one more year, at least!) I agree. Swift’s songs helped give voice to my experiences in love, and otherwise. (Contrary to popular belief, not all of her songs are about romance – check out “The Best Day,” one of my personal favorites, or “Never Grow Up,” “Safe and Sound,” “Ronan,” “Change” and “The Outside.”) It is a privileged experience, to be sure, but that doesn’t call for its dismissal.

This categorization of all of her songs as love songs (which Swift actually made fun of herself for at the concert I saw) is an oversimplification. Astrostraddle wrote that Taylor Swift, “according to her lyrics, has spent her entire life waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets.” While “Love Song” and “Begin Again” and others are about wanting boys, as I’ve pointed out, Swift does write about more. Furthermore, songs of hers like “White Horse” and “Should’ve Said No” aren’t about waiting around for a man, they’re about taking back your life and rejecting the fairy tale ending for your own sake. (In “White Horse”, Swift writes that “I had so many dreams about you and me / Happy endings, now I know / That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale.”)

That’s what Taylor Swift does. She writes about her dreams in love, but she also writes about moving on and becoming a stronger person for it. A stronger woman. Even Sady Doyle (who wrote the Bitch article “Taylor Swift Wants to Ban Access to Your Lady Bits”) admits, Swift describes “women being suitors, not desired objects.” Women may be set against each other to get the guy, but they’re not passive in the experience – Swift isn’t spending her life “waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets,” as has been argued, but she’s out there making her dreams happen. In her lyrics and in real life.

I’m not arguing that Swift is a feminist. Her songs clearly aren’t written with issues of equality in mind. But calling her “a feminist’s nightmare” seems ridiculous in an age when Lil Wayne posted the picture below on his Facebook with the caption “That dick made them rest in peace, I got a bunch of dead hoes!”

I’m also not saying that this means it’s not worth criticizing Swift’s lyrics. Sexist rap or pop songs haven’t stopped me from taking a closer look at their lyrics in the past, and this look is valuable to raise awareness. But separating Swift into two parts to tear one apart – without having to take responsibility for the fact that in doing so you’re also tearing down a successful woman – isn’t the way to go about constructive criticism.

What is important here is perspective, and reality. I love Swift because as generic as they are, her songs have given voice to my emotions throughout my teenage years. I may not have a guitar, but plenty of tears were shed in high school to “Teardrops on my Guitar.” And, in one aspect, isn’t Swift giving voice to the lived experience of women, a goal of feminism?

I’m not dismissing the criticism that’s been done, or its value. But I do respectfully disagree with the simplification of the emotions and situations Swift describes into a “virgin-whore dichotomy.” I propose in the future we deal with Swift as a complex individual rather than dividing her into parts, which seems to be a disclaimer so that we can criticize another woman without guilt. I for one refuse to believe that a successful woman could ever be “A Feminist’s Worst Nightmare.”

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn or read more of her work on her blog.

Selling “Girl Power” Short

Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on July 20, 2012. 

The phrase “Girl Power” appears in my mind bedazzled and engraved on a background of pink glittery flowers. I don’t know why, and I don’t know when it started, but a simple Google image search proves that this isn’t my own exclusive creation.


Yet, “Girl Power” isn’t a phrase I think of often. As a feminist, one would imagine the phrase would resonate with me, but some of the previously mentioned connotations had scared me off the term completely. It wasn’t until recently that I was reminded of its existence, from a most unlikely source: aCrystal Light Energy commercial.

If you haven’t seen it, the ad (above) features two women talking when one of them pulls out a drink which she describes as “new Crystal Light Energyfor women.”

My negative response to that statement matched her friends critical “Yeah right, ‘cuz we can’t have a guy’s energy drink.” I appreciated the (likely intentional) poke at Dr. Pepper’s attempt to advertise theirDr. Pepper “10″ drink as “not for women.” However, two wrongs don’t make a right, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this ad fell securely in the “wrong” category.

My intuition was accurate, as her doubtful friend is soon proved wrong in her criticism of the “girly” drink when her purse is stolen and her friend saves the day. The Crystal Light drinker chases the two thieves on their motorcycle through the city and into a desert, where she grabs back the purse and a narrator proudly explains that the drink is “Girl power to go.”

At this statement, the two men run away terrified, and I realized my problem with the ad. Girl power is shown as the worst fear of these idiotic men, placing feminism in a dichotomy against male integrity. But feminism – and true girl power – isn’t about putting men down, it’s about pulling women up until we’re all on the same level.

Beyond the polarizing gender divisions the commercial promotes, lies another problem: the commercial, under all its pretense of girl power, is for a diet drink. Part of the estimated $61 billion dollar industry designed to make both genders (though more often women) feel inferior – not empowered.

In the past few weeks, MissRepresentation.org has focused on the magazine industry’s creation of unhealthy body ideals for women in our #KeepItReal campaign. What we didn’t explore as closely, however, is that this Photoshop “industry standard” exists because of close ties between magazines and the advertisement industry.

One example of this link (that Naomi Wolf discusses in The Beauty Myth) is a prominent women magazine that lost one of their biggest advertisers, Clairol hair color company, after they featured gray-haired models in a fashion spread. The magazine never again positively portrayed gray-haired women. The same scenario plays out on an even larger scale with the diet industry.

So it struck me as a bit suspicious when I realized that the only other place I had heard the phrase “Girl Power” recently was in – you guessed it – magazines. Magazines filled with instructions on how to do our hair or “tighten our abs” or “get a guy”, because sexual power seems to be the only kind of girl power that matters. Or at least that’s the message I’ve been getting.

For instance, look at the portrayal of female Olympic athletes in major magazines. As Jezebeldiscussed, the Vogue spread “Wonder Women: Team USA’s Female Olympic Athletes” rarely portrayed the women athletically. Instead, the athletes were sexualized, mostly dressed in suggestive clothing unrelated to their sport. Soccer player Sydney Leroux (below) didn’t even have her face shown in her shot.

Despite their obvious physical power, the only “Girl Power” these women are portrayed as possessing is sexual. In contrast, the male athletes were shown doing their sports, often with female models as props.

The lack of consideration for other types of female empowerment reminded me of the recent Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercials, in which she declared that “Before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.” Despite all of her achievements – American Idol, winning an Academy Award – without the sexual power of the “perfect” body, she had achieved nothing. (At least, that’s the disturbing undertone that critics protested, causing a new release of the ad that changed the line to “When it came to losing weight before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.”)

This distorted view of girl power starts young. A line of power girl action figures from Mattel features provocatively dressed women with large breasts. The female superhero’s physical strength is implied, but they still can’t fight fully dressed.


From the toys kids play with to the bodies women strive for, “Girl Power” has become a packaged good, sexualized and sold to us from birth under the guise of feminism. The phrase has been so diluted (and bedazzled) that the only “power” it leaves girls with is the “power” to diet, or the “power” to conform to the degrading images society sells us. The problem is, girl power – or empowerment of any sort – isn’t something that can be bought. Empowerment is something that must be lived, and we can all start living by #NotBuyingIt and calling out these advertiser’s lies.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.