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.

Facing the Fiction of the “Freshman Fifteen”

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on August 1, 2012.

By Rachel Grate

We’re only weeks away from a rush of new college freshman struggling to condense their entire room into a dorm-sized pack, taking their first nervous steps on campus without parents and meeting their roommates. As a result, stores are filling up with packing check lists, parents are freaking out and many students are – worrying about impending weight gain?

As out of place as that statement seems, it’s true. I was there just one short year ago, when every teen magazine I bought, like Seventeen, promised to help me “figure out what college is like – before you even get there!”

Unfortunately, instead of making me more confident about the upcoming transition, flipping through the magazine just made me more anxious about the adjustment I’d have to make and about the most damaging of irrelevant worries, my weight. (I wouldn’t have been surprised by this inverse effect if I’d know what the Keep It Real campaign has since brought to my attention – that 3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine.)

The “Freshman Fifteen”. Friends had joked about the weight gain, but I had never seriously worried about the weight gain until being bombarded with articles that referred to it as inevitable, “dreaded”, something you must “fight”, “fear” and “beat”. I mentally mapped out my battle plan, with circles over the gym and the dining hall’s salad bar.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t follow the prescribed diet once arriving at school. Instead, I fell into my old routine: running every other day and enjoying the fresh-baked cookies at dinner. Yet, surprisingly, I finished the year the exact same weight as I started it, as did most of my friends. So I decided to do some research, and found out that this result wasn’t as surprising as I’d thought. The average college freshman gains a healthy 2.5-3.5 pounds for normal body development, the 2011 study “The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or Media Myth?” found.

The “Freshman Fifteen” rhetoric which frames all weight gain negatively has a lasting effect on girls’ self-esteem and perception of health.

Finally, some numbers that made sense – a lot more sense than the theory that I’d magically gain fifteen pounds unless I made the drastic changes magazines suggested. Unfortunately, in my research I stumbled on another statistic that was all too believable: since 2000, the number of college students dieting, vomiting or taking laxatives to lose weight has jumped from about 28 to 38%(American College Health Association). College challenges students with stresses without their old support system, which often triggers eating disorders. So why aren’t these numbers being reported, rather than the mythical “Freshman Fifteen”?

Suddenly, I realized that was only half the question. What I now wanted to know was, could one of the reasons these numbers are so high be because of the over reporting of the “Freshman Fifteen”?

After reading ten articles about the “Freshman Fifteen” in magazines aimed at teens as part of a self-designed research project, the answer seemed to be yes.

Only four of the ten articles I read acknowledged the fact that the “Freshman Fifteen” weight gain isn’t real. Two of those articles were from CosmoGirl!, a magazine that has since been discontinued and its subscribers transferred to Seventeen. Seventeen, the very magazine that coined the term “Freshman Fifteen” in 1989.

Even the articles (like this one from Cosmopolitan) that did admit that the Freshman Fifteen wasn’t real still dedicated themselves to making readers fear any sign of weight gain. They all adoptedweight-shaming diction, calling the Freshman Fifteen a “pitfall”, “nerve-racking”, “unhealthy”, “scary” and “dreaded”; something to “fear”, “beat”, “avoid” and “fight” because if not, “Eek!” There was not one single word used to describe any sort of weight gain as something natural (much less positive) at this stage in one’s life.

Moreover, despite the framing of the “Freshman Fifteen” as a health issue, only two doctors were consulted across all the articles I read. The other health “experts”? Personal trainers, dieticians, and overwhelmingly, college students sharing anecdotes about weight gain. One student was considered an expert because she had written a book called “The Dorm Room Diet”, and the magazines emphasized her two sources of knowledge for the book: she lost ten pounds her freshman year. People magazine introduced her disturbingly competitive rhetoric, asking “Don’t you just hate her?”

(By the way, if you were wondering what the teen’s advice is that she filled a book with, People gave a lovely sample of a few of her tips, including such jewels as recommending you drink “Perrier – the bubbles will fill you up.” The phrase sounded more like it belonged on a pro-ana website than in an article claiming to focus on health.)

Even magazines dedicated to teen athletics, such as Dance Spirit, printed articles such as “Avoid the Dreaded Freshman Fifteen” with the subtitle “Hoping to keep your rockin’ bod after orientation? Here’s how.” This rhetoric (even more blunt in articles from the more mainstream magazines) forces a false connection between appearance and health and encourages fat shaming. Outward appearance and weight are not indicators of one’s health – even the BMI method is flawed.


The media rhetoric surrounding the “Freshman Fifteen” has even infiltrated medical sources, as illustrated by this image fromteenhealth.org.

In some cases, it is true that students experience unhealthy weight gain in college. But this does not validate the media’s fat-shaming campaign under the guise of warning readers of the Freshman Fifteen. In fact, this weight gain may be a result of the media’s confusion between health and appearance: freshman’s dietary restraint is linked to the development of disordered eating but did not prevent students from gaining weight. (“Weight Gain, Dietary Restraint, and Disordered Eating in the Freshman Year of College” by Eating Behaviors, 2008.)

In other words, all the media hype about the Freshman Fifteen? Great for disordered eating, but it doesn’t do anything to actually combat unhealthy weight gain.

Not so surprisingly, very few of the articles I studied discussed health as a concept distinctive from appearance. The photos accompanying the articles, instead of illustrating the healthy habits they supposedly encourage, featured skinny girls smiling at the gym.(The examples below are from online articles from Seventeen and Teen Vogue.)

Since the magazine industry isn’t taking responsibility for misleading its readers, it’s time we set the record straight. Call out the fat shaming in magazines using MissRepresentation.org’s #KeepItReal campaign. Tell your college-aged friends and family to stop stressing about weight. Spread the facts and call out the fictions in magazines. After all, college is a time for learning, and there’s no better way to start than by educating yourself about your own health.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Rachel read recent print and online articles fromDance SpiritTeen VogueCosmopolitanCosmoGirl!Seventeen, and People for her research project. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn for more information about her research.

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.