I’ve been reading some interesting analysis on Twitter (from all kinds of women) about the danger of some of the lyrics in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and their potential to promote women enacting violence against other women. In light of the recent tragedy involving 16 year old Amy Joyner-Francis who was beaten to death by classmates in what has been said to have been a fight over a boy, and the online bullying Rachel Roy has faced over a reference she made to “good hair” in a photo caption on Instagram, certain critics are posing important questions. What is the artist’s responsibility to ensure that her work doesn’t fuel negative behavior? How does any artist give their audience the tools to understand and appreciate their work in a way that will not take it out of context?
An examination of Beyoncé’s visual album must take into account how the different interludes of Warsan Shire’s poetry interact with the visuals and song lyrics at any given point. I’ve seen the poetry from the “Anger” section of the video interpreted as an invitation for women to attack other women who have wronged them, specifically under the circumstances of infidelity. Consider the following lines:
If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp, a cap. Her sternum, my bedazzled cane. We can pose for a photograph, all three of us. Immortalized, you and your perfect girl.
Mind you, there is no mention of Becky at this point. The fact that the main message of the video is being taken as a fight between us versus them, black women versus Becky, is a manifestation of the ways we are constrained by a patriarchy that deals in binaries. Where did that system come from, and who benefits from it the most? Let me give you a hint. If you sailed around the world, claiming entire swathes of land and the people living there as your property, you would need a sort of system, no matter how pseudo-scientific, to justify your actions and to back up the fixing of positions of superiority and inferiority that allow you to colonize and control at will.
When Beyoncé says “If it’s what you truly want,” she isn’t expressing her resolve to go out and murder the other woman and use her remains as clothing and accessories. She is illustrating an old pain that many women have experienced, of not being good enough for a romantic interest, of trying to transform into a more lovable, more worthy version of herself for that partner. That section ends with “Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” She could be seen to be expressing confusion and hurt because her partner is not able to see or appreciate her efforts to be the best that she can be for him. Since this section is about “Anger,” I’m inclined to read these lines less as a despairing plea for attention and more as the quiet rage that comes from someone who has been taken for granted for far too long.
When Becky is finally mentioned at the end of the song “Sorry,” the listener can assume that she is the infamous “other woman.” The listener cannot, however, reduce Becky solely to the position of “girlfriend of a married man.” Becky is a concept, a national inside (bittersweet) joke and dismissal only known to Black women and women of color, a representation of centuries of Eurocentric ideals that for some will forever remain unattainable. Think about familiar tropes from film and literature that have framed women who are closer to whiteness as more desirable, particularly in the context of heteronormative portrayals pf romance. How many times have you seen the pleasant love interest with her “sassy” sidekick snapping and cheering from the sidelines as she goes on the date, gets the guy, gets married. Consider also that throughout history, white women have taken out on black women the violence they also experience as result of living in a patriarchal society. I previously cited an example of this from the novel Cecilia by Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde in this blog post.
Another more recent instance of violence from white women directed at black women can be seen in the photo of Russian art promoter Dasha Zhukova sitting on a chair fashioned to look like a black woman lying on her back with her legs in the air. This Guardian article tries to deny the racist imagery of the piece created by Norwegian artist Bjarn Melgaard by pointing out that it was more of a commentary on earlier controversial works by British artist Allen Jones that portrayed white women in a similar position. “Are you offended by this black woman’s abuse? Then why is it OK for white women to be similarly humiliated in a respected pop art icon in the Tate collection?” I’m sure any womanist/black feminist/afrofeminist would stand up and condemn Jones’ work as appalling and degrading to white women, but why does the black woman’s body have to be the site of undoing for violence against ALL women? Art that is meant to be subversive can often recreate the violence it is trying to parody or critique.
Yet, somehow white women are now able to present themselves as benevolent representatives of global sisterhood without having to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from the subjugation of black women. Meanwhile, any expression of anger from black women is met with criticism and calls for levelheadedness and calm, sometimes coming from black women ourselves. The white woman can enjoy her fair trade Starbucks coffee and smile with satisfaction at the portrait on the wall of the African woman who is supposed to have harvested the beans without considering the working conditions and difficulties of that woman. Black women are called upon to swallow and forget the history of physical violence and the constant over-valorization of proximity of whiteness in media and on a day-to-day basis.
It is very true that the Beyhive does the absolute most at times and should not take it upon themselves to fight a fight about a situation they have little to no knowledge about. Yes, Beyoncé has an immense influence on super fans and casual listeners alike. Yes, art does not happen in a vacuum, and artists have the power to influence discourse and shape the public’s consciousness on many different issues. I can only speak for myself when I say that I do not feel that Beyoncé’s latest release is giving me leeway to scratch and punch any other woman who makes me feel small or offends me in some way. The way I see it, if a listener takes Beyoncé’s lyrics as a green light to commit assault or murder, that person was already intent on taking that particular course of action and needed a final little push or a scapegoat.
This is not a case of revenge against any and every “Becky” who has done a black woman wrong. This is not about Becky at all. It’s important to note that most of the lyrics are directed at the partner who has been unfaithful and NOT the other woman: “This is your final warning. You know I give you life. If you try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife.”
I want to give myself room to be messy and poised and complicated and angry and brave and to take to task anyone that undermines or underestimates my strength. I can’t hold hands if my hands are still burning.
Be quiet, and let us rage.
Note: The politics of black women’s hair and the distinction between “good” and “bad” hair is another topic for another day. All I will say is that it is NOT just about straight hair, but is rather a reference to the glorification of looser curls and waves on black women as being more desirable (as they are closer to whiteness) than tighter curls. The term I grew up with was “quality” in place of “good,” but the idea is the same. People on the internet, stop claiming the title “Becky with the good hair.” Trust me, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t want these problems.
(Images: Lemonade. Directed by Beyoncé Knowles, Dikayl Rimmasch, Kahlil Joseph, Jonas Akerlund and Melina Matsoukas. Parkwood Entertainment, 2016)