I don’t consider myself a committed Beyoncé fan. I realize that by sharing this secret, I run this risk of alienating her large and loud fan base. Nevertheless, I recognize that Beyoncé is one of the most influential women on the planet. She is not only a cultural symbol and trendsetter, but she has become a major feminist icon. Her 2013 mega-hit, Flawless is responsible for introducing millions of listeners to the definition of feminism. The song includes what has become the standard definition, authored by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her essay and Ted Talk, We Should All Be Feminists—“[a] person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
Beyoncé helped make feminism trendy and has successfully forced mainstream culture to accept it. I am thrilled that it is now common for consumers to expect their cultural icons to identify as feminists. However, Beyoncé’s Flawless popularized an extremely limited and potentially harmful definition of feminism. Flawless deliberately simplifies Adichie’s message by choosing a less confrontational definition: “The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” This definition does not include a call to action to reach this. Without a call to action, Beyoncé’s definition is missing the critical element that makes feminism, and intersectional feminism, transformative. Neglecting to include a request for action in her song, Beyoncé may have doomed action-oriented feminism, such as intersectional feminism, to the sidelines of popular culture.
In November, Latoya Peterson authored an article that emphasized activism as an essential component of intersectional feminism. She argues, “Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how a variety of oppressions can intersect, and one that surrounds political activism.” Peterson correctly recognizes that once someone becomes aware of the pervasive and connected nature of discrimination, that person must act to affect change. She also argues that when feminism is divorced from action it becomes useless clickbait. If we apply Peterson’s essay to Flawless it’s clear that Beyoncé’s song is useless in furthering intersectional feminism and action.
Beyoncé’s deliberate choice to use Adichie’s incomplete definition of feminism limits the positive impact possible by Flawless. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay can be understood as a 48-page plea for action. She concludes her speech with the following assertion: “My own definition of a feminist is a man or woman who says ‘Yes there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, men and women, must do better. “ It’s impossible to misunderstand Adichie’s words; her definition of feminism is two-fold, including not only a statement recognizing pervasive inequalities but also spells out a communal commitment to change.
I won’t hypothesize as to why Beyoncé chose to leave out Adichie’s conclusion in Flawless. But her choice has not supported intersectional feminists in our work. She inadvertently robbed us of an incredible opportunity to offer an expanded and inclusive understanding of feminism to billions of people. Beyoncé is clearly not acting as an intersectional feminist.
Regardless of Beyoncé’s lack of support, intersectional feminists refuse to be pushed to the sidelines. Activists around the world continue to lead conversations in their communities. And recently, other pop culture icons are publically discussing the need for an intersectional feminist movement (Amanda Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard are leading the pack!). Although Beyoncé may be one of the loudest voices in pop culture, intersectional feminism is continuing to spread and influence social justice. Latoya Peterson concludes her essay with a reminder that “the meaning of all this political action is to engage others.” Intersectional feminists will continue to engage Beyoncé’s fans in a more detailed conversation on the need for activism, with or without her help.
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