Sasha Fierce as an alter ego was a useful tool: A mechanism Beyoncé could use to safely and publicly experiment with performances of her sexuality while keeping her ladylike integrity intact. (And make no mistake, ladylike integrity was paramount to Beyoncé’s early bankability). But Sasha Fierce was also limiting for that very reason. Beyoncé didn’t have to be Sasha Fierce, she just pulled her out when necessary, and no one really knew who Beyoncé was, except that she was a fabulously talented and hard-working performer with a genuinely good voice. If anything could be gleaned from her first three solo albums, it was that she subscribed to a murky brand of feminism best described as girl power: not particularly heavy on the feminist theory, but uplifting, fun, and eminently danceable.
But the biggest pop star in the world decided she was sick of operating within the ridiculous, dated Freudian binary that women’s sexuality is often perceived, the very framework that made “I Am … Sasha Fierce” her weakest album. So, song by song, on her newest and strongest work yet, she eviscerated it. The new 14-song, 17-video visual album features explicit images of Beyoncé in expensive lingerie and mentions not just of sex, but of her kinks. It’s an exploration of gender and power and an unwavering look at black female sexual agency. At the same time, it’s an album about love. It is a celebration of black womanhood.
When we’re growing up, black women barely get to own our nascent sexuality without being shamed for it (#fasttailedgirls). We definitely don’t get to have kinks, and if we do, they’re hidden away and rarely discussed, certainly not in mixed company. Few of us are afforded the luxury of safe, judgement-free experimentation. When our sexuality is presented, it is edited so that it may be palatable to others. It’s difficult enough to find healthy depictions of any sexuality because we live in such a sex-negative culture, and when you narrow the search to black women, it’s nearly impossible. In the context of hip hop, it’s often framed and centered around male desire and the black male gaze. “BEYONCÉ” is not.
The “Haunted” images of an androgynous, menswear-bedecked Beyoncé resembling Victoria Grant in “Victor/Victoria” aren’t for straight men.When she lets her cape fall dramatically to the villa’s floor, takes a single drag of a cigarette before stomping it out with the toe of one high-heeled T-strap, she’s emphatically presenting the radical image of a wealthy, self-possessed black woman who is there to be catered to. She is not the help.
Beyoncé made it clear that most explicit images on the album, from “Partition,” were her vision, and her fantasy. “Driver, roll up the partition, please,” she commands from the backseat of a limo, accompanied by her husband, Jay Z.
“BEYONCÉ” is deeply personal to black feminists because we still expend so much energy fighting stereotypes and inaccurate narratives about black women and busting the misogynoir and microaggressions that mark our daily lives. The frustrating thing is that you can become so ensnared in defending black women and telling the world who we aren’t, that it doesn’t leave much room to establish who we are. This work is unconcerned with its ratchetness; instead, Beyoncé revels in all the things “good girls” aren’t supposed to do. She’s a grown woman, she tells us. She can do whatever she pleases.
Other modern black female artists have explored these themes, too. Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Me’shell Ndegeocello have all produced work that falls along the same feminist spectrum, but their audiences are much smaller. Janet Jackson was very much a sex-positive pop star, but the vixen role she inhabited came to define her, and it ultimately backfired at the 2004 Super Bowl.
Currently, Beyoncé is the only one big enough to be able to deliver such a message, and who can afford to dare not to tell you she’s doing it until the thing’s available for purchase. The album, which sold 828,773 in its first three days, is the fastest-selling iTunes album ever.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that reception of “BEYONCÉ” has been overwhelmingly positive because she’s discussing these themes in the “right” way: within the context of marriage, a historically conservative, patriarchal, heteronormative institution, but I’m not sure I buy that. If anything, Beyoncé realizes the power of her relationship and the validity that marriage bestows upon it. She’s practically daring you to slut-shame her.
More than anything, this album feels real. Mixed in with songs about insecurity, grief, protest, and the love she has for her child, Beyoncé manages to present her sexuality as a normal part of her life that deserves celebration. Shaking your booty and enjoying it doesn’t make you dumb. It doesn’t make you a bad mother. It doesn’t make black people look bad, and it doesn’t make you bad feminist, either.
She’s not just a lady or a freak, she’s a person, a messy amalgam of all her life experiences.
Beyoncé: She’s just like us!