Editor’s note: This post has been updated to confirm that Beyonce has referred to herself as a feminist in the past.
After Beyonce’s Superbowl halftime show last month, The Atlantic sought to settle the debate about whether or not “the singer is a bona fide feminist or just a pop star cashing in on ‘girl power’.’” Highlighting eight moments in her career that seemingly suggest she is a feminist, writer Sophie Weiner concluded that Beyonce had a “message of empowerment” for women.
A recently released track that pays homage to her chopped and screwed Houston roots, “Bow Down/ I Been On,” suggests otherwise. The self-glorifying anthem cannot go without criticism amidst Women’s History Month as it sabotages many of Beyonce’s past female empowerment efforts. The release of “Bow Down” suggests that the pop icon only adorns the feminist label when it suits her - dangerously straddling the line between female empowerment and subjugation.
On her last album, Beyonce sparked an international debate about whether or not girls “run the world.” Feminists critiqued the hit song for not being an accurate reflection of women’s limited decision-making power globally and doing a disservice to the socioeconomic reality of women living in Third World countries with minimal access to quality education and job opportunities.
Two years later, she returns with a song that is anything but empowering in that it promotes female subordination and division. “I know when you were little girls/ You dreamt of being in my world/ Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/ Respect that, Bow down b---ches.” While Beyonce has used the b-word in times past to get her Bey-hive worked up at concerts, her tone is undeniably forceful and mean in this song. She’s “clapping back” at nay-sayers who think she’s just Jay Z’s “little wife” and declaring that their hate for her is only an extension of their jealousy.
While many of her fans are celebrating the song as playful and innovative, the lyrics are in direct contrast to past statements she has made about wanting to inspire other women to enter and be successful in the music industry. She once said, "When I was younger I wish I had more females who played instruments to look up to.... I just wanted to do something which would inspire other young females to get involved in music so I put together an all-woman band.”
While intentionally deciding to have an all-woman band was a cutting-edge and progressive decision for Beyonce to make, why would she undermine it by releasing a song that says she reigns supreme over other women? As a mother and sister, how does she not see a problem in referring to women as “b--ches” and “tricks”? Does she get a pass for being domineering and crass whenever her alter-ego Sasha Fierce decides to resurface?
Women are often said to be incapable of sharing space in arenas of power. The media exploits this popular thought, particularly in relation to black women, whenever it depicts violence amongst women on reality television shows and highlights feuds between leading women like Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj on “American Idol.” We’ve even seen this in the nonsensical coverage of Keyshia Cole’s recent tweets criticizing Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and calling Beyonce “self-righteous” for “Bow Down.”
Cole might be stirring up division of her own but songs like “Bow Down” only add fuel to the fire. All of this plays into age-old stereotypes about women and people of color being “crabs in a barrel” who hate to see their counterparts succeed. Interestingly, Beyonce’s image and artistry are often praised by white women cultural critics whereas African American feminists tend to more easily identify her irresponsibility in the realm of race and class issues.
In a 2010 interview with The Daily Mail, Beyonce referred to herself as a feminist. She said: “I think I am a feminist in a way. It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be; perhaps it’s because I grew up in a singing group with other women, and that was so helpful to me. It kept me out of so much trouble and out of bad relationships." She went on to promote solidarity with other women: "I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women. I think we learn a lot from our female friends – female friendship is very, very important. It’s good to support each other and I do try to put that message in my music.”
There are times when Beyonce boldly lives up to these words. She does it whenever she makes arguments for women having financial autonomy, appreciating their unique body type, and relishing in the joys of motherhood.
However, there are also times when the pride that Beyonce takes in being “Queen B” and “Mrs. Carter” overshadows her efforts to affirm other women. The “Survivor” and “Independent Women” singer should remember that you’re either committed to female empowerment or you’re bowing down to patriarchy. Because feminism and the fight for women’s rights are not part-time jobs that you can clock in and out of. They're a way of life.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .