It’s early in another new year, which means that someone, somewhere, must be trying to discredit Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
Last January, it was perpetual presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who wrote that while he admired Knowles-Carter’s talent, he felt she was being steered in an unseemly direction by her unscrupulous husband. “Jay-Z is a very shrewd businessman, but I wonder: Does it occur to him that he is arguably crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?” Huckabee mused, offering up a grotesque insult disguised as concern for a woman’s welfare.
This year, it’s former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is in a huff about Knowles-Carter’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. The day before the game, Knowles-Carter had released a new video and song, “Formation,” that, among other things, comments on the relationship between black Americans and the police. In some of the shots, she stands or lounges on top of a New Orleans Police Department cruiser that appears to be sinking below Hurricane Katrina floodwaters, and in others, a little boy dances in front of a line of stoic cops in riot gear.
And to underline the point, Knowles-Carters appeared at the Super Bowl in a military-style costume that referenced some of Michael Jackson’s most iconic looks, and her dancers appeared in black berets and natural hair, a stylistic nod to the Black Panther Party.
Unsurprisingly, Giuliani appeared on “Fox & Friends” to complain that Knowles-Carter was somehow perpetuating the idea that violence against the police is an acceptable form of protest.
“I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive,” he said. “And what we should be doing in the African American community, and all communities, is build up respect for police officers. And focus on the fact that when something does go wrong, okay. We’ll work on that. But the vast majority of police officers risk their lives to keep us safe.”
Huckabee and Giuliani may have come at Knowles-Carter from different angles, but their attempts to criticize her have something in common: They suggest that we have to choose between two things that are not actually in conflict with each other. For Huckabee, Knowles-Carter could be sexual or she could be using her talent well, but not both. And to Giuliani (as is the case with a great deal of conservative rhetoric about police shootings of citizens), to value black people’s lives is apparently to endanger people who wear blue uniforms.
Both of these supposed choices are patently absurd. Knowles-Carter’s talent doesn’t somehow diminish just because she takes pleasure in her body and what she can do and feel. And there’s no inherent contradiction in wishing for a world in which fewer black men and women die at the hands of and in the custody of police officers and wanting a world in which police officers are also safer.
But it’s convenient to suggest that these choices exist. If Knowles-Carter is wasting her talent by presenting herself as a sexual being, then Huckabee and his ilk don’t have to reckon with her star appeal. And if the choice is really between dead black people and keeping police officers safe, then there are powerful incentives against changing anything about the way American police departments function.
If this is the easiest way for some conservatives to see the world, it’s also an impoverished, even cowardly one. Trying to suggest that a woman can’t simultaneously be a wife, a mother, a professional and a sexual being is an attempt to distract us from the changes it would take to let women live fully realized lives. Behaving as though it would take some sort of magical intervention to make it so police departments could actually serve the neighborhoods in their care and so residents of those neighborhoods would actually have reason to care for their protectors is a clumsy deflection from the hard but very human work and the concrete budget allocations it might take to accomplish this change.
These rhetorical feints are the equivalent of shouting “Look! Over there!” and then running in the opposite direction. And they make the artist look like a more serious thinker than the ex-politicians who position themselves as her critics.