Beyoncé Replaces Sheryl Sandberg As World’s Most Controversial Feminist

She’s on the cover of Ms. to the disgust of many — but really, the magazine couldn’t have found a better cover model.

Beyoncé covers Ms. magazine under the headline “Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism.” The internet’s knee-jerk reaction — which has gotten more attention in the media than the actual story itself has — has been to rudely refute, or at least to politely question, Beyoncé’s feminist status.

A heated debate on the merits of Beyoncé’s breed of feminism has ensued on the magazine’s Facebook page. Many oppose labeling her a feminist on the cover of Ms.:

Others supported the magazine’s choice and slammed the Bey-shaming crowd.

It wouldn’t be surprising if none of these commenters had read Janell Hobson’s essay in the magazine, which is in fact a nuanced, well-researched look at Beyoncé’s brand of feminism, including its pitfalls and contradictions. (The story is not available online, though Ms. magazine chimed in on the thread asking commenters to purchase the issue and read the story to have a better-informed debate.)

Although the cover story is not the web, some of Hobson’s previous writing on Beyoncé is available to read online for free. She’s a professor of women’s studies at the University of Albany, and her provocative analysis of the video for “Run the World (Girls)” in 2011 on the Ms. blog certainly cemented her status as a premier scholar of Beyoncé’s feminism, if all her previous work on feminism, race, and pop culture had not. She wrote in that post, “Beyoncé presents a mixed bag for me: promoting a decidedly feminist message (whether in her girl-power songs or in her forming an all-girl band for her tours) while also participating in racialized and sexualized self-fetishizing styles, lyrics, videos and choreography.”

In that video, you may recall, Beyoncé and her sexy, all-female army do a sultry dance in a desert while facing an all-male street gang “on the scene to quell uncontrollable female sexuality, which eventually surrenders to the discipline provided by both the male gaze and state surveillance,” Hobson writes. She concluded that the video — Beyoncé’s vision of a world run by girls (and not women, but girls) — “is woefully unimaginative.”

Within the context of Hobson’s ambivalent fandom of the pop star — she admits to doing the “Single Ladies” dance and playing “Cater 2 U” on loop because the songs are so catchy — her latest Ms. essay becomes all the more fascinating. In the new piece, she reaches a different conclusion about Beyoncé than in her “Who Run the World (Girls)” analysis. She comes out in support of Beyoncé’s form of feminism, while acknowledging its contradictions. Her evolved thinking on the pop star represents a well-articulated look at the ambivalence many of Beyoncé’s fans feel about their fandom. These fans wonder, Is Beyoncé empowering women by naming her tour the “Mrs. Carter” tour? Or, How does Beyoncé’s girl power message fit in with her megahit about how a man should have “put a ring on it” to keep a woman around? And then there’s her perpetually sexy wardrobe — sculpted nipple bustiers, the overall lack of substantial clothing on stage — and what that says about a woman who, as Hobson points out, told GQ, “[Men] define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

And yet Beyoncé tours with an all-female band — something she’s done for a long time — and calls herself a feminist in interviews. These acts in themselves are more significant than they might seem. Watch a Beyoncé concert DVD or one of her live shows, and the fact that she has no men on stage with her is something you notice because it’s so, so rarely done. And a lot of very famous and influential women won’t even call themselves feminists. Even Miuccia Prada, one of the most influential designers of clothing for women all over the world, expressed uncertainty last year about whether or not fashion and feminism can mix. And in 2010, Prada told reporters that “there is no such thing” as feminism. Gwyneth Paltrow, Lady Gaga, and Marissa Mayer have all told the press they’re not feminists. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of fear associated with that label and confusion about what it means.

“[W]e need not dismiss Beyoncé’s brand of feminism as mere marketing,” Hobson writes. “Feminism is political consciousness, not a product.” On top of labeling herself a feminist, Hobson notes that Beyoncé has advocated for women’s financial independence for a long time through songs like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Irreplaceable.”

Part of our discomfort with Beyoncé’s feminist message may be that we really don’t know that much about her, despite her mega fame and ubiquity. She exacts fierce control over her image and guards the personal details about her life that might clear up some of the questions people have about how much she lives out feminist ideals. But ultimately, that in itself shows just how powerful Beyoncé has become — to be that famous for what she creates rather than any scandals that might have befallen her (and no major ones have).

The debate surrounding Beyoncé’s feminism echoes the many debates women have about being women nowadays, as they find themselves unable to conform to a vague but fiercely idealistic notion of what a working mom should be. And sadly, the argument over Beyoncé’s feminist merits signifies the discomfort society has with women upending social norms and starting to run the world. Maybe Beyoncé’s notions of what this looks like are poorly formed because in a world where Sheryl Sandberg gets so much flack for simply telling women to “lean in,” it’s so hard to imagine a world in which female power is a given rather than a novelty.

So really, Ms. couldn’t have found a better cover model. Beyoncé is an extremely powerful woman who sings many empowering lyrics and who is making it OK to forge a new path for feminism.

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