Beyoncé Doesn't Perform for the Male Gaze

That argument denies her agency, her feminism, her fandom—and the fact that females can gaze too.
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Beyoncé, performing. (Photo: caotiquemind/Flickr)

Beyoncé, performing. (Photo: caotiquemind/Flickr)

Shortly after the United Nations speech that made her a feminist icon, Emma Watson, inevitably, weighed in on that other feminist icon, Beyoncé. "I felt [Beyoncé's] message felt very conflicted," Watson said, "in the sense that on the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, you know this very strong woman and she has that beautiful speech in one of her songs ["Flawless"] but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her."

Watson's comments echo a consistent feminist criticism of Beyoncé, who has often been accused of being too sexual and too eager to perform for the male gaze. This criticism has continued even though Beyoncé has recently emphatically claimed the feminist label, sampling Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech “We Should All Be Feminists” and appearing at the Video Music Awards in front of a giant sign reading "FEMINIST." Nonetheless, Annie Lennox recently called Beyoncé "feminism lite" and added, "I think what she does with [sex] is cheap...." Janell Hobson, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York, told me that following her Beyoncé cover story for Ms. magazine, she received a ton of pushback from feminists who felt that, in Hobson's words, Beyoncé was "too sexy to be the 'perfect feminist.'"

Again, Watson's assumption, and the general assumption of critics, is that Beyoncé's sexual performance is a display for men. She's seen as anti-feminist because she plays into a "male voyeuristic experience." Beyoncé's audience, however, is, for the most part, not composed of male voyeurs. It's overwhelmingly female.

Marcus sees Beyoncé through the historical lens of feminist performance art, which is not staged for the male gaze, but rather attempts to explore the relationship between that gaze, female bodies, and female fantasies.

A study from February ranked artists on a music-listening service based on the gender of their listeners. Beyoncé was the third most popular artist for women; for men, she was 24th. Rihanna, another artist known for her sexualized performances, was first among women and only eighth among men. Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Lady Gaga also ranked higher among women than among men. This ranking dovetails with anecdotal observations: Sharon Marcus, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and a self-declared Beyoncé fan, told me that in her experience, "the straight men I know have no interest in Beyoncé whatever, and even seem to be averse to her.... Beyoncé's fanbase is primarily women and gay men."

So if Beyoncé's fans are mostly women and gay men, why the stripteases, the thrusting, the shaking, and the sexualized performances in general? If she's not on display for the male gaze, who exactly is she on display for? The suggestion is often that male directors or managers may be controlling the imagery—but that seems unlikely given Beyoncé's stature in the industry and her reputation as a control freak.

Marcus' scholarship provides an interesting alternate answer. In her book Between Women, Marcus argues that Victoria-era women in England often looked at, and enjoyed, images of sexualized female bodies as part of heterosexual identity. Fashion plates, for example, would show one woman gazing at another woman's body or breast. This was not coded as lesbianism; rather, heterosexual women were expected to find sexual representations of other women exciting or sexy.

This is still the case today to no small extent, as a glance at any women's magazine—with page after page of fetishized women's bodies presented for female viewers—can tell you. And it does seem to explain at least in part what is happening with Beyoncé's female audience. Janell Hobson points out that Beyoncé's notoriously hot video for "Partition" was inspired by Beyoncé's visit to the Crazy Horse strip club in Paris, to which she took her then-fiancé Jay-Z. Beyoncé fantasized about being one of the women on the stage. Hobson wrote that this "indicates a certain solidarity with adult entertainers, a willingness to celebrate what is feminine and sexual, and even an admission that she herself was turned on by the spectacle of sexy women."

The video, in which Jay-Z gazes at his wife stripping, is thus based on Beyoncé's reaction to gazing at other women; in this case, the male gaze is a copy of a female-female gaze. Or, more succinctly, as blogger and activist Feminsta Jonestweeted: "You know who doesn't have a problem with Beyoncé's sexuality? Women who would go gay for a day with her. LISTEN." Jones then posted a tweet telling followers to "RT if you would go gay for a day with Beyoncé." More than 50 people retweeted—at least one was a gay man who said he would go straight for a day.

When I spoke to Marcus, though, she didn't think that Beyoncé's main appeal to her female audience was necessarily about same-sex erotic desire. Marcus argued that Beyoncé was not performing sexuality for men, or for women, but:

was actually interested in exploring her sexuality for herself. Those videos seem to me to be almost in a tradition of Anais Nin, Madonna, Hannah Wilke, artists who are exploring the relationship of their bodies to a history of erotic imagery of women—as a way of exploring their own fantasies, their own self-image.

Marcus sees Beyoncé through the historical lens of feminist performance art, which is not staged for the male gaze, but rather attempts to explore the relationship between that gaze, female bodies, and female fantasies.

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an assistant professor of reading, writing, and literacy at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that part of the discomfort with Beyoncé's sexuality among white feminists has to do with race. Thomas, who is a Beyoncé fan herself, says that as she was growing up in Detroit, Beyoncé's music was very important to her. "She really seems to have a feminist message in an identity space that doesn't have much room for feminism," Thomas says. "I mean, growing up, I was told that feminism was for white women. So Beyoncé really made it OK to be a sistah and also be a feminist." Thomas also pointed out that: "Lena Dunham can take off her clothes on HBO and it's considered empowering, but Beyoncé wears a provocative outfit, and it is not OK for her to do that. It is a total double standard."

Thomas added that Beyoncé's performances were influenced by performers like Josephine Baker and Tina Turner, and were part of a tradition of black women reclaiming their sexuality in a society that devalued them. Janell Hobson made similar points when I spoke to her:

Traditionally, [black women] have always been perceived as undesirable or over-sexual. So as black women in this culture ... somebody else is always framing our sexuality. And so there's something to seeing Beyoncé claiming that image of the hypersexual black woman for herself, playing with it, performing it —and performing it in a longer tradition of black women performing it.

Hobson added that she herself isn't always enthusiastic about every aspect of Beyoncé's performance or message; the singer seems less focused on making a more just society than on women succeeding in the society we've already got. "Not only is she not criticizing capitalism, she's embracing capitalism," Hobson says. But she adds that the image of a black woman being in control of capital is meaningful too, especially in a country where black women have been historically positioned as slaves and servants, objects to be controlled for the financial benefit of someone else. Beyoncé's sexuality may be commodified, but it's commodified by her, for her own benefit. And the people primarily consuming that commodity are not men, but women—who respond both to the sexuality and her assertion of agency.

Not that all women react to Beyoncé in the same way, or for the same reasons. Some women (lesbian or otherwise) may enjoy the sexualized performances because they find Beyoncé sexy. Some may identify with her girl power messages; some may respond to her exploration of female fantasy and female stereotype; some people (and especially black women) may appreciate the way she rejects or reclaims images of black female sexuality. Some may just enjoy post-disco dance pop. And, of course, lots of women don't like Beyoncé at all. But even for non-fans, it seems worth remembering that Beyoncé's sexual performances are not primarily staged for men. "If every time a woman expresses her sexuality it is perceived as being for the male gaze, women will never be able to express their sexuality, except in the service of men," Sharon Marcus told me. And as Beyoncé herself says in "Partition,” “Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe?”—or, as loosely translated by Hobson: "Don't feminists like sex?"

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