Why Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” Falls Short of Modern Feminism

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This may be the most fiercely contested Lifting Fog post… ever. Even more so than when Henning derided a harmless teen flick for not being Oscar-worthy. Let me say first, that if you are someone who doesn’t think women are capable of being sexist, or furthermore that any group of individuals previously victimized by some form of discrimination aren’t capable of displaying that same mindset of prejudice against others, then you need not read on. 

It all started a few weeks ago when a co-worker showed me a video of Beyoncé performing her new single “If I Were A Boy” on, appropriately, the Oprah television program. The performance really moved me, as it did my female co-worker, and I’ve listened to the song on and off since then. I have to say, I love the song. The melody is catchy yet simple. The message, coming from Beyoncé, appears to be quite powerful, yet part of me has to stop and think every time I hear the lyrics.

I get it. I really do get it. I think it’s a brilliant song idea to be utilized by one of the most powerful and famous female voices on the planet. In her celebrity lies the power of the message of the song. Or does it? There are parts of the song and the video above that leave me somewhat unsettled. At the end of the day, a pop song is a pop song, but if Rolling Stone can make a career out of criticizing them, why can’t I? The song lyrics are clearly based on a stereotype of men. It’s one of those casual, always funny to laugh about with the girls stereotypes, but to me, a stereotype nonetheless. When Beyoncé sings, “When you lose the one you wanted, ’cause he’s taking you for granted, and everything you had got destroyed,” it’s with such conviction that it almost makes me forget all the times when women have treated men exactly the same way. The same can be said for most of the lyrics.

There is a lyrical duality of the song that makes me question the message it brings. On one hand is the video/the lyrics to the song. And on the other is her real life persona. Beyoncé, assuredly a self-made, independent woman, fell in love with one of the richest and most powerful men in the industry that she works in, something that has without a doubt kept her in the papers and at the top of the charts long after many female talents before her have fallen. The fact of the matter is, her celebrity and stature voids the lyrics for me when she sings “I’d roll out of bed in the morning and throw on what I wanted and go.” I’m pretty sure she can do that. Public expectations of her being a sex icon and pop star only beg the question more: why doesn’t she roll out of bed and put on what she wants and go? If anyone can, I would think it would be Beyoncé. And wouldn’t that be a much more powerful statement for women than the lyrics of the song?

But she doesn’t. She wears designer clothes, drives expensive cars, and stars in big budget movies. I haven’t heard her complain about it so far. Likewise in the video, she portrays her husband as a NYPD officer (how much more manly does it get?). Yet when she comes out of the bedroom wearing a uniform, the first thing that comes to my mind is “sexy cop” rather than “powerful woman,” probably because her shirt is so wide open even Lt. Co. Frank Slade could drive a Ferrari through it. Later, while undressing in the NYPD locker room, my mind stopped wondering if we would get to see her in her underwear. Is that feminism? I don’t claim to know or understand it fully (obviously), but while the message is an interesting one coming from her, it feels empty given the contradictory nature of the business she’s in and the way she presents herself on a daily basis. Why can’t she take the lyrics of the song a step further, beyond cliched stereotypes of gender roles in America? She has the voice. She has the audience. What more is necessary? As always I’m more than open to discussion.

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25 Responses to “Why Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” Falls Short of Modern Feminism”

  1. K. Bonez Says:

    I’ve always had a problem with Beyonce being seen as the “strong, independent” woman she proclaims to be in most of her songs. Especially when I came across this Destiny’s Child gem from 2004: Cater to You.

    “Let me help you take off your shoes, untie your shoe strings take off your cuffliks.
    What you wanna eat boo let me feed you, let me run your bath water whatever your desire I’ll aspire you.
    Sing you a song turn the game on I’ll brush your hair Help you put your do rag on.
    Want a foot rub(yeah) you want a manicure
    Baby I’m yours I wanna cater to my boy!”

    While there is nothing wrong with doing nice things for the person you love, after all her songs about being independent (Remember 2001’s Survivor? and Independent Women Part I and II??), not needing a man, being strong enough to stand up when you should, I found this song absolutely appalling and in complete contradiction to almost every other song she has, not to mention her entire image. If she hadn’t built her whole career on being an “independent woman” (while simultaneously building an empire with Jay-Z), then I might not have so much of an issue with this one, but everything about this verse seemed degrading, not loving, and I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my formerly-favorite independent woman.

    I realize I’m being particularly harsh, especially because people are complex and it’s entirely possible for her to be both independent and in a loving relationship where it’s an equal give and take. But mostly pop songs are straightforward, and taken at face value this one in particular bothered me. What about her needs? What has he done for her to deserve that kind of treatment? What about taking care of herself, like she says in all the other songs?

  2. Mandy! Says:

    Very valid critique, my friend! If I may have a few words (as you expected I’m sure)…

    The trick here is that her lyrics may be taken as a broad stereotype, addressing the likes of what is believed to be the nature of man–conniving, carefree, and unknowing towards a women’s perspective. OR the lyrics could be addressing a very personal, intimate relationship between a man and woman, but generalized in the the attempt to make it LESS personal. This way more folks can relate. Sometimes writers will come out and say, “Peter is a low-down, dirty, non-committing bastard who turns his phone off at night” while being sure to throw in some rhymes, but like you stated…this is pop culture. Appeal to the masses. Generalize. Broaden. Almost every straight woman has had her heart broken by a man, so why not speak to that? True, many women may not have been deceived or cheated on, but I can almost guarantee she feels “taken…for granted” in some sense of the word.

    Now, my favorite part. Don’t confuse Beyonce the artist with Beyonce the person, hence the name of her album “I am…Sasha Fierce”. Beyonce didn’t even write this song; she just recorded it and now performs it. She probably doesn’t even WANT to leave the house without makeup, her oversized LV bag, and designer sunglasses!! Ok, I’m speculating now, but seriously. Of COURSE she’s going to be a sexy cop and have men hope to see her in her panties…how ELSE is she going to get that other half of the population to watch that stinkin video????? lol

    And since I can, I will take the argument of all the misogynist artists out there with airplay: This song isn’t referring to ALL men, just the men who suck (We’re not saying ALL women are b*tches and hoes, just the ones who are). And like the women who feel berated by afore mentioned music, I encourage all the men who feel slighted by this Beyonce track to get a men’s group together and talk about how it makes you feel. And BE SURE to talk to the young men coming up behind you. Tell them that although Beyonce stereotypes men in this song, this is no reason to fall into the trap of being a “bad man”. And let them know that the writer of the song may have some personal issues that she needs to deal with. AND tell them that music labels are all about the dollar, so we can’t expect much from them.

    Don’t get me wrong, I believe and support you when you deliberate “Why can’t she take the lyrics of the song a step further, beyond cliched stereotypes of gender roles in America? She has the voice. She has the audience. What more is necessary?” Much like how a friend of mine feels about Michael Jordan…not making any sort of public statements that give back to the community after we have helped make him the billionairre that he is. This is the business of entertainment, people. In America! While we would hope entertainers would give an eff, often times they don’t.

    I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying….it is what it is.

  3. Mandy! Says:

    And in reference to K.Bonez and “Cater to You”:

    Who’s to say that her needs AREN’T taken care of? And that she HASN’t taken care of herself prior to??

    This is often why “independent” women remain just that. Independent. They don’t know how to treat a significant other like they mean the world to them.

    Being married AND independent, I know that “catering to [him]” is part of the reason he will always be with me–because I’m not afraid to SHOW him those things. And vice versa.

  4. Tasha Says:

    I agree with most of your stance. Her outfits were overtly sexual, which contradicts her message. Her video threw out generalizations and a few stereotypes. But as far as the lyrics, which Mandy is right, she didn’t even write, I think for a 3 minutes, song they are decent. We aren’t going to get theses in a pop song. So I like the song a lot for what it’s worth. It did make its way into several of these kinds of conversations (for me anyway) and I think that says something.

    As far as the “Cater to You” song, I didn’t like that song when it first came out. But later, when I was in love with someone, I began to enjoy it. There is a time in some womens’ lives (feminist and independent) when they may truly want to cater to a man they love deeply. But that line and boundary is only for each person and couple to decide.

    I do resent Mandy’s implication that “independent” women don’t know how to treat a significant other like they mean the world to them. Like I said before, love is so personal and the boundaries are so specific to the people in the relationship. There is no way to prove a generalization like that one.

  5. Mandy! Says:

    now that Tasha resents me, i’d like to give a huge thanks to DJ Steve!! lol

    but i must say, there IS a way to prove my generalization…. the proof is in the puddin’. if a man doesn’t FEEL catered to….he hasn’t been. period.

    if you’d like me to do a study, i will. for a fee, of course. ;)

  6. Henning Says:

    1) THE EMBED IS DEAD.

    2) I love this thread. It’s been mine and Steve’s hope for some time now to get people TALKING about something, really engaging with an issue (even under the guise of “pop culture”) in a way that provokes meaningful discussion. It’s one thing to build a blog with “this is what happened” or “this is one thing I like” posts, but far more rewarding to get at the meatier issues underneath an event. Nice job, Steve. And apologies for my next post about The Dark Knight-related comics.

    To the topic at hand: I don’t find myself as offended as Steve by Beyonce’s latest single. Like Mandy(!) points out, there’s no way Ms. Fierce actually wrote the song herself. She sings it, sure, and supplies the necessary emotion (which has to come from somewhere), but ultimately the song is less an example of deep personal reflection than it is focus-grouped bullshit. And that’s what sells! Man-hating is good for business. Middle school-aged girls leave the house these days in “Boys Suck” t-shirts and it’s considered socially acceptable – nay, deserved and awesome – to do so. Despite never having oppressed anyone, you and I (though I suppose I should only speak for myself, Steve) are lumped in with examples of “bad men” and deemed fit for retributive punishment. It ain’t right (IMO), but it is what it is. Beyonce’s voice is just part of a much larger, focused trend.

    … So I guess I am a little miffed, but again, not at Beyonce. That she has sent contradictory messages over the years doesn’t make her a hypocrite, it makes her a corporate tool. If she were claiming to be the voice of a generation or anything more than a powerful singer, then maybe this video would warrant a harsher response. But right now, nothing. Plus, she’s too hot to get mad at.

    PS – KIDDING.

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