Beyoncé: Not My Feminist Icon

By: Shoshana Bachrach  |  March 17, 2014

It’s been a good year to be Beyoncé. The secret release of a “visual album,” a daring move deemed revolutionary, calculated to send the world into an online media frenzy—and succeeding. A much-loved performance at the Grammys brought up residual praise of from last years Super Bowl performance as compared to Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And in addition to her many adored roles- mother, wife, maverick- society has now bestowed upon her yet another title of societal conquest: Feminist.

For many, Beyoncé’s good year has rubbed off onto the rest of us plebeians and society at large. Critics hearken Beyoncé as the new face of feminism, a status she cemented with a short piece on gender equality for The Shriver Report, and as one of the celebrity faces of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. This is a status that has, unfortunately, been misplaced. One should emulate celebrities such as Beyoncé as they see fit, but outside of that she is not the feminist icon women need to, as the Shriver Report put so succinctly, “modernize America’s relationship to women.” In fact, it is unwise for society to look for guidance from a woman who is the archetype of the emerging, media-conceived female stereotype.

As feminism becomes more and more accepted by mainstream society, this is the image that has begun to emerge: the boss, the woman who isn’t just leaning in but is at the head of the table, simultaneously all-powerful and free of error. These women are awesome; we all saw last years Super Bowl Halftime show; we get it. But making Beyoncé the face of feminism will ultimately pull the movement away from its trajectory back into a conversation that we are tired of having: must a women aim to have it all? And based on pop culture, the answer seems to be yes- and nothing less.

Plenty of artists over the years have declared themselves feminists, delivered powerful messages of strength and smarts directly to young women, but none have had the mantle of Grand Feminist bestowed upon them like Beyoncé. While this seems like advancement, it’s precisely the opposite: society has not moved beyond defining women in archetypes. Before women dealt with being perceived as lesser, but now we must all adhere to a mythical ideal of the woman who has it all, that if and only if a woman has achieved this, allows her to be a true icon. You’d be hard-pressed to find a popular feminist icon—as in, a woman largely celebrated by the media—who isn’t married, or at least, doesn’t have children. We hear little about Zooey Deschanel, a small-screen actress who has openly discussed feminism, in exchange for write up after write up analyzing Beyoncé’s paragraph-long snippet on equal pay. The message being sent to young women is that they only have a powerful voice to contribute to the public sphere if they are superhuman. Have the Obamas on speed dial? Then we want to hear your views on women in society. Struggling to find your place in a changing world? Not so much. Even Lena Dunham, the creator of HBO’s Girls and arguably the loudest voice of our generation falls into the same trap, garnering more attention for her wunderkind status than the actual public statements she makes.

Ironically, upon closer inspection, many of Beyoncé’s songs aren’t necessarily about female empowerment—they’re about her empowerment. Beyonce’s music is generally a testament to her own power that we are invited to witness.  And it is in this stage in her career, as she is being labeled a feminist queen, that her music, with hits like “Grown Woman,” and “Bow Down Bitches,” has taken a decidedly narcissistic turn. To put it bluntly, Beyoncé did not, until recently, directly address the idea of being interested in broader female empowerment. What made her a socially accepted “feminist” is her goddess-like perfection, as fans put it.

Women should certainly aspire to Beyoncé-like feats of greatness. But for 2014 to be a “good” year for women’s rights, we need to stop equating the idea of female empowerment with female perfection. Placing women on a pedestal isn’t going to lead to more egalitarian media representation, or bridge the wage gap; in all likelihood the reverse will occur, as higher and higher standards are placed upon women to live up to a new stereotype. It’s certainly not a bad thing for women to have powerful and seemingly perfect role models for motivation, but once these women are labeled as examples of feminists, feminism will no longer be available to the masses but to an elite group of women who adhere to the new image of female power.

“I’m not bossy,” says Beyonce in a video for Ban Bossy, “I’m the boss.” It’s great that she’s using her powerful celebrity to encourage women to lean in. But feminism is more than just leaning in- teaching girls to be powerful is just one element. Feminism is a movement about advancing women’s roles in society—not just  powerful, extroverted women, or rich women, or married women, or brilliant women. All women. Continue to worship Beyoncé as you please, but unless we’re ready for the new wave of feminine stigma, let’s refrain from making her our messiah.