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Is Beyonce a feminist? Better question: Is Jay-Z?

Posted by Scott Kearnan  January 31, 2014 09:00 AM

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For one of the more boring award telecasts in recent memory, the Grammys sure have kept people talking over the last week. Most of the conversation has revolved around the song "Same Love" and the televised mass wedding of straight and gay couples that accompanied it. (Why? Not for the reason you probably assume. Here's the deal.)

But as the week wore on, chatter grew about the opening performance: Beyonce's "Drunk in Love," for which she strutted, preened and wailed before hubby Jay-Z swooped in with a rap verse. So it was sort of like "Crazy in Love," except with fewer horns and more references to wife-beating.

You see, the lyrics include Jay-Z asserting that, ”I’m Ike Turner Turner/You know I don’t play/Now eat the cake, Anna-Mae/Eat the cake Anna-Mae.” It nods to a violent scene in the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do With It, which details the singer's abusive marriage. Though controversy started bubbling after the release of "Drunk in Love," watching the hubby and wife actually perform it together live was more impactful than hearing words on a radio. The issue achieved greater resonance. Now plenty of people are calling into question Beyonce's feminist credentials, and less than a month after her essay on gender equality had seemed to settle the matter of whether Beyonce assigns them to herself.

My favorite take on the matter came from Colorlines, which is "disappointed" in Beyonce — but, unlike similar pieces, avoids conflating her sexy performance with anti-feminism. (Because that's not what this is about. In fact, "it is altogether possible to be raunchy as all hell and writhe around with your cheeks hanging out of your shorts and still identify with the idea of women’s equality.") I'm still not sure how I feel about Bey's relationship to feminism — mainly because, frankly, she's never been a performer who personally interests me enough to pay all that much attention to her artistic statements. I'm more just like, OOH! BOOYTLICIOUS! (Yes, I know that was the Destiny's Child era. But that was also the best era.) So I'll leave that debate to others better versed in her resume of pop culture politics.

But one thing that did jump out at me about the punditry: It all seems to focus on whether Beyonce is anti-feminist. Shouldn't the question be: is Jay-Z? After all, he's the one delivering a line about spouse-slapping. In the song, Beyonce is silent in that line's shadow — which could be seen as tacitly endorsing it, or at least turning the other cheek. During the live performance, she joins in for it. That's more problematic. Neither is exactly commendable, and both are possibly hypocritical, but shouldn't at least as many think-pieces be dedicated to Jay-Z's original lyrics as to his wife's reaction to it?

The reason they're not, I think, is pretty obvious. Music critics have already been discussing misogynistic themes in rap music for a very long time now. We seem to have reached a general cultural consensus that This Is a Thing And It's a Problem, but as with many entrenched issues, we struggle to do anything about it. Has the average listener (and pundit?) become that inured to it? Is that why writers seem more interested in Beyonce's reaction to the lyric, than the fact that it was ever uttered? If, say, a guitar-strumming John Mayer sang about slapping his wife, would we just chalk it up to a sign of their playful sex life? Or would we sound the alarm? And is our answer different because it comes from a rapping Jay-Z? Should it be?

One last question. If Beyonce sang about "pulling a Bobbitt" while Jay-Z danced around for her in a man-thong, do you think she'd get off so easy? I bet not. I bet we'd be more likely to direct our inquiry to the source of the lyrical assault, and what it means, rather than to the target, and how they should feel. It's interesting that we're so riled up about whether or not Beyonce is a feminist. And yet, here we are. Spending less time calling out anti-woman wordplay and more time wagging our finger at the subject of its slap.

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About this blog

Scott Kearnan (@thewritestuffSK) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and communications consultant focusing on lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment. He's also a part-time smart aleck and buffalo wing connoisseur. "Media Remix" is where couch potatoes meet pop culture criticism. More »

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