Beyoncé’s talent and success are undeniable. Hell, she drops albums in the middle of the night with no promotion and the whole nation stops. Impressive. While her talent is undeniable, so is the role of sexuality in her success. Even her latest project “Lemonade” features a decent amount of shots of her in revealing and/or suggestive clothing and as a bonus, Serena Williams shaking her ass like an average “video girl.” These women are two of the most accomplished humans in history and yet they still feel some need to sell something other than their artistry. Even with all of their accomplishments, they’re subject to a set of rules (misogyny) that far lesser male artists simply aren’t. Seriously, when have average male tennis players or rappers had to consistently market their bodies to get ahead? Beyoncé was born into a misogynistic, hyper sexualized world that men created and she’s simply playing the cards dealt. Now the question is what role will she play in changing the game?
Beyoncé isn’t great, not yet at least. If we only care about her as a recording artist then sure, she’s already an all-timer but as a woman who often sells “girl power” and black feminism, what will she leave behind to the next generation of female artists? Will objectifying their bodies still be the price of admission? And please stop with the argument that when she and others dance around half naked it’s somehow for their own pleasure: I’ll believe that when you believe I lift weights purely out of concern for my health. It’s done (mostly) to appeal to a male-dominated world, a world women must still cater to. Further, while we should applaud Queen Bey’s entrepreneurial prowess as her new athletic line “Ivy Park” rolls out, it is still her body that is most prominently involved in marketing it. When Jay-Z was seeking to push his clothing line, it was simply his celebrity and the designs that sold the brand, not his chest or arms. The playing field isn’t leveled just yet and greatness for Beyoncé will be in what she does to make it so. Yes, she outshines most men but largely on misogynistic terms, not those of women.
Beyoncé can perform at any venue she wants, largely because women like Marian Anderson fought a world who would not accept their blackness. Beyoncé can sign lucrative deals in large part because women like Big Mama Thornton routinely had their work “borrowed” and were not compensated for it. Beyoncé has benefited from all of this. While there are female artists who attempt to connect to their audience purely on non-sexual terms, it is the Rihannas and Beyoncés of the world who enjoy most of our praise; women who acknowledge that living up to men’s fantasies is the most sure path forward. Unlike Marian Anderson and Big Mama Thornton, Beyoncé has the means and capacity to promote entirely new paradigms of artistry (which to be fair, she has gradually done) and her success in entrepreneurship can and already is opening up new pathways for women, on their own terms. The question is, how much will she commit to this cause? Anderson and Thornton had to accept certain conditions and to a degree, Beyoncé has done the same. While Thornton and Anderson were explicitly battling race first, Beyoncé has the luxury of tackling the question of gender also. Will the next generation have to accept the same levels of misogyny in launching their careers? Beyoncé’s greatness will, in part, depend on how that question is ultimately answered.