At least among the people we know (most of whom are admittedly indifferent to football), the halftime show at the Super Bowl generated a whole lot more excitement than the game itself. In the last few years Beyoncé has become an icon of the proportions that few pop stars these days achieve, and in no small part this is due to her willingness to use her gender as a creative tool. The argument over whether Beyoncé is a bona fide feminist or just a pop star cashing in on “girl power” has raged for years, but whatever side of the debate you land on, her message of empowerment, commitment to her craft, and control over her image and performance are impossible to undermine. In celebration of her latest feat — that flawless halftime performance in which she was backed by an all-female band — we’ve rounded up Beyoncé’s most feminist moments to date, and welcome the criticism and discussion that she always seem to elicit.
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show
The most recent and relevant example of Beyoncé’s feminism was her performance at the all-American spectacle of Sunday’s Super Bowl. In the past few years, and in particular since the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction incident, the halftime show has all but eclipsed the sporting event in terms of both marketing efforts and media attention. This year, it was all that most non-sports-fans were discussing in advance of the event. Though Madonna performed last year, a contemporary pop superstar performing as a solo act seemed more significant. And with its massive budget and Beyoncé’s overpowering stage presence, the show delivered. Along with her solo songs, the reunion of her original group, Destiny’s Child, highlighted the progress she’s made as an artist. The foregrounding of female musicians was incredible as a symbol of resistance against an industry where male musicians at all levels are still the norm. Surrounded by a paean to male achievement, it was impossible to see the performance and not feel Beyoncé had somehow won the whole thing.
Beyoncé’s female guitarist
Though there were quite a few female musicians visibly killing it during Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, the guitar player with sparks shooting out both ends of her axe deserves special mention. Her name is BiBi McGill, and she also serves as Beyoncé’s music director. With her sharing a spotlight with the star, the audience was forced to consider the technical skill required to shred a solo on an internationally viewed Beyoncé performance, not to mention while managing to avoid lighting the stage on fire.
Beyoncé in GQ
Beyoncé’s recent GQ feature and cover are a great example of the dichotomy of her public existence. While the cover agitated many by-the-book feminists, the article itself complicated her image and demonstrated her in-depth understanding of gender inequality, particularly within the music industry. The most on-point quote in the article addresses the economic inequality that affects women at every socio-economic level (and even more so for African American women):
“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat?” she says in her film, which begins with her 2011 decision to sever her business relationship with her father. “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.
Those who still have a problem with the cover image might keep in mind that any 31-year-old person who’s been in this industry as long as Beyoncé should be assumed to understand the impact of a sexy photo shoot on their career and image, as she alludes to in her quote above.
“Independent Woman Part 1”
Possibly the most obvious musical example of Beyoncé’s feminist leanings is the song her former girl group Destiny’s Child recorded for the 2000 film version of Charlie’s Angels, “Independent Woman Part 1.” In a matter-of-fact manner, the song states the benefits of being a woman who isn’t beholden to a male breadwinner — a theme that repeats itself throughout Beyoncé’s work. In a remake of a TV show that originally glorified female submissiveness, this was a great fuck-you to the misogynist subject matter, and a pop song that has endured to this day.
A frequently noted and frustrating tendency of our patriarchal society is its tendency to encourage women, or any minority in a competitive field, to undermine each other in order to be the example of their demographic in the American mainstream. Though “Telephone” is neither Beyoncé’s nor Lady Gaga’s best song, it’s a great example of two female artists refusing to accept that women in the cutthroat world of pop stardom cannot work together. The allusions to both Thelma & Louise and a gender-inverted Pulp Fiction reinforce the video’s premise that girl power can reign supreme over the world’s bullshit.
“Run the World (Girls)”
Another on the list of feminist-Beyoncé controversies is her song that proclaim that girls do indeed run the world. Though she herself acknowledges in her GQ article and other places that this isn’t our reality, art has its own impact, and releasing a song that carries this message, with the intention of having it played on every dancefloor around the world, is a ballsy political step in its own right.
Beyoncé accepts the feminist label
“I think I am a feminist, in a way,” Beyoncé told The Daily Mail in 2010. “It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be; perhaps it’s because I grew up in a singing group with other women, and that was so helpful to me,” she told the magazine. “It kept me out of so much trouble and out of bad relationships. My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship, because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.”
Feminist actions speak louder than labels, so to us, this quote says it all: Beyoncé arrived at her definition of feminism out of genuine concern for the situation of herself an the women around her. If living by her own morals is what has defined Beyoncé’s feminism, we are all for it.
A rock-solid breakup jam and feminist anthem, “Survivor,” the title track off Destiny’s Child’s 2001 album, gave hope to a generation that was growing up in an era with few alternatives to the simplistic and stereotypical gender roles presented by Britney Spears and N*Sync. The lyrics show a belief in women’s ability to solve their own problems, assuring us that whatever rough situation we’re in, we’ll get through it — something we could all stand to be reminded of from time to time.
Jay-Z took Beyoncé’s name, too
Finally, and most confoundingly, Beyoncé has just announced that her next world tour will be called the “Mrs. Carter Show,” taking its name from her husband, Jay-Z. Though seen as a step backward by many feminist fans, others interpreted this decision as one of marketing savvy, pooling the massive fan base that both artists possess, or just as a winking dedication to the husband she very publicly loves — and who has taken her name as she has taken his. Though we can debate what is certainly Beyoncé’s own take on mainstream feminism, at the very least, she gives the world no option but to deal with a female African-American icon who totally possesses her own identity and power.