An Essay on the Feminist Masterpiece
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a black feminist album that utilises visual and lyrical mediums to empower black women under an oppressive social structure. Lemonade’s representation of the black female existence is explored predominantly through her visual album. Beyoncé’s lyrical album addresses her cheating husband Jay-Z, and her emotional experience following this. In this text, feminist politics are explored in first (19th to early 20th century), second (1960-1980) and third (1992-present) waves. Beyoncé’s emotional state progresses from (a) introspection, through (b) anger and frustration and finally to (c) acceptance. This emotional transition is also a reflection of the black woman’s oppression, as she enters an initial state of introspection about her subordinate social position, moving towards anger and frustration in the hope to expel it, and finally to acceptance. Weaving elements of both the lyrical and visual components of feminism, this piece utilises Beyoncé’s three emotional states to address three critical components of the black female experience. In her initial state of introspection, Beyoncé explores the structural oppression of the black female body. This is preceded by a critical examination of how this oppression is overly aestheticized as a vehicle of representation in third-wave feminism. Secondly, in a state of anger and frustration, Beyoncé’s violent tendencies reflect the political action of the Suffragettes and first-wave feminist activism. This is followed by a second critique of this representation, exploring the limited reach of visual representation in the promotion of political feminist activism. Beyoncé’s final state of acceptance parallels the sentiment of unity in the black community, exploring the tendency of black women to accede to black male dominance in the hope of the empowerment of the black family.
Beyoncé commences the album in a state of introspection and disbelief, and utilises these emotions to illuminate the institutional oppression of the black female body. Tracks ‘Formation’ and ‘Freedom’ both lyrically and visually adopt a feminist persona (Lemonade 2016). The visual for ‘Formation’ utilises a purely black female cast, representing these characters in positions of power (Lemonade 2016). This provides an opposing presentation to the institutional white-supremacy throughout colonial history (Mercer 1987, 36). Illuminating the overlooked systematic regulation of black women’s hair in society, the performers show off their natural weave as a symbol of disregard for socio-normative expectations of the female image. As a prominent ‘natural aspect’ of human physiology, hair is heavily socialised and regarded as an observable determinant of an individual’s values and class (Mercer 1987, 34). The politicisation of hair is perpetuated by social representations and descriptions of ideal hair as ‘straight’ and ‘not too curly’ as opposed to ‘woolly’ or ‘tough’ (Mercer 1987, 35). Historical explanations for this politicisation date back to historical pigmentocracy, the racial hierarchy based on skin colour and appearance (Mercer 1987, 36). In her song ‘Freedom’,Beyoncé lyricallyreflects on the slave trade economy, reciting that she will ‘wade through the waters’ to free herself from the sexual and racial oppression (Lemonade 2016). These lyrics derive from the slave song ‘Wade in the Water’, sang by the Underground Railroad and their most famous conductor, Harriet Tubman (Maryland Public Television 2017). Tubman and the slaves sang the song as a secret code, warning runaway slaves to wade through the water to avoid search dogs tracking their scent (Maryland Public Television 2017). The heavily politicised female body carries historical significance and is perpetuated by social structure. Through visual representation, Lemonade seeks to discount this rhetoric concerning the natural black female appearance.
Lemonade’s visuals depict an overly aestheticized representation of black female existence, as this manufactured utopia fails to drive political feminist activism. Showcasing ‘beautiful bodies’ does not promote a society where black women are independent, respected individuals (Hooks 2016). As a ‘sexualised performance’ that ‘harms’ women, Lemonade’s over aestheticization of women’s bodies contributes to the rhetoric that the album fails to propel feminist progression (Hooks 2016). This drastic examination of Lemonade’s impact on feminism illustrates the glorified distinctions between representation and practice, and empowerment and activism in feminist discourse (Hooks 2016).
Beyoncé’s transition into a state of anger and frustration is reflected in Lemonade’s ‘Hold Up’ where her actions resemble the protests of the Suffragettes in first-wave feminist activism and the extreme political measures that were conducted in pursuit of equality. In a few scenes in the visual of ‘Hold Up’, Beyoncé is shown smashing car windows with a baseball bat (Lemonade 2016). Here, society is depicted as a socially constructed and stationary vehicle. Beyoncé smashes its window, symbolising her disregard for societal structures and desire for a more inclusive perception on black female identity (Lippard 1980, 363). Moreover, Beyoncé’s destructive display parallels the actions of the women’s militant organisation, the Suffragettes (Crossley et al. 2012, 5). This organisation sought to eradicate the institutional oppression of women through organised and often extreme acts of public protest (Crossley et al. 2012, 5). A notable act of the extreme forms of protest conducted by the Suffragettes was the defacement of Diego Velazquez’s painting, ‘Rokeby Venus’ valued at £45,000 (Fowler 1991, 111). Despite activism shifting towards more intellectual or academic feminism, Lemonade reflects on first-wave feminism in an effort to empower all women to push for liberation. Beyoncé’s actions of frustration both speak directly to her husband and echo the sentiment of gender oppression experienced by women of all races. In Lemonade’s ‘Sorry’, Beyoncé continues to draw from first-wave ideology in her lyrical dialogue (Lemonade 2016). Ironic to the song title, Beyoncé states how she will ‘[not be] sorry’ and will ‘leave’ him (Lemonade 2016). Presenting herself as an independent female, Beyoncé’s decision to leave stands as an empowering visual to especially black women that are trapped in toxic affairs. As a symbol of predominantly black feminist empowerment, Lemonade’s visuals represent significant instances of female dominance throughout history.
Beyoncé displays empowering gestures of black feminism in Lemonade, however male dominance in the album’s production fails to uphold the feminist messages that the album promotes. As a symbol of black female empowerment, Lemonade focuses attention on inequality and utilises visual demonstrations to empower women. The birth of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, brought about concerns regarding females in the workplace (Gills, Howie & Munford 2004, 42). With regards to both second and third wave agendas, the production of Lemonade fails to promote female empowerment in the workplace, as the production team behind the album comprised of thirty-nine men and only six women (Levesley 2014). The dichotomy between third and first wave feminism is glorified in this instance, as Lemonade is hailed as a ‘feminist manifesto’, despite not applying the principle of female representation in the workplace (Levesley 2014). Representation is simple, as female performers are utilised to promote diversity. However, employing predominantly males to work behind the camera, fails to address workplace gender inequality (Levesley 2014).
Entering her final state of acceptance, Beyoncé voices how women accede to male domination in the black family, exploring the importance of unity in the black community. Malcolm X presents the underlying truth that ‘the most disrespected person in America is the black woman’ (Beal 2008, 167, X 1962, 107). In track 3 of Lemonade titled, ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, Beyoncé parallels herself with Malcolm X as another powerful figure that addresses the unspoken oppression of black women, stating that she has a ‘god complex… call [her] Malcolm X’ (Lemonade 2016). Malcolm X addresses the importance of unity in black culture, stating that the black community must first ‘[unite] among [them]selves’, for black-white unity to occur (X 1962, 109). Lemonade explores this unity between black males and females in her lyrics for ‘Hold Up’, where Beyoncé reassures her cheating husband that she will ‘hold [him] down’ and support him despite his actions (Lemonade 2016). Beyoncé’s final stage of acceptance illustrates how the black woman accedes to domestic oppression in the hope to sustain the black family, promoting liberation of the black community (Miles 2016, 139). Moreover, In cases of domestic violence and abuse against black women, police are rarely notified as women seek to uphold and protect the black family (Hooks 2014, 112). The double jeopardy of being black and female leads to compounding oppression, therefore women seek to subdue their rights to promote black liberty (Hooks 2014, 113). The growing power of black men is not opposed in these relations, rather it is welcomed (Beal 2008, 169). This view of dominance is seen as the emancipation of black individuals under an oppressive capitalist structure (Beal 2008, 169).
Lemonade illuminated critical factors to the black female existence. Beyoncé explores the process of the woman becoming aware of her subordinate position in society, illustrating the emotional path to acceptance. Throughout this emotional progression, Lemonade utilises visual and lyrical demonstrations to empower black females to rise up against oppression. However, as a visual medium, this empowerment is limited. Political activism on feminist issues requires a more practical and physical propeller. Failing to promote female empowerment in the production of the album itself, illustrates a separation of representation from activism. However, Lemonade’s approach of empowerment is effective in illustrating a more equal social utopia. As a symbol of black feminism, Lemonade’s visual and lyrical components empower black women to fight for equality against institutional oppression.
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